World’s Biggest City Throws Final Festival Before Decline

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New national stadium construction site
The construction site for the new national stadium. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Half a century ago, the Tokyo Olympics ushered in a golden age for Japan’s capital, as industrial prowess made it the largest urban complex in history. Now the games are returning to mark the end of that growth.

“This will be the final festival,” says Yasunari Ueno, 52, Tokyo-based chief market economist at Mizuho Securities Co.

In Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, the ground has been cleared for a new national stadium, surrounded by a gymnasium, swimming pools, tennis courts and a baseball arena. Elsewhere, transport systems are being upgraded and new roads, apartments and hotels are being built. The whole infrastructure upgrade could cost 2.7 trillion yen ($22 billion) and together with the games create more than 200,000 jobs, according to Mizuho Research Institute Ltd.

Yet, once the 2020 games are over, Tokyo faces a bleak future. It is one of only four cities among the 71 most-populous urban centers ranked by the United Nations that are poised to shrink between 2014 and 2030, and the other three are also in Japan. The Tokyo metropolitan area that includes contiguous cities like Yokohama will see its population drop 1.7 percent to 37.2 million, according to the UN.

By 2030, it will be neck and neck with Delhi in the competition for the world’s biggest metropolis. Last year, it was more than 50 percent bigger than the Indian city. Tokyo also faces challenges from Manila and Jakarta, both of which will have more than 30 million people in their urban areas by 2025, according to forecasts by Belleville, Illinois-based Demographia.

For Tamiko Sato, whose husband carried the Olympic torch through the streets in 1964, the staging of the games then and now shows how Tokyo’s fortunes have changed. She says she was proud and happy back then, like the rest of Japan, as the city took center stage in the world.

Migrant Influx

Now, the greater Tokyo area accounts for 38 percent of Japan’s economy. Yet the fertility-rate within the national capital is the lowest in the nation and its population is only supported by a stream of migrants from the provinces. The city is in dispute with the national government over who should pay for the new stadium in the world’s most-indebted nation.

“I don’t want to badmouth those who are working hard, but they are trying to build this and that, even though they don’t have the money,” says Sato, 93, who lives in the northern ward of Kita, and still keeps the outfit her husband wore as a torch bearer.

The dispute hasn’t stopped the wave of construction to prepare for the games. A new avenue has been built in Toranomon in the center to connect the main venues and athletes’ village, with a 247-meter tower as a landmark. By the time the games open, the city hopes the street will resemble Paris’s tree-lined Champs-Elysees, with high-end cafes and shops.

Old Timers

Masafumi Aoki, 84, lives on the 12th floor of a new condominium overlooking the street. He was born and raised in the area, once a typical Tokyo neighborhood dotted with public baths, mom-and-pop stores and furniture shops. Development has driven out many of the old timers and the new properties are too expensive for most young Japanese, he says.

“People made a big sacrifice to make this road,” Aoki says. “I had expected more people would live here, but that wasn’t the case. I feel lonely, but it’s a sign of the times.”

Instead, the property market is being supported partly by Chinese buyers who are flooding into Tokyo to buy real estate for investment, taking advantage of a slide in Japan’s currency.

Behind Aoki’s condo, evening smells of yakitori chicken fill the air around the pubs and ramen noodle shops that cater to what’s left of the old neighborhood.

Too Old

“I plan to quit after the Olympics,” says Masaaki Kitanosono, as he ladles hot soup over chopped vegetables in the Japanese-style pub that he’s run for 37 years. “I will be 70, too old to stand all the time at work.”

Japan’s population began to fall in 2008, but Tokyo’s influx of migrants means that the number of residents within the official boundary of the capital, which accounts for about a third of the total conurbation, won’t decline until the games, the government predicts.

On the edges of the metropolis, some communities are already struggling. In Kita, where Sato lives, more than one in four people are over 65, making it the fastest aging place among Tokyo’s 23 urban wards.

There’s little sign of Chinese buyers here and some properties are simply being left to rot as their inhabitants die. A portion of air duct and an empty golf club bag litter the front of one two-story house, its faded white walls perilously cracked. Across the doors and windows, signs warn: “Do not enter. Danger.”

Shared Destiny

“I’m sharing a destiny with it,” says Hiroaki Yamaguchi, 51, who lives in the house next door. “If it falls, mine may go with it. I don’t know who can demolish it.”

The house, built two years before Tokyo’s last Olympics, has been neglected for more than a decade, says Yoichi Osabe, an official in Kita’s buildings department. The owner died and his daughter is a pensioner who can’t afford the repairs.

Local real-estate vendor Masaaki Yamada says his 17-year-old business has yet to feel the effects of the decline, thanks to the trickle-down effect of the foreign investors and construction in the center, and the boost to the economy from more than two years of fiscal and monetary stimulus under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government. He’s wary how long it can last.

“I can’t get carried away,” says Yamada, who was five in 1964 and lined a road with other children waving flags as the Olympic-torch bearer ran past. Back then, he remembers the country’s economic growth transforming his life -- a color TV replacing a black-and-white one, an air conditioner instead of an electric fan.

Not this time.

“I don’t feel the Olympics are improving the economy,” Yamada says.

Silver Singers

Across the street from his office, strains of karaoke emanate from a bar in the middle of the day. In the dim interior, two elderly women are taking turns to croon old Japanese pop songs into a microphone.

“When the owners are old, so are the customers,” says Setsuko Okazaki, 74, who runs the place with her husband. They added the daytime karaoke as the number of evening patrons dwindled. For 1,000 yen, retirees can sing as many songs as they want from 11:30 a.m. till 5 p.m.

With a fertility rate as low as 1.13, migration from the provinces expected to slow, and a government loathe to open the doors to large-scale immigration from abroad, more of Tokyo is set to follow Kita.

“It’s getting hard for Tokyo to stay No. 1,” says Hiroya Masuda, a former internal affairs minister during Abe’s previous premiership, who last year identified 896 towns in Japan that may vanish due to depopulation.

Edo Era

Still, it isn’t the first time Tokyo has been knocked off its perch and climbed back. Under the Tokugawa shogunate, the city, then known as Edo, surpassed 1 million in the late 18th century to become the world’s largest city, according to the 2006 book “Planning Twentieth Century Capital Cities,” edited by David Gordon. After the Meiji restoration in 1868, the Tokugawa officials and supporters left Edo and the population slumped, allowing London to overtake it.

Tokyo’s effort to deal with the coming contraction include easing rules in some areas to lure global talent and businesses. At the same time, the national government is trying to stem the flow of people from the regions with subsidies and tax breaks.

Those efforts and even the coming Olympics won’t make much difference for Sato and her friend Sen Honda, 86, who sit knitting together during a visit to Kita’s Kirigaoka Day Home.

Honda comes once a week by bus from her two-story house after her husband of 61 years died last year. Nobody lives in the house next door.

“Once I’m gone, my house will be left like that,” Honda says.

Around the center are public housing blocks that the women say were once filled with young families and children. Graffiti covers the shutters of a supermarket in one building and many of the mail boxes are now sealed with duct tape.

“People don’t get married anymore,” Sato says. “You don’t see children.”

(An earlier version of this story corrected the spelling of Honda’s first name.)

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