The Tokyo model

I am going to speak at this year’s Association for Asian Studies (virtual) conference, presenting on a panel about Tokyo. This post is meant to reactivate and synthesize some of the thinking from my thesis that so far has not been published and can contribute something new to the debate.

Convenience store locations

Joe McReynolds, a fellow Tokyo scholar with an impressive breadth of interests, is organizing the panel which means to cover the “human-scale built environment of Tokyo and the building of local community in the megacity”. My contribution is announced as being on Tokyo’s evolving approaches to urban space from 1950 to 1975, discussing the ways in which the Tokyo of the postwar decades helps explain present-day Tokyo.

For the conference I will try to chart some new ground by way of synthesizing my prior work and not going into detail of what is already published or on the path to being published. Two of my main papers coming out of my dissertation are basically done; i.e. one is already published (labor-intensive industrialization) while another has been accepted for publication later this year.

One thing Joe seems keen on extracting from the varied presentations (most of which focus on present-day Tokyo) is getting a better idea of a “Tokyo Model” that can explain the success of this vast megacity. I have pondered that term quite a bit myself for my dissertation.

I also asked my students to consider it throughout the Metropolitan Tokyo class I taught at Temple University Japan. This inspired a first idea on how to address the panel one that is, alas, out of my realm of expertise:

One great contribution to this panel would surely be to speculate about / redefine the parameters of a “generic neighborhood” study. In a way, this would culminate in an “anthropological trilogy” and continue the work of Dore and Bestor, both of whom did neighborhood studies of anonymized Tokyo areas. These took place in the 1950s and 1970s, respectively, and I always asked my students what they thought were some of the continuities between them, but also regarding present-day Tokyo. I’ll keep this in mind for a future assignment / blog post for quieter days to come.

Back to the AAS panel again, a few avenues for my own presentation based on original research, off the top of my head:

  • Minobe’s “civil minimum” came a few years after Professor Robson from the LSE attested the city some serious public administration shortfalls, and as the city’s population became increasingly fed up with the negative side effects of rapid postwar growth. The civil minimum defined the “minimum standard necessary for the citizens of Tokyo to enjoy their life”. Was a Tokyo model palatable back then, i.e. success despite such apparent failures? A compromise perhaps, a pragmatic middle-way of making do with limited resources, or better, limited urban space?
    • Relevance for today: Tokyo continues to lag other metropolises when it comes to quality and quantity of living space, although it has made up some of the distance between itself and Western cities. I would argue that in order to understand Tokyo today (and avoid cliché comparisons with other cities), one needs to understand how developmentalism shaped postwar Tokyo. The urban space we see today has experienced a more rapid transformation in living memory than Western cities have.
  • My second paper established in its data section that Tokyo grew in an egalitarian fashion, i.e. differences between the different parts of the city did not become bigger as the city grew, but in many instances actually compressed. The explanatory section attributes this to a dense network of commercial infrastructure, among other factors. (By commercial infrastructure, I mean the ubiquitous sento, or bathhouse, mom-and-pop shops, etc.) I did not have space to place all tables and data points in this paper and might therefore flesh them out of my dissertation for this presentation / paper, i.e. define the “generic Tokyo neighborhood” if there is / was such a thing.
    • Some international comparisons could help to show that Tokyo today remains a city extremely well-served by a dense network of small retail, restaurants, bathhouses, etc. However, many of these are physical remnants of the postwar period that are slowly pressured out of existence due to socio-cultural and socio-economic change. Are there modern equivalents of these generic neighborhood markers?
  • This ties in with the “Tokyo default” model, which Matias Echanove has written about quite a bit a few years ago. I interpreted it as the tendency of the city to replicate certain features during periods of its expansion, largely in the absence of urban planning. I want to avoid giving too much planning / administrative history background, but I could for the presentation’s sake contrast reality with some of the more audacious plans of the postwar period, or focus on some of the physical features of Tokyo’s postwar neighborhoods (density, building material, building height, road width, etc.).
    • A similar, “where are we today” section could build a bridge to the remaining presentations, although this would entail quite substantial data mining, and I am not sure how easy that might be online.

So, in a nutshell, how can we understand the present-day “Tokyo model” from a viewpoint of an urban geographer / economic historian interested in the postwar period?

  • It remains a concept defying easy quantification (see “civil minimum” and its shortfalls). Some first sociological attempts in the postwar period kicked off a healthy interest in what makes Tokyo tick. We need to draw on all disciplines to “crack” Tokyo’s secret, including anthropology, architecture, economics, sociology, etc.
  • There are generic socio-economic neighborhood markers, e.g. low income inequality, a ready set of commercial and social infrastructure, among others. All these have their roots in the pre-war period, but they have abetted the city’s egalitarian pathway of the postwar period. This legacy continues to make Tokyo special today.
  • The model has very obvious physical features, although these have somewhat weakened vis-à-vis the postwar period, e.g. density, building height, road width. This explains much of the look and feel of the city.

I’ll come back to this post with a fresher mind, but I feel better prepared to tackle this return to the academic stage already.

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