It is a pleasant patch of open space in northwest Tokyo and the unknowing passerby would note approvingly its transformation into an attractive park for the people of Toshima ward.
But it is also a battlefield over which play the memories of World War II.
More than 31 years ago, seven Japanese leaders, including Gen. Hideki Tojo, who served as premier during most of the war, were hanged for war crimes at that site.
Now there is a movement to create a park there to commemorate the "trial" at which the wartime leaders were condemned. This proposal is bitterly opposed, however, by those who see its a disguised attempt to honor the dead men and to encourage the rebirth of the militaristic spirit they represented.
One of the latter if Kazuko Yanbe, a forceful, persistent leader of a coalition dedicated to banning the monument. "To build a memorial there would make war criminals out to be the victims of the war." she objected recently in an interview.
"The real victims are the sons and fathers and brothers who died miserable deaths. To regard those who were responsible as victims of the war is nonsense."
The Toshima ward park confrontation is one of those small but symbolic incidents which surface now and then in Japan as evidence that some scars have never healed. The feelings unleashed testify that something is still unresolved. Often it is the judgment imposed on war criminals in 1948 that forces those feelings to the top. A year ago it was the disclosure that 14 prominent war criminals had been secretly enshrined at Tokyo's memorial to the war dead, Yasukuni Shrine, which brought the passions bubbling up.
Japanese feelings about the men judged war criminals by an allied tribunal are complex. Many agree on their guilt but some feel the vengeance was harsh. Others think people equally guilty went free.A right-wing fringe regards them as the "Martyrs of Showa" (Showa being the name of Emperor Hirohito's reign).
It a painful subject not easily discussed. The standard Japanese history text for high school juniors relegates it to a three-sentence footnote recording the fact that 28 persons were tried sentenced for war crimes and that seven of them were hanged.
Often the person's attitude depends on the accidents of the war. Satoko Iwasaki, 37, grew up in rural Japan.Her family did not directly suffer and she has no strong feelings about Tojo and the others. But her husband, American bombing, and many relatives were killed. He is more bitter about the war, Satoko says, and would strongly oppose a monument in their memory.
For the college generation it is a distant issue. The war memorial is not important among students, said Hajime Hayashi, a law faculty junior at Tokyo University, but he added: "The big problem is the continuing in important places of other war criminals." A case in point is Okinori Kaya, one of premier Tojo's wartime ministers who was sentenced by the allies but who came back to power as justice minister in the 1960s and helped sponsor the plan for a war crimes trial memorial in Toshima ward.
The site of the hanging has been used sporadically for brief memorial services. A visitor comes and, in the Shinto tradition, leaves a cup of sake to remember the dead. For a while, five small mounds of earth marked the spot where the scaffolds had stood, a few yards outside the walls of old Sugamo Prison. But the place remained generally unused until the Japanese government, metropolitan Tokyo, and a private developer decided to build a 60-story skyscraper on the prison site.
In 1964, a "Cabinet understanding" was reached, calling for a memorial to be built as part of a park next to the skyscraper. Kaya was the justice minister who helped create that "understanding" and anti-monument people still hold him responsible for starting the fuss.
The skyscraper is now complete, the park is to open next month, and the burden of resolving the memorial crisis has fallen on officials of Toshima, said Kazuo Yamaguishi, head of Toshima's park system. Not to build a monument would violate the "Cabinet understanding." But dedicating it to the war trials would anger many ward citizens.
The ward's elected leader, Kando Hibi, seemed to have hit on the perfect Japanese compromise: a stone tower would be erected but no message about the trials would be inscribed. Instead, the inscription would say something vague like, "to eternal peace." Yamaguishi hopes that would satisfy the Cabinet instructions without alienating ward residents.
It does not. Using words like "eternal peace" is merely a device "to get us to accept the monument," said opposition leader Yanbe. "But if you add the word 'peace' it would mean that the people who were hanged died for peace," she insisted. If there is any memorial at all, she said, it will become a mecca for right-wing elements who hope to make heroes of the war criminals.
Ward officials reply that they would not permit the memorial to become a "holy place" for rightists. Of course, said Yamaguishi, the parks director, it would be hard to prevent a single old man from coming by to bow his head. But no large ceremonies would be permitted.
As the bureaucrat who must decide in the end, Yamaguishi wants neither to exalt the war criminals nor to ravage the memories of them. In the eyes of Buddha, all are equal in death. He believes first and last in prudence, and observes that, "Sometimes we Japanese are quick to become heated but we are also quick to be cooled off." He hopes that is true of the confrontation over the memorial in his new park.