Myself and Jim Stephenson gave a talk in the recent Brighton Japan Festival for the Catalyst Club’s Japacatalyst night about our experience and thoughts of moving through the mega city that is Tokyo and how this is seemingly done with such ease by such a mass of people.
Entitled ‘Living in the mega city: the relationship between people and the urban space they inhabit, looking at the psychological experience of city living and how Japanese cities work as a living organism with its residents – or how to get from A to B in Tokyo without getting punched’ a prose of the talk and links to the films we showed can be found below.
Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area of the world, 34 million in the metropolitan area. A megalopolis, it has twice been almost flattened in the last 100 years, which means that its cityscape is one of modern and contemporary architecture.
[Opening film - 'Slightly darkened streets of Tokyo' by darwinfish105]
Our first impressions on moving about the city was that it seemed to have an invisible logic to it, to how people got from A to B – with so many people moving about in mutual proximity, so many social and material functions in a close space…how did they do it?
Tokyo is composed of 23 separate city wards, an uber-city of continuous urban sprawl with multiple nodal centres, a mix of diversity and heterogeneity, of building sized video screens, talking vending machines, loads of plastic and neon…and so much of life seen on the street with long hours kept at work and socialising. An augmented urban reality of codes and signs for workers, residents and tourists.
So much of it seemed familiar – the infamous Blade Runner and Solaris image of Tokyo – but we also encountered things that surprised us. We didn’t expect it to be such a friendly place, more often than not, when not with our host and navigating the labyrinth of the metro systems, people can up to us and offered help…nor did we think it would be so clean, so to-the-second punctual, so green and have such a sense of calm and order. The streets are like a performance art, a ballet of humans and functions…and actually quite quiet.
What was odd was not having a feeling of a city centre and whilst technically Tokyo is built around the Palace, as somewhere that is closed to its population, this is a dead centre and the real heart of Tokyo feels that it’s Shinjuku.
Shinjuku is the largest train station in the world, in excess of 5 million people a day, compared to Kings Cross in London at 125,000 a day.
Its serves four train companies that have around 12 tracks there of the total 30 or so, and has two underground levels for the subway trains, two high-rise department stores above the first level and retail uses at all levels throughout it, including restaurants, shops, boutiques, drugstores, lockers, supermarkets, vending machines, a police station…and entrances connected to all streets that surround it that serve as bus depots and shuttle pick-up to the airports and taxi ranks. Underground passages lead you for some distances to link you to the high rise buildings in the area, so you can go to wherever you work in the vicinity without having to go to street level.
What we saw here was just how the Japanese know how to use their valuable space efficiently – you can go to this one spot in the city and have a gazillion of choices of activities to do. There are no dead spaces in this station, every square foot of real estate has its function.
Pre-flexitime, each worker had to be at work by 9 am sharp – it made the metro infrastructure suffer and the working day hence changed…this film shows just how organised the metro system is now…taken after evening rush hour, look at how the platform space is used, how quickly the train moves on…
[Shinjuku post-rush hour film 'Japanese Commuter Train' by 1freemannow]
A post-city, a city that is so large it has become its own geographical phenomena, Tokyo feels like the individual is transcended by the mass, the mass is transcended by the architecture.
This made us both think about Tokyo and its placemaking – how could in this hypermodern mega city, people live so seemingly comfortably with each other in such dense proximity?
In its broadest sense, placemaking is the term used by the architectural and planning professions to describe the process of creating the social spaces of place so that they are desirable for the public to visit and spend time in. It will apply just as much to the built environment as its landscape and will include the design of and the street furniture in parks, streets, squares, plazas, beach and water fronts and shopping and business districts for example.
Conventional urban theory says that the larger a city is, the more disconnected a person will feel in it, the more people that surround you, the greater your sense of isolation – so how come we felt so connected when we were in Tokyo?
The city itself is densely planned – compare the density of Tokyo
Of course the city is a place where the public and private realms collide, and its streets determine the mesh of the urban network and the human one – so what is it about Japanese culture that affects how people can live in Tokyo?
Japan has a tradition of reverence to tradition, but this does not hold to its architecture. More than any other city in the West certainly, Tokyo feels ‘new’; the average lifespan of a Tokyo house is 30 years and in any one year, 30 per cent of the city will be refurbished or demolished and built again. It’s a mix of the new with some old still there, with strips of the city function between them. This multi-centred city demanded a new urban form and function – the rise of the information and communication city – and its lack of frontiers – or the overcoming of them by building on them – has shaped a unique city.
So in Tokyo we see a bustling city space but also unexpected social intimacy found in interactions with others, a much friendlier city than London – in shops, on the metro – and seen in its architecture, from the huge 64-storey skyscrapers that have ancient looking single story shops between them.
Tokyo has a placemaking that expresses the values of its culture: built incrementally but deliberately – the two major times it has to rebuild with the 1923 quake and WWII – and with the growth in the economic boom of the 1980’s, Tokyo had the opportunity to ask itself what it wanted its city to say about itself.
Its placemaking has been said to be ‘a quantum of ordinariness and calmness’ and for a city of such mass and density, it certainly feels both those things – lots of the buildings feel the same and despite so many people moving about all the time, it feels calm. This we theorised has a psychosocial effect on the Tokyoites interior narrative – and is also expressive of it.
Starting at the minute level of human interaction, the tea ceremony. The tea ceremony is not just a link to the past but a ritual to focus the mind – is this why the city is quiet, why people move around with such grace?
At the level of the home…talking to our hosts, the seeing of so much of life on the street was explained by the size of the houses – as they are so small and have such diminished sunlight as housing is so dense in parts of the city, people socialise out, to the extent that some houses are being built without kitchens as so little food is consumed in the house. So with bars, restaurants, shops and entertainments all around you, the house becomes now somewhere just to sleep, as exemplified by the Nagakin capsule tower (below, photo credit, Jim Stephenson).
At the street level…street cleaning…one day each week the shop owners of a street will all take to that street to clean it and the constant rounds of refuse collection, small vehicles that can zip around the streets but work 24-7 due to the volume of rubbish.
“use your neighbourhood as your living room” Tsuzuki
Tokyo-ites display ingenuity in dealing with life in small public spaces…[below. photo credit, Jim Stephenson].
At the community level, there are active community movements that have worked to protect and improve shared community spaces by celebrating them as a historic legacy and a shared community resource, defining public streets as civic spaces in their neighbourhood. These we thought to be emblematic of a civic interest in the rights of community participation and responsibility and managing urban change and telling stories of a strong and distinct community.
So there was emerging an apparent duality or tension of Tokyo living, a city of managing proximity and intimacy and the need for feeling of own personal space. Whilst placemaking might on the one hand say that living in such close quarters brings its negative issues, it also says that there is a need for proximity, we like to be with other people, we feel safe, and urban functions work better if they are proximal…this is very much seen in Tokyo.
There is no direct equivalent of the word ‘privacy’ in Japanese; the closest one refers to a sense of group privacy. The word for ‘self’, ‘ji-bun’ means ‘self-part’, one being part of the whole, a submergence of the self to the whole. Intergenerational co-habitation is common, with multiuse space functions, thus people are used to rubbing shoulders with each other and sharing space.
New things are hypermodern but also stem from a sense of tradition and simplicity and complexity sit side by side. Once you get beyond the first impressions you find a city that is highly ordered, an agglomerated city of settlements grouped in self-similar masses, with a homogenous and pervasive rhythm.
The differing nodes of the city mean that people develop different mental maps of the city – especially so as there are no markers of orientation, Tokyo is too large and too high to have the equivalent of the London BT Tower for example that acts as a visual marker of place across the city centre – so there is a psychological disorientation that people have to adapt to, they need to be able to interpret an areas sense of space and scale.
Back to language as an insight into how this might come about…the Japanese language is one that is dependent on context in which it is used, is this is a key to understanding its urban life? Both are ambiguous, have multiple meanings, are image-based and of signs, space is left to intuition and autonomous islands of meanings are grouped around logical nodes, just as we see the city mapped out. The nodal system is also one seen in Shinto animism – of nodes with routes linking them.
“The city and its language constitute the most effective symbolic order of the labyrinthine, flexible, Babel-like unfathomability of what is real” Saachi
Is it just a need to be ordered and polite, or it’ll descend into chaos? Is politeness kept up because there’s no alternative? Descent into anarchy?
The Zen tradition is one of action and not words, a spatial dialectic between full and empty use of space, is this why the demolition of buildings is seen as renewal not destruction, from a religious understanding of a cosmic cyclical nature?
The tea ceremony is also the embodiment of relationship of coexistence through mutual concession, an interdependence – is this the joining rule between the individual to society?
And to language and belief once more – ‘oku’ means an invisible centre of things, did this give rise to a horizontal master planning with no obvious centre?
Our lasting impressions come back to the first impressions, of the urbanised mass, of ordered chaos and semiotic codes. Tokyo is a place of exchange and interaction between virtual and real, the digital sphere and urban reality and physical architecture, operating over many horizontal levels.
Its scale and its cultural placemaking demand a constant defining of every aspect of cohabitation. Tokyo is perhaps an over-defined place – pavements only for walking, only cross on the green sign, only follow the zebra lines, only wait for tubes in certain places….a society of rule and form, of ritual codes of behaviour, most unwritten, hidden, subtle but pervasive.
It is a city of symbiosis, a metaphorical and literal one being part of the whole – the individual in the mass, the nodes within the sprawl, of ‘wabi’, discipline, and ‘sabi’, simplicity.
Which is how you get from A to B in Tokyo without getting punched.
Header image and where credited, Jim Stephenson. All other images, Cara Courage.