The Kodaira Referendum: fighting for Democracy in the Acorn Forest

The embedded Google map is annotated with locations that are referenced in this post.

(open map)

Somewhere in the western-Tokyo city of Kodaira, 51,010 ballots remain uncounted. They sit in a bag or a box, or in an unruly pile. Hopefully they are under lock and key. The votes have not changed since the day they were cast, but the official tally is still zero. Like those unheard trees falling silently in a forest, the voices of 51,010 Kodaira citizens have been made silent by city officials who refuse to count their votes.

Fortunately, voices can make noise in other ways. This is a story about those ballots. This is a story about those voices.

I. The land that time should not forget

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a woman who is part of the grassroots effort to stall a planned road expansion that will destroy a popular wooded area and disturb the historic Tamagawa josui canal 玉川上水. The woman had identified me via my blog, as I had written about the same area that they are trying to protect in a previous post. Here’s what I described:

“Along the canal, one of my favorite spots in all of Tokyo is here, just south of Takanodai station 鷹の台駅. This modest junction contains tall trees, a park, the canal, a train, and a dirt path; just 32 minutes from Shinjuku station, it is both quiet and connected, the essence of why I treasure Tokyo neighborhoods so much.” (Clark Parker, February 8, 2014)

That lovely spot is seen at the bottom-left corner of the following map. (The bottom-right of the map shows a grove of trees, 「どんぐり林」Acorn Forest, which will be discussed later.)

Map of the Acorn Forest, courtesy of どんぐりの会 Donguri no kai, the Acorn Society

Train crossing near the Acorn Forest (source):

While no longer a source of drinking water, the canal serves as a resource for lovers of history and nature. Measured by length alone, it is arguably the most important “green space” in Tokyo. The canal offers enjoyment to the countless people who walk, bike, and run on the roads and path that parallel the water. Many small bridges cross the canal, offering vistas similar to the one above. In the accompanying map, Ogawa Station 小川駅 appears in the middle. (For reference, Takanoidai station is the next station to the south).

Map of “Tamagawa josui scenic road” (source: PDF)

Walking the entire length of the canal was one of the first walking “adventures” I experienced in Japan, which makes me a bit biased in favor of saving as much of it as possible. In many stretches it is dirt path; in other spots it is difficult to follow, obscured by busy roads. In the best spots, old trees form a tunnel-like canopy across the canal. This was back when I rarely carried a camera, so I don’t have many personal photographs. But many lovely spots can be found on Google streetview.

The following picture is a view of the Tamagawa josui from a spot in Akishima-shi, near Hajima. I picked it at random. The canal varies in terms of beauty throughout its 43-kilometer length.  Started in 1653, the canal still flows from the Tamagawa River at its point of diversion in Hamura to the center of Tokyo in Yotsuya, though it is mostly hidden underground once it reaches Takaido. (source & location: Google maps):

Given my love for the Tamagawa josui, I was naturally sympathetic when I received that email about saving it. The group’s very realistic goal is as follows:

“Start a petition and bring it to the Cultural Affairs Agency (since Tamagawa Jyosui is a historical heritage site), and the board of education in April. We hope to have more than 5,000 people to join it.”

My reaction to this petition was that this is a simple story about natural and historic preservation. When I started drafting this blog entry I toyed with the title, “Narrow canal to thirsty Edo”, a play on the famous poem, “Narrow Road to the Deep North” 奥の細道. This was, after all, a post about preserving the past, right?


This is about the future. Referred to as “the Kodaira Referendum” 「小平住民投票」, the outcome will impact not only the landscape of a beautiful park, but may impact the future of democracy in Japan.

But before we get to the future, let’s first go back to the 1960’s.

II. Ghosts of urban planners past

In the midst of Japan’s period of rapid economic growth, a plan was devised in 1962/63 to build a highway from Machida City 町田市 in the south to Higashimurayama  東村山市 in the north, crossing the cities of Tama 多摩市, Fuchu 府中, Kokubunji 国分寺, and Kodaira 小平 along the way. This route, known as the Fuchu Tokorozawa line 府中所沢線, went largely unrealized until the late 1980s, after which road development policies were refocused on this project; in 2006 the Fuchu section was completed, terminating at the city’s northern border with Kokubunji. Other sections of the road are in various stages of progress.

In the following map, the striped line and boxed section shows the parts that have not been completed, primarily within Kokubunji and Kodaira. (Note: north is at top; the blue at bottom is not water, it is Kanagawa Prefecture; source)

The red dot in the middle of the map is where the Fuchu section ends and the Kokubunji section begins. The road does not currently extend into Kokubunki, but most of the residences and other properties within this section have already been cleared to make way for the road. From an aerial view, the cleared land forms an unmistakable straight gray line. On a map, the cleared land is much more difficult to identify, as you can see in this section of cleared land (map).

Although the Kokubunji section is only 3 kilometers long, it must have been a massive undertaking to remove every house that lay in its path. What remains, until the road is built, is a creepy emptiness, which can be seen on Google streetview (I’ve annotated various points in the map at the top of this post, or you can click on the following: 1, 2, 3, 3.54, 5, 6.)

Here are two spots along the path where we can see photos from before and after the demolition occurred, the first from near point 4.

And from near point 3:

The purpose of including all of this information is to illustrate how much time and money has been spent in preparation of the road. This may explain why the government wants to move forward with this plan at all costs.

At the northern terminus of the Kokubunji section, on the Kodaira border, is a beautiful Japanese estate with a red-roofed house and traditional kura 倉 rice storehouse (point 6a, map). These structures can be seen in the picture below, left, and in an aerial photograph below, right. Based on my reading of the aerial photograph, the road bends to the left at the last moment, sparing the life of the historic buildings. I chose to view this as a triumph of history and culture over the linear demands of the engineers. In this respect, I see these structures as the last line of defense protecting Kodaira from the planned road expansion.

This spot, which marks the border between two cities, is the spot where the road construction currently ends. And it’s the spot where the controversy begins.

III. Cutting down the Acorn Forest

VOX POPULI: Kodaira to test new style of democracy (The Asahi Shimbun, May 22, 2013): In this photo from the Asahi Shimbun, the Tamagawa josui appears as a horizontal green line in the upper half of the photograph. The green dome of Kodaira City Gymnasium is seen in the middle of a sea of trees, which is Kodaira Central Park 小平中央公園. The planned road would cut through the green forest to the right of the gymnasium, crossing the canal via a new bridge.

The planned highway will not only displace the many residents who live along its path, but will also impact Kodaira’s green spaces, of which Kodaira is proud. Kobayashi Masanori 小林正則, the Mayor of Kodaira 小平市長 , boasts about the canal in his Mayor’s greetings 市長あいさつ on the city website, using the term ‘市内一周緑道’ (Around-the-city green path). (More about the mayor later).

The maps below all show the areas that will be impacted by the road. The road will cross through the Acorn Forest, depicted in green on all three maps. Directly south of the forest is the Tamagawa josui canal, which will be crossed by a wide bridge. The canal appears as a blue line in maps 1 & 2 and resembles railroad tracks on map 3.

Map 1:

Map 2:

Map 3:

It is natural that some people oppose the road. The park is a nice place, of course the local residents want to save it. But is it merely self-interested NIMBYs who oppose the road? Probably not.

The Kodaira residents who initiated the referendum certainly wanted to save the park, if possible, but they also wanted to inject some common sense and transparency into the process by which large infrastructure projects are made. From their perspective, it seemed rather arbitrary that a highway plan sitting dormant since the 1960’s could suddenly roar back to life. They oppose the road on its merits, saying that the road was planned during a time when Japanese population and economic growth appeared limitless.

But they also object to the road on the process by which it was chosen. Whose road is this? Who are the people that are asking for it? Shouldn’t it be the people who live in the places that the road would serve?

They also say that the plan is illegal. In 2003, the Tamagawa Josui 玉川上水 was designated as a historic site 「史跡」according to the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties 文化財保護法. I’m no legal scholar, but I understand this to mean that the road can not proceed as planned unless it is granted special exemption from the cultural properties laws.

IV. Unstuffing the ballot box

Democracy, of course, is fairly new to Japan, having been forced onto the Japanese during the Allied occupation.

According to Japanese law, voters may initiate a local referendum 住民 投票 juumin touhyou, assuming they meet certain conditions, such as obtaining the requisite number of signatures. The citizens of Kodaira began collecting signatures for a referendum in December 2012, submitting the signatures on February 14, 2013. The Kodaira City Council approved the referendum request, which would be voted on by the public in May 2013.

This was quite an accomplishment: it was the first-ever local referendum in Tokyo. It would become known as the “Kodaira Referendum” 「小平住民投票」.

The citizens were successful in obtaining the referendum in part because their demands were so mild. The referendum was not asking voters to oppose the road plan, but merely to express their view on whether the plan should be re-considered. As Burgess writes in The Japan Times, “The fact that citizens were not asking to stop the road, just to take another look at the 50-year-old plan, undoubtedly worked in their favor.” (source)

However, before the vote took place, Mayor Kobayashi, the same one who boasts about Kodaira’s green spaces,  announced the “Ordinance to revise a portion” of the upcoming referendum 「一部を改正する条例」. The revision, approved by the city council, meant that if voter turnout is less than 50%, then the results of the referendum would not be valid.

On May 26, 2013, the citizens of Kodaira attempted to make their voices heard at the ballot box. That day, 51,010 people, representing 35.17% of eligible voters cast a vote (source). The results of their votes were deemed invalid, owing to voter turnout below 50%. What’s more, the results of the votes were never even made public.

On the face of it, 50% seems like a reasonable threshold, but it become dubious in the face of historical voter turnout data; the mayor’s last election saw a turnout of 37%. In fact, voter turnout for councillor and mayoral elections has been at or below 50% since the mid-1990’s, with House of Representatives turnout not far above this mark. It is even more dubious considering that the 50% rule was a last-minute procedural change implemented by the mayor himself.

Kodaira voter turnout, 1963-2011 (source: Clark Parker, compiled from Source 1 and Source 2)

The hypocritical stance of the mayor and his backers did not escape the attention of the people, and the story was even picked-up by the English press. One of the better lines from Burgess’ terrific article:

“Kobayashi, seemingly questioning the validity of his own re-election, declared that such a turnout “cannot be said to reflect the collective opinion (sōi) of Kodaira citizens.'” fromDemocracy, interrupted: How local voices were silenced in Tokyo’s first referendum: Huge effort to mobilize locals over planned road through park may count for nought as mayor decides to destroy all ballots” (Chris Burgess, The Japan Times, June 18, 2013)

Back when the citizens of Kodaira first started gathering signatures for the referendum, the cause they were fighting for was weaker than it was now. Charges of NIMBY-ism may not have been valid, but at least could be defended. All of this changed when the results of the referendum were made invalid. Instead of fighting for a park and a canal (a very local issue), the citizens became defenders of democracy, an issue that is (or should be) universal.

V. Fighting the foregone conclusion

Two years on, the fight continues. After the May 2013 referendum, the citizens sued in Tokyo high court for the results of the Kodaira Referendum to be made public. In September 2014, the citizens lost an initial judgment on this suit, and an appeal was dismissed on February 5, 2015. The citizens filed an appeal to the Supreme Court 最高裁 Saikosai on February 16, 2015. Until the Supreme Court makes a ruling, the ballots will continue to be held in the safe-keeping of Kodaira city. If the appeal fails, the ballots will be destroyed, uncounted.

So what’s happening outside of the courts?

At the end of 2014, the private land that comprises most of the Acorn Forest was sold to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government 東京都. The land had been owned by a group that used to be in the sericultural industry 養蚕 (silk farming). According to my sources, the owners were not forced to sell the land, but given how high the value of land is, and since the construction of the road seemed like a foregone conclusion to most people, it is unlikely that other buyers would have offered this group a decent price.

Soon after the land changed hands, Tokyo Metropolitan Government built fences to keep people out of the Acorn Forest. Either by design or by coincidence, this occurred the same day that the appeal to the Supreme Court was filed (source 1, source 2).

More pictures are included on their website, in this post.

Despite this development, the citizen groups do not appear discouraged. They are continuing to rally public support, not only to save their cherished natural areas, but also to protect their democratic rights.

How to get involved:

1. Online: There is a petition, which asks that the historic status of the Tamagawa josui not be violated.

To: 文化庁長官 Commissioner of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, 東京都教育委員会 Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education, 小平市教育委員会 Kodaira City Board of Education


Please do not break it prompts you do not allow the status quo change of “historic sites Tamagawa” by road construction – the Tamagawa for Kodaira 3, 2, No. 8 Fuchu Tokorozawa Line Construction ~

2. In-person: The following site lists locations to sign a petition in person:  史跡玉川上水保全署名 / Historic sites Tamagawa conservation signature. Signatures will be collected in person on Sunday, March 22, 2015, 12:30 to 1:30 at Kousagi Bridge こうさぎ橋 (map), a pedestrian bridge next to Kodaira Central Park, close to Takanodai Station.  3月22日(日)12:30~13:30 こうさぎ橋にて.

If you have any interest in this case, please sign the petition. It will cost you nothing, but will mean a great deal to the people who have been fighting for democracy in Japan for the past two years.

Postscript: This is the Japan that Japan needs

Japan is periodically criticized for various failures in its society: the population is too old; the citizens are not interested in politics; people work long hours in soulless office jobs. I won’t defend or deny any of these claims, but its in the context of these criticisms that I look what’s happening in Kodaira, along the Tamagawa josui, and in the Acorn Forest, and I think, THIS!  THIS is the Japan that Japan needs.

The scene above is from a presentation of  月夜の幻燈会 Moonlit night of The Star Boarder, an event held about twice a year in the Acorn Forest between 2009-2014 (source). Many of the performances are available on YouTube and are worth a watch.

The atmosphere appears fun, communal, and in celebration of nature. This is the Japan that I want to live in. If this is the version of Japan that you support, please consider signing the petition.

The people of Kodaira – 35.17% of them, at least – need the us to help make their voices heard.




  1. 小平市で住民投票! – 小平都市計画道路に住民の意思を反映させる会 / Kodaira in referendum! – Meeting to reflect the intention of the residents in Kodaira city planning road
  2. どんぐりの会 / Association of the Acorn
  3. 都道小平3・3・8号線計画を考えるブログ / Blog considering the prefectural Kodaira 3, 3, 8 Line plan –
  4. みどりのつながり市民会議 – 小平の緑、どう守る?/ Green leads Citizens – Kodaira greenery, how to protect?
  5. Tokyo Construction Bureau 東京都建設局 Kensetsu Kyoku
  6. Timeline and maps: 小平都市計画道路3・2・8号府中所沢線と住民投票をめぐるこれまでの動き / Kodaira city planning road 3, 2, No. 8 Fuchu Tokorozawa line and so far the movement of the surrounding residents vote
  7. Tamagawajosui Scenic Road 
  8. Tamagawajosui canal photos
  9. 都道小平3・3・8号線計画を考えるブログ / Blog considering the prefectural Kodaira 3, 3, 8 Line plan
  10. Construction Bureau Q&A kensetsu
  11. Tamagawa josui / Tamagawa Aqueduct on Wikipedia
  12. You can use Google streetview to “walk” along certain stretches of the canal’s dirt paths:  here
  13. Green roads, including Tamagawa josui and Sayama Green Road (PDF, and map)

Additional Maps:

The Green roads of Kodaira: Tamagawa josui on the bottom; Sayama on straight diagonal on top:

The cities of western Tokyo:

Detail of the affected area in Kodaira Central Park / Acorn Forest / Tamagawa josui:

Artist’s rendering of the planned bridge (point 6 on my map).

For reference, in the upper righthand corner of the drawing is Toei Tsuda-cho 1-chome apartment Building 1 都営津田町一丁目アパート一号棟 . Source

Kodaira Road Plan and Tamagawa josui maps (source)

Tamagawa josui (source)

Various names for the road project:

  • 小平都市計画道路3・2・8 号線 Kodaira city planning road 3 · 2 · 8 Line
  • 小平3・2・8号線 Kodaira 3 · 2 · 8 Line
  • 小平都市計画道路3・2・8号府中所沢線は Kodaira city planning road 3, 2, No. 8 Fuchu Tokorozawa line
  • 「小平3・2・8号府中所沢線」”Kodaira No. 3 · 2 · 8 Fuchu Tokorozawa line”

Name of the referendum: 

  • 「東京都の小平都市計画道路 3・2・8 号府中所沢線計画について住民の意思を問う住民投票条例」 “Referendum ordinance asking the intention of residents for Tokyo Kodaira city planning road 3, 2, No. 8 Fuchu Tokorozawa line plan”


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