34. Designing the Japanese city (part one) – an individual aesthetic

To an outsider Japanese urbanism may seem to have a split personality: stemming from traditions which still survive and that emphasise order, restraint and harmony, side by side with a dominant contemporary urbanism that is ultra-modern, brash, discordant and in your face.  To a visitor to Japanese shores (as I was during a recent extended stay in the country), and risking a massive over-generalisation, this seems to reflect the personalities of the Japanese themselves. Thus Japanese are without a doubt amongst the most polite, formal and restrained people on earth and low crime figures suggest they are amongst the most honest, yet Japanese teenagers are renowned for the flamboyance of their dress – boys as well as girls – whilst a journey on the Tokyo underground during rush hour demonstrates that after politely queuing for the train Japanese workers quickly turn into beasts when one arrives, pushing and shoving and cramming into the carriages as if their life depended on catching that train rather than the one that as reliably as clock-work comes three minutes later.

Defined smoking area

The experience makes travelling on the London tube in rush hour seem like a gentle walk in the park (and that’s saying something!).  Strangely it contrasts dramatically with the willingness of the Japanese to stand and wait for several minutes at a traffic intersection for the green signal to cross, even when there is no traffic in sight; or the virtual absence, despite its very high smoking rates, of Japanese smoking and walking.  Instead, Japanese cities (and buildings) are pepper potted with defined smoking areas replete with ash and butt dispenser.  On both counts few Europeans would have such patience (or restraint).  But contrast is the essence of the Japanese city and two aspects of this will be explored in this and the subsequent Urban Design Matters article.

Symphony or sonata

An obvious polarity is between the approach to landscape and that to townscape in Japan.  From its glorious public parks to the landscapes of its temples and shrines to its immaculately designed (often tiny) private gardens, Japanese traditional culture revels in the harmony of its ‘captured landscapes’.  Across the different scales, each are carefully composed and immaculately tended and treated with great reverence and respect by all who visit.  Fundamentally this reflects a deep love and respect for nature in a country where densities of living make it very easy to loose touch with the natural.  A graphic illustration is the national obsession with cherry blossom which from mid March to April each year first appears in the south of Japan and then works its way up the country along with excited reporters and national cherry blossom reports that every day update citizens on progress.  For the visitor the arrival of the cherry blossom is met by the strange sight of legions of Japanese standing under the cherry trees, cameras in hand, ready to take the perfect cherry blossom photo to send to their friends.

The arrival of cherry blossom in Tokyo

Yet, despite the very deep and obvious love for nature that this annual ritual reveals and the extension of this into the cherished landscapes of the Japanese city, the same cannot be said for the country’s townscapes.  There, instead of symphony we have soloist after soloist, often beautifully designed and detailed, yet all screaming for attention like so many discordant sonatas all being played at once.  The impression for Europeans unused to such excess is at first a sense of shock, but then a sense of energy and excitement that is at one and the same time both invigorating and bewildering in equal measure.  The impression is bolstered by layer upon layer of signage all fighting (and failing) to get attention and by the relentless rush of traffic (human and vehicular) all around.

Physically the disregard for townscape, or the manner in which the physical built environment is visually composed, is in sharp contrast to the order and coherence of traditional Japanese architecture; with regard to which simplicity and harmony have long been cherished virtues, indeed obsessions, when it comes to the design of formal interior spaces.  Moreover, by virtue of the limited pallet of forms, materials and styles in which traditional Japanese buildings were constructed, these mould seamlessly together to create highly harmonious compositions and townscapes.


Traditional and contemporary architecture compared

So what underpinned this Damascene conversion from harmony to chaos?  The answer can be found in several places.  First, a strong post-war drive to re-build Japan’s decimated cities and to grow its economy at all costs; a drive which quickly swept away much of the country’s indigenous urbanism, largely completing the job began by second world war bombing and the regular fires and earthquakes that historically have ravaged so many Japanese cities.  Second, the very strong property rights that shape a zoning based regulatory system inspired by practice in New York, and which gives an open hand as long as land use and floor areas ratio (FAR) stipulations are met (http://www.gdrc.org/).  In addition, the Building Code stipulates permissible building heights against standard formulae relating to the type of road onto which a building fronts, the distance to adjacent properties, and northside shadow-line stipulations.  Developers quickly build to the maximum permissible volumes, leading to some very strange shaped buildings and to a new characteristic urban form with higher buildings lining wider roads to take advantage of the higher height stipulation.  Beyond that, if you comply, permission is automatic – no negotiation, no consultation, no fuss.

Form following shadow-line

Third, an absence of any form of design review to curb the worst excesses of discordant urbanism, and fourth, an architecture profession that is complicit in this, with a (generally) heightened sense of their right to express themselves as they see fit without preference for detached buildings, avoiding the need for party walls, and in the process further emphasising the individual by requiring that a small gap (usually less than a meter) be left between every building, irrespective of plot width and height.  The result is some extremely strange tall thin detached buildings.  Finally, there is the question of advertising regulations (or the general lack of them) and an advertising industry that flouts even those that do exist, although that is now being tightened up with a new national advertising law and registration system.  Again, here, private property rights guarantee the right to advertise which when extended upwards across the multiple floors of a mixed use building can quickly cover even the most carefully designed building in garish neon signs.

A city shaped by regulations – zoning and building control
Height following regulation, rising up along Japan’s urban

Controlling landscape

The result in Japan’s largest cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, where development pressures and built densities are at their most intense, is a new uniquely Japanese townscape that makes even the excess of some Chinese and Korean cities feel tame.  For the visiting architect like myself the result is endlessly fascinating, if a little surreal.  Speaking, however, to many who live and work in Japan, one gets the impression that at least some hanker once again for a more ordered city.

In part this is the intention of the recent Landscape Law that came into force in June 2004 and which makes it possible to designate Landscape Districts and Landscape Planning Areas.  In these, for the first time on a country-wide basis landscape ordinances can be drawn up to control the physical design of developments in both new and existing areas (built and natural).  The measures represent a major move away from the anything-goes culture that has shaped Japanese cities since the second world war, although so far their use has been limited.  As such they still represent the exception rather than the rule in much of Japan.  In Sapporo (Japan’s fourth largest city), for example, only a relatively small area of the city centre is covered by such a designation, in this case designed to give greater control in an area of rapid change around the main station.  Here, as elsewhere, the system offers a form of more locally responsive zoning, controlling building height, bulk, aspects of façade design (although not style) and colour.  Like the national zoning system, this is on an as-of-right basis, although with some negotiation between local authority and developers to ensure compliance.

Development within the Sapporo Landscape Planning Area

In Sapporo, and a few other cities, attempts have been made to adopt a more rigorous design review process around the provisions of the Landscape Law, but so far these initiatives have come to nothing as the discretion they imply flies firmly in the face of the fixed regulatory systems that guide development in the country.  Great interest and debate nevertheless remains in some circles about how a design review system might work, with particular interest in the work of CABE.  In addition, in cities such as Kyoto where a greater proportion of the historic built environment still remains (Kyoto was one of the few Japanese cities to largely escape bombing in the second world war), the new system comes on top of longer established measures to list key townscapes of historic value (both nationally and, sometimes, locally) that provide a further degree of control, although still on an as-of-right basis with some odd results.

National area listing processes, for example, gives the right to excavate a basement under historic buildings.  But because this non-negotiable right can destabilise neighbouring timber structures, Kyoto sometimes favours designation under its own local area listing powers instead.  In such places, to compensate owners for the loss of potential basement space a third storey can be added to its two story traditional building stock, again, as-of-right.  In effect to preserve the development rights and avoid the potential for collateral damage, the system accepts a hit to the city’s historic townscape and architectural integrity.  In a second part to this article, this clash between the traditional city and contemporary development trends will be further explored.

Individual vs. collective rights and aesthetics

In essence the systems for shaping the physical / aesthetic form of cities in Japan illustrate the outcome from a very different balance between the rights of the individual and that of the collective good.  Thus whilst our townscapes (particularly those in historic settings) are the subject of much public debate and (often) not inconsiderable state intervention to try and ensure a level of aesthetic amenity and contextual integration, in Japan they simply emerge as a result of the imposition of simple unquestioned rules and the whims and creativity of private property owners and their designers.  Property rights are considered sacrosanct and development is largely left to the market.

Undeniably this leads to some very perverse outcomes, for example the uncontrolled spread of private parking across the city, with every available nook and cranny turned into some of the smallest and some of the most high tech, but also physically disruptive, of car parks.  It also leads to some of the most dramatic and aesthetically alive townscapes that you will find anywhere in the world with a vibrant social public realm to match.


Car parks, Japanese style – tiny commercial car parks and high tech robotic parking machines pepper pot Japan’s historic townscapes

These, in their own way, should be cherished and enjoyed just as our carefully nurtured townscapes are back home.  It raises the question about whether some parts of our own cities might also be appropriate for such a hands-off approach to their physical / aesthetic design in which, literally, anything goes.  Most won’t, but I can think of a few that just might!

The life and vibrancy of the Japanese city

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


April 2012

Note: thanks are due to the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for funding the research on which this article is based