Mori’s massive Roppongi site for the public weal rather than himself

Opinions Tokyo Life - January 25th, 2002
Henry Scott Stokes

by Henry Scott Stoke

I have finally discovered a col­league who outdoes me in his opti­mism over the most upbeat saga in Tokyo these days—the expansion of the Mori Building Company, hither and thither in the city.

That person is Mr. James Brooke. He covers the economy here for The New York Times, and he has written a fulsome piece that his newspaper printed on Friday, Jan. 4, a little time ago now, but features take time to percolate. The tone and content of the article surprised me, accustomed as I am to The Times taking a dire line on the economy here, usually under Jim’s byline.

The article I refer to appeared with the headline: “A Builder Sees Tokyo Rising Upward.” It was illustrated by a color photo of the main Mori development at Roppongi 6-chome—with the buildings and cranes painted red by the setting sun. The photogra­pher, Stuart Isett of Gamma, must have got there in late afternoon, judging by the angle of the sun’s rays. It’s a rather striking dusk shot.

Yet the sun also rises, metaphorically speaking. That pic­ture shows the largest urban redevelopment project in Japanese his­tory. You see the project—you can’t miss it—if you walk up the street towards Shibuya from the Roppongi Crossing. Look left and there it is, one enormous building site, reaching to the horizon—it is totally out of the ordinary for this cramped city.

But hang on a moment. This should not be happening in the midst of what the international press sees as a crisis—with unem­ployment soaring to levels not seen in the 50 years since they started to keep statistics on jobless totals here, and the State itself now all but certifiably bankrupt.

So either Mr. Minoru Mori, 67, the president and chief exec of the private company that bears his name, is over-reaching himself or the reports of Japan’s impending crash are a wee bit overdrawn.

So which is it, Jim? Changing the question slightly, what do peo­ple think? What does the citizenry think of Mr. Mori?

The first thing you encounter when you ask around is this: there is hostility to the name—except among older folk. Take Fumi Sugiyama, 83, my news assistant (and mother-in-law). She thinks differently—she is positive. She has lived in Minato-ku for most of her life and she is pro-Mori. Long-time residents, like her, remember how rough the neighborhoods were in Minato Ward after the war. Women could not walk safely down dimly lit, narrow streets, Fumi-san tells me. Especially at night. You can find such admirers of Mori-san, but they are in a smallish minority.

The more common view, as I encounter it, is that Mr. Mori and his company are all in it for the profit and are on the rampage. “What, another Mori building!” is the attitude, as one structure after another goes up. Yet Fumi-san takes a different view. She is con­vinced that Mr. Mori is not in it for the money. She regards him as a public-spirited soul who deserves a medal.

“I really felt glad to see the Mori buildings gradually spreading through Shimbashi,” said this 70-year-long resident of Minato Ward—Fumi-san is certainly one of the longest-living inhabitants of this central ward. “And do you know why—the new buildings raised the tone of the area, they replaced such dirty old shacks and the like, they made the place liveable.”

My hunch is that Fumi-san is right. I trust her judgment She was there, she was in at the creation— Mori Building Co. started up in 1959 in a building opposite Shimbashi Station. Why, she goes back to the early 1930s. She wit­nessed such historical events as the February 26 Incident—the Niniroku Jiken as the Japanese know it—of Feb. 26, 1936. That was the day when rebellious ele­ments in the Imperial Army tried to stage a coup in Tokyo.

“I saw the soldiers standing guard in the snow,” Fumi-san remembers. “They stood straight and stiff like this.”

And she stands ramrod straight, her four score years fading away, as if she was a 19-year-old trooper, holding a rifle.

You know, I get a very occa­sional letter—I have written about Mr. Mori and his works for Tokyo Weekender on other occasions— saying that I belong to some glit­terati set intended to glorify the mogul.

Something like that. Why is he tearing down the neighborhoods, the lovely old homes, and all that? The charming little corners are being destroyed by the wicked developers. Yes, that’s what some say.

Very well, it’s poppycock. Try living in a Japanese house that’s 30 years old, and see if you like it. Try it. I have. One day, I found a rat swimming up the toilet bowl from beneath the house. The filth under­neath there was indescribable, only I just described something that I witnessed.

I made a pact with the local charcoal man, when I lived in that house. I took to him the rats that I caught in my traps, and he dis­posed of them. I didn’t know how. But I did know that I did not like the rodents. I felt for the little souls, with their piercing cries, but I did not want them in my house. If that makes me a glitterati, OK I am guilty.

Japanese houses are not built to last. It is a point that Mr. Mori makes in his Times interview with Jim Brooke. “The building life cycle was 25 to 26 years,” he says. “Now we want to build assets that will last three to four times that.”

Listen folks, I have had my say. But I agree with Fumi-san. The man deserves a medal. He is bor­rowing a lot to get his projects going. Mr. Brooke of The Times wrote: “The Mori company has taken on $ 4.7 billion in debt to put up 17 buildings in central Tokyo by 2005.” OUCH. I like it. Someone who plans to borrow that much at this time—bank lending contracted overall in Japan by 20 percent in the last four years; there was a terrific cut in credit in this country—is exceptional. Totally, totally excep­tional is the verdict I bring down.

“Be a dragon,” runs a classical saying that Mr. Mori likes, “and the clouds gather without you doing anything.” A sky with clouds, you understand, is more beautiful—in these eyes—than an innocent, cloudless sky.

henryss@gol.com