Tokyu Den-en-toshi Line

Japan is any rail buff’s heaven. The punctuality and efficiency of the trains is one thing, the sheer scale of the network another: 82 out of the world’s 100 busiest train stations are in Japan. The role private rail lines played in the post-war urbanisation of Tokyo is explored in the post below, using Tokyu’s Den-en-toshi Line as an example.


Den-en-toshi Line signage. Thanks to kawawa for taking the shot!

The idea to delve deeper into one of Greater Tokyo’s rail lines came when researching the book project I am involved in. The growth of Tokyo’s urban population during the post-war economic boom required the development of whole new areas and densification of existing residential neighbourhoods.

The fact that the city developed being so rail-centric has its roots in the early twentieth century. Already by 1920, Tokyo was fast expanding outside what was formerly known as Edo – Japan’s imperial capital. The lack of planning laws led to a paucity of large streets that could develop into arteries of (sub-)urbanisation.

Meanwhile, private railroad companies bought up large swaths of land outside the city centre. The hope that was by connecting new developments by rail with Tokyo proper, a virtuous circle of land price appreciation and increased rail ridership would ensue. This business principle was pioneered by Hankyu Rail’s founder Kobayashi Ichizo in Osaka.

In Tokyo, one of the first companies to adapt it to the capital was Tokyu. The company’s founder, Shibusawa Eiichi was impressed with the European garden city movement of the time that stressed quality of life, space and public parks. Shibusawa, however, thought of garden cities as mere bedroom communities that would house those working in the centre.

Sidetracked by WWII, Shibusawa’s successor revived the idea of the “Garden City Line” (denentoshisen) and began buying up large tracts of land in the southwest of Tokyo, into Kanagawa Prefecture, in the 1950s.

Japanese real estate projects are famously long-term in nature. It took Seibu, another private railroad company, decades before investments in seemingly far-away land paid off. Mori allegedly starting buying up land now covered by his first Hills development (ARK) in the sixties, twenty years before it got built in 1984.

Likewise, Tokyu employed a long-term strategy. It used land readjustment to assemble the land and finance infrastructure for the Den-en-toshi Line’s development. The railroad itself only came in 1966, when it began to be opened in stages, a process that finished in 1984.

The development of Tokyu’s “garden city” consisted of town centres around the nineteen stations. Tokyu would sell some of the land to public housing corporations in order to increase construction activities and early population growth.

Tokyu built homes too, e.g. the Sakuradai Court Village and Sakuradai Village near the Aobadai station which have been covered on this blog before.

Tokyu would also build facilities such as swimming pools in order to make adjacent land appreciate in value even more. Prestigious colleges and universities were sold land at below market price in order to attract them to the vicinity of the stations. This would also ensure reverse traffic during rush hour.

The stations themselves were all turned into commercial centres. The bigger ones, such as Tama Plaza and Aobadai, would also feature a big Tokyu department store. Tokyu-run busses providing access to more remote developments would depart from the station. This helped to reduce the role of automobiles in the Den-en-toshi Line area.

Not all was rosy though. As opposed to Europe’s garden city movement, which sought to share profits with the inhabitants (in order to entice them to move to the garden cities), Tokyu is a capitalist for-profit enterprise that invested only incrementally as business would dicate.

“Living Cities in Japan”, a book edited by Andre Sorensen and Carolin Funck, features a chapter on the Den-en-toshi Line by Yorifusa Ishida, with interesting insights into how local inhabitants experienced the first years of living out in the new developments.

Most notably, the long commute into Tokyo was listed as the main drawback of living “out there”. Tokyu would only operate three train services of two cars per hour. Back then, several changes were required to reach Tokyo’s central business district. Only in 1977 did the Tokyo subway connect Shibuya with Fukato-tamagawa station and ensured a through-ride on the Den-en-toshi Line.

The other main problem referred to was the dismal state of infrastructure. Unpaved roads, a lack of public sewerage system and poor telephone service are mentioned. Finally, more “advanced” public infrastructure such as high schools, nurseries and community centres were not regarded as essential by Tokyu and residents had to petition with the local government for these to be built.

Today the communities covered by the Den-en-toshi Line are among the more sought-after areas for people to live.

I may return to this topic as I do more reading.


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