Tokyo ward combats demographic decline

Mayor's slate of initiatives aims to make Toshima - deemed at risk of vanishing - more liveable

Top: The Minami-Ikebukuro Park has been spruced up to include open spaces. Above: Mr Koichi Hikamiyama (left), 43, and his employee Shota Kaneko, 29, in front of the Sheena and Ippei guesthouse in Shiinamachi district in Toshima. Children from Global
Children from Global Kids Higashi-Ikebukuro Daycare on their way to the nearby Minami-Ikebukuro Park, where they would be joined by children of other nearby daycare centres for their daily recreation programme. Toshima mayor Yukio Takano has lobbied for more daycare centres to be built in recent years, reducing the number of children on waiting lists from 270 in 2013 to zero in 2018.ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM
Top: The Minami-Ikebukuro Park has been spruced up to include open spaces. Above: Mr Koichi Hikamiyama (left), 43, and his employee Shota Kaneko, 29, in front of the Sheena and Ippei guesthouse in Shiinamachi district in Toshima. Children from Global
The Minami-Ikebukuro Park has been spruced up to include open spaces. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM
Top: The Minami-Ikebukuro Park has been spruced up to include open spaces. Above: Mr Koichi Hikamiyama (left), 43, and his employee Shota Kaneko, 29, in front of the Sheena and Ippei guesthouse in Shiinamachi district in Toshima. Children from Global
Mr Koichi Hikamiyama (left), 43, and his employee Shota Kaneko, 29, in front of the Sheena and Ippei guesthouse in Shiinamachi district in Toshima. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

The mayor of Tokyo's Toshima ward, known for the vibrant commuter hub Ikebukuro, may already be 82 years old, but he is by far one of the most progressive leaders in conservative Japan.

Look no further than the slate of initiatives that Mr Yukio Takano has introduced since 2014, when a think-tank sounded the warning that his ward was "at risk of vanishing": its female population aged 20 to 39 was forecast to halve by 2040.

That was the trigger for Mr Takano, now into his sixth mayoral term, to green-light gentrification plans to spruce up his ward.

Once notorious for being dark, dirty and dangerous, Toshima has won domestic acclaim for its policies to support mothers while embracing diversity and culture.

Even as lengthy waiting lists for daycare centres are a national problem, Mr Takano lobbied for more such centres to be built in recent years, reducing waiting lists from 270 children in 2013 to zero in 2018.

Meanwhile, one in 10 of its residents is a foreigner, while Toshima last year became one of Japan's first municipalities to allow LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) partnerships.

But all these would not have been possible had Mr Takano not cleaned up the ward's finances, which was his first order of business when he was elected in 1999.

Austerity measures for the ward, which was on the brink of bankruptcy, brought its accounts back into the black in 2010.

So Toshima's inclusion as one of 896 localities at risk of vanishing in a report by the Japan Policy Council think-tank came as a "rude shock".

Mr Takano said: "How could it be that a vibrant, popular city full of youth in Tokyo is at the risk of disappearing?"

He immediately set up a female-led committee to look at how to make the area more appealing for young women and stem the ward's population decline. They took aim at the ward's poor reputation.

"A dark, dirty and scary image was presented. But since we have restored our fiscal situation and have more savings than debt, it was important to make Toshima into a place where everyone is accepted and people can feel comfortable."

One of the 23 wards in central Tokyo, Toshima's 289,674 people packed into an area of just 13.01 sq km makes it one of Japan's most densely populated municipalities.

But this belies statistics such as its fertility rate, which hit rock bottom at 0.76 in 2005. Though it recovered to 1.04 in 2017, it was still under Tokyo's rate of 1.21 and the national rate of 1.43 that year.

While Toshima had built new apartment blocks, it still has the largest proportion of vacant abandoned homes in Tokyo, at 15.8 per cent. This is a national issue, with Japan grappling with a rising inventory of "ghost homes" that pose safety and hygiene risks.

This stark dichotomy in such a vibrant hub as Toshima could presage what will happen in years to come for Japan, with its shrinking and ageing population.

Rural regions are already hollowing out as people move to city areas, but older less-developed districts like Toshima could also be shunned for more liveable districts.

Toshima is hoping to buck the trend. The ward office is in a building that was designed by the famed architect Kengo Kuma, who is behind Japan's Olympic Stadium.

 
 

Among 22 projects launched was the Hareza Ikebukuro cultural centre that opened in November with a 1,300-seat performance hall, a black-box theatre and a live house for music gigs.

Toshima is also regarded as the birthplace of manga (graphic novels), and a new museum will open next month at the site where famous artists like Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy) and Fujiko Fujio (Doraemon) once resided.

Unkempt parks were given a new lease of life, such as the 580 million yen (S$7.6 million) Minami-Ikebukuro Park that was spruced up to include open spaces where bazaars and community events are often held.

Toshima is also encouraging the private sector to redevelop empty buildings under an Innovation Town Building Project.

The first to be launched is a guesthouse, Sheena and Ippei, in a 45-year-old wooden building that was once a tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet) eatery named Ippei.

This was led by Mr Koichi Hikamiyama, 43, whose company, Sheena Town, also runs a craft beer brewery and an art gallery in the traditional district of Shiinamachi, one train stop away from Ikebukuro.

"This area was once flourishing but many locals do not find it exciting any more. To help it improve, I thought it was important to attract people in from outside," he said.

Residents like Mrs Yuko Kurisaki, 38, find it much safer living in Toshima than before.

The cakemaker, who has a five-year-old son, credits Mr Takano for reducing the childcare waiting lists while making the area brighter and more stylish.

 
 

But Toshima is also home to some of Tokyo's poorest families, who fear being pushed out in the process of gentrification.

There are 14 children's cafeterias, run by volunteers, which provide meals for free for children and at a minimal sum for their parents.

Mr Teruyuki Watanabe, 38, who was at a children's cafeteria with his five-year-old son Haruto, tells The Straits Times that he wants to move to somewhere cheaper despite having lived in Toshima for 30 years.

"We are not that well-to-do and live in a very small home," said Mr Watanabe, who works in the service sector. "The mayor has done a good job to make the town more liveable but it also means the cost of living is getting higher. I cannot help but wonder what the future will be like for my son when he is my age."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2020, with the headline 'Tokyo ward combats demographic decline'. Subscribe