About 200 protesters banged drums and waved "No Nike" signs while marching Sunday in downtown Tokyo to oppose plans for a Nike-sponsored skateboarding park where construction has displaced dozens of homeless squatters.
The faceoff between protesters on one side and the U.S. sneaker maker and the city on the other has underscored a relatively new debate in Japan about how to handle decisions on public space.
Under a 10-year deal signed August 2009, Nike Inc. is planning to build a skateboarding facility sporting its "swoosh" logo in a grassy area and is paying 17 million yen ($200,000) a year for "naming rights." The park, now called Miyashita Park, will continue to be owned and operated by the city government, but will be renamed Miyashita NIKE Park, serving as an ad for the world's biggest athletic shoe and clothing company.
Officials accompanied by police tore out the squatters' tents from the park Friday and threw out their belongings. More than 30 homeless people were forced to vacate the area, according to Yasumasa Hioki, director of public works in Shibuya district, an area filled with fancy boutiques and young shoppers.
"This is just an excuse to get rid of the homeless," said protest organizer Seiji Uematsu, adding residents and visitors should decide how to use the park.
The group of protesters, some wearing colorful costumes, marched through the streets and in front of a Tokyo Nike store shouting, "Don't take away our space for self-expression."
"We simply want to bring sports closer to people with this project," Nike spokeswoman Yoko Mizukami said. "We are hopeful for a positive outcome, but all we can do is wait."
Those who oppose the plan, the Coalition to Protect Miyashita Park From Becoming Nike Park, say the favorite spot for rallies and demonstrations is becoming commercialized.
Construction was supposed to have started in April, but has been repeatedly delayed because of protests. The park was sealed off two weeks ago, and security guards stand at the gates.
"Ideally, public space serves as a laboratory of democracy and civility," said Christian Dimmer, who specializes in urban planning as a researcher at the University of Tokyo. "The future of a collective resource like public space should be broadly discussed by all members of a society, and not in shady backroom dealings."