Tokyo Tomorrow

"Mobile girl" - is the city' future in her hand
Kiely Ramos

Since its rise to prominence as Asia's first megacity, Tokyo has emerged as the post-modern monolith of the 21st century. Stuart Braun tracks the future of the last megalopolis.

Sci-fi novelist William Gibson recently described Tokyo as "the global imagination's default setting for the future." Inspiring the stark neon background for the film Blade Runner, Tokyo continues to redefine itself and with it the whole notion of the modern city. The city has no center, no master plan and is not segregated according to class or economies of scale. And while extravagant fits of modernist architecture left a distinct mark on the Tokyo of the 20th century, the Tokyo of the future is feted to become a postmodern cyberspace beyond spatial definition.

City in flux
What Tokyo will look like in the future is anyone's guess. Buildings, like fashion, rarely last, and the city, reconstructed three times last century-following the Great Earthquake of 1923, the firebombings at the end of World War II and as a prelude to the 1964 Olympics-remains a scene of unbridled architectural chaos. The only constant it seems is change. Apart from isolated dalliances with Western civic design-for example the remodeling of Ginza in the 1920s - attempts to contrive an ordered plan for the city have ultimately been enveloped by the mass of make-shift, low-rise structures, high-rise towers and gnarled expressways that morph in very unpredictable directions. "There aren't the big grand vista's of Paris, the town planning of London with the grand facades. It's a city that is knocked down every 20 years. But for this reason it's very exciting," says Mark Dytham, a resident architect for ten years and responsible for the inventive renovation of Harajuku's La Foret fashion complex. "Many prime buildings, such as the GAP building on the corner of Meiji and Omotesando streets, are demountable structures-leased by landowners waiting for land prices to rise-that will be pulled down within ten years," he continues. A city without a center, without a vision, Tokyo's only raison d'Ítre is growth. And grow it has. By the late 17th century Tokyo - not long ago more than a sedate port town - was home to one million people, making it the largest city in the world. Today 33 million live in the greater metropolitan area.

While Tokyo's organic and erratic patterns of development make it a unique and striking city, plans are underway to tame the beast. Developers and government are justifiably concerned that Tokyo, the economic watermark for the rest of Japan, is starting to decline in status as a global economic center. Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai, for instance, are these days preferred over Tokyo on the international conference circuit since they have recognizable and easily accessible financial/business centers. Hiroo Mori, Managing Director of Mori Building, Japan's and one of the world's largest property developers, says that, for the sake of rest of Japan, the "city must be revived" via an urban master plan. The building giant has spent the last 20 years planning integrated, ultra high-rise residential/business/entertainment villages, including the much vaunted Roppongi 6-chome Redevelopment Project, in an effort to achieve "urban renewal" and to transform the city from a "congested, horizontal sprawl" to a "verdant, vertical metropolis."

Future city
Though chaotic and unpredictable, the modern Tokyo emerging out of the ramshackle expanse of low-rise wooden dwellings, shrines and markets - described by one observer in 1868 as a "medieval town" - that long reflected the isolationist policies of the Edo regime, is today regarded as the quintessential technopolis. Flattened in the final days of 1945, Tokyo, devoid of a uniform design or building codes, became a canvass upon which architects splayed their modernist design whimsy. The city has seen avant-garde structures emerge next to quaint ramen shops and rice wholesalers; while Shibuya, not long ago a tranquil village renowned for its teahouses, has within 50 years been transformed into a mass of neon, video screens, department stores, love hotels and teen fashion houses. And that was before the bubble. Today, foreign architects such as Dytham note that, with few restrictions, Tokyo is arguably the world's most interesting venue for architectural innovation. "You can do what ever you want," he says.

Fits of architectural caprice might soon become less prevalent, however. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) has formulated a "Ring Megalopolis Concept" that, by reintegrating an inefficient urban sprawl closer to the city center, represents a major turning point in urban development policy. The TMG are talking up the "strategic accumulation" - and homogenization - of the city functions in the inner city area by continuing, for instance, to turn Tokyo Bay into the communications, transport and business hub-a "waterfront urban axis"-for the entire city. The plan to build on the high-tech telecommunications monolith Tokyo Teleport Town and the Odaiba entertainment/residential development will, it is hoped, "remodel Tokyo into a city that can perform an international role as a one of the major cities of the world."

A city without a center, without a vision, Tokyo's only raison d'etre is growth. And grow it has.

But the plan to push a futuristic cyber city-symbolized by Kenzo Tange's Fuji TV building - further onto reclaimed land around Tokyo Bay has been halted since the vision was slated during the boom economy of the 1980s. In the post-bubble meltdown the return on the initial Odaiba investment has been, says Mori, "well below expectations." Yet this hasn't quelled the push to long-term, systematic and high-rise redevelopment. Mori's Roppongi plan, for example, will be the largest urban redevelopment by a private enterprise in Japan and is one of the most significant attempts to transform the haphazard layout of the inner city area. Occupying 11 hectares of land, the development, stretching around a 45-story central office tower, will incorporate offices, residences, hotels, shops, a broadcasting center, museums, concerts halls, theaters and parks. Aimed at the young urban professional, and in particular, the corporate executive prevalent throughout the Minato ward area, such vertical developments will, it is argued, imbue Tokyo with a rare sense of spacial opulence. "Doubling urban space and increasing free time will provide a vision of comfortable urban life," says Mori.

Model of Mori's Roppongi redevelopment, due for completion in 2003.
Maki Nibayashi

With three to four similar projects slated in the Akasaka and Azubu areas, the attempt to bring people back into the center of the city makes some sense. Currently, eight million people commute into central Tokyo each day, and the result is a hopelessly congested transport network. According to Junichiro Okata, Professor of Urban Planning at the University of Tokyo, peak-hour trains are running at 160 percent capacity. He estimates that this figure could be reduced if one million people relocate from the nether reaches of Saitama and Chiba to the city center - "you be then able to read a newspapers on your way to work," he says. He does not, however, agree that Mori's vision will ever be realized.

Looking over the vast, roughly hewn cityscape from his 12th floor office, Okata offers a wry smile when asked if there might soon be method to the Tokyo madness. He reiterates the point that Tokyo, unlike Western cities, has a very weak infrastructure and no planning or design code. "Maybe Mori hates this, but a lot of people love this environment," says Okata while pointing to the slew of "vernacular" wooden houses, random glass towers and concrete edifices spread before him. "We can only change this vernacular environment very slowly," he says. Akira Suzuki, Director of the Workshop for Architecture and Urbanism, agrees. "It is difficult to describe Tokyo in terms of traditional urbanism. Its population is extremely fluid and capricious. It has no tradition of architectural culture, its infrastructure is quite haphazard, and its local communities - recently even the family unit - have begun to disintegrate," he says. Kyoichi Tsuzuki, author of Tokyo Style, the renowned photo-documentary on urban living in Tokyo, adds that Western architects employed to impose a planning vision on the city cannot understand the fact that Tokyo is an "Oriental" city. "Creating a new village is a conceptual idea that will never work…we don't trust in government planning or landscape design because we believe it changes all the time."

It's true that local communities rarely accept development proposals-Okata describes a "Not in my backyard" mentality, meaning that 80 percent of planning proposals around Tokyo are rejected. As Mori himself acknowledges, negotiations with the hundreds of small landholders that stood in the path of the Roppongi Redevelopment took 15 years to be resolved. Attempts to impose an "integrated" planning vision thus belie the complexity of the city. "Tokyo is too organic to conform to mass redevelopment…redevelopment is a scratch that doesn't make much difference," says Tsuzuki.

Kiely Ramos

Cyber city
To better contemplate the Tokyo of the future, Suzuki points to a new overlapping and "invisible infrastructure" embodied in third-generation mobile communications technology. Over 60 million people have mobile phones in Japan. Requiring no civil engineering and little built infrastructure, these phones have become fully functioning audio and visual broadcasting stations, having the capacity to send thousands of video, sound and text messages by the minute. "This invisible landscape of mobile phones," says Suzuki, "is an infrastructure intimately integrated (without regard to socio-economic status) into our living rooms and bedrooms, yet surpassing in its scope the visible urban infrastructure of expressways and skyscrapers."

Interestingly, this infrastructure will be driven, not by corporate money and salarymen - the prophets of 20th century industrial Japan - but young women. In comparison to the robust, gray/black European models-designed for corporate men, says Suzuki-Japanese phones are uniquely slender and colorful. For Suzuki, young girls - he employs the term kogyaru - have best utilized text messaging and mobile online information, manipulating their phones into a portable bedroom, a compact mirror that is the seed of a new consumer, residential and community culture.

Cyber soothsayer William Gibson agrees that, as the vehicle for a new telecommunications culture, the kogyaru is the symbol of postmodern Tokyo. "Consider the Mobile Girl, that ubiquitous feature of contemporary Tokyo street life: a schoolgirl busily, constantly messaging on her mobile phone (which she never uses for voice communication if she can avoid it). The Mobile Girl can convert pad strokes to kanji faster than should be humanly possible, and rates her standing in her cellular community according to the amount of numbers in her phone's memory. What is it that the Mobile Girls are so busily conveying to one another? Probably not much at all: the equivalent of a schoolgirl's note, passed behind the teacher's back. Content is not the issue here, but rather the speed, the weird unconscious surety, with which the schoolgirls of Tokyo took up a secondary feature (text messaging) of a new version of the cellular telephone, and generated, almost overnight, a micro-culture."

Cyber soothsayer William Gibson agrees that, as the vehicle for a new telecommunications culture, the kogyaru is the symbol of postmodern Tokyo.

Like the haphazard built environment of "old" Tokyo, this micro-culture is highly ubiquitous. In contrast to the stolid salarymen and women of postwar Japan, the young and single men and women of Tokyo are "freeters" who work part-time, like to indulge their fancy for culture and fashion and are able to nurture a flourishing economic and cultural network over the phone. They live in small apartments, move stealthily via the subway network and access cheap food, information and communication facilities at the local conbini - absent 20 years ago, these integrated community spaces now occupy every street corner of the city. The freeter's mobile, virtual world has little need for office space, for conference facilities or cars - or for mega-department stores it seems, with a number, including the central store for the Sogo chain in Yurakocho, having closed down in recent years. The freeter's work or exhibition space is the street. They can stay in bed and conduct business over a few strokes of the keypad before setting out into the Shibuya matrix to conduct their "research." In this world there is no zoning, no segregation of the business and residential. In this world, notes Suzuki, the ordered civic vision disintegrates.

So where does this leave Mori and co? As the Roppongi Tower, the symbol of Mori's "Urban New Deal" of high-rise living and shopping, emerges on the horizon, a scattered and "invisible" Tokyo is multiplying itself via the thumbs of a newly mobile workforce. Tokyo will continue then to live for the moment, it's chaotic, unsightly floor plan continually overriding the vision of a harmonious cityscape. To the foreign observer, Tokyo might then always be an "ugly" city. "But ugliness also means energy," says Tsuzuki. "Tokyo is not a city of beauty but of energy."



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394: Sister act
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393: Reel time
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392: Lap it up
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391: Everything old is new
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390: Cooking the books
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389: Up from the underground
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388: First wave
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387: Water world
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386: Open house
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385: A moveable feast
Some of the city's best yatai fare
384: Hair
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383: Summer in the city
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382: Tokyo Tomorrow
Stuart Braun tracks the future of the metropolis
381: From zero to hero
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380: Island escapade
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379: Open-air fare
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378: Reel story
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377: Sonic relief
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376: All at sea
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375: Your cup of tea
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374: No time to waste
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373: Freetown
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372: Broken record
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371: Bottoms up
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370: Admit one
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369: After a fashion
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368: Bandwidth wagon
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367: Just for sports
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366: Life's a hitch
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365: Altered state
Try Tokyo's tailors on for size
364: The Fringe Club
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363: Take two Tomatos
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362: Stage left
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361: The lowdown on TC
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360: A reversal of fortune
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359: Funny Valentine
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358: Two-faced
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357: Read all about it comes to Japan
356: Daikanyama
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355: Wash out
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354: Means to an end
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352/3: Last Laugh
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Signs of the times
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351: It's a wrap
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350: Cable ready
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