Land of the rising… towerblock?

From above, Tokyo sprawls out like a Sim City designer’s wet dream: slick, efficient, multi-layered, seemingly chaotic and yet tightly ordered. A nervous system of train lines pulse from dawn to dusk; cars clatter over elevated highways while a jumble of pedestrians and cyclists await red lights patiently below.

Settlements organize themselves around the nodes of train stations. At night, the city looks like a handful of necklaces in a drawer: the glittering jewels of train stations and the commercial buzz around them, against the negative space of the dark industrial wastelands in between.

My first visit to Japan was in 2004, when I lived in rural Fukuoka for six months. I came expecting flashy cities, vibrating with neon and vertically punctuated by sleek skyscrapers, fringed by thick and mystical forests that concealed ancient wooden temples.

Yet although I was right that Japan would be full of contrasts and contradictions, I was shocked and disappointed by the schism between the international image of the country and the actual landscape that greeted me.

The nearest city was a haphazard maze of soaring, priapic grey blocks: apartments, offices and windowless department stores illuminated by harsh strip lighting. It was fringed by tight rows of low level houses, skinnier than their famously healthy inhabitants. When I looked upwards, tangled telephones slashed against the sky.

The countryside village where I lived was no better. The landscape was corseted in concrete, dark and cramped buildings were surrounded by rusty barrels, and broken chicken-wire shook sadly in the wind. Shoulder-height weeds had rendered the local park out of bounds, and a desolate sandpit stood in place of a school’s playing field. I wanted to know why such a beautiful and unique country had chosen to erase so much of its heritage, embraced concrete and dominated the landscape with an ashy, energy-sapping grey, relieved only by garish neon.

Despite this, I have found enough modern wonders of design and areas of beauty in Tokyo since moving here to quieten some of these grumbles and fears. I realized I was looking at the country through the filter of an ethnocentric and romanticized European ideal of how a country should look. I also discovered the the myriad social, cultural, geographical and historical gulfs between the continent I hailed from and Japan were sometimes fair explanations for the differences in their architectural landscape.

Yet the niggle persisted; even given these factors, there was a chasm between the reality and the promise of what could be. Was concrete convenience the only way forward?

Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons provided the answer: In the post-war period, the answer was yes. Tokyo and much of Japan lay in ruins in 1945, with faith in traditional wooden architecture already shaken by the destruction wrought by the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and the subsequent fires. A mixture of Japan’s vulnerability to natural disasters and a sense of defeat and inferiority against the West drove it to embrace American-style buildings, which they set about constructing with great speed and fervour.

Mountainous geography and limited available land, coupled with urban migration, led the complex craftsmanship involved in wooden housing to be abandoned in favor of steel and concrete constructions. As the popularity of Brutalist Modernism in architecture coincided with Japan’s extremely rapid economic growth between the 1950s and 1980s, these materials were largely used for rather minimalist and bleak high-rise designs. Economic growth and limited space are also two factors that conspired to push up land prices, while the value of housing begins to decrease as soon as a building is completed. Along with other factors, this encourages an atmosphere of transience and a disregard for tradition or age.

Alan Kerr comments that the Japanese suffer from a ‘’pave and build’ mentality; “the idea that huge, expensive, man-made monuments are a priori wonderful, that natural surfaces smoothed over and covered with concrete mean wealth, progress and modernism.” This relates to another cause of the ‘cultural malaise’ Japan now finds itself in, caused by a perception — encouraged by the government — that it is still a poor and struggling country. The so-called ‘poor people, strong state’ mentality was conjured up in the aftermath of WWII to inure people to the sacrifices in quality of life. The intense desire to never be defeated again enabled the implementation of strategies that damaged both health and the environment. No sacrifice was too much for the sake of the nation’s GDP. Unfortunately, this strangled the voices of the public, and created an over-reliance on the supreme judgment of bureaucracy and government. Even when the public do protest against a new monstrosity, such as Kyoto’s Grand Hotel, they can be quietly ignored.

The ‘pave and build’ mentality was also bolstered by a belief than development projects in the countryside would help to stem urban migration and to maintain rural economies. After the spurt in construction during Japan’s period of rapid economic growth, government ministries tried their damnedest to fritter away their budgets on meaningless projects to justify their bloated budgets and to ensure their renewal in the following year. There is a whole tribe of politicians — the so-called ‘douro-zoko’ (meaning ‘road tribe’) — who have based their political careers on the construction of highways,  and their power within their parties has ensured a vast proportion of Japan has been covered with costly, empty concrete roads, bridges and bypasses. A case in point is the 15km four lane Nikai Bypass in Wakayama, which was named after LDP member Toshihiro Nikai, costing  ¥124 billion… all to cut transportation time by a pointless three minutes. More often that not, the rural communities neither need nor desire such grandiose projects. Locals in Sasebo, Nagasaki, admitted that they had no use for a ¥160 billion project to build a road through a former U.S. military housing complex, but it went ahead anyway. As one writer to the Asahi Shimbun commented, more roads in a rural area just provides the locals with more ways to leave.

The perception of nature in Japanese culture as something to be controlled and contained has also led to the Japanese countryside being almost entirely paved over. Mountains are riveted with concrete, and dams stop up 90% of Japan’s rivers. While America has stopped building dams and is actually pulling them down, Japan has plans to add 500 to the existing 2,100.

In 2001 the construction industry was the largest in the world, at 80 billion yen, swallowing a colossal 18.2% of GNP, versus only 8.5% in the USA. For a developed country this level of construction is incomprehensible. But bureaucratic institutions are slow and hungry beasts, and the political need to maintain revenue sources, such as road tax, generate cash to be poured into yet more futile projects. The current government want to extend that tax for another ten years, potentially creating ¥59 trillion worth of revenue, even though the dwindling rural population means there are few necessary holes for the money to be poured into.

The main objection to such projects are not just the senseless waste of public money, but also the ugliness it creates. While Malaysian construction officials consulted a French landscaping team on how best to build a coastal road through mountainous terrain, producing a stunning road where the artificially sculpted and naturally eroded rock are indiscernible, Japan simply drills directly through mountains or blank-concretes the sides. Other Asian cities, such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur prove that alternative planning systems that emphasize visual and spatial harmony are possible. In contrast, Japan often claims some visual sores are too troublesome to fix. There is an argument that subterranean cables are harder to replace in the event of an earthquake. But the truth is that in the massive 1995 Kobe earthquake, telephone wires actually hindered the rescue and rebuild effort. Likewise unsightly heating units squat atop skyscrapers, for lack of any legislation that requires them to be inside the building, as exists in other countries.

Cultural perceptions also play a large role in Japan’s architectural and construction mentality. As Donald Richie notes, despite the belief that a love of nature underpins the Japanese way of thought, it is a love not of wild and untamed nature, but one that insists on human order and control. While traditionally this was expressed in the artificial cultivation of bonsai and neatly raked rock gardens, it is now manifested in the pouring of concrete and erection of buildings over parks and green areas. Trees are routinely cut down when residents complain that they block light or shed ‘bothersome’ leaves, even when they are in sacred groves and shrines.

Romantic views of Japanese forests paint a lush portrait of bamboo, cherry trees and swaying grasses, but these are gradually being cut down to make room for revenue-boosting cedar trees. Never mind the fact that the landscape has been scraped into uniform lines of scrawny, ugly trees that release a pollen that causes an allergic reaction in about one third of the population. While the cedar tree’s timber contributes less than 1% of government revenue, the health risk is endured for the ‘good of the country’, however small it might be.

The notion that nature must be beaten into submission is understandable, however, one when considers the repeated destruction wrought by natural disasters in Japan. The Buddhist emphasis on transience and impermanence are also manifested in Japanese notions of housing. While in Europe buildings are more usually renovated rather than rebuilt because of strict planning legislation, even rural houses in Japan are routinely torn down, with the family moving out temporarily, for another to be rebuilt in its place.

For some, the beauty of Japanese cities is their dynamism. A different landscape emerges every five years from the ashes of older buildings. But since the value of a building begins to drop as soon as it is built, this creates a rather poisonous short-term attitude, with architects trying to cut costs by shrinking floor spaces and windows rather than attempting to create a structure to enamour its inhabitants, or to stand the tests of time. ‘Modernity’ in many Japanese houses means simple, flat-pack convenience built with cheap materials. You can forget about double-glazing, because the investment isn’t worth it for a structure that will only stand for twenty years.

Yet there is an unhealthy faith placed in this ‘modernity’, with ‘tradition’ is becoming something of a dirty word. Aside from sacred shrines and temples, Japan seems to lack respect for historical buildings, a respect that is vital in the planning schemes of Europe, or other Asian cities, where it creates a congruence between the ancient and contemporary elements.

However, not all the complaints directed at Japanese housing are the fault of modernism. Many Westerners who move to Japan complain that the houses are cramped, flimsy, and unequipped for the winter. As internationally acclaimed architect Tadao Ando notes, Europeans tend to think of their houses as a barrier between themselves and nature, whereas traditionally in Japan there was no visible line where the natural world ended and the human world began: they were one.

The first house Ando designed was a series of rooms built around an open-roof courtyard, so that inhabitants had to cross the courtyard to move between the rooms, encouraging a rather ascetic ‘appreciation’ and connection with the weather and natural world around the house. This concept has been thoughtfully echoed in many other impressive architectural projects. The emphasis on circulation of air in traditional Japanese housing, as well as an ecological sensibility, have been preserved well in some of the more carefully designed architectural structures. The one advantage of tearing down and rebuilding is also that each new incarnation boasts yet more environmentally friendly solutions to housing. Yet since the criteria of convenience and cost still dominate, the majority of buildings are still woefully incongruous with their surrounding environment and rely on spot heaters and air conditioning units to maintain a temperature appropriate to the season.

Other social factors, such as household composition, also play a significant role. While multi-generational households have long been the norm in Japan, in modern times it is less motivated by the children needing to care for their parents in their dotage, and more about the children- known as “parasite singles”- being dependent on their parents.

The data is old, but in 1998, an astronomical 80% of women and 60% of men aged from 20-34 continue to live with their parents. Apartment-sharing among young people is thus significantly lower than in Europe, and many people wait until they have a family of their own to move away from home. While teenagers in other countries might dream of having a ‘place of their own’, for many Japanese youngsters this is not a reality, and therefore impersonal and temporary blocks of bedsits and company dormitories are constructed to house them when they leave home.

This, and the high proportion of people who rent rather than own their home, accounts partly for the relative lack of decoration inside most Japanese homes. Additionally, the cultural logic of a strong boundary between inside/outside means that people prefer to socialise in public rather than doing so in their private abodes. As the home is more often somewhere to retreat rather than entertain, it is left relatively plain compared to the often impressive interiors of restaurants, bars, shops.

While a visitor to Tokyo may be initially deflated by the blanket of grey boxes, the city is redeemed when they venture inside, underground, up onto the seventh or fourteenth floor, where small establishments are tucked away, bursting with an innovation and vitality that belies their dull exterior. It seems to be a kind of quiet rebellion by the populace, who have little say in the outward appearance of their city, but can express their creativity and incorporate inventive — often ecological — ideas within their own enclosed space. In this way, the impersonality and blankness of many temporary abodes are sharply contrasted with the character and color of the interior of public places, although they have a sense of privacy due to the fact they are often hidden away, frequented only by ‘those in the know’.

Despite the pessimistic criticism of much of Japan’s appearance here, there is still plenty to excite the senses, among the ‘junk space’ of tacky grey and neon rectangles housing blank and shallow malls, miles of escalators and the thrash and roar of pachinko. The desire for Japan to resemble Europe, or for it to continue its traditional wooden carpentry into the modern age, is an unreasonably romantic projection that only the idealistic outsider can project.

Yet the deep heartache so many urban dwellers express when they visit rural idylls or ancient buildings is both touching and telling; the crushing omnipotence of government ministries and the construction industry seem to have impressed an architectural order on Japan without the will and consent of the populace. But perhaps it is as much residents’ desire for convenience as politicians’ hunger for power that has produced this landscape of temporary solutions, where residences, train lines and bleak industrial areas are jumbled up together in a grey and neon soup. As in every country, there is a gulf between the ugly reality of local areas and the slick edifices applauded in international design circles, but there remains this awkward sense in Japan that things might have, could have, been different. The question remains; is the sight of red torii gates poking up from behind a Seven Eleven the apex of post-modernism because it juxtaposes tradition with modernity, or rather because it represents the tyranny of an ugly, fast modernity over a rich history?

One response to “Land of the rising… towerblock?”

  1. Indeed, bravo! I have thought about this too, spotting the neglected bits nestled in between the new construction. Even in the short time I’ve been visiting Japan (since 2005), I noticed in the Eastern Tokyo reaches, near Chiba all the gardens went away. I’m not joking the alotments (such as they were) one by one disappeared. My wife’s mother had a plot and grew tomatoes which she would serve at breakfast with a bit of soya on them were amazing. But no more. She’s in a care home, and the alotment is now either a parking lot or a 3 to 5 unit housing block. It was different at one time.

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