Experts Alarmed Over Trending Mean Bench Its Soul-Eroding Impact Raises Concerns | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Experts Alarmed Over Trending Mean Bench Its Soul-Eroding Impact Raises Concerns

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In the world, people talk a lot about barrier-free, SDGs, and other nice-sounding words, but in fact, they are deeply exclusive.

In mid-March, when a photo of an arched bench in a park in Shinjuku Ward was posted on social media, criticisms such as “designed to prevent people from lying down,” “a measure against homelessness,” “dangerous for the elderly and children,” “uncomfortable for anyone to sit on,” and “unable to place lunch boxes or drinks” poured in.

Terms like “exclusion bench” and “mean bench” were frequently used, but in response, Kenichi Yoshizumi, the mayor of Shinjuku Ward, stated, “It’s not a measure against homelessness but rather to prevent nighttime noise in residential areas. There have been no complaints from local residents,” in his post.

Furthermore, provocative posts were made by repeatedly uploading images of various uncomfortable benches within Shinjuku Ward.

So, what was the actual purpose behind the installation of these benches? How does Shinjuku Ward respond to criticisms such as “uncomfortable to sit on,” “mean,” and “exclusionary”? Kenji Kosuge, the Director of the Shinjuku Ward Civil Engineering Department’s Greenery and Park Division, provided answers.

Benches with a partition in the middle are common in Japan. This bench, which does not allow people to lie down, is actually one of the mean benches. I hear that you don’t see this type of bench in other countries.

Bench shapes used in different park environments

First of all, the purpose of installing arched benches is explained as follows: “Many of the parks are small parks adjacent to residential areas and are closely connected to the daily lives of local residents.”

The ward considers it important that all park visitors use the parks in a pleasant and appropriate manner, so that local residents can lead peaceful daily lives.

However, depending on the location of parks in the ward, there are some cases of inappropriate use of parks by visitors from nearby downtown areas who spend long hours in the parks from nighttime to early morning drinking and making loud noises, leaving garbage strewn about, etc. Therefore, the ward is taking measures such as devising the shape of facilities to be installed according to the actual conditions of each area. The ward has been taking measures such as changing the shape of the facilities to match the actual conditions of the local community.

The arched benches in Satsuki Children’s Park, which you pointed out, were installed in January 1996 to deter such prolonged use while allowing people to sit on them.

 In addition to the Satsuki Children’s Amusement Park, a total of 10 similar benches have been installed in four Shinjuku City parks. They are not unique to Shinjuku City, and have been installed in other municipalities as well. Regarding these benches, some people say that the benches should be easy to use for everyone, while others say that the shape of the benches is very good.

“The ward considers it important to proceed with park development taking into account the opinions of park users, while also valuing the preservation of the living environment for local residents.

For these reasons, we have installed the arched benches, and at this point, we have no plans to change their shape, considering the need to deter inappropriate use in the future.

In addition, for parks like Shinjuku Chuo Park, which do not directly border residential areas and have large areas, we have installed benches with backrests where people can sit comfortably.

In the future, we will consider the shape of the benches based on park usage and community feedback, taking into account various opinions.”

By the way, the installation of arched benches is not aimed at addressing homelessness directly. “Regarding homelessness, we collaborate with staff from self-reliance support centers to provide support. We conduct patrols, engage in dialogue, and provide guidance on welfare consultations and facility placements to promote self-reliance,” as an additional note.

It is a “failed bench” that is not good for anyone.

However, Professor Taro Igarashi, a architectural historian at Tohoku University Graduate School, offers a different perspective.

“The bench in Shinjuku Ward that garnered attention is simply uncomfortable to sit on, regardless of its intended purpose.

However, the term ‘exclusion’ implies targeting specific individuals, which I find hard to imagine in the case of that bench. Frankly, I can’t imagine anyone finding it comfortable to sit on.

Shinjuku Ward’s mayor posted various images of benches within the ward, but all of them gave the impression of being uncomfortable and uninviting to linger on.

Rather than exclusion, I see these benches as failures or mistakes that aren’t beneficial for anyone.” (Professor Taro Igarashi)

However, it’s worth noting that arched benches like these have been documented in literature in the United States since the 1980s, and similar ones have been present in Japan for about 20 years.

The person in charge changes, and the original intent is passed on without being understood.

The trend of installing benches or objects with some form of intention, such as “exclusion,” began around the mid-1990s. Professor Igarashi cites an example from 1996 when the Tokyo Metropolitan Government installed a moving sidewalk at the west exit of Shinjuku.

“There was a time when the Tokyo Metropolitan Government forcibly removed cardboard houses. The official reason was to install a walking sidewalk, but after the construction, cylindrical objects with diagonally cut tops were placed where the cardboard houses used to be. Because of the diagonal cut, nobody would think to sit on them.

The earliest example that can be confirmed through newspaper articles dates back to the mid-1990s. In newspaper reports from that time, when the reporter first interviewed Shinjuku Ward, they clearly stated that it was to make the homeless disappear. However, when the same reporter inquired about it again about a month later, they only received responses about environmental improvement, indicating a change in explanation.

While those objects themselves no longer exist, it’s clear that Shinjuku Ward initially stated their purpose honestly but later stopped disclosing it officially.”

In addition, there’s the factor of turnover among municipal officials.

“For example, in November 2020, after an incident where a homeless woman sleeping on a bench in Hatagaya was murdered, the Kobe Shimbun contacted me for inquiries. 

There were lots of jagged stones placed on the flat surface under a bridge, which seemed to be intentionally designed to discourage people from lying down there to take shelter from the rain.

When the newspaper reporter investigating this contacted the municipal office, they received a response along the lines of ‘I’m not sure why; the previous person in charge changed about 10 years ago.’ It’s probably true. 

Municipalities might initially have a purpose when introducing something like this, but over time, they might end up using it routinely without really understanding why.”

If you are going to get complaints, you shouldn’t have put up a bench in the first place.

Furthermore, what Professor Igarashi is concerned about is what happens next.

“When you place benches that seem to serve a specific purpose, they become targets for criticism. So, there’s a possibility that instead of dealing with complaints, authorities might say, ‘If it’s causing complaints, then we shouldn’t have placed benches in the first place.’ This way, they won’t receive any complaints.”

Similar to how trash cans disappeared from stations and streets for counterterrorism measures, benches that are uncomfortable to sit on are becoming the default. While it has become a common sight in Japan,

“Recently, I visited Germany and South Korea, where there were trash bins on trains and platforms, and the benches were normal benches. Seeing that, I thought, ‘That’s how it should be.'”

Professor Igarashi continues, expressing concern that benches might disappear altogether, leading to parks having nothing left.

“In reality, parks are being treated as nuisance facilities. Complaints about noisy children result in moves to remove playground equipment like slides, as well as areas where children gather, such as water features.

There have even been movements to abolish parks. Instead, facilities for promoting the health of the elderly are increasing nationwide.”

As Shinjuku Ward explained, the adoption of uncomfortable arched benches is also seen in other municipalities. Additionally, upon visiting the bus stop where the incident in Hatagaya occurred, it becomes apparent that the depth of the benches is extremely narrow, making them uncomfortable for anyone to sit on. These benches are standardized products found at bus stops across the area.

“Since it has become commonplace, people aren’t consciously aware, but I believe that these uncomfortable and inconvenient things gradually wear away at our psyche.

People often say that McDonald’s chairs are subtly uncomfortable to increase turnover, which is understandable in capitalism, but applying the same principle to public bus stops is a different story.

Even those who use those benches in Shinjuku probably don’t feel good about it. However, it’s not something that’s explicitly verbalized. 

They can sit on it, so it’s okay, but it’s just uncomfortable enough that they don’t want to linger.”

Furthermore, signs of exclusion can be found in various places, such as placing slanted boards over coin lockers to prevent items from being placed on top or adding protrusions to railings to prevent skateboarding.

“You can walk underground from Tokyo Station to the outskirts of Otemachi for almost 10 minutes, but there isn’t a single place to sit. 

Healthy individuals might not mind, but for elderly people, pregnant women, or those with disabilities, it means not having a single free place to sit for 10 minutes of walking. Of course, you can sit if you pay for coffee at a cafe.

It’s unfair to deny people a place to sit, especially considering that anyone can suddenly feel unwell or become ill.”

Exclusion also applies to things that have no form.

There’s exclusion even in things without shape. One example is the mosquito sound that emits a frequency only audible to young people, purportedly to deter them from gathering. Professor Igarashi remarks:

“While it may be understandable for commercial facilities as they are private spaces, there are also instances of such sounds being played in parks. 

At the very least, parks are supposed to be public spaces open to everyone, so I question the idea of making certain age groups feel unwelcome. 

Despite terms like ‘barrier-free’ and ‘SDGs’ being widely used, the reality is quite exclusionary. Many people don’t share or even consider ideals about public spaces and what parks should be like. I believe this lack of shared understanding contributes to this trend of exclusion. 

It’s essential to raise our voices not just about Shinjuku Ward’s benches, but about these broader issues.”

Tauro Igarashi, a professor at Tohoku University’s Graduate School. Born in Paris, France, in 1967. Graduated from the Department of Architecture at the University of Tokyo in 1990. Completed master’s degree at the University of Tokyo Graduate School in 1992. Doctor of Engineering. He has been a professor at Tohoku University’s Graduate School since 2009. He served as commissioner of the Japanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale International Architecture Exhibition ’08 and as artistic director of the Aichi Triennale ’13. He has authored numerous works, including “16 Chapters on Contemporary Architecture” (Kodansha Contemporary Novels) among others.

  • Interview and text by Wakako Tago

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