Last week we visited the Prime Minister`s Official Residence to interview Mr. Noriyuki Shikata. We deeply appreciate him taking time out of his busy schedule to meet us. Mr. Shikata spoke with Rohan Gillett about Tokyo – its history, current situation and its future. Here is the full interview:
RG: I know you`re the Deputy Cabinet Secretary and Director of Global Communications. But what exactly do you do for the government?
NS: I was seconded from the Foreign Office to the PM`s office in July 2010. During the last one and half years I`ve been working as Deputy Cabinet Secretary for Public Affairs and Director of Global Communications. It`s international media relations and also public affairs. My focus is engaging with international foreign correspondents who are based here or come to visit Japan. I also accompany the Prime Minister when he attends international conferences or on international visits, and I act as an international spokesperson. I`m also involved in the coordination of activities related to global communications of the government. So especially in the period after 3/11 I was holding press conferences with other ministries like NISA (Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency).
RG: You`re originally from Kyoto?
NS: That`s right. Born near Ginkaku Temple.
RG: And 20 years in Tokyo?
NS: That`s right. After entering the Foreign Office, I was posted to the United States for four years, followed by three in Paris from 1999 to 2002. I have lived in Tokyo it`s close to twenty years now.
RG: So what exactly brought you to Tokyo the first time?
NS: To work for the government.
RG: Where did you live when you first came here?
NS: I lived in the Foreign Ministry`s dormitory which was located in Nakano.
RG: What were your first impressions of Tokyo?
NS: (Laughter) I was born and grew up in Kyoto. And of course Tokyo is gigantic and it`s metro was more crowded. At that time I was living in a rather small dormitory and was extremely busy but I found Tokyo to be exciting and dynamic. It was just before the Bubble years, it was a bit different to today`s Tokyo which is more mature.
RG: Twenty years ago it was a more dynamic city?
NS: I would say Tokyo continues to be dynamic. Now there is a greater sense of maturity. In 1986 there was a feeling it was still growing with a lot of new constructions. Even though there is still a lot of construction today, in those days there was no Midtown or Roppongi Hills.
RG: What are your first memories of Tokyo?
NS: Actually, I was living in the dormitory and there was the Kanda river nearby. There is a famous Japanese folk song named, “Kanda River” which was from the 70s, influenced by the Beetles a little. For me, “Kanda River”, always reminds me of that era.
My office has been in Kasumigaseki, so it is strategically located in a sense. Of course Kasumigaseki, if you are American, coming from Washington D.C., it`s a bit like the State Department which is located at Foggy Bottom. Foggy Bottom has a similar name to Kasumigaseki (the kanji for Kasumigaseki is, “霞ヶ関”, which in English can mean, “gate of fog”).
The Foreign Ministry is located close to Kasumigaseki station and Sakurdamon. Sakuradamon, for many Japanese, is the name that you learn in the context of the latter days of the Edo period when several historical incidents occurred there. When I came to work in Tokyo I was impressed by the fact that my office was centrally located among Ginza, Roppongi and Akasaka. My friends were telling me that I was rather fortunate to be surrounded by those three fashionable areas.
RG: When you were younger did you spend a lot of time in those areas?
NS: When I was younger, yes … we went out eating and drinking mainly in those areas. But now (with a laugh) I don`t go to Roppongi very often anymore.
RG: Currently what is the best thing about the city?
NS: I would say that among the cities that I`ve lived in, restaurants in Tokyo are the most competitive and excellent, and also aren`t expensive if you know where to go. One of my favourite restaurants is, “Salt“, a restaurant located in the Shin-Maru building. Luke Mangan, from Australia, is the chef and it`s a very good restaurant.
Tokyo of course has great Japanese restaurants too! And it has the largest number of Michelin stars in the world.
RG: Is there anything about Tokyo you would hate to see change?
NS: I like “Shitamachi”, the traditional side of Tokyo. So I hope that in spite of the construction of Tokyo Sky Tree, the traditional side of Tokyo will be preserved. I guess the attractiveness of Japanese society is the combination of modernity and traditions. And we so far have managed to preserve a number of our traditions so we should be attentive to that aspect.
RG: Is there anything you dislike about Tokyo?
NS: (He pauses to think about this question for a short time) Actually I don`t have many dislikes, but like many people I don`t enjoy crowded trains. So I decided to live in a place where I wouldn`t suffer from the commute.
RG: When you have free time what do you like to do?
NS: Let`s see. Because I live near the bayside, although I`m not good a tennis player, I play tennis and other outdoor things. My interests are finding new restaurants. The place that I go most frequently during weekdays is the restaurant named “Shunju“, very near here in the Sanno Park Tower in Tameike Sanno. There are also a couple of other nice places for tempura, sukiyaki or Kyoto cuisine in this neighbourhood.
RG: You mentioned the song, “Kanda-river”. Are there other songs or movies for you that have a direct connection with Tokyo?
NS: Movies or songs about Tokyo? When I was in the States for four years, it was the time of the “Bubble” in Japan. There was a movie titled, “Baburu e go!! Taimu mashin wa doramu-shiki”, (or in English, “Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust“). It an interesting movie about what Tokyo was like during the Bubble years. I was not in Tokyo at that time, 1987-1991 so I was kind of perplexed that my friends in Tokyo were talking about, “bubbles” and I really had no idea what they were talking about.
RG: The movie is a comedy?
NS: Kind of. There were some serious parts, for example when they talked about economic policies. It has a famous actress in it, Ryoko Hirosue. The movie was created several years ago. But when I think of Tokyo and it`s changes, and the fact that I was out of the country for some years, the movie it is an interesting reminder of what the city was like. It is an interesting reflection of what Tokyo was like at that time.
RG: When you came back to Tokyo from overseas, were there any big noticeable changes?
NS: Of course, when I came back, the bubble had burst, but the economy wasn`t in such bad shape, the pain was coming later but at the same time, in those days real estate prices had gone up like crazy and it was much more expensive to live in Tokyo. Now (in 2012) deflation is a problem and I do not feel Tokyo is very expensive to live in
When I was in the United States in the 1990s there were a lot of issues about price differentials. For example, there was a big gap in the price of the Sony Walkman sold in the US and Japan. When Sony sold those products in the United States, they sold simpler models that were cheaper.
RG: I`d like to ask a historical question. What do you think Tokyo was like to live in 100 years ago?
NS: So you`re talking about the early 1900s. I`ve heard the stories about the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923). The basic framework of Tokyo was developed in the 1920s after the quake and more people began to live in the suburbs. And that`s when the trains, like the Seibu line, started to go to those areas. Many of the train companies date back to that time, the 1920s.
According to Professor Heizo Takenaka the earthquake helped to revitalize Tokyo, as the destruction created demand. Many of the big companies that exist now started then or shortly after then, for example National (which is now Panasonic). Many companies were created around that time. After the Kanto quake we succeeded in revitalizing or creating something new. The Professor`s main point was that disaster can bring about something new with innovation. So although 3/11 did not directly hit Tokyo, we were more or less affected. It`s hard to say how Tokyo will be affected in the long run. But, Tokyo a 100 years ago, was transformed by that quake.
RG: A question not exactly about Tokyo, but do you see the same thing happening in the Tohoku area that was devastated by the events of 3/11/2011?
NS: I think there is the potential. This is now a crossroads … Japan in the Meiji restoration, we were not colonized and there was a lot of effort to modernize the country. In the 1910s during the Taisho democracy the situation was not that bad unlike the 1930s and early 1940s which were very bad periods for the people. After Tokyo was bombed and destroyed, we recovered again. So I believe there is a good potential that the disaster areas will recover in due course.
RG: For you personally, what do you think is the main symbol of Tokyo?
NS: This year we have Sky Tree opening. From my home I can see both Sky Tree and Tokyo Tower. So we have double symbols we see every day – the old and the new. This is kind of symbolic in terms of being able to create something new, especially for Eastern Tokyo, the Shitamachi area. This is an issue how we can achieve compatibility between tradition and modernity.
RG: Since the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, what other developments have influenced Tokyo over the years?
NS: Of course World War II, had such an impact on the landscape of Tokyo. Though devestating, it also created so much potential for creating something new. But at the same time when I compare Tokyo with other cities such as Paris or Boston, we do not have the kind of uniform city planning or preservation of some of the buildings from pre-war days. Of course we still have some ancient buildings. But having lived in Kyoto, Washington, Boston and Paris I find lots of city planning in those cities.
Tokyo has taken a different approach in my understanding. You have seen regional growth and development. Each district has its own unique feeling and ambience. I have in mind Roppongi, Ikebukuro, Akasaka and others. They all have different tastes. They have different types of people in those places.
RG: Among modern Japanese people, who has had a great influence on this city?
NS: I can think of somebody like Governor Ishihara. If I chose one person it would be him in my opinion. He started the Tokyo Marathon and the bids for the Tokyo Olympics. Governor Ishihara is coming up with his own straightforward views.
RG: Do you think Tokyo influences cities in other countries?
NS: In my travels I`ve seen the influence is from public transportation, especially the train and metro systems. Also the connections between the metro and high speed rail (i.e. Shinkansen) and now we are getting better with airport connections such as Narita, and also with Haneda becoming an international hub.
The model here is for an, “eco” (or environmentally friendly) life. You don`t need to drive or get stuck in a traffic jams. Tokyo provides great opportunities for business and investment.
RG: For anyone wanting to visit Tokyo or one of the surrounding prefectures, where would you recommend?
NS: Kamakura, and also one place many people may not visit is Kawagoe in Saitama prefecture. There is an old Edo-style town there, which is extremely interesting and I highly recommend it. And of course it is not too far from Tokyo.
RG: What about Tokyo`s future?
NS: In the 1970s Tokyo suffered from air pollution but today it has very clean air. So I think this could be a great model for other countries, especially for other Asian cities. That relates to lifestyle and environmentally friendly cities. Tokyo in that sense, is cutting edge. At the same time, Tokyo is the largest economic area in the world.
RG: Lastly, any words for people who want to visit Tokyo?
NS: Tokyo has modernity and traditions combined so you will find many surprises. It will take many days to discover both sides of life here. And of course, the food is great.
RG: Mr. Shikata, many thanks for giving me your time today.
NS: You are very welcome.