Creating a System for Citizen Participation: How the Nonprofit Sector Can Provide Citizens a Voice in Tokyo's Urban Development System

Article excerpt

Abstract: Recent changes in Japan's civil society together with the current political and economic environment have created the first opportunity to develop a viable nonprofit sector that represents citizen interests and allows for public participation in Tokyo's urban development scheme. Tokyo's urban environment has failed to meet the social and cultural needs of its citizens due to unprecedented economic and industrial growth from the beginning of the Meiji era until the 1990s. Through this extended period of growth, the goal for urban development was solely to increase Tokyo's economic strength, while social needs were not addressed. While the City Planning Law of 1968 ("CPL") sought to require citizen participation in urban planning, the law was largely ineffective due to its narrow scope and weak legal remedies. During much of the twentieth century, Tokyo's governance was controlled by an iron triangle comprised of bureaucracy, government, and big business, which drove Tokyo's economic growth. This form of governance did not allow citizens to participate in the political process. The iron triangle lost its strength only after the collapse of the economic bubble in the 1990s. With urban development failing to meet the needs of the citizens and the iron triangle having lost its strength, citizens groups began to assert more influence over the city's governance. Successes for the citizens groups and growing media attention prompted the promulgation of the Nonprofit Organizations Law of 1998 ("NPO Law"). The NPO Law created a framework for a nonprofit sector and began to strengthen its legitimacy. Unlike past attempts to introduce a viable nonprofit sector, the NPO Law came at a time when the political and economic environments of the city allowed for outside influence in the political process. While the foundation has now been laid for a viable nonprofit sector, the sector must gain legitimacy and independence before it is a truly viable means to public participation. With increased legitimacy and independence, Japan's nonprofit sector will serve to improve the urban development scheme by balancing the interests of citizens and corporations and meet long-standing social goals.


Residents of Kunitachi, a suburb west of Tokyo, are proud of the roadside trees and stylish street lights along Daigaku Don (University Avenue).1 The town is known as a college town and has attracted famous writers, painters, and sculptors who are fond of the town's sakura (cherry blossom) lined streets.2 These are the avenues that often appear in television love stories.3 These same streets are also threatened by Tokyo's prevailing goal of economic growth and development, and citizens have little power to influence future urban development.

The consequences of Tokyo's economic focus have recently reached Japan's courts in a case involving the Kunitachi section of western Tokyo.4 The case involves a condominium complex in Kunitachi's scenic district that for decades had a voluntary height restriction of twenty meters.5 A developer, Meiwa Estate Co. ("Meiwa"), purchased the land and sought to build a forty-three-meter-tall building on the scenic avenue.6 Concerned citizens brought suit against Meiwa to prevent construction of the condominium complex, arguing that it destroyed scenery along University Avenue.7 Specifically, the residents claimed that the apartment complex "seriously violated their rights to scenery and sunlight, and created a strong feeling of oppression among the residents."8 In a landmark decision, a three judge panel of the Tokyo District Court found in favor of the plaintiffs, ordering Meiwa to remove the top twenty-three meters of the forty-three-meter building.9 Judge Akira Miyaoka stated, "The condominium violates the local residents' rights to scenery."10 Meiwa argued that they acted within the legal restrictions for the site, which did not include a mandatory height restriction.11 On appeal, the Tokyo High Court overruled the lower court, finding that Meiwa was within the municipal code in force at the time of construction. …


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