Faced with dilemmas over creating disaster-ready infrastructure, care for an ageing population and the use of nuclear power, Tokyo’s governor has progressive plans to take the city to the 2020 Olympic Games and beyond.
A former academic, television personality and cabinet minister, Yoichi Masuzoe was elected governor of Tokyo in early 2014. Despite being expelled from the conservative Liberal Democratic Party in 2010, his campaign received its backing in the election. In his campaign, Masuzoe, who once served as minister of health, labour and welfare, promised to address the crisis of Japan’s low birth rate and care for Tokyo’s ageing population but, inevitably, his first term is being dominated by preparations for the Olympic Games, which will be held in Tokyo in 2020. Masuzoe has also visited Beijing and Seoul to build city alliances at a time when diplomatic relations between Japan’s neighbours China and South Korea are as tense as they have been in a generation. He lived in Europe for several years and is a fluent English and French speaker.
Monocle: The 1964 Olympic Games were a turning point for Tokyo. Do you think that 2020 will also be a defining moment for the city?
Yoichi Masuzoe: The Games marked the end of sengo [the post-war period]. Economic growth started and we got the Shinkansen [bullet train]. I was a high school student at that time. It was the turning point from the nightmare of the war to the dream of the future. When our children and grandchildren look back to 2020 I hope they will say that Tokyo changed fundamentally; that it became a city where you could live a healthy life with good welfare, sports facilities, new transportation systems and no air pollution. A life that’s not just about money.
M: What changes are planned for the city?
YM: By 2020 there will be no more telephone poles in the centre of Tokyo; we’re putting everything underground. Also, many cars have to come into Tokyo just to go out again so we’re building three loop roads that will be completed by 2020.
M: Other changes you’d like to make?
YM: One of the negative legacies of 50 years ago is the overhead highways. If you go to Nihonbashi [the historic district in the centre of Tokyo] you see an overhead road instead of open sky. If we cut the number of cars coming into Tokyo we can remove these [overhead roads]; not by 2020 but in the future. Another of Tokyo’s weak points is access to the airport, whether that’s Narita or Haneda. JR East is building a fast line from Tokyo Station to Haneda.
M: The Tokyo Metropolitan Government (tmg) has been reviewing the cost of the Olympics. Is it a concern?
YM: A big concern. Of course Tokyo is a rich city but there are still limits. One of the problems is the reconstruction work in Tohoku [the region in the northeast of Japan that was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011], which is pushing up the price of labour costs and materials. Some facilities will cost 10, 20, 100 times more than we expected.
M: What would you like to improve?
YM: Anti-disaster measures and crisis management. We must be ready for anything: terrorism, cyber attacks and, particularly, earthquakes. In Shitamachi [East Tokyo], the roads are often too narrow for fire engines. Some smaller houses will have to give way to skyscrapers. We also need more anti-quake systems like we see at Toranomon Hills [high-rise development in Tokyo]. There has to be a compromise, preserving the good things, especially temples and shrines. We need to persuade people to accept this new kind of planning. I also want to make Tokyo a centre of international finance. Singapore and Hong Kong are the centres now and Shanghai is coming up. At the moment, if you want to start a company [in Japan] you have to prepare many documents in Japanese. Our proposal is that you only need one document that can be written in English. This kind of deregulation is essential to get foreign companies into Tokyo. By 2020, everybody should speak some English. We would like to subsidise people to study English.
M: What are you doing to make the job environment better for working women?
YM: There are 8,600 children on the waiting list for nursery places in Tokyo. My promise to the voters is that in my tenure the waiting list will be reduced to zero. The guidelines for ninka hoikuen [public nurseries] are very strict and the conditions have to be met 100 per cent. The guidelines say there has to be a garden but it’s difficult to have a huge garden near a railway station, for example. We need some deregulation.
M: Legislation opening up Japan to casinos could be passed soon. Would it have a big impact on Tokyo?
YM: Those who are promoting casinos say that the Japanese economy cannot recover without them. That’s a mistake; our economy is strong enough. There are many negatives; look at the pachinko parlours where people spend one month’s salary in an hour. Gambling is prohibited by law here and I can foresee problems. The government hasn’t responded to all the points I’ve raised yet.
M: Does nuclear power have a future in Japan?
YM: It’s very, very hard but as far as the Tokyo government is concerned my plan is to create a Tokyo that doesn’t depend on nuclear power. So we’re looking at renewables such as solar energy and wind energy. Tokyo is only using 6 per cent renewable energy. My promise is take that up to 20 per cent.
M: Are there any cities you particularly like or city leaders you admire?
YM: I lived in Paris for a long time. It was a very dirty city back then. Jacques Chirac really changed it. That’s my favourite city to visit. London has also changed so much from how I remember it as a young man.