How the homeless are fighting Nike in Shibuya's Miyashita Park

How the homeless are fighting Nike in Shibuya's Miyashita Park

Homeless people and their advocates are battling plans by sportswear giant Nike to fund the renovation of a dank, squatter-friendly 'park' into a sports ground for youth
Miyashita Park
Miyashita Park
Miyashita Park
Miyashita Park
About 80 homeless people used to live in Miyashita Park but recently their numbers have dwindled.

Less than a block away from where the fashionistas gather to shop for designer brands in Tokyo's Shibuya district, a flight of stairs leads to a narrow park that has seen better days. Japanese zelkova and cherry blossom trees tower over mounds of discarded stuff: broken umbrellas, worn-out shoes, empty plastic bottles, teddy bears, shacks of plywood and plastic tarp. Two fenced-in futsal courts haven't seen a game for months, and someone has sprayed graffiti on the bathroom walls and the pedestrian footbridge spanning the two-lane road that divides the park in two.

Only the old-timers in the area remember when Miyashita Park wasn't such a wreck. For more than two years, Shibuya ward government has been planning a multi-million-dollar renovation for the park. The ward wants to add two climbing walls, a skateboarding area and an elevator, and Nike has agreed to pick up the construction tab of US$5 million (¥465.6 million) -- the first time that a local government and a company will collaborate to upgrade a park in Japan. The U.S. sportswear giant also has agreed to pay ¥18.7 million a year for the naming rights through 2020.

The park, which is to be renamed Nike Miyashita Park, was scheduled to open in April. With the deal, Nike was likely counting on a boost for its brand in Japan, following the splashy opening of its new flagship shop in Tokyo's Harajuku district last November. But work crews have yet to even break ground in the park. 

Opposition to the renovation

The project has been held up by opposition from a group of anti-Nike activists, artists and support groups for the homeless who call themselves the Coalition to Protect Miyashita Park from Becoming Nike Park. Since news of the project first surfaced in 2008, the coalition has expressed outrage over the ward's closed-door negotiations with Nike. They have staged protests and camped out in the park in order to prevent the construction from going forward.

Miyashita ParkA shack of plywood and tarp at Miyashita Park's southern edge. Ward officials say the presence of the homeless has kept locals from using the park.Shibuya ward appears to be trying to avoid an uproar. Ward officials confirm that the deal was signed, but neither Nike nor the ward have made a formal announcement. Nike spokeswoman Yoko Mizukami says the company is letting the ward take the lead on such decisions.

The dispute over Miyashita Park is rooted in differing interpretations of the civic role of a park. Depending on whom you ask, the park in its current state either offers something for everyone or only benefits a few. The activists say the park should stay the way it is: Open to everyone. They argue that the ward wants to kick out the homeless people so that Nike can create a pay-for-use park.

Ward officials and local business owners say the park has long ceased to attract anyone but the homeless. They stress that selling the naming rights to the park isn't the same as selling the park, and that the ward, not Nike, will manage the facilities. "Many people stopped going to the park after the homeless people moved in and built huts years ago," says Akihiko Ozawa, director of Shibuya ward's parks department. Parks officials have spoken with all 30 homeless people and offered help in finding a new place to live. "You will see a lot more people -- even kids -- in the park after we're finished," he says.

Nike says it merely wanted to create a space for children to play sports. "Miyashita Park has long been underutilized," spokeswoman Yoko Mizukami says, in an e-mailed response to questions. 

The coalition's fight has become a cause célèbre for grass-roots activists in Japan and sparked protests in Tokyo and other cities around the world. On April 26, activists and artists demonstrated outside Nike's flagship Tokyo store, demanding that the company back out of the project. For 20 minutes, they held up a blue handmade puppet -- an avatar for the park -- and passed out flyers before police arrived to break it up. "We want Nike to stay out of the park and Shibuya ward to scrap its plans," says Misako Ichimura, a 38-year-old artist who has lived in the park since mid-March and is among the coalition's leaders. Ichimura, who has contributed to the blog Artist in Residence Miyashita Park, says she intends to stay as long as the ward sticks to its plans.

A brief history of Miyashita Park

Miyashita Park looked a lot different when it was created in 1948. Black and white photos from the 1950s show two open fields below the railroad tracks with the Shibuya River flowing nearby. The park takes its name -- "Miyashita" meaning "below royalty" -- from its placement: relatives of Japan's emperor had a residence nearby until it burned down in the Allied firebombing raids during World War 2.

Miyashita ParkMiyashita Park, north entrance. Graffiti and handpainted murals dot the footbridges and walls of the park. In the 1960s, as Japan's economy surged and more cars took to the roads, the Tokyo government decided to put in a street-level garage and replant the park on top. To get to Miyashita Park now, you have to climb a flight of steps. Locals say that was the beginning of the park's decline. Teenagers brawled in the park, and homeless people took up residence. Theft and other petty crimes picked up in the area. By the 1990s, the park had become a shantytown for about 80 homeless people, many of whom had been laid off after Japan's bubble economy popped.

Today the park's 10,800 square meters -- roughly the size of two football fields -- are sandwiched between the railroad tracks and a busy six-lane street. The park feels even narrower than it is because park officials put up a temporary fence just inside the perimeter to discourage homeless people from building shacks under the trees. The area has become cluttered with shoes, batteries and other unwanted items. Except for the activists who are camping in the park, the place is completely deserted at night. Locals say it's been decades since families gathered in the park. "We used to go in summer when there was a plastic pool for kids," says Shigeru Murayama, 63, who grew up nearby and has run yakitori restaurant Torifuku in an alleyway next to the park for nearly five decades.

Ken Hasebe's personal mission

The park's steady decay is a source of irritation for Ken Hasebe. A member of Shibuya's ward assembly, Hasebe has been one of the leading proponents of the Miyashita Park cleanup. He grew up in Omotesando, about a mile from the park, and still lives nearby. His interest in the Nike project is personal, he says.

According to Hasebe and others, plans for Miyashita Park were originally tied to renovations for another park, Mitake, located less than a block away. In 2004, the ward and Nike built a basketball court in Mitake Park with recycled rubber from the soles of old shoes. But residents soon complained about the noise. Hasebe proposed working with Nike again to relocate the Michael Jordan Court to Miyashita Park. Those plans had to be scuttled after some assembly members pointed out that moving the court would deprive labor unions of a key gathering place for their demonstrations and marches.

Hasebe wasn't ready to toss in the towel yet. Around this time, he started discussing with other ward officials the idea of turning Miyashita Park into a sports complex. The ward had put in two new futsal courts in 2006. Before the courts could be built, park officials had persuaded many of the homeless people in the park to move into government housing. Hasebe and others thought that another round of building might give them a chance to prod the homeless population to leave park grounds for good.

But what to build? A public skate park topped the shortlist. Skateboarders had come to be seen as a public nuisance. Some ward officials and assembly members thought a skate park might lure skateboarders from from train stations and plazas where they usually practiced their stunts. Later the skate park, which initially was to fill both sides of the park, was shrunk, and two climbing walls were inserted into the blueprint.

Miyashita ParkMembers of the Coalition to Protect Miyashita Park from Becoming Nike Park have slept in tents in the park since March. They are trying to block the ward from renovating the park. The problem was finding the money to pay for it all. The funds couldn't come from public coffers. Years of recession and sluggish growth had led to a drop in tax revenues, straining the ward's budget. To generate income, Shibuya started experimenting with the sale of naming rights for an events hall in 2006. Public bathrooms came next. The payoff hasn't been bad. This fiscal year the ward expects its naming-rights contracts to bring in ¥118 million, according to budget figures. 

In late 2007, Hasebe approached Nike and asked the company to pitch some ideas for Miyashita Park. The naming-rights scheme was floated as a possibility. "I was determined to get this done without using taxpayer money," says Hasebe, in a plant-filled conference room on the fifth floor of the ward's offices. "I wanted to create a new template for the parks. Look at most of them. They're the same -- same monkey bars, same slide, same sandbox. And there's a lot you can't do, like toss or kick a ball around. It's boring."

Nike's proposal impressed ward officials. But they wanted to avoid a repeat of the backlash over the basketball court in Mitake Park. To get locals on board, Hasebe recruited another assembly member, Takeshi Ito, who had grown up near Miyashita Park. While Ito quietly held meetings with business owners and residents in the area, park officials began informing the homeless people in the park about the plan. Many business owners liked the idea. "The park's bad image has affected businesses here," says Murayama, the yakitori restaurant owner who is also head of the Nombei Yokocho Chamber of Commerce. "We support the renovations."

The ward hadn't yet publicly revealed its intentions. The general public got its first look at the plans in May 2008, when a small, local newspaper, Just Times Shibuya, broke the story. In a scathing report, the paper said that the head of the ward was ready to sign a deal with Nike that would give the company exclusive naming rights in Miyashita Park. "Park space where anyone can relax will be taken away and used for blatant commercial purposes," it said. National dailies picked up the story.

Thus begins the backlash

The reports galvanized the activists. Many of them had worked for years on behalf of the city's homeless, delivering food and lobbying government officials. The ward was their main adversary, but coalition members drew attention to their struggle in the park by taking aim at Nike, depicting themselves as the underdogs in a battle against a giant multinational corporation.

Along the railroad tracks, the coalition strung up banners for commuters to see. "No Nike", "Park is Ours" and "Nike, Don't Steal Miyashita Park!" they read. Inside the park, posters parodying Nike's "Just Do It" slogan read "Just Doite!" (Just Move!). On the Internet, they have posted updates to two blogs (minnanokouenn.blogspot.com and airmiyashitapark.info/wordpress/), sent updates on Twitter and uploaded videos of their scuffles with ward officials to YouTube. Miyashita ParkThe opposition to the park renovation have created parody posters of Nike's swoosh logo and ad copy.Others pitched in, including a documentary crew from Our Planet TV that released a video on YouTube and websites such as Nike Politics and Nike Boycotte Now. Some angry constituents called Hasebe and Ito and accused them of accepting pay from Nike. (The two deny receiving anything from Nike.)

In August, last year, Ozawa, Shibuya's parks department head, held an informal meeting with activists in Miyashita Park. Ozawa announced that the homeless people in the park would have to go by September 1, but that the ward would help them find public housing. Ozawa took turns speaking into a megaphone with Daisuke Kuroiwa, who heads the Shibuya Free Association for the Right to Housing and Well-Being of the Homeless. Initially civil, the exchange turned into a shouting match. "You're telling us for the first time that our friends who have been living in the park now have less than a month to leave?" asked Kuroiwa, a thin man with a bouffant hairdo. "You have kept the people who use this park, the homeless people living here and the constituents of Shibuya ward in the dark about your plans, earning the distrust of many."

Ozawa, a balding, bespectacled man, listened with his arms folded across his chest, a grimace on his face. "We were in the midst of contract discussions with Nike Japan and had made a promise not to disclose the details. That's why it took so long to deliver the news to everyone," Ozawa replied.

"Where's Nike?" someone yelled.

Tensions came to a head in mid-March. Ichimura, the artist, and several others pitched tents to sleep in the park. Days later, on March 16, parks department officials and workers, dressed in coveralls and hardhats, drove up in trucks and tried to fence off the park. Activists buried themselves in the sandbox, stood in the way, or jumped on the fences. Alerting others via Twitter and blogs, their numbers swelled to about 60. Again, Ozawa and Kuroiwa clashed.

"Do you think your decision reflects the will of the people?" Kuroiwa asked.

"Sorry, but yes, I do think it reflects what people want," Ozawa said.

Within a couple of hours, the ward officials had retreated. The following evening, activists draped themselves in handmade "No Nike" clothes and staged a "fashion show" in front of Nike's store in Harajuku. The two sides were at it again two weeks later when Ozawa and officials from builder Tokyu Construction Co. held a public hearing to go over the plans again. 

Compromises, concessions... and crackdowns?

Despite their efforts, the anti-Nike coalition has won few concessions from Shibuya ward. The head of the ward, Toshitake Kuwahara, recently said he intends to pursue more deals like Miyashita Park. Assembly member Hasebe says the activists' hardline stance and their lack of a compromise proposal made him think that "they are opposed to this for the sake of opposing it." He adds, "No matter how good your ideas or intentions are, there will always be someone who disagrees."

Nike, however, may be rethinking its strategy. Company spokeswoman Yoko Mizukami says Nike is discussing with ward officials the possibility of not having the company's logo appear on signs at the park and instead putting the swoosh on helmets and other rental equipment. The company would still pay for the construction and the naming rights, says Mizukami. "Our main goal is to create an environment where people can have easier access to sports and to reinvigorate the community," not to advertise the brand, she says.

Miyashita ParkThe banner reads: "Nike, don't steal away Miyashita Park."Hasebe acknowledged that the ward had made some mistakes. "We probably should have been more open about the process," says the assembly member. "At one point, I proposed opening the bidding process to other companies. Ward officials were torn. We were already talking with Nike by then so it was difficult to let other companies enter with a bid."

On March 31, the ward assembly voted 26 to 7 to approve the Miyashita Park plan. The park is now slated to open in November. Ward officials say they expect to charge ¥200 for use of the skate park (¥100 for children) and ¥350 for the climbing wall (¥200 for children).

On April 20, assembly member Ito rode his bike to the park to check things out. He was met by three of the activists. (They posted details of the encounter on Twitter.) Ito said that if they didn't leave the park the ward would have no choice but to remove them by force. "I told them, 'It would be inevitable,'" Ito recalls later. So when does he think the ward will act? "I'd rather not say," he says. "When the time calls for it, it will happen."

Kenji Hall is a journalist who lives in Tokyo. His most recent stories have appeared in "Monocle." He previously worked as a correspondent at "Business Week" magazine and The Associated Press. Hall grew up in San Diego, California, where his friends used to ridicule him for playing soccer.
Read more about Kenji Hall