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Tokyo ward sues 32 shops along historic Asakusa street for alleged illegal occupancy

Denbouin-dori Street is seen in the Asakusa district of Tokyo's Taito Ward on Jan. 17, 2022. (Mainichi/Erina Sato)

TOKYO -- Taito Ward in Japan's capital has brought a suit against souvenir shops and other establishments located along Denbouin-dori Street in the popular tourism spot of Asakusa, demanding that the 32 facilities leave the area based on the claim that they are illegally occupying a public street.

    The "Denyoko Shoeikai" association consisting of the shops is poised to argue against the allegations by asserting that when the establishments were built in the 1970s, they obtained permission to run the businesses from the ward mayor of the time. It seems that both parties will remain to stand in opposition.

    Denbouin-dori Street in Tokyo's Taito Ward is located near Sensoji Temple and stretches for about 300 meters and intersects with the Nakamise Shopping Street. Toys and clothing shops are aligned on the west side of the street, which is filled with a nostalgic Japanese atmosphere.

    According to the Taito Ward office, while the establishments were built on a ward-owned street of Denbouin-dori in the late 1970s, the owners and other parties have not filed applications with the ward to obtain authorization to occupy the street based on the Road Traffic Act, and have not been paying occupancy fees. Since 2014, the ward has made individual demands to have the establishments move out of the area on the grounds of illegal occupation, but all of the shops refused to do so. Therefore, on Jan. 17, the ward launched a lawsuit demanding that the establishments vacate the land and remove the facilities, as well as make payments worth the past occupancy fees that were unpaid.

    A ward official explained that procedures, including submitting papers and gaining authorization, are required to occupy ward streets. They said, "Inconsistencies will arise if we make an exception for just Denbouin-dori." The official also raised the issue of being unable to carry out maintenance for the ward-run sewer system running beneath the establishments.

    Meanwhile, Hiroyuki Nishibayashi, 60, the chairman of Denyoko Shoeikai, said that there had been many barrack-like stalls selling goods in the area since prior to World War II. In 1977, a maintenance project for the community emerged. Following exchanges with the ward, the shops reached the understanding that if they vacate the area once, they would be allowed to run their businesses again once the maintenance project was over, and built new establishments with each shouldering costs of around 1 million yen (about $8,700 at the current exchange rate). Then Taito Ward Mayor Eiichi Uchiyama apparently explained that the ward "does not need any land rent."

    In recent negotiations with the ward, the group of shops said that they intend to pay land rent if demanded, and expressed their desire to "continue business even if it is on an alternative site." Following such negotiations, the group submitted a petition with about 12,000 signatures in 2021, seeking to hold discussions with the ward. Chairman Nishibayashi commented, "It's regrettable that a lawsuit has been launched without being able to hold satisfactory discussion." Both the ward office and shops' association said that they do not have any remaining documents from the time.

    A woman in her 50s who owns a shop along Denbouin-dori shared an episode of the establishment's shutters being adorned with traditional Edo-like illustrations and outer walls changed to a wood effect design around 10 years ago during her predecessor's time, in cooperation with an agreement based on the ward's ordinance aiming to preserve an ancient townscape. The woman said, "We cooperated when the ward wanted to create a traditional Edo atmosphere in the street in order to enliven Asakusa. It's unacceptable that we're now being told that we're violating the law."

    (Japanese original by Mei Nammo, Tokyo City News Department, and Erina Sato, Tokyo Bureau)

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