A historic baseball stadium in Tokyo where Babe Ruth played could be demolished, part of a disputed redevelopment plan harshly criticized by environmentalists.
Ruth played at the Meiji Jingu Stadium in 1934 on a barnstorming tour with other American stars that included Lou Gehrig, Lefty Gomez and Jimmie Foxx. Ruth homered several times before 60,000 fans in games at the stadium, which is still home to the Japanese league champion Yakult Swallows.
Only three other major ballparks remain where Ruth played: Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and the Koshien Stadium in Kobe, Japan. Wrigley and Fenway have been renovated, but plans to save Meiji Jingu have been dismissed by developers and politicians.
The stadium was opened in 1926 in an area known as Meiji Gaien, a green patch in central Tokyo that's famous for an avenue lined with about 150 ginko trees. Plans call for razing the ballpark and a neighboring rugby stadium and rebuilding them in different spots in the reconfigured space, making room for a pair of towering skyscrapers and a shopping area.
"I really think we shouldn't sacrifice nature in order to get short-term economic growth," said Natsuka Kusumoto, a university student campaigning against the redevelopment. "In order to stop global warming we have to face how to balance economic growth and nature conservation."
She said real estate developers, construction companies and Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike "don't hear the voice of the people who live in this town."
"Around this area in Jingu Gaien there are lots of trees that have been living for 100 years," she said. "They will cut the old trees in order to build skyscrapers or rebuild this baseball stadium."
The new baseball stadium will be built flush against the ginko trees, which environmentalists say will damage the complex root system and kill or damage the trees.
Opponents of the project have gathered about 180,000 signatures on petitions, and on Sunday hundreds protested in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building.
A Tokyo Shimbun poll last year showed 69.5% against the project.
The massive project could take 13 years to complete and the baseball stadium will stand for several more years. But the clock is ticking.
Koike, the Tokyo governor, is at the center of the storm. Activists believe she has the power to cancel the project but has given developers the go-ahead to start preliminary construction. The city's Environmental Assessment Committee is still studying the project and has raised questions.
Famous Japanese composer and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, days before his death on March 28, sent an emotive letter to Koike to oppose the project as his last cause.
"We should not sacrifice the precious trees of Jingu that our ancestors spent 100 years protecting and nurturing, just for quick economic gain," Sakamoto wrote, according to the Japanese news agency Kyodo.
Koike touched on the redevelopment — being led by real estate company Mitsui Fudosan — at a press conference two months ago. She was a driving force behind the 2020 Tokyo Olympics but has not been implicated in the widespread corruption around the Games.
The presence of the Olympics helped the city pass an ordinance lifting height restrictions in the area, enabling plans for the new skyscrapers.
Koike said the number of trees in the area would increase from 1,904 to 1,998 through the redevelopment, and that "green area coverage" could increase from 25% to 30%.
"However, not all trees are equal. Huge 100 year-old trees provide significantly more CO2 sequestering and cooling effect than small new saplings," said Rochelle Kopp, who runs a Tokyo management consulting company and is a leader of the protest movement.
She also said Koike was misleading to say "green area coverage" would increase.
"Although the surface area of green will increase, the volume of green will go down significantly due to the felling of large trees."
Kopp said an injunction to stop preliminary work could be filed in the next few weeks. She also said 27 members of Japan's national parliament have begun to examine the project. She said parts of the planning were complete, but much was still pending.
Koike has tried to distance the Tokyo city government from the project, suggesting it was an outside initiative. However, Kopp said records from a meeting in 2012 indicate the city government had proposed switching the location of the two stadiums to the national government.
Japan's mainstream newspapers have given little coverage to the issue, although the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun has called for a major review of the project "on grounds it could result in significant environmental damage."
Activists say lifestyles have changed since the pandemic, putting into question the need for more office space.
"When I was a child I played in Jingu Gaien," area resident Mao Kawaguchi said at the weekend protest. "I think the forest in Jingu Gaien belongs to everybody. Frankly, I feel like my ability to live is being threatened, just for the interests of a very small number of companies. They want to change the place so they can squeeze as much money out of it as possible."