35. Designing the Japanese city (part two) – a collective neglect

In part one the nature of physical / aesthetic control (or the lack of it) in Japanese cities was explored.  When it comes to shaping the built environment, the approach and the outcomes in Japan are determined by a decisively different balance between individual versus collective interests than we are used to here at home, with a strong emphasis on individual property rights.  Control is consequently limited to physical / aesthetic factors and a broader notion of urban design with its social, functional and morphological as well as visual / aesthetic dimensions is not a public sector concern in Japan.  Instead, planning control is zoning based and is largely limited to crude control of land uses and basic physical considerations on an as-of-right basis.  This hands-off system of control is complicit in the production of some immensely vibrant and exciting cityscapes, but at the same time seems powerless to protect many of Japan’s remaining traditional neighbourhoods, the focus of this second article.

A key schism in Japanese cities that the earlier discussion skirted around is undoubtedly that between old and new.  For outsiders Japanese culture seems to offer a fascinating soup of tradition and modernity.  Thus whilst the Japanese embrace and sport new technologies and new fashions – perhaps more-so than any other nation – at the same time they are determined to hang on to their traditions as encapsulated in the Royal family whose job it is to represent the essence of traditional values in Japanese life.  On the face of it, holding on to these traditions may be easier for a nation that is still relatively insular and culturally highly homogenous (just 1.5% are not ethnically Japanese) although with regard to the built environment, this does not seem to be the case.

Tradition and modernity interact

The collision of old and new

For the visitor (as I was on a recent extended stay in the country) the distinctive Japanese cuisine, impressive temples and shrines, beautiful gardens, endless bowing, and the glimpses of more mysterious rituals such as tea ceremonies and the Geisha who can still be seen in some surviving historic districts, remind one of the very ancient and complex history of the nation.  At the same time more modern obsessions constantly remind one of this country’s extreme modernity.  These include an unparalleled devotion to smart phones (everyone seems to have one and many seem to spend excessive portions of the day looking at them) or the addiction of huge numbers to Pachinko (a gambling game played with little steel balls – instead of money – on row upon row of machines that look like vertical pin ball games, all lined-up in arcades that assault the senses with noise, smoke and lights).  In the UK bookmakers seem to be taking over many of our local high streets, in Japan it is Pachinko arcades.


The varied faces of Japanese culture – traditional gardens and modern Pachinko arcades

This collision of old and new is written into the built environment all around.  An obsession of the national state with safety, for example, is leading to the destruction through redevelopment of some surviving traditional (if aged and more than a little dilapidated) neighbourhoods.  These areas of the city – the shitamachi – consist of tightly knit conjoined timber framed houses arranged in narrow streets often with local shops, small businesses and local facilities of all sorts within the same locality.  These areas – public authorities argue – are dangerous places to live because of the potential for fire and the difficulty faced by emergency services (fire and ambulances) to navigate their narrow winding roads.  This is despite the fact that on the face of it the shitamachi offer almost the perfect conditions for a healthy sustainable community life (socially cohesive, mixed, low car usage, lively, and proud – as seen by the well tended plants and flowers outside many doors).  For the outsider this would seem to more than make up for any ‘safety’ limitations, but the history and fear of fire in Japanese cities is a potent force to be reckoned with, and one which dominates almost any other consideration in how Japanese cities are shaped.


Traditional shitamachi street and street widening and redevelopment in a shitamachi area

For those who have not experienced the sorts of fire storms that consumed large areas of Japan’s cities during the second world war or in the aftermath of seismic activity, this is a context that is difficult to understand, but must nevertheless be respected.  However, the fact that Japan’s highly advanced building technology sector is not called upon to better fire proof these areas without first requiring their demolition and redevelopment typifies the general lack of commitment to this uniquely Japanese urbanism.  A further contemporary pressure on traditional neighbourhoods is equally troubling, driven on as it is by Japan’s fast aging population.

A distinct characteristic of Japanese society is the very static nature of its population, with many families living in the same house from cradle to grave.  The populations of Japan’s traditional neighbourhoods exemplify this but today, as they age and pass on, punitive death duties become due that typically descendents are unable to pay unless they first sell their inheritance for redevelopment, always at higher densities.  To help with such circumstances, the new Landscape Law (discussed in the previous Design Matters column) contains provisions for special exemptions from inheritance tax for properties in a designated Landscape District.  So far, however, this provision has been rarely used, again demonstrating a lack of concern or will at the local level to preserve Japan’s traditional neighbourhoods.  Interestingly, also, the sorts of gentrification processes that have socially transformed, but physically preserved, so many historic areas in the UK don’t seem to exist in Japan where the aspiration of younger Japanese with choice is typically to occupy an apartment in a modern block rather than to reuse and refurbish a traditional dwelling.


Small scale incremental redevelopment of larger traditional plots

Large vs. local

One of the starkest divisions between old and new in Japan is between the modern corporate and retail monoliths and the traditional high streets that grew up at the heart of numerous Japanese communities.  Today, whilst Japanese shopping centres replete with the latest cloned brands (both national and international) thrive as the new temples for the young, many of the old high streets wither on the vine.  In part this is because the harsh climate of Japan simply makes the new air-conditioned centres more comfortable places to be (despite the roofing-in of many traditional streets), but also because the traditional high streets find it difficult to adapt to the sorts of new retail formats that modern retailing demands.


Traditional high street arcade versus big box retail

The sorts of inflexible demographic / housing practices described above also make modernisation difficult.  Thus as the owners of shops age, instead of selling their businesses and moving on, the normal response is simply to shut up shop, close the shutters downstairs, and retreat upstairs to live out their days.  Today the phenomenon of Japan’s ‘shutter streets’ represent a difficult problem to crack, a problem that will only become more difficult as the effects of Japan’s shrinking population becomes more pronounced (today’s population of 127 million is predicted to fall by 25% by 2060), leading to a general lack of demand for new development in cities, particularly in declining areas with fragmented and complex land ownership structures.

Japan’s shutter streets

Yet despite the marginal nature of some of Japan’s local high streets, behind the façades and in the areas through which these traditional streets run, the communities remain as diverse and mixed as ever, combining living with business and small scale industry.  Like our high streets at home, they still have much to offer but are being fast undermined by very different modern lifestyles and the relentless force of big retail that removes so much spending power from local economies.

A case-in-point is the Roppongi area of Tokyo in which a traditional community and high street sit side by side with the sort of private corporate / retail / residential mega-development that has become ubiquitous in large Japanese cities.  In this case, the Roppongi Hills development has created some of the most desirable and expensive real estate in the city, although any positive externalities seem locked within the very obvious and stark boundaries that mark the edges of this new (and very swanky) development.  Here (unusually for Japan where compulsory purchase powers for commercial redevelopment do not exist and sites have to be compiled by developers themselves) Tokyo’s largest developer painstakingly took 14 years to put together and then wipe clean the site from the 400 smaller plots in multiple uses and occupancies previously located there.


Ropongi Hills public (private) space and one of its neighbouring temples

Even here, however, and in numerous other developments like it, some vestiges of the old city remain, most notably the temples and shrines that pepper the older areas of the city.  In the face of massive redevelopments such as Roppongi Hills these survive because of the burial grounds over which they watch and where most Japanese citizens still end their days in the closely packed family plots.  Thus, as one wanders around, periodically you come across a gate in the street, leading to a small temple or shrine and a burial ground.  These vestiges of the old city are not immune from development pressures, however, and many have long since sold off their forecourts to be redeveloped for residential or commercial purposes, but they demonstrate that some things at least are sacrosanct in the Japanese city.

The dangers of homogenisation

For their part the private mega-developments of Japan are typically highly designed, ultra modern, and come replete with large privatised public spaces (internal and external) that have been delivered by the developers in exchange for floor area bonuses that make their soaring towers even higher. The spaces vary tremendously, and many are highly designed, well constructed and well used; although in their ‘corporate’ ambience resemble those that might be encountered in, for instance, Shanghai, Singapore and Soul; or London for that matter.  That is not necessarily a criticism, Japan’s cities are large and can encompass diversity and difference just like cities at home.  But one can’t help being concerned that in fifty years or so such environments may be all these cities have to offer, particularly as Japan’s youthful culture (despite its aging population) seems so wedded to the modern and, even if it wasn’t, is often locked out from engaging in the traditional city because of the costs associated with inheritance and the very inflexible housing market in Japan that leaves an elderly population clinging on to properties that might benefit from some youthful vigour to give them a new lease of life (a little targeted gentrification is not always a bad thing!).

Japan’s ‘bonus’ public / private spaces

Many of Japans traditional urban areas are in the process of suffering a death by a thousand cuts.  This represents a terrible loss, as for all their amazing energy, it is the split personality of Japanese cities, the traditional alongside and rubbing up against the outrageous and ultra-modern, that makes them so enticing, at least for this academic tourist.  Fortunately the pause in Japan’s relentless growth that has been so hard for Japanese society at large to bear over the last ten years, has at least slowed down the relentless pace of physical change.  In this time the Landscape Law has been enacted and may yet come to the rescue of those parts of Japanese cities that make them so truly unique.  Before it does, however, a more widespread change will have to occur in Japanese society, an appreciation of the historic built fabric and traditional spaces of the city, and a determination amongst its citizenry (and therefore its state) to see these fast dwindling environments retained.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


July 2012

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