Emergent Tokyo notes

A few more rather unstructured notes from reading Emergent Tokyo that didn’t make it into the review below the jump.

  • Introduction of Tokyo and the fascination it generates today and has generated over the past decades, beginning in the 1980s and intensifying today with increasing tourist numbers and a growing body of literature, including this book reviewed here.
  • The authors themselves, helpfully, offer their review of the existing body on Tokyo research as Chapter 7. Emphasize the difficulty of transcending Eurocentric “othering” views of the city. Concurrently the nijonjinrei tendency among Japanese observers.
  • Neoliberal urbanism, verticalization, corporate-led mega projects (cities within cities, e.g., Mori); often described as unavoidable given Tokyo’s continuous metamorphosis and lack of lasting physical structures. Can and should Tokyo become a “vertical garden city”? I liked the “Corbusianism without the ideology” quip.
  • Corporate-led high-rise development taking place not only in the CBD, but also at suburban railway stations. In the CBD, mega developers such as Mori or Mitsui have created various “cities within the city”, e.g., Roppongi Hills. On its website, Mori touts the benefits of vertical over horizontal density, i.e., areas of “closely-packed” wooden buildings.
  • Vertical garden cities with mixed commercial and residential use have become enclaves for the rich, with little to none of Tokyo’s unique model surviving as a result. Tower blocks upset the even density patterns that allow for a unique neighborhood model to thrive. They often lead to surging demand for rush hour rail service and bleed out local shopping streets due to their mall-like character. Almost exclusively renting space out to high-profile enterprises with a proven commercial track record is incompatible with the essence of the Tokyo’s adaptability and creativity, that is often “small-scale”.
  • There are parallels with “Cool Japan”: co-optation by government and big business, claiming their stake on the urban soul of the city since Mori’s ARK Hills went up in the mid-1980s; but the small scale phenomenon described in this book are Tokyo’s recipe for dynamic neighborhoods – just like post-megadevelopment Shibuya will almost inevitably lose the charm of its former incarnation; in what is probably the most striking example of corporate “free-riding”.
  • How can one quantify the “unquantifiable”? Tokyo’s vibe/charge/appeal well established, but how does one avoid simplistic, or punctual characterizations and craft a generally valid typology of this city? This book succeeds overcoming this challenge by skillfully combining the micro with the macro and synthesizing the five phenomena as representative lenses to describe city life. The selection of just these five phenomena is subjective but allows for deeper analysis of each.
  • Not just a tool to understand the Japanese capital; but also a veritable lesson to other cities around the world. Especially since TMG offers the world such an in-depth look at it thanks to its exhaustive statistics it has made available over the years.
  • It is this use of empirical information that distinguishes this book from other descriptions of Tokyo’s quotidian features of the built environment. And while not only the illustrations evoke associations with a similarly-seminal publication on Japanese urbanism, i.e., Atelier Bow-Wow’s “Made in Tokyo” (2001), which provided a “user guide” to over 70 of Tokyo’s remarkable quotidian architectural interventions and urban structures, “Emergent Tokyo” walks the tightrope well by a neater selection of phenomena.
  • If the book had more and too many of these it would risk essentializing the city; too few would unhelpfully generalize (and render inoperable) its experience. As a result this book offers an intrinsically outward-looking interpretation of Tokyo’s urbanism. It is too important an agglomeration to constrain it to a Eurocentric mode of observation, which is not to say that we all have something to learn from the city, regardless whether one is located in the developed or the developed world.
  • So what can other cities around the world learn from Tokyo? Emerging megacities in the developing world could heed some lessons learnt during the postwar growth spurt, which had no precedent in global history apropos a city’s “momentum”. Its large initial size and the speed of transformation make the study of the city an interesting case study in urban history.
  • The (qualified) success of this case study is evoked in the book: Its egalitarian, adaptable and inclusive urban spaces are a guarantor of social cohesion and equitable economic growth. Tokyo provided one important stage of the Japanese miracle–although counterintuitively it was the absence of the developmental state (whose limited resources were focused on capital-intensive industrial infrastructure outside of the urban agglomerations) that proved pivotal. A unique configuration of center-periphery relations, with a relatively strong and autonomous intermediate layer of governance, i.e., TMG, that could effect redistribution among the various parts of the city while at the same time abstaining from grand-sweep planning initiatives, mainly due to a lack of funds and the city’s breathless speed of transformation.
  • Today, Tokyo is still is the largest urban agglomeration so that lessons from the contemporary city usually depict it within a post-growth context, and can offer convincing arguments against the logic of “growth poles” and special development zones; in post-growth societies, punctual growth must arithmetically come at the expense of other areas –so is Tokyo to lose its unique status as an egalitarian city?
  • The authors’ focus on the theme agglomeration offers an interesting alternative to the logic of agglomeration touted by many of today’s bureaucrats and businesses: it is the small-scale agglomeration within archetypical neighborhoods as opposed to the stratification of the cityscape into specialized growth poles.
  • Importantly, vertical agglomeration is possible, as demonstrated by the zakkyo buildings case study. Yet it is very distinct from the capitalist adaptation of a post-Corbusian-type vertical agglomeration, whose lack of any social meaning and renders them enclaves of the rich.
  • Well structured throughout: Introduction to the urban phenomenon, its history and three case studies illuminated by meticulously crafted maps, plans and drawings as well as recent photographs.
  • Accessible prose but densely packed with arguments: making the book accessible to a lay audience and urban specialists. It contradicts the narrative that often portrays the verticalization of Tokyo as an inevitable new chapter in its constant “reinvention”, by providing yet another example of its “adaptability”, denigrating the Tokyo model as depicted in this book as a remnant from the past.
  • The city’s disaster-preparedness is a case in point: When skyscrapers are touted as earthquake-resistant; we too often forget that true resilience is not only a function of physical but also social structures of community and neighborly self-help. The book also makes the case that much of “emergent Tokyo” can be retrofitted to more modern standards.

One thought on “Emergent Tokyo notes

  1. Thanks for the notes. It is naturally that the ilustrations are so similar to Atelier Bow-Wow books. Afterall professor Almazán was student of professor Tsukamoto

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