32 stores on Asakusa tourist street in Tokyo told to leave

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Stores on Denboin-dori street in the Asakusa district of Taito Ward, Tokyo.

The Taito ward assembly in Tokyo decided by a majority vote Monday to sue the owners of 32 shops near Sensoji temple in the ward’s Asakusa district, demanding that they remove their shops from locations said to illegally encroach on a ward road.

The ward office plans to soon file a lawsuit in the Tokyo District Court. The owners who have run the shops along Denboin-dori street for more than 40 years have objected to the decision, wondering why it is happening now.

Denboin-dori is a 300-meter-long street perpendicular to the iconic Nakamise Shopping Street, the latter of which serves as an approach to Sensoji. Many restaurants and clothing stores stand side by side, and the streets are often crowded with tourists.

The ward has asked the owners of 32 stores on the western end of Denboin-dori, which are members of the Asakusa Denboin-dori Shoeikai merchants association, to move out.

The ward office said these shops were built in the late 1970s on part of the street owned by the ward, but the owners did not apply for permission for road occupancy as stipulated by the Road Law, nor did they pay any rent to the ward.

In June 2014, the ward office summoned executives of the Shoeikai to warn them that they were violating the law. The ward has visited the shops individually or sent letters on more than 10 occasions, demanding that the shops be removed and the street returned to its original state.

However, Shoeikai’s argument is different from the ward’s.

Shoeikai chairman Hiroyuki Nishibayashi, 60, said the shops started business right after World War II. When the Asakusa Public Hall was constructed on the south side of the street in 1977, the then ward mayor asked Shoeikai members to “move out temporarily for the sake of road improvements on Denboin-dori.” The mayor also said he would allow them to stay in business once the road was improved, according to Shoeikai.

When the owners opened new stores in the same location, an address plate was given to each store. Shoeikai claims that “Taito ward had allowed us to do business” and has demanded that the ward give an explanation of the circumstances surrounding its move to evict the shops now. But the ward did not meet this demand, Nishibayashi said. In August, the group submitted the signatures of about 12,000 people to the ward office, urging that discussions be held.

In the absence of documents or records from the time, the two sides failed to reach an agreement, leading the ward to decide on filing a lawsuit. In court, the ward is expected to demand that the owners not only vacate the land and remove the stores, but also pay retroactive rent.

The ward’s road management section head, Hiroshi Saito, said: “We’ve given enough explanation. We want to work out a solution.”

Nishibayashi said: “It is truly regrettable that the case is going to trial without being discussed. We will consider how to respond it.”

Lawyer Minoru Nishida, a member of the Tokyo Bar Association, said, “It’s highly likely that the owners will have to remove their stores if the ward requests it, because they occupy the ward’s roads.”

As for the payment of back rent, Nishida said, “It depends whether the shops can argue that the ward has given a tacit nod to their operations for many years.”