Inter-city consulting

I am currently writing a paper which I will present at this year’s Association of Asian Studies conference (virtually, alas, and not in person in Hawai’i). It is about two consultancy reports that Professor William A. Robson wrote about Tokyo in the late 1960s. I am still thinking about what exactly I will cover and what argument I’ll make, so a few scribbles below the break might help me focus.

Robson (center) with the Greater London Group in 1968

Robson was one of the most eminent public administration thinkers of the twentieth century. A lifelong LSE professor, he founded the Greater London Group in 1958. The group was the main body conducting research on the wider London area. It usually advocated for the whole of London, including its periphery, to be governed by one single municipal authority. The boroughs below it were meant to share a significant amount of the rights and responsibilities, all in a civic-minded and democratic setup.

The rationale, the difficulty in seeing this through politically as well as practically — all these issues were of strong interest to Tokyo during the high-growth era. Socialist governor Minobe, just having arrived in office, was keen on being seen as a reformer, and through the connections of the Tokyo Institute for Municipal Research, invited Professor Robson to come to Tokyo to perform a study of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

I am not 100% sure yet how and where to situate my paper, but some of my initial ideas are:

  • Locate the reports within the policy transfer, lesson-drawing and inter-urban consulting literature: Written in 1967 and 1969, respectively, they are very valuable early examples of the now increasingly common practice of “international best practice” consulting between municipalities.
  • Japan (and Tokyo) have of course since Meiji regularly sought foreign expertise in the quest for modernization and public sector reform. Robson’s reports were not the first to comment on Tokyo’s public administration, either. Charles Beard famously came to the Japanese capital in 1922 for six months to pen a slightly more voluminous report on the invitation of then-mayor Goto.
  • An analysis of the Robson reports should go beyond a mere “exegesis”, especially given that I am not a trained historian. I am thinking of picking up on a few recommendations in the reports, explain Robson’s rationale for advocating them via his experience from London, and in turn evaluate what happened in Tokyo since.
  • A discussion on the reception of the reports in Japan is of course indispensable and I will quote a few toshi mondai articles. but probably not make this a mainstay of the article. Peter Self, who succeeded Robson after his death, wrote a critical assessment of the reports in the late 1990s, which I will also briefly discuss to perhaps veer into my conclusion.

What is the historical value of these reports and what can they tell us about “world cities in the making” — the title of the panel? The reports constituted an important reference point for Tokyo (and for Japan) and located the Japanese capital among its peers in the developed West (“World City”, “Global City”, etc.).

And yet there are important limitations from this reference:

  • Primarily due to fundamentally new character of the type of urbanization taking place in postwar Tokyo (unprecedented speed of urban growth, both in terms of population and economy)
  • Developmental (Japan) vs. welfare state (Europe), see e.g. importance of public housing in planning decisions in the latter
  • Politically expedient prestige project by new Minobe administration demonstrating openness to the world
  • Implications for contemporary (developing) megacities (importance of South-South and South-North policy transfer, i.e. shifting the traditional learning vector)

Inaction on many of the report’s recommendations might have proved fortuitous:

  • Fiscal realities and administrative capacity meant that (some) large-scale planning mistakes could be avoided
  • Need for municipal reform as advocated by Robson might have become obsolete: a municipal authority responsible for the agglomeration’s center (TMG) is the best one can realistically achieve given its scale. This is something Best took up in the late 1990s already, and which still seems logical today
  • Despite uncheckered suburbanization, some positive elements of the “Tokyo Model” have clearly supplanted themselves in the periphery of the city. Together with land readjustment and other Japanese planning tools, they have preserved an idiosyncratic urbanism that is today seen as worth emulating internationally


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *