Narratives and Symbols

The second presentation I gave during the “Inheriting the City” conference in Taipei last week was on Tokyo. As with the one on Yangon, I am still debating whether I should write it up as a full-blown paper. In order not to forget what I said, herewith a summary.

Economic Miracle from Ben Bansal on Vimeo.

The full title of the presentation was “Shaping Narratives and Preserving Symbols: Japanese Economic History through Postwar Architecture”. My main argument is that Tokyo’s built environment and heritage discourse may benefit from more historicisation and, for lack of a better word, contextualisation. I believe that economic history may be a prominent lens through which to do just that.

The reason for that is that Japan’s post-war economic miracle and Tokyo’s successful urbanisation are of increasing relevance as a historical process and in that a powerful example to (cities in) the developing world. Many of the buildings are testament to that. While this may or may not help making a case for their preservation, the focus on many buildings’ aesthetic qualities has unnecessarily narrowed down the post-war heritage discourse in this city.

A great example of this was the recent submission of Le Corbusier’s Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park for World Heritage status (as part of a group bid involving several of the master’s buildings). It is the first Japanese postwar (modernist) building to be submitted. Writing for the Japan Times, Julian Worrall argues that the bid focuses too much on the building, and overlooks its context. There hardly is a better place in which Japan’s desire to be reborn from war as a confident democracy can be felt. Such narratives are indeed needed for listings themselves. Tying into the increasing interest in historicising postwar Japan, they also become interesting in and of themselves.

This is why I proceeded with highlighting five narratives of postwar Japanese (economic) history using buildings as the spatial anchor. These are:

  • A Tale of Technology (Yoyogi National Gymnasium)
  • New Religions (Rissho Kouseikai and Reiyukai)
  • New Forms of Living (Tower House, Sakuradai Village, Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tama New Town)
  • Rebalancing the Economy (Kasumigaseki Building, PARCO, Shibuya Station)
  • Urban Manufacturing (Ota Ward, towards “intangible” heritage?)

The readers of my blog will not need a detailed introduction to each of the buildings and themes. Looking at my notes, this part of the presentation was also pretty much held off the cuff. For the sake of completeness, however, herewith the main tenets to each of the bullets, with links to the relevant blog entries written over the course of several years.

Tale of Technology: Japan’s postwar economic miracle depended to a large degree on the successful transfer of technology. Although Charles de Gaulle ridiculed PM Ikeda as the “transistor radio salesman”, Japan by then was not merely copying, but improving foreign technology. The world got a taste of this during the 1964 Olympics. While the Monorail from Haneda set the scene, many thought that the Yoyogi National Gymnasium by Kenzo Tange was the most important manifestation of growing Japanese technological prowess. I wrote about this in much more detail in this post on Medium.

New Religions: Thanks to Ben Dorman I was made aware of the history of these lay Buddhist movements and in how far their architecture is worthwhile studying. These movements represent an important aspect of postwar urbanisation, in that they provided the new urban masses with a sense of community. They always had to fight accusations by large parts of society and it is in this context that we need to understand their buildings as trying to claim social legitimacy. I visited the Reiyukai and Rissho Kouseikai in Tokyo, and Manuel took some great shots from both sites.

New Forms of Living: Tokyo’s unprecedented growth brought with it a litany of problems: density, pollution, real estate price appreciation and transportation gridlock are only some of them, and surely Tokyo’s experience bears important lessons for today’s developing cities. How did the way people lived and wanted to live change? As in many cities around the globe, there was an increasing suburbanisation. In Tokyo, however, this took place chiefly along the main rail lines. Radical visions were also tested, their fruits surviving to this day: Azuma’s Tower House, much beloved, inspired my recent piece on social inequalities in post-bubble Japan. Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower is one of the few Metabolist buildings ever realised. For many, the reality of Tokyo’s postwar boom meant living in newly-built communal housing projects (danchi), e.g. those in Tama New Town.

Rebalancing the Economy: When Japan’s services sector and domestic consumption took on larger shares of the economy, this had important ramifications for the built environment. A growing number of shopping centres were usually found around train stations, reflecting an old Japanese business tradition to merge real estate, transportation and commercial activities within the same conglomerate. PARCO and Shibuya are a great example of this. Another stone-cast manifestation of service sector and export-led growth could also be seen in the increasing height of downtown office buildings — the first of which to thwart its surrounding area being the Kasumigaseki Building.

I ended on urban manufacturing in Ota Ward, as indicative of a peculiar aspect of the Japanese economic miracle. While we often think of smokestacks and heavy industry, a surprisingly large component of the postwar economic model were small and medium sized enterprises. In Ota Ward, you would even call them “micro” enterprises. Unique modes of organisation developed here, some of which I elaborate on in this recent post. In terms of architecture, you still find the occasional workshop and tool house woven into the urban fabric of what has become an increasingly “normal” Tokyo ward. To my knowledge, there has not been an exploration of this area from a heritage point of view, but maybe it’s about time!

These were the five themes I took the attendants through. From the point of view of an economic historian, these buildings convey important aspects of the Japanese postwar economic miracle. They thus represent one way of narrating this history. Perhaps this makes a case for their preservation stronger. At least it’s a great way to open up the discourse and extend it beyond narrowly focusing on the buildings’ design and aesthetics. Seen through the aesthetic lens, some of the buildings hyperlinked in this post do not stand a good chance to be preserved (and perhaps rightly so in many instances) while even design icons frequently have to meet the wrecking ball. However, that makes the case for telling their histories not the least weaker.

Comments and feedback welcome!

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