2020 Olympics might spell end for Shinjuku's 'Golden Gai'
Shinjuku’s famous “Golden Gai” (Golden Street) is a rabbit’s warren of tiny two-story drinking establishments crammed into one city block a short distance from Yasukuni Dori and the Shinjuku city office. They date back to 1950 when Shinjuku’s disorderly black market was relocated by occupation authorities.
The tiny shops, which do business in spaces measuring from 3 to 4.5 tsubo, remain largely unchanged from their Showa-period heyday, reports Takarajima (Oct).
According to a source close to the property owners, the Golden Gai has been targeted “any number of times” for redevelopment. And should Tokyo be selected on Saturday to host the 2020 Olympics, denizens of the miniscule district fear, the chances of the nostalgic section of Shinjuku falling victim to the wrecking ball are increased many-fold.
Being within walking distance of Shinjuku—the world’s largest commuter train station—the land on which Golden Gai sits is assessed as first class commercial property, making development hard to resist.
“During the ‘bubble economy,’ plans were drawn up to turn it into a major commercial complex,” says a source at a trade newspaper. “Some strong-armed tactics were employed to get the owners to move out. But then the bubble imploded and the plan went with it. There were a few empty slots where some shops had closed, but the district bounced back and right now business is thriving.”
“Still, whether you joke about it or not, if you consider the potential economic impact, there are more than a few people who think they can get a lot more effective use out of that property,” he adds.
“In 2006, not everyone but some of the property owners formed a ‘discussion group for development of the East Kabukicho 1-chome,’ situated on the lots from the Golden Gai all the way to Yasukuni Dori,” says writer for another trade publication. “The plan called for the building of a high-rise commercial building fronting Yasukuni Dori, where a TEPCO transformer station is situated now, that would contain offices, shops and a foreign-managed hotel. The plan also involved the adjoining block to the north, where Golden Gai is now.”
Two major construction companies, Taisei and Nikken, were said to have been involved in the plans. Their plans were defeated by the prolonged recession, exacerbated by the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, and the difficulty in piecemeal negotiations with the large number of property owners, they turned out for naught.
But nostalgia aside, there are persuasive reasons for proceeding with the area’s redevelopment.
“One reason is disaster prevention,” explained Masao Hagiwara, head of the Hanazono Street merchants’ association. “In an area measuring 500 tsubo (less than half an acre) that includes privately owned streets, you’ll find 104 businesses. Over the past several years, more than 10 fires have broken out. Fortunately they didn’t spread—- due in part perhaps because many places stay open all night. But the buildings are in four rows, interconnected by elongated side beams, and that makes them vulnerable.”
Hagiwara, who was born and raised in the district, feels a strong sense of community, but is nevertheless of the opinion that redevelopment is the best way to ensure the area’s future. On the other hand Bunmei Tobayama, director of the rival Shinjuku Golden Gai merchants’ association and operator of a bar named Kurakura, says residents have a strong sense of disaster preparation and keep fire extinguishers and sensor alarms handy.
“Is ‘development’ only about building new things?” Tobayama asks rhetorically. “Almost any drinking area you go to these days looks the same. Here, when you open the windows, the breeze flows through, and you can see the stars in the sky. People of the same age group and occupation can enjoy conversing. In particular this is a place where young people can come and learn about society….
“Once this place is torn down, there will be no way to bring it back,” Tobayama warns.
But past experience has shown that many treasured Tokyo traditions are transitory at best.
“Within six months or so, I expect to see a new redevelopment plan launched for the Golden Gai area,” a local insider predicts.