On the morning of March 27th, police and security personnel descended on Miyashita Park to close it in preparation for redevelopment as part of the ongoing urban transformation of Shibuya.
In drizzling weather, police kept protestors back while workers started blocking off the small park on the edge of the main Shibuya shopping district. According to media reports, at least three homeless people were said to be still living in the park when work began on closing it.
Activists from Nojiren, a group formed in 1998 to support homeless people in Shibuya, complained that the ward did not make information about Monday’s events public in advance, though the possibility of a permanent closure was certainly known. A representative from Shibuya government was quoted as saying the decision had been made due to continued “illegal acts of interference” to the gates when the park was closed at night.
An unnamed activist in his thirties was arrested at the park some time after 10 a.m. on suspicion of obstructing the performance of official duties after he allegedly collided with security personnel and grabbed a police officer by the collar. An unconfirmed report on Labor Net and on social media claims that a second activist was also arrested on March 28th when they returned to the park to pick up some belongings.
In addition to serving as an assembly spot for protests, Miyashita Park has long functioned as a prominently place for homeless people to stay. A previous attempt by the Shibuya government to sell the naming rights to the park to Nike and convert it into an upmarket sports facility met substantial controversy in 2009-11 and a string of protests. Eventually the name licensing plan was abandoned, though the park was partially upgraded and reconstructed into a commercial sports facility.
Since then it has been earmarked for further development and regularly closed during the night to keep out the homeless. Activists have protested this by “artjacking” the fencing with placards. The protests by Nojiren against this small yet symbolic development are part of the growing movement against the 2020 Olympics and wider gentrification of Tokyo, which is a negative aspect of the inbound tourism boom that few want to discuss in the media.
So far this movement has mainly manifested in orderly forms as street protests, events and a book publication, though there have also been some arrests (but no indictions, as far as can be ascertained). Much of the transmission of the movement is online, heavily driven by social media, and Twitter was a storm of images and tweets on Monday as activists sought to spread the word about the sudden park closure. Announced prior to the closure, another demonstration is planned for the afternoon of April 2nd at Miyashita Park.
The story was picked by Reuters, which is possibly the first time the mainstream English-language media has reported properly about this movement. However, Reuters subsequently corrected (or diluted) the article to remove the nuance of the anti-Olympics angle in its headline.
While not directly connected to the Olympic venues, the Shibuya plan is nonetheless one element of a massive city-wide re-development project under the mantra of “2020” unfolding largely in areas that are already heavily developed. The influx of tourists and yen as well as the approaching Olympics has spurred many large-scale and long-term urban development schemes, including in Marunouchi, Shinjuku, Harajuku and Ikebukuro. The redevelopment of Miyashita Park is significant not only for the homeless residents of the city but also citizens in general as yet another piece of public space is set to be swallowed by gentrification.