Every couple of years, there are reports on why Japan’s prime minister refuses to live in the official residence. Last week saw the issue being discussed again in Japanese media, and every time it comes up, so does the same answer: rumours of ghosts.

Completed in April 2002, the prime minister’s residence – known as the Sori Kotei – is a spacious six-floor structure adjacent to the National Diet Building. But since being elected in a parliamentary vote in September last year, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has remained in the cramped quarters at the Diet members’ dormitory to which he has been entitled for the past 25 years.

During a February debate in the Diet, Yoshihiko Noda of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan demanded to know why Suga had not yet moved into the residence.

Noda – who was prime minister from 2011 to 2012, and the last Japanese premier to live at the residence – put the question to Suga two days after a magnitude 7.3 earthquake brought trains to a stop and caused structural damage in northeast Japan, pointing out that it had taken Suga 20 minutes to reach the official residence to chair an emergency meeting.

“What would happen if there was an earthquake directly beneath Tokyo?” Noda asked. “The traffic would probably be impassable. It would take more than 20 minutes. But to walk from the prime minister’s residence to the office would take zero minutes.

“Even though it sits empty, the annual maintenance and upkeep comes to Y160 million (S$1.9 million). I cannot understand why you do not move in.”

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Reporters had asked Suga the same question immediately after his election. Though he deflected the query at the time, there is no doubt he had heard the rumours of ghostly goings-on at the residence.

In 2013, his predecessor Shinzo Abe was forced to issue an official reply that he was “not aware” of the rumours after an opposition politician asked why he was not living there. Suga, who was then serving as chief cabinet secretary, was pressed on the issue at a subsequent press conference and was asked if he “felt the presence” of ghosts. His reply was a laugh and the aside: “Now that you mention it, maybe I do.”

The residence stands on the site of a number of historic encounters. In 1932, then prime minister Tsuyoshi Inukai was shot dead by a group of 11 naval officers in an attempted military coup known as the May 15 incident. Four years later the brother-in-law of then prime minister Keisuke Okada and four other men were shot and killed in another attempted military takeover, known as the February 26 Incident.

Yoshiro Mori, who served as prime minister for a year from April 2000, reportedly confided in a friend that he was woken up one night at the residence by the sounds of marching soldiers.

Junichiro Koizumi, prime minister between 2001 and 2006, reportedly summoned a Shinto priest to exorcise the residence.

“I have heard vague stories of the place being haunted, but I really do not think that can be used to justify the prime minister not moving in,” said Hiromi Murakami, a professor of political science at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

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“But I have also heard that the residence is not a very ‘comfortable’ place to be in. Japanese people are used to small and compact homes, so to suddenly be asked to move into a huge place like that would feel quite strange. That is probably a more likely reason than the reports of ghosts.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.



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