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The Urban Development of Tokyo from Post War Developments to the Present Day

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Japan’s defeat signaled the end of World War II. The country was left devastated with the aftermath of wartime bombings. However, with US help Japan made a quick recovery. By 1950 Japan already entered the era of “high-speed growth,” and currently it is the world’s third largest economic power. This unprecedented speed of development meant rapid urbanization of Tokyo, Japan’s capital. Is the population quadrupled from 3.5 million in 1945 to almost 14 million today, making Tokyo the most populated metropolitan in the world? The aim of this essay is to study the urban development of Tokyo from post-war developments to the present day, looking at how culture and politics have played a role in transforming Tokyo from post-war devastation to the urban giant we all recognize today. The first part of the essay will delve deep into the Japanese consciousness, focused on how religion has affected the Japanese way of life and how urban spaces are created.

The second part of the essay will examine Tokyo’s Urban Planning policies and their effects on Tokyo’s current urban conditions and quality of life. Tokyo is an intensely overwhelming city. It seems to be never-ending, expanding infinitely no matter which direction you look at. Buildings are densely built seemingly without any regulations; structures are clustered together with colorful neon signage, symbols, and billboards plastered all over, sometimes concealing the building entirely; while crowds of shoppers and businessmen are rushing to and from major train stations. This is the chaotic urban reality of Tokyo, which seems to be similar to cities in other developed countries with equal levels of urbanization and affluence. However, Tokyo is also a city rich in tradition, hidden away beneath all the chaos and confusion. This duality is what makes Tokyo so fascinating to get to know. Botond Bognar proposed that this urban chaos is caused as much by the fast advancement of the consumer society as it is by the traditional Japanese beliefs and cultural traditions. To understand Tokyo, we must start by looking at its culture.

Raymond Williams defined culture as “the process of a people’s intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development.” This essay will mainly focus on the spiritual development of the Japanese people. Throughout history, the indigenous religion of Japan is Shintoism and was regarded by many as the foundation of Japanese culture. It developed with influences from Taoism, Confucianism, and especially Buddhism. Ideas of both Shintoism and Buddhism became incorporated in every worshiper’s spiritual lives. Buddhism perceives changeability as one of the fundamental truths in nature. Nothing in nature is ever static, nature is dynamic and constantly changing. Taking this idea onboard, Shintoism promoted the harmonious relationship between human, nature, and gods. Japanese people learned to live with nature and constant change through this school of thought. Isozaki identified the Japanese life view as jinen (nature), “an attitude of letting the natural process of becoming decide its own course, that is, intuiting the course of nature and following it.” He proposed this to be “Japan-ness.”

Traditional Japanese buildings were made with perishable and lightweight materials, and they often had to be altered, rebuilt or moved. An example of this would be the constant demolition and rebuilding of Shinto Shrine every 20 years, it is a ritualistic practice to reaffirm community and spiritual bonds, whilst also ensuring that the skills of the artisan are passed on from generation to generation. It is a symbol of change but also continuity. Ordinary buildings in Tokyo also had to be rebuilt repeatedly because the history of repeated natural disasters it has experienced. Huge fires have destroyed parts of the city in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the 1923 earthquake and fire almost leveled the city, and wartime bombing almost halved the population. Despite being reduced to rubbles and ashes, Tokyo revived itself time and again, undefeated. Of course, this endless cycle of birth and rebirth is one of the most important essences in Buddhist beliefs. Yoshinobu Ashihara portrays and compares Tokyo to living organisms, first calling it the “amoeba city,” it’s constantly changing and developing urban crawl brings resemblance to a pulsating and moving body of the organism. When damaged in one region, it regenerates again in another.

The Japanese people’s attitude towards embracing nature and complying with its changes heavily reflected in the way people view their urban environments. To them, each part of the city represents the whole, with no clear center or focal point. All parts of the city are equally as important as well as dispensable. This is in turn reflected in how Tokyo ended up developing in a way no cities in others countries have experienced. Ashihara again compared the process of Tokyo’s urban sprawl of to a silkworm eating away at a mulberry leaf, with no clear direction or master plan, slowly but surely overtaking the surrounding countryside. The finished shape of Tokyo is very unstable, with no definitive outline. Vladimir Krstic commented on this special characteristic of Tokyo’s development, “it has developed with no apparent concept of its totality.” This is in clear contrast with how cities generally developed in the west, where planners begin with identifying the city as a whole entity, with clear borders and an obvious city center, then proceed on to its parts. However, for Ashihara there is a “hidden order” in this chaotic urban environment, and because of it, the high Tokyo population is able to live in relative harmony. He proposed that Mandelbrot’s concept of a “flexible orderly structure embracing randomness” is how Tokyo manages to function, where each level of this structure has a certain tolerance for haphazardness so changes in the environment could be absorbed – just like how genes operate in the development of a multicellular organism. The city is in constant change and development.

Ashihara’s representation of Tokyo as organic entities portrays not only how urban developments follows the Buddhist idea of changeability in nature but also drew parallels with the Buddhist belief of the “transience of all things.” Isozaki suggested how historical cultural events have contributed to these urban qualities of modern Tokyo, where the city center remained vague and city border still undefined. He observed that throughout history Tokyo’s communal events were never fixed, street markets, festivals and religious rituals were all temporary events happened in vague areas. Isozaki points to how this characteristic might have derived from how traditional rituals for inviting gods are performed. A himorogi is a temporary constructed ritual device to invite gods, during the ritual the evergreen Sakaki tree is set up for the gods to go in, and after the ritual everything gets taken down, leaving no trace behind. This kind of space can be created anywhere, and Isozaki argues that this laid the foundation for the way Japanese people accept spaces to be temporary and transitory. Ashihara points out how the Japanese way of life is another factor which influences the way Japanese people perceives urban spaces. In a traditional Japanese house, the main focus is placed on the floor rather than walls, internal walls are rarely solid, with most spaces being partitioned with sliding, removable panels. This gave the Japanese house a flexibility that profoundly affected the ways of Japanese lifestyle. The interior spaces are multifunctional and not dedicated to a specific activity, giving it a fluid quality.

Ashihara suggests that this is what caused the Japanese people to be noncommittal in their beliefs and behavior, as Japanese people have always viewed traditional dwellings as being temporary to a certain extent. This explains the constantly changing urbanscape of Tokyo with most of its building having a short lifespan when a building becomes outdated, the Japanese people will immediately construct a more efficient one in its place without hesitation. There is no point holding on to something that has completed its original function, Buddhism has taught us that life itself is transitory. and thus Tokyo is a city without memory. Buddhism perceives changeability as one of the fundamental truths in nature. The second part of the essay will look at different factors contributing to how Tokyo’s urban Planning policies have failed to prioritize the social needs of Tokyo residents in terms of public interest, and how this influenced Tokyo’s postwar urban development. To a first-time observer, the entire Tokyo metropolitan area would appear to be too chaotic and crowded to possibly live in. There were no regulations to restrict the subdivision of land until 1992, landowners were free to divide up their land freely. This caused the disorderly appearance of Tokyo, where the mixture of different land use is prevalent.

However, a few steps away from the busy centers, quiet neighborhoods are found hidden away behind the main street. This generated a distinct duality in Tokyo, where on the “front” side (more), may present a city that is “without character,” where the ultimate purpose of consumption has taken over all meanings and values, rendering Tokyo just like any other consumer-oriented city where everything is turned into a commodity. However, hidden behind this, the “back” (a) side, presents a completely opposite atmosphere. Small shops and houses lined narrow streets, low-rise wooden buildings created a cozy and comfortable space, with restrictions on cars created an exceptionally livable city. the stable tight-knit communities, combined with the vibrant city spheres made Tokyo a perfect example of Jane Jacob’s conception of a healthy city life. This charming character of Tokyo city life presented the best aspect of its urbanization process, where urban Planning’s contribution to its development and maintenance were insignificant. “Tokyo’s cityscape is shockingly…vast, a tangle of blind alleys and concrete slabs extending to the horizon. But underlying this grey exterior is a city of surprising human dimensions.” Jun Kinoshita and Nicholas Palewsky On the other hand, the lack of actions from the Planning authorities did not help improve the quality of life in Tokyo. With Japan ranking third in economic success, Japanese people still frequently complain about “rich Japan, poor Japanese.”

The Japanese government mainly ignored the idea of public interest until the 1990s, when it has been the driving force behind western modern urban planning strategies for decades. This is mainly because of postwar Japan’s main priority in achieving economic growth, and Planning in the public interest would hinder development. Being a welfare state, Japan did successfully establish systems such as unemployment benefits, child allowances, pensions and National Health Service. However, housing provision is still significantly below international standards. The 1979 EC report described an average middle-class house in Tokyo as a “rabbit hutch,” and the quality of life is still reportedly lower than other OECD countries. A lack of open space and green space also likely contributed to the low quality of life, compared with park space per capita to other cities such as New York of 29.3 square meters and London with 26.9 square meters, Tokyo has only 3 square meters. This lack of open space likely worsened the damage of earthquakes and fires, the Great Kanto Earthquake have killed 142,807 in 1923. Despite the living conditions in Tokyo, the cost of living is very expensive, in 1994 on average it cost 13 times the average annual income of the country, which is a stark comparison with New York of 3 times, and London just below 7 times. How could this have happened in one of the richest countries in the world? A significant factor in the negligence of Planning in public interest is the Japanese Government’s decision to focus all its resources on economic development while spending the absolute minimum on social overhead capital.

The Japanese people were encouraged to work hard and live with the bare minimum to help the nation achieve its goal. Priority was given to maintain GDP growth by producing infrastructure, where Planning and development controls hindered private investment freedoms, therefore they were kept weak and negligible. Local government was unable to develop any independent policies to regulate land development, as their spending was tightly controlled by the Central government. Policies were also passed to alleviate industries from being responsible for the pollution they have caused, which led to damaging environmental problems, affecting the ecosystems and human health in the long term. The Japanese government was able to introduce these harming policies by presenting them as the choice of the people. It is common for a Japanese individual to incorporate their identity into the national identity, Japan has been very successful in constructing a nationhood towards postwar modernization, and people supported the government without a doubt.

The population also had its doubts about Planning, civil societies in Japan did not develop in the same way as their western counterparts. whereas western civil societies mainly consist of nonprofits working to improve urban conditions, the early Japanese planning developments were the works of a small group of elite bureaucrats, and city Planning policies were imposed without any public involvement. Under this circumstance, the public began to resist the concept of Planning, and until the 1990s there was very little public support for it.

Furthermore, rights associated with land ownership remained strong in Japan and people did not want to give up their freedoms. The government was quick to take advantage of this mindset and continued to push for more construction projects to finish, it is obvious that the government was willing to sacrifice the quality of life of its people in order to achieve the “miracle” economic growth. Since the state was so focused on new construction projects and building infrastructure, the construction industry quickly became one the biggest trade in postwar Japan. Professions related to the industry such as engineers, architects, finance, advertisement and real estate expanded alongside and profited massively, creating a strong alliance between the industries and the government. These professionals soon became interested in Planning policies and influenced its policy-making to further Japan’s economic growth, whilst promoting the idea that Planning should support economic growth and not obstruct it.

Therefore, instead of establishing restrictions on the irregular urban developments, or placing obligations on land developers, the government frequently promoted the use of Land Readjustment projects and provide incentives and subsidies to encourage more development. The worst problem in this system is how easily corruption can happen, the collision in the public works bidding process meant projects costed about 30 to 50 percent more than if they were won fairly. This ensured maximum profits for the construction firms and the government used this control of money expenditure to gain electoral strength. It is a fair remark by Shibata that, “the reality of Japan’s Planning has been consumed by the greed of the most powerful.” Taxpayers paid much more than what they have received. With an increasingly aging population and slowing economic development, it is more important than ever that Tokyo residents have an improved quality of life on the whole.

For better Planning policies to be made the public needs to be involved in the discussion stage, only then a more democratic system could be established. Ultimately Tokyo is a city with remarkable resilience and has achieved great success since World War II. The current lively and dynamic city wouldn’t be the same without influence from its unique culture and model of city Planning.

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