Monday, January 15, 2007

Japan 1 - Introduction


Tokyo is arguably the apotheosis of the global city. It certainly performs on a world class level in all the expected criteria of the new order: an ethos of overworked white collar workers (salaryman); easy access to culture and leisure; and an almost invisible service sector keeping everything running smoothly. And the numbers are impressive: the most populous city in the world, the three busiest train stations in the world (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro), the most trafficked airspace in the world. Tokyo seemingly leads the world in urban statistics. It’s a collection of figures that don’t seem possible, numbers that begin to blur together in strings of zeros and commas. There are 34,000,000 people living in the Tokyo-Yokohama urban area, an unfathomable amount. From a perusal of the figures, Tokyo seems like an impossible city.

But for all their grandiosity, the numbers belie the order on the street. It might be crowded, but the crowds perform with practiced choreography. Some 3.5 million people move through Shinjuku Station every day (3,000 per minute!), and yet any one of many cheerful station attendants will retrieve a missing ticket from the busiest turnstiles on the planet. The throng simply adjusts to the slight change in environment and flows around to the next most efficient outcome. It is as mesmerizing as watching schools of fish dart in group synchronization. Thus, it is rarely overwhelming in the prototypical modern metropolis sense. The advertising might seem outlandish and bold, especially in the iconic photographs of Shibuya, but the overall effect is of fun and harmless bricolage. Further, a five minute walk on pristine streets will take you away from colorful signage into quiet alleys of precious, cared-for homes. As far back as the 17th century, foreign observers were remarking on the cleanliness of Edo-Tokyo. Today some of the most notable formal aspects are the careful responses to zoning management: strange roof angles, fire stair facades, and little red triangles (escape windows) on otherwise spotless facades. Tokyo might be the most successfully managed city in the world; it hums like a machine.

A pass thought the city reveals the slim and bloated: tiny little parcels that maximize their holdings with inventive and often acrobatic use of space, and oversized keiretsu-built urban-scale development that feeds on commuter traffic. In between, the typologies form a fluid space of public, private, station, mall, plaza, sidewalk, store, campus, and park. Tokyo is of course famous for its petite jewel houses that make use of quirky and impossibly small parcels. Numerous magazines and books are devoted to the resourceful and whimsical solutions to the problems of building in the tightest urban conditions. The trophy houses might be few and far between, but the pressures of high real estate costs and precious free space leads to unexpected combinations of program and form, as Atelier Bow-Wow’s book Made In Tokyo attests to. The book seeks out the results of “a certain obstinacy of character that refuses to let any space, no matter how insignificant, go to waste.” This obstinacy might crudely be linked to the chado (the way of tea) ethos of celebrating rustic simplicity. Often, the highest form of an object was the imperfection, as illustrated in a broken bowl lovingly reassembled with gold (kintsugi) to highlight the jagged cracks. In this sense, chado resembles the Yankee spirit.

On the other end of the scale, much of what might pass for urban planning was done by the numerous private railways owned by keiretsu that coincidently own the real estate around the stations. Keiretsu are the outgrowth of the zaibatsu, a collection of powerful banking conglomerates that essentially formed a competitive oligarchy until they were dismantled after World War Two. These complex financial structures are increasingly challenged by international finance pressures, but still comprise most of the mega-sized landscape around the stations. Navigation around the labyrinthine tunnels (Shinjuku has 200 exits) is inevitably done by shopping malls (“take a left at Tokyu Hands and then a right at Sunshine City. It’s above the Pizza Hut.”) At a certain point, the opposition of public versus private space seems superfluous when hundreds of thousands of square feet of railway circulation is owned by a department store. Meanwhile the city reaches out into the bay with speculative monumental urban tentacles, a public-private-ecological cyborg.

Tokyo’s phenomenal scale is in many ways surprising. While it has usually been the largest city in the world since the 17th century, it really doesn’t have a convenient reason for its founding. Even more than St. Petersburg, Edo was a city that was willed into existence. It wasn’t a particularly good port, didn’t lie on a strategic piece of land, and wasn’t at a natural crossroads. In fact, it was likely chosen because of, not in spite of, its lack of obvious blessings. In 1590, when Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa shogun, sought a location that was removed from the historically loaded city of Kyoto (and home to the emperor), instead of naming any of the obvious secondary towns he chose a new location. It was a fresh start for the recently united Japan, founded on the power of the shogunate.

Daimyo (regional feudal-generals) were required by the shogunate to spend every other year in Edo in and their families were held virtual prisoners while they were away. This requirement (sankin kotai) quickly gave shape and life to the inchoate city. The daimyo kept spacious compounds in the hills surrounding the shogun’s castle. This half of the population, the military class, took up 85% of the land in grand style, while commoners filled in the leftover lowlands. As the old city transitioned to a bureaucracy after the Meiji Restoration, these daimyo compounds provided a convenient setting for the campuses of modern democracy such as parks, libraries, museums and universities. At the physical center of the city was the shogun’s castle, a place of secrecy and reticence. It still isn’t possible for most people to visit. Thus Edo-Tokyo has been called a “doughnut” or a “cyclone,” with a density of activity growing outward from a central void. Today the most common orienting device is the Yamanote Line railway, roughly traversing the hills around old Edo where the daimyo once lived. The machi system, on the other hand, was a dense and efficient block structure for the common class, the other half of the population. It was an easily duplicable layout that could be placed anywhere in the territories. A dense perimeter of narrow shop-houses (due to taxation on frontage) opened up to a shared common area in the middle of the block. Each machi had a rigid system of interdependence and a representative that reported directly to the Shogunate; it was an arrangement that traded privacy and freedom for security and stability.

The military class, and their newfound wealth brought on by peace-time growth drew a massive retinue. Very quickly, Edo grew to be the most populous city in the world, almost double that of London. At the same time the Tokugawa regime essentially cut ties with the outside world, turning inward for 250 years. In general, the military nobility encouraged an ethos of bushido, or military asceticism. It was a period of extreme refinement, when most of the famous Japanese traditions were codified as we know them today: the tea ceremony (chado), swordplay (kendo), and wrestling (sumo).

Perhaps inevitably, counter to this rarefied culture, a flowering of debauchery arose: ukiyo (the floating world). It is likely the most widely-known cultural production from that era (ironically now seen as a high form of Japanese culture), made famous in evocative wood prints (ukiyo-e) that remain popular today. The floating world was the term for the life pleasure and leisure that became the hallmark of Edo. Geishas, drinking, and kabuki theater were all part of the good life. Ukiyo was one of the most important economies, and remains one of the defining aesthetics of Japan. The block prints were responsible for the transmission of geisha and kabuki images to the wider populace. There was a messy evolution of style as entertainers, nobility, and townsfolk negotiated between novel and traditional aesthetics. The entertainers aped and transformed the tastes of the aristocracy, who in turn borrowed from the street culture of ukiyo.

Tokyo was twice leveled in the 20th century, first by the Kanto Earthquake in 1923, and the Allied fire bombing in 1945. These tabula rasa were in turn re-shaped into the form of a modern, global metropolis. This period saw the arrival of the salaryman, who embodies the capitalist duality of bushido and ukiyo in his grinding hours and drunken walks home. It is no surprise that the salaryman is often a central character in manga, and a metaphor for post-war urban Tokyo. He is close to both high and low culture, all of which is readily available. Today, Harajuku is arguably the primary zone of transmission between high and low. On Takeshita Avenue the street fashion scene explodes with inventive and innovative cosu-purei (play costumes), as captured by Shoichi Aoki in his book Fruits and popularized by pop star Gwen Stefani. Nearby on Omotesanto Avenue, luxury fashion houses like Tod’s and Prada trot out the most inventive and innovative architects (Toyo Ito and Herzog and DeMeuron, respectively) to design their built costumes. Strolling down either is voyeurism encouraged by a promenade of sidewalk exhibitionists.

This report will focus on Nihonbashi, the famous Japan Bridge that was literally the center of Edo-era Japan. It is today the site of a massive re-historicization project that could cost well over $5 billion. As Japan moves into the 21st century, it seeks to re-establish its cultural roots in the pre-Meiji era. It is an elision of post-Meiji Westernization, one that freezes the evolution of culture in the mid 19th century. The pace of change was slow due to lack of outside influence, but it was an evolution nonetheless. Such truly Japanese elements as tatami, yukimishoji (snow viewing screens) and tokonoma (decorative recess) were innovations that built on inherited Chinese form. This measured progress was challenged by the forced entry of the Americans in 1853, and discarded altogether in the post-war rebuilding and modernization. This move toward valorizing old Tokyo-Edo is echoed in global cities everywhere, a “musealization” of historic assets that has clear economic and branding value. The Tokyo Bureau of City Planning calls it “creating the face” of Tokyo. Unequal parts tourism, quality of life, and civic boosterism, it is an aspect of the competition among cities for an idealized urban growth. It is an attempt to capitalize on a particular vision of the past, defined and negotiated by the national government, corporate interests, and grassroots movements. In the face of perceived loss of unique and traditional culture, there is a scramble to re-animate places that suffered the genericisizing effects of heavy handed progress.