Why no one wants to live in the Prime Minister’s official residence

This 1920s mansion may just be the grandest ‘akiya’, or vacant house in Japan. The official residence of the Prime Minister was built in 1929 and has a total floor area of 7,000 sqm over three levels. Despite its significance, it has been unoccupied for the past nine years.

The architect was Muraji Shimomoto (1888-1984) who was employed at the Ministry of Finance. Its design was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s works, in particular the old Imperial Hotel.

Each Prime Minister can choose whether to live in the official residence or elsewhere. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe chose to remain in his personal home in Shibuya during his term. Current PM Yoshihide Suga has chosen to remain in his government apartment in Akasaka, just a short walk away.

Last month, Suga faced questioning by former PM Yoshihiko Noda as to why he has not moved into the official residence (Noda lived there in 2011 and 2012). 

In times of disaster, the Prime Minister needs to be at the Kantei government office building within a very short period to time in order to oversee the emergency response. The official residence is located within the grounds of the Kantei office, making it ideal. The main concern with a Prime Minister living elsewhere is the time that it could take to get to the Kantei building if roads are damaged or traffic lights are out. Following the Fukushima earthquake on February 13, 2021, it took the PM twenty minutes to arrive at the Kantei office. 

There are also issues over the expenditure in maintaining the empty residence. It costs 160 million Yen (US$1.5 million) in upkeep each year. In preparation for the change in leadership in September 2020, 4.39 million Yen (approx. US$41,000) was spent on alterations and repairs to the residence.

Given its history, ghost stories persist. It was the scene of two coup d’etat attempts. The May 15 Incident in 1932 saw PM Inukai Tsuyoshi assassinated by naval officers in the residence. The activists had originally planned to assassinate Charlie Chaplin, who had arrived the day prior, but he happened to be out watching a sumo match.

The February 26 Incident was a second coup d’etat attempt in 1936 that saw troops force their way into the official residence. PM Keisuke Okada narrowly avoided assassination when the troops murdered his brother-in-law in a case of mistaken identity. Ghostly apparitions in military uniform are rumored to appear. Former PM Yoshiro Mori (yes, that same Mori who was head of the organizing committee for the 2020 Summer Olympics and made sexist remarks before being pressured to resign in February 2021), said while living in the residence he was awoken by the sound of a clanking coming from the door. After peeking out of the room, he heard soft footsteps making their way down the carpeted hallway.

Since the 1936 incident, it sat empty for 32 years until 1968 when PM Eisaku Sato moved in. He was famously trapped in the Kantei office building during the 1970 Anpo Protests. It was consecutively occupied in the 1990s and 2000s but has been empty since Shinzo Abe took office in 2012.  In 2013, a political of the Democratic Party of Japan asked then-PM Abe if the ghost stories were true, and if that was the reason he chose not to move into the residence. 

Sources:
Jiji Press, February 15, 2021.
Kyodo, February 16, 2021.

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