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

By Vikstrom, Nicolas J. | Washington International Law Journal, February 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

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


Vikstrom, Nicolas J., Washington International Law Journal


I. INTRODUCTION

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.12 The Court stated, "Beautiful scenery is a mutual asset that benefits all people and residents. But this does not mean that individual residents can claim private rights to enjoy the scenery."13 The citizens have indicated their intent to immediately appeal the decision to the Japanese Supreme Court.14 Without changing the urban development system, citizens have no means to effectively participate in decisions affecting the development of their urban environment.

Citizen participation15 in the urban development of Tokyo has been limited from the beginning of the Meiji era in 1868.16 The highly centralized and paternalistic government17 allowed for rapid growth as well as efficient and effective redevelopment18 in the face of massive urban destruction in the beginning of the nineteenth century.19 The preeminent goals for Tokyo from the end of the nineteenth century to the early 1990s were industrial and economic growth.20 These goals did not allow for effective citizen participation.21 Following the destruction of the Great Kanto Earthquake and World War II until the 1960s, however, Tokyo citizens largely believed that economic and industrial recovery needed to take precedence over sociocultural goals.22 It was not until the citizens' movements of the 1960s that pressure was applied to change the urban development structure.

Pressure for increased citizen participation in the urban development system began to grow in the 1960s,23 but Tokyo's political and economic environment prevented significant changes to the system.24 The result of the successful redevelopment of Tokyo after World War II was a strong political iron triangle comprised of government, bureaucracy, and big business.23 The iron triangle governance prevented individuals from affecting change in the urban development. Furthermore, the legal structure in Japan made it difficult for nonprofit organizations ("NPOs")26 to form or function.27 Citizen participation gained a few small footholds at this time. Although the City Planning Law of 1968 required citizen consent in urban development projects,28 and a few small judicial victories gave citizens some influence over the urban development system,29 these victories did not eclipse the strength and influence of the iron triangle and citizen participation remained limited. …

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