TOKYO -- Japan's capital is moving forward with plans to take an elevated highway running over the famed Nihonbashi Bridge underground, a project sought after by locals who have long protested that the current structure obstructs views from the landmark.
"Nihonbashi is the source of Japan's roads," said Land and Transport Minister Keiichi Ishii at the press conference Friday. "It will be reborn as a place where you can see the clear sky."
Under the plan, relocation work would begin after the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, coinciding with other projects aimed at revitalizing the area.
The 49-meter bridge has been designated an important cultural asset as a symbol of Edo culture and the source of the Gokaido -- the five main roads that carried people and goods across Japan during that period. The Metropolitan Expressway was built six meters overhead in preparation for the first Tokyo Olympics in 1964, spoiling the scenery over the bridge. Local residents have long demanded that the highway be moved below ground.
At the end of 2005, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi suggested improving Nihonbashi's scenery. A group pledging to "return the sky" to the Nihonbashi area was formed by Hiroshi Okuda, chief of the Japanese Business Federation at the time. The group called for " the integrated development of city, river and road."
The project never took off, but talks continued. In 2012, an expert panel at the transportation ministry submitted a proposal to "revitalize the Metropolitan Expressway, including moving it underground."
Then in mid-July, Chuo Ward promised to handle consensus-building among locals, setting in motion preparatory work. The transport ministry, which administers the expressway, will decide the structure and sections to be moved, while Tokyo draws the blueprint for redevelopment. Debate will begin on moving the section from Takebashi to Edobashi underground. The project is expected to cost 500 billion yen ($4.5 billion), with each stakeholders' share of the financing to be determined later.
Relocating the expressway will also spur redevelopment of the area, reviving Nihonbashi as the new face of the capital. "We will move the highway underground, linking it to urban development," Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike emphasized at Friday's press conference. "I want to leave the future with a Tokyo that people will be proud of for the next 100 years." Koike hopes to develop the area between Otemachi and Nihonbashi into a single, international financial zone, gathering fintech startups and other ventures, as part of her goal to turn Tokyo into a global financial hub.
"Nihonbashi has a history as the center of Japan," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters the same day. "Moving the expressway underground will open up and invigorate the entire city."
"Moving the expressway has been local residents' cherished dream for some time," added Yoshihide Yada, mayor of Chuo Ward. "I am extremely happy we have taken this step."
This fiscal year, three wards in the Nihonbashi area are expected to be approved as special economic zones, a status that speeds up urban development projects. Currently, development in the office district is being led by private companies such as Mitsui Fudosan, Nomura Real Estate Development and Tokyo Tatemono. Moreover, Mistubishi Estate is also planning to build Japan's tallest office building, at 390 meters, near Nihonbashi.