More shopping refugees: Residents of planned community at the mercy of bureaucratic prerogatives
Nothing represents the bold urban vision of postwar Japan better than the concept of the “New Town.” In line with planned communities in the West, several were designed and constructed during the 1960s and 70s, mostly in the suburbs of Tokyo and Osaka. The most famous is probably Tama New Town in western Tokyo, which was fairly successful in attracting young families to its mix of public apartments and housing developments, though much less successful in attracting businesses. Part of the bold vision was that residents of New Towns wouldn’t have to commute all the way to the central cities, but companies proved reluctant to relocate to the suburbs. Consequently, the new communities didn’t grow. Tama New Town is presently inhabited almost completely by the elderly, meaning the same people who moved in when the project was new.
The plans for Chiba New Town were finished in 1966, and covered parts of three cities in northern Chiba Prefecture: Shiroi, Inzai and Funabashi. The plan presumed a population of 340,000 and a new private train line that would serve these residents. For whatever reason, the people didn’t show, at least not in the numbers the planners envisioned, though the commuter line was built, and as a result of the lack of patronage the Hokuso Railway is the most expensive train line in Japan. From Chiba New Town Chuo to the next station, Inzai Makinohara, a ticket costs ¥280 for a distance that takes about four minutes to cover.
As with most New Towns, Chiba’s was developed by the prefectural government with help from the central government. In 1978, the central government’s housing corporation, Toshi Kiban Seibi Kodan, usually referred to as simply Kodan, became involved in Chiba New Town, developing whole neighborhoods and constructing residences to rent and sell. Kodan would become semi-private in 2004 during the rush to privatize government organs promoted by the administration of Junichiro Koizumi. It changed its name to the more colorful, commercial-sounding Urban Renaissance Agency (though, more accurately, it is a corporation). The change was cosmetically important since Kodan had been bleeding money for decades, but because the agency and its dependent organs had grown so big, it was difficult to make it completely private. Kodan’s whole existence was based on momentum, which is why, despite the fiscal difficulties that perpetually surrounded Chiba New Town, UR was instrumental in opening a new station in 2000 on the Hokuso Line called Inba Nihon Idai, which was centered around the Nippon Medical School Chiba Hokuso Hospital, established in 1994. The hospital is three minutes from the station by shuttle bus, 10 minutes on foot.
A gleaming new university hospital was thought to be attractive to retired people, and when UR and the local authorities started developing the area they appealed to seniors, who demanded more than a hospital. They wanted retail outlets they could access without automobiles, considered a requirement in this part of Chiba, which was mostly farmland and forests. Using incentives, UR and the prefecture attracted some retail outlets, most importantly Landrome, a supermarket chain that set up shop about a minute from the station, which was eventually made into an express stop on the new Narita Sky Access Line, a semi-express train that connected Ueno to Narita Airport using the Hokuso tracks. It opened last year.
On May 8, Landrome closed indefinitely. The company says it did so because of March 11 earthquake. Though the building did sustain damage in the quake, it opened almost immediately afterwards, and when the announcement to close the store was made at the end of April, many residents were caught off guard. There was no other food seller in the vicinity, much less a supermarket. Residents would have to find some way of getting to the next station, which meant taking the very expensive Hokuso Line. Since they were elderly most didn’t have cars. Some rode bicycles. The trip took almost 30 minutes each way.
Still, people wondered: If Landrome was so badly damaged, why was it open for more than a month after the earthquake? The prefectural agency that managed the building and the land it stood on, Chiba New Town Center Building, said that the initial damage assessment was incomplete, and that repeated aftershocks were undermining the structural integrity of the store. However, later a TBS news crew looked into the matter and found that the reason was much more complicated.
As pointed out by Inzai assemblyman and ombudsman Hiroaki Amemiya, 52 percent of the stock in the development project surrounding Inba Nihon Idai Station is owned by three entities: a public company and the cities of Shiroi and Inzai. The remaining 48 percent is held by 1,215 former landowners, who were persuaded to give up their property in exchange for the stock, which would presumably increase in value in addition to paying dividends. It was a promise that’s been difficult to keep. According to TBS, the Inba project built 2,700 residential units for rent or sale, but only about half have been filled, so the need to attract businesses to the area was severe. Consequently, in order to get Landrome to open a store, the developers offered a bargain on the land and the building Landrome would occupy, which were owned by Chiba Prefecture and UR. Apparently, even before the earthquake, Landrome was having trouble with the two semi-public entities. To get Landrome involved, UR offered land for a huge parking lot at only ¥100,000 a month, but when the lease was renewed they raised the rent to ¥1 million. Landrome refused to pay it, and the two sides were locked in a stalemate. The earthquake was simply a convenient excuse for Landrome to pull out.
In a way, it couldn’t be helped. According to the law, UR, which is still closely connected to the central government, must adhere to market values when assessing properties for sale or rent. It doesn’t have the flexibility of a fully private company. The ¥100,000 deal was, in essence, against the law since it was vastly undervalued, and once the object was achieved — a retailer to attract residents — UR tried to raise the price to its supposed market level. All the semi-private corporations involved are amakudari (descent from heaven) concerns, meaning they are golden parachute destinations for ex-bureaucrats; UR contains former employees of the land ministry, while CNTCB is full of old boys from the Chiba Prefectural offices. Their business is more about securing their own positions than it is about improving the standard of living of residential users. As a result of this standoff, Inzai City has had to provide shuttle buses at its own expense to bring elderly people to other areas so that they can shop for the things they need.