• Politics & Government

Suga Latest Japanese PM to Shun ‘Haunted’ Official Residence

Photo from the Prime Minister’s Office website
The exterior of the prime minister’s official residence, which was designed in a style of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, which was popular in early years of the Showa era (1926-1989).

Three months after his appointment, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has not yet moved into the prime minister’s official residence, located next to the Prime Minister’s Office building.

Instead, he commutes the three minutes by car from his unit in the Diet members’ residential building, which he had long settled into.

There are stories that ghosts haunt the official residence, which was the scene of the February 26 Incident, an attempted military coup in 1936, and other bloody historic incidents.

For whatever reason, the official residence building of the most powerful person in Japan has stood vacant for eight years.

■ Longtime vacancy

Photo from the Prime Minister’s Office website
The front entrance features Art Deco-style ornaments. The stairway seen in the rear was used for memorial photos of new cabinets.

While the Prime Minister’s Office building is the workplace for the prime minister, the place set aside for the leader to live is called the official residence.

When asked just after taking up the post whether he would move into the official residence by reporters covering Cabinet affairs, Suga avoided giving a clear answer.

“Regardless of whether I live in the official residence, I will work to ensure there are no oversights in the government’s crisis management,” Suga replied.

Though many government officials have recommended Suga move into the official residence for such reasons of security and crisis response, Suga has shown no intention to do so.

The official residence is a four-story, ferroconcrete building with a total floor space of about 7,000 square meters. Prime ministers can live there for free of charge under the National Public Officers’ Housing Law.

In addition to its function as a residence, the building also has an office and a hall for guests, and can be used for such purposes as telephone talks or official dinners with other world leaders.

Since his inauguration in September, Suga had his first telephone talks with U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping from the official residence.

Even it remains largely unoccupied, about ¥160 million is appropriated annually in the fiscal year budget for operation and maintenance.

The current official residence came about after it was deemed that a new one was needed because of decay in its predecessor. The structure itself actually used to be the Prime Minister’s Office building, which was built in 1929. Instead of being torn down, it was moved to a new location.

Wheeled platforms were inserted under the building, which weighs about 20,000 tons, and, using oil-hydraulic jacks, was moved about 50 meters to the south at an extremely slow pace at one millimeter per second. It was Japan’s largest-scale building relocation ever.

After extensive renovations, the building was born again as the new official residence in April 2005.

■ Witness to history

Photo from the Prime Minister’s Office website
One of the owl sculptures on the roof looks over Japanese politics as a symbol of wisdom.

The sentiment behind reusing the former Prime Minister’s Office building as the new official residence was to preserve a building with important value both historically and culturally.

The former Prime Minister’s Office building was completed as the first central government office building rebuilt after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. On the roof, sculptures of four owls keep watch over the four directions. In Roman mythology, owls are regarded as divine messengers of the goddess Minerva and are a symbol of wisdom. There is another theory that as owls are nocturnal, they are keeping nightlong vigils.

During its time as the Prime Minister’s Office, the building accommodated a total of 42 prime ministers, from Giichi Tanaka to Junichiro Koizumi, over a 73-year span, bearing witness to tumultuous political dramas.

The building was also the venue for historic moments. In 1971, it was the location of the signing ceremony for the accord that returned Okinawa Prefecture to Japanese rule, as well as a ceremony in 1978 to exchange ratification instruments of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China.

It also was not immune to tragedy. In 1932, then Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai was shot to death in an attempted military coup known as the May 15 Incident, and in 1936, then Prime Minister Keisuke Okada’s brother-in-law was shot to death in the February 26 Incident.

A hole about one centimeter in diameter in a window in the front entrance is generally believed to be from a bullet during the February 26 Incident, but it has never been confirmed, an administrative official of the Prime Minister’s Office said.

■ Hex on political life

Because of such a history, rumors persist of ghosts haunting the official residence. So far, seven prime ministers have lived in the current official residence building, but none since Yoshihiko Noda stepped down in December 2012.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe moved into the official residence when his first administration was inaugurated in 2006, but opted not to after he succeeded Noda to start a second administration, preferring instead to reside in his own house in Tokyo’s Tomigaya area.

An opposition party member asked Abe in a statement of intent in May 2013, “Is it because of the ghosts that you do not move into the official residence?”

The Abe Cabinet made a decision to answer the question that Abe “is not aware” of the rumor about ghosts.

But when Suga, who was chief cabinet secretary at the time, was asked at a press conference, “Do you feel the presence of ghosts?” he replied with a laugh, “Now that you mention it, maybe so.”

Of the seven prime ministers who lived there, all but Koizumi were forced to step down after serving for only about a year. Abe’s second stint as prime minister, when he did not move in, lasted for 7 years 9 months — the longest in Japan’s history.

In Japan’s political nerve center of Tokyo’s Nagatacho district, an urban legend has spread that moving into the official residence spells a quick end to a prime minister’s reign.