It is hard to conjure up a hotel building more emblematic than the Hotel Okura in Tokyo. In contrast to the Japanese avant-garde architecture of its days and the faceless corporate behemoths that came to dominate the city in the 1970s and ‘80s, this 1962 building synthesises traditional Japanese features with modernist architecture.
Over the past five decades, it has become one of the world’s most revered luxury hotels. It used to be Steve Job’s preferred hangout when in Japan. Tyler Brûlé and his Monocle magazine are outspoken fans.
Yet the Okura’s days are numbered. About one year ago, the owners, Hotel Okura Co., announced their plans to demolish the building. By the 2020 Olympics, a new Hotel Okura will welcome guests, so the plan goes, just like its predecessor did for the 1964 Olympics.
Demolishing the Hotel Okura will not only deprive Tokyo of one of its architectural highlights from this era. It will also mean the loss of a symbol, one that has a surprisingly central place in Japanese post-war history.
Two years after the hotel’s opening and just weeks before the 1964 Olympics, more than 2,000 senior delegates from 103 countries flocked to Hotel Okura to attend the first World Bank meetings ever held in East Asia. Many conference delegates discussed whether Japan should any longer receive preferential loans from these institutions. After all, the country’s reconstruction from war damages had long been completed and Japan was emerging as an economic powerhouse. Those zooming in from the newly upgraded Haneda airport, either via monorail or the new shuto expressway, would probably have agreed.
The economic miracle was in full swing and the world was becoming increasingly fascinated. Had Japan found the recipe to catch up with the West? Since the mid-1950s, the East Asian nation was growing at high single digits year after year. With prime minister Ikeda elected to office in 1960, the ‘income doubling plan’ was announced: But instead of a decade, GNP doubled in just a little over four years. By 1968, Japan overtook West Germany to become the second-largest economy.
This success did not come out of nowhere. Despite the almost complete destruction wrought upon the country during the Second World War, important foundations of Japan’s success survived. Just as the Hotel Okura successfully merged old Japanese traditions with modern, international features, so did Japan’s post-war economic policy resemble both continuity and change.
Baron Kishichiro Okura owed much of his wealth to his father Kihachiro’s fortunes. Born in 1837, he moved to Edo, Tokyo’s imperial name, at the age of eighteen. In a rags-to-riches tale rare in Japan’s history, he opened a grocery store at 21 and later became a dealer in more profitable weapons. Japan’s increasing muscle in the international arena provided ample contracts for the enterprising dealer: The Taiwan Expedition of 1874, the Sino-Japanese War in 1894 and the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 made him rich enough to invest widely outside the weapons business.
Kihachiro’s growing empire was to be one of imperial Japan’s industrial and financial conglomerates, or zaibatsu (literally financial clique). They came to dominate increasing swathes of the Meiji economy. Japan’s mission to catch up quickly with the West in order to revoke the Unequal Treaties of the 1850s rested firmly on these conglomerates’ growth. With good connections in the government, the zaibatsu secured monopolies and subsidies. In return, officials guided their overall development and merged strategic parts of their businesses with each other.
Against all odds, the zaibatsu survived the war and severe destruction of Japan’s industrial base, although American supreme commander General MacArthur had initially wanted to disband them and sell their shares to the public. Yet only twenty companies were eventually liquidated. And banks and big businesses bought up holding company shares so that slowly but surely, the conglomerates re-emerged. This time, though, they were not bound by family ties, but by cross-shareholdings and interlocking directorships. In an at least semantic break with the pre-war days, they were now called keiretsu (literally series of enterprises).
Although the Okura zaibatsu was also among those slated for dissolution, a large part of Baron Kishichiro Okura’s family fortunes survived, helping him build the Hotel Okura in the early 1960s, and with it fulfilling a long-held dream.
Inside the hotel today, it seems as if time has stood still since then. The hotel’s plush and smoky Orchid Bar is full of senior people sipping their sakeand premium highballs, the men clad in prime cut suits, the women often wearing the traditional kimono. The nearby government district also makes this a popular hangout for high-ranking officials. It does not take much imagination to place fabled meetings between industrialists and bureaucrats in these rooms and the discrete lobby, whose carpets swallow all conversations.
No wonder then the Okura also provided the stage for regular meetings of an informal council of the major consumer electronics manufacturers, fittingly called the “Okura Group”. The cartel’s CEOs and chairmen would meet in the hotel to fix prices for their television sets, which, from the 1960s onwards, went to conquer the world starting in the United States. The price setting ensured high profits on the domestic market, which could in turn be used to subsidise their exports to the US. The Japanese firms went on to dominate not only the US but also the global market by competing on price initially, and increasingly quality too.
All the while, the Japanese government knew of this and tacitly supported these corporate behemoths in their relentless drive for innovation and expansion. One of the most important elements of the ‘Japanese Economic Miracle’ thus played out here, in the plush luxury of Hotel Okura.
Today the area surrounding the hotel looks nothing like during the 1960s. The adjacent Mori ARK Hills development sprung up in the 1980s, heralding an era dominated by real estate tycoons.
Mori also owns the nearby Toranomon Hills, a skyscraper replete with a Hyatt Andaz occupying the top floors. The Hotel Okura stands out ever more among these “city-within-the-city” developments. With their seemingly generic formula of combining office space, international chain hotel and luxury flats, they cater to a utopian dream of self-contained urban islands, but offer little in the way of the authenticity acquired by the Hotel Okura over the decades.
And the building cranes keep moving. The Tokyo government’s “Asian Headquarters Special Zone” strategy plans to transform the whole central Toranomon / Akasaka neighbourhood ahead of the 2020 Olympics.
It should be no surprise then that the Hotel Okura is set to be turned into a skyscraper itself. The owners are thus finally succumbing to the realities of Tokyo’s real estate economics. Current plans foresee the building of a 200-metre skyscraper alongside a lower, 13-storey building. The new mixed-use development will generate more income per square meter of land than the low-rise building from the 1960s, that much is for sure.
Will Tokyoites rally behind one of their city’s most popular buildings or is the nostalgia surrounding the Okura largely a foreign emotion? In a city almost completely destroyed twice in the twentieth century, once by earthquake and once by war, nothing is built to last forever after all.
It is not too late to say good-bye to the hotel. Not for another few months, at least, and all those wishing to breathe the air of the post-war Japan should visit before August. For then, the final curtain will fall, and Tokyo will have lost a little bit of itself, and of its history.
Photos by Manuel Oka.