The Demise of Tokyo's Master Builder

One night in March, 1991, several thousand workers began loading boxes into waiting trucks for a move across town. Tokyo's municipal government was shifting its office from its traditional location near the Imperial Palace to a towering new city hall in the Shinjuku district (which appropriately enough literally means "new lodgings”.)

The move required 3,500 two-ton trucks – virtually every moving vehicle in the city – to haul 250,000 container boxes filled with the files of 13,000 civil servants, the governor, his four vice-governors and the members of the Municipal Assembly. When the move was completed, the center of power in Japan's capital had shifted in a most dramatic way.

The man who built the towering new city hall, not to mention numerous other public palaces, Shunichi Suzuki, passed away last week at age 99. His death was noted in newspapers without much commentary. That's a shame since Suzuki probably did more to transform the world's largest city, population 12,505,000 than any other individual since Ieyasu Tokugawa moved into a village called Edo in 1600 and made it the de facto capital of Japan.

Suzuki served as Tokyo's governor for 16 years (1979-1995). It says something about the stability and continuity of Tokyo's government that Suzuki could conceive the idea of a towering new city hall, commission its design (by famed architect Kenzo Tange), oversee its construction and still was able to occupy it for a full four-year term.

By contrast, during Suzuki's tenure, Japan went through nine prime ministers, with an average tenure of about a year and a half. Of course, it helped that he, as well as other prefectural governors, are elected directly to fixed, four-year terms. Japan is unique among the world's democracies in that it has a parliamentary form of government at the national level and a "presidential” form at the provincial level.

After repairing the financial damage to the municipal coffers left by his popular predecessor, Ryokichi Minobe of the former Japan Socialist Party, Suzuki embarked on a building program designed to confirm Tokyo's status as a "world class city,” which he narrowly defined as being equal to New York, London, Paris and nobody else.

In addition to building the towering new city hall, Suzuki commissioned eight other major projects including the Contemporary Museum of Art, Edo-Tokyo Historical Museum and the Tokyo International Forum. By the end of the century these nine projects alone were costing Tokyo taxpayers more than US$200 million a year just to keep the lights on and the windows cleaned.

When he left office, the governor had put his personal stamp on his home town in a way that is probably unequaled by any municipal leader since Robert Moses, the great mid-century public works maestro for New York City (who was never mayor, only a department head). As New York did with Moses, Tokyo's residents would ultimately sour on Suzuki's developments.

Certainly, not all of his projects endeared him to Tokyo residents. The same year the new city hall opened, the cinemas were screening the latest in the long-running Godzilla series. The high point of the film came as the rampaging reptile obliterated Suzuki's city hall, usually accompanied by cheers from the audience.

Suzuki dearly wanted to cap his administration by hosting a world's fair in 1994, the last year of his fourth term. Why not? Robert Moses had crowned his life's work with a world's fair in 1964. But enthusiasm for the exhibition was only mild at best. It was postponed until 1996, which made it inevitably an issue in the 1995 gubernatorial campaign.

The governor tried to pass his office to his bureaucratic clone, Nobuo Ishihara, like himself before becoming governor a high ranking civil servant in the Home Ministry who gathered endorsements from every political party in the capital save the communists. But by then Tokyoites had grown tired of bureaucratic insiders and their grand plans.

In a massive rebellion the voters elected a television actor-turned politician named Yukio Aoshima, famed mostly as a cross-dressing star of a program called the "Pesky Grandma.” Running as an independent, he spent nothing on his campaign except his $200 filing fee.

While the establishment candidate and his supporters patrolled the streets on sound trucks seeking votes, Aoshima stayed home studying books, he said, on municipal administration. And he promised to cancel the world's fair, which he did soon after winning the governorship in a landslide.

Tokyo's cityscape continues to evolve, though now more through private efforts than according to any grand municipal blue print. The Mori Building interests have redeveloped their heartland in the Roppongi district, while Mitsubishi Estate is transforming the Marunouchi district, once composed entirely of undistinguished cube-like buildings, near the Imperial Palace with splendid new edifices.

Tokyo Station, the capital's principal railroad terminal, built in 1914 in the red brick style that used to characterize most of the buildings in downtown Tokyo, is currently shrouded in canvas awaiting that time in the near future when it will be unveiled, fully restored in all of its retro glory.

For the past decade the governor's office on the 17th floor of the massive city hall has been occupied by Shintaro Ishihara, a famed nationalist, who seems to spend much of his time either insulting Chinese, Koreans, Southeast Asians and sometimes Americans and writing screen plays for movies glorifying kamikaze pilots.

As a nationalist agitator, he is in a separate class, but as a municipal administrator he has been relatively less successful. His main initiative was the formation of a city-owned bank supposedly to help out small and medium enterprises. But ShinGinko Bank went bust in 2007 because of too many bad loans, prompting an uncharacteristic public apology.

Ishihara's other big initiative to bring the Olympic Games back to Tokyo in 2016 was also unsuccessful. Japanese were extremely proud to host the Games back in 1964, but they were totally indifferent to repeating the exercise, something that not lost on the committee, which chose Rio instead. You could almost say Tokyo had moved beyond such extravaganzas.