Profile: Tokyo

(This is a profile of Tokyo, Japan done in the 1990s. Not much has changed in one of the world’s biggest, loudest, most expensive cities)

By Ronald E. Yates

It’s the world’s biggest, noisiest, most expensive and arguably least livable city. But for Toshio Isa and the 30 million other people who are jammed into its 850 square miles, Tokyo is, for better or worse, home.

“I’ve lived in New York, Singapore and San Francisco,” said the retired businessman, “and none of those requires the patience and perseverance needed to live in Tokyo. One doesn’t live in Tokyo. One endures.”

Relief is on the horizon, however. Tokyo is preparing to transform itself from an unattractive and often obnoxious nerve center conceived to do little more than nurture a rigid and ascetic Japan Inc. into a city actually designed for human habitation. In the first major restorative surgery since it was flattened by U.S. bombers during World War II, Tokyo is being prepped for a series of facelifts, transplants and the urban equivalent of wart removal.

Afflicted with intolerable overcrowding, inadequate housing and the world’s worst traffic jams, more than 100 plans aimed at making Tokyo a more appealing place are being passed with unprecedented urgency from one government agency to another for study and approval.

They range from proposals to relocate the nation’s capital to the hinterlands, a la Brazil’s Brasilia, to a $26 billion project that would create a new city center of 27 towering buildings on 1,100 acres of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay to a plan to construct a forest of 60 skyscrapers in the heart of the city that would overlook Emperor Hirohito’s sprawling Imperial Palace.

“Tokyo is on a resuscitator, and the prognosis for its survival as a quality environment for people is not good,” said Akira Furusawa, a Tokyo architect. “We may have let the patient go too long without treatment.”

A journey through the urban coagulation of man, machine and concrete that Tokyo has become appears to confirm Furusawa’s pessimistic appraisal. As the sun rises over the city that was originally designed in the early 17th Century to be the seat of power for Tokugawa Ieyasu, Japan’s most famous shogun, the negative byproducts of Tokyo’s ascendancy as a world financial, cultural and political center are easily visible.

  • Narrow, twisting streets are hopelessly choked with cars, trucks and buses, and on the city’s woefully inadequate system of expressways, traffic, according to a recent government study, is moving at an average speed of 12 m.p.h.
  • Trains and subways are dangerously overfilled as rush-hour commuters are literally stuffed into cars by pushers-white-gloved railroad and subway officials whose jobs are to see that every inch of space in a subway or commuter train car is occupied by a body or extremity thereof. (In 1984, overzealous pushers crammed so many people into one train that doors on the opposite side gave way, spilling dozens of people onto the tracks.)
  • Noise pollution, already well above tolerable limits because of the excessive number of cars and trucks on the roadways (3.5 times the acceptable number of vehicles for Tokyo’s land area, according to one government study), is further exacerbated by the city’s relentless network of public and private loudspeakers barking instructions and pitching goods and services on just about every corner.
  • City parks, the city’s few oases from the din and crowds, are almost continuously teeming with people desperate for a little solitude and greenery. (Tokyo has about 9 square feet of parkland per person, compared with Chicago’s 110 square feet per person.)
  • A blue-gray cloud of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide smog hangs perpetually and dangerously over Tokyo, obscuring what 50 years ago was the city’s most famous landmark-Mt. Fuji, the dormant, snow-capped volcano about 70 miles southwest of the city.

At dusk, little changes. About 8 million commuters clog railroad and subway stations, and the city’s elevated two-lane expressway system seems to groan under the weight of the city’s 4.3 million registered vehicles inching their way toward poorly constructed and uninsulated homes that are an average of 1 1/2 hours away in teeming, nondescript suburbs with the collective ambiance of refugee camps.

Unlike cities such as London, Paris, New York and Chicago, which project a unique style, personality and even charm, Tokyo is a hopelessly unattractive, schizophrenic place that defies description. Quaint Japanese- style buildings and homes have been replaced by unremarkable blocks of stucco and ferrite. Unsightly power and telephone lines obscure the sky, and a logic-defying system of uncoordinated stoplights ensures that traffic will lurch from one corner to the next rather than flow in an orderly manner.

Instead of becoming a positive symbol of Japan’s well-planned and balanced transformation into an economic superpower, postwar Tokyo has been allowed to become a vast maze into which the nation has unwisely crammed both the fruits and debris of its success. Instead of creating a city reflecting such prized Japanese virtues as tranquility and harmony, Tokyo looks like it is under perpetual attack from Godzilla and Mothra.

Urban planners such as Kenzo Tange, president of the Japan Architect’s Association, look back at the bombed and burned pile of rubble that Tokyo was in 1945 and bemoan that, instead of rebuilding a city of logical grids after the war, Tokyo was allowed to regress to an era when the shogun purposely created a city of villages connected by winding, often dead-end streets designed to confound his enemies. Today’s Tokyo frustrates friend and foe alike.

“For us, young architects and officials working for the Metropolitan City Planning Bureau, the immediate postwar period held dreams and opportunities of a lifetime,” Tange wrote in a recent newspaper essay. “We dreamed of unscrambling the hodgepodge and making a fresh start. We had grand dreams for transforming Tokyo into an orderly metropolitan area.”

Instead, over the next five years, millions of Japanese driven out of Tokyo by U.S. bombing raids returned to rebuild their homes. Squatters’ shacks eventually gave way to ugly low-slung concrete buildings pressed against one another like interlocking Lego blocks. Bitter Japanese who blamed their government for the destruction of their homes and families were in no mood to listen to its grand schemes for a New Tokyo. The city simply grew out of control in an environment of urban anarchy with little zoning and a minimum of intervention from the government. It was the same pattern following the devastation of 1923 when the Great Kanto Earthquake killed 100,000 people and destroyed 30 percent of the city’s buildings.

In the 1950s and early 1960s Tokyo’s rapid, unrestrained growth mirrored the explosive industrialization of Japan and the spectacular expansion of the Japanese economy. Yet with the exception of a few new glass-and-concrete skysrapers, Tokyo somehow never progressed beyond the heady days of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, which the Japanese used as their economic and political cotillion.

During the Games and in the years immediately thereafter while Japan wallowed in the international acclaim generated by its newly built 135 m.p.h. Shinkansen (Bullet Train), the forward-looking architecture used in constructing Olympic venues and an expressway system that today has become the world’s biggest proving ground for auto and truck brakes, long-range planning for the core of Tokyo was allowed to wane.

While the population of Tokyo’s 23 wards, 27 cities, 6 towns and 8 villages was exploding, the city itself failed to create a plan to accommodate or restrain the growth. Without a consistent pattern of zoning, Tokyo was allowed to become a clutter of incongruous, inefficient, poorly planned buildings, many of which look like something out of an architect’s worst nightmare.

Individual housing was neglected in favor of commercial office buildings. Land prices spiraled out of control, jumping by 95 percent in 1986 and 1987 alone, so that today the average price of residential property in Tokyo’s central 23 wards is an incredible $25,000 per 10 square feet. In the commercial Ginza District in the heart of downtown Tokyo, that same plot of land sells for $250,000.

The high cost of land translates into rents for offices and homes that have gone into orbit. Modest 800-square-feet houses and apartments in Tokyo, most without central heating and cooling, rent for more than $3,000 a month, while American- or European-sized dwellings of 1,500 square feet and larger begin at $5,000 a month and climb quickly into double figures.

A few years ago, 31 foreign embassies, staggered by the dual dilemma of high rents and a soaring yen, appealed to the Japanese government for help. A delegation of diplomats from the 31 nations asked the Japanese foreign ministry to construct or make available at a reasonable rate a special diplomatic compound. Otherwise, they said, they would be forced to close their embassies and move to less expensive neighboring countries such as South Korea and Hong Kong.

It was the first known case in which the diplomatic community of any country has made such a request for economic reasons. An obviously alarmed Japanese government has promised to find a solution to the problem.

“Tokyo is on the verge of apoplexy, with its housing, land and traffic jammed to the limits,” said Keijiro Murata, a member of parliament who also belongs to the Conference on New Capital Problems, a bipartisan group formed by the Japanese government to study the idea of moving the capital out of Tokyo. “It is best to transfer everything, from the Diet (parliament) to the Imperial Palace out of Tokyo,” Murata continued, echoing a growing sentiment within the Japanese government.

Japanese Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita has already ordered one bureau from each of 31 government ministries moved out of Tokyo and into less congested areas of Japan.
But as one Tokyo newspaper editorialized recently, most of those 31 offices are small and relatively insignificant ones. Thus, it said, the initial efforts to decentralize Tokyo are disappointing.

More ambitious and more appropriate would be the transfer of the entire central government to a new capital on a 50,000-acre site about 125 miles from Tokyo, said a report prepared last month by Takeshita’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Such a plan could be accomplished over the next 20 years at a cost of $153 billion, said the report. If that monumental task were undertaken, it would be the biggest public works project in Japan’s 2,000 years of history, and it would raise Japanese economic growth by 1 percent a year.

Decentralizing Tokyo and moving the capital has been a recurrent dream of bureaucrats, politicians and construction industry leaders for years, all of whom are quick to point out reasons for doing so:

In addition to being both the Washington, D.C., and New York City of Japan, Tokyo accounts for 30 percent of Japan’s gross national product, which is equivalent to 4.5 percent of the world GNP. The city holds 50 percent of the nation’s savings and accounts for 80 percent of its stock trading. It has 40 percent of the nation’s scientific research facilities; 25 percent of Japan’s 122 million people live within Tokyo’s metropolitan area.

The city is also home to more than 75,000 restaurants, 45,000 bars, 2,800 hotels, 184 colleges and universities and 255 movie theaters. It is the world’s largest retail market, with 160,000 shops and 185 department stores, and many consider it to be on the leading edge in fashion, design, music and nouveau theater. At the same time, Tokyo is a safe, relatively crime-free city with less crime than any of the world’s largest metropolises. New York, for example, had 11 times as many murders, 23 times as many rapes and 200 times as many robberies as Tokyo last year.

But the strain on Tokyo’s collective psyche created by overcrowding, high prices (a cup of coffee is now at least $5 at most downtown coffee shops) and a general, ceaseless pandemonium is becoming more and more noticeable. Young Japanese-the so-called shinjinrui (new human beings) of Japan-are less able or willing to subvert frustrations caused by living in Tokyo and have begun striking out.

Cases of teenagers pushing older Japanese down subway steps or even into the paths of trains are increasing, along with spray-can graffiti on walls and buildings and an alarming increase in alcohol and drug use-all formerly unheard-of forms of behavior in a nation where conformity and politeness have long been considered national virtues.

“The relocation of people, power and money from their current concentration in the capital is a task of historic proportion,” said the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. “Now is the time for the government and political parties to work toward ‘creative demolition’ of that old system.”

While that is going on, several other attempts to alter the face of Tokyo are already underway.
Not the least of these is something called the Tokyo-Manhattan Plan, so named because it would create a Manhattan-sized island in Tokyo Bay, upon which a cluster of skyscrapers housing offices and condominiums would be built. Planners envision 115,000 people living and working there.

This plan, backed by the Tokyo metropolitan government, has come under criticism by Japan’s Environmental Agency, which has warned that it could irreparably damage the bay’s already delicate ecological balance and affect water quality. Fishermen add that important spawning grounds for many species of marine life would be destroyed by the new city.

While the argument over Tokyo Bay rages, another battle is shaping up in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district, Japan’s version of Wall Street.

In the early 1990s Japan’s giant Mitsubishi Corp. recently unveiled a $46 billion plan to redevelop the overcrowded 280-acre financial district into a forest of 60 skyscrapers, each with an average height of 50 stories. Mitsubishi Estate Co., the largest landowner in the district, says that by ripping down the district’s old buildings, including venerable red-brick Tokyo Station, the district’s usable floor space would increase 2.5 times, to almost 3,000 acres.

That argument has failed to assuage an army of foes, including most of the nation’s newspapers, which do not want to see the 94-year-old Tokyo Station or any of the area’s other turn-of-the-century buildings demolished.

Japanese engineers and architects have raised other questions about the plan to transform downtown Tokyo’s skyline into a mirror image of New York or Chicago. They question the availabilty of the water that would be needed to supply such a collection of buildings and worry that despite new engineering techniques that allow skycraper construction in earthquake-prone Tokyo, a tremor the size of the one that leveled Tokyo in 1923 (8.0 on the Richter scale) could be cataclysmic if that many tall buildings were concentrated in one spot.

Others point out that the plan runs counter to a consensus that Tokyo’s population should be dispersed, not further concentrated in its already congested heart.

While a plethora of schemes to move Tokyo into the 21st Century continue to make headlines in Japan, Tokyo’s government is still wrestling with the immediate problems of overcrowding, people movement and traffic decongestion. Last month the Tokyo metropolitan government announced plans to construct by the early 1990s a new $1.2 billion subway line and the world’s longest underground expressway, a 6.5-mile long, 4-lane roadway that would run 140 feet under Tokyo’s congested streets.

Why build the expressway underground? Because, say Tokyo planners, the $6.2 billion needed to build the subterranean expressway is still 20 percent less than the cost of buying land and buildings above ground. It is not a new concept in Tokyo, which is catacombed with hundreds of underground shopping arcades, some stretching for miles.

“When land gets as expensive as it is in Tokyo, you have no choice but to go underground,” Furusawa said. “Tokyo is becoming the first city on the planet to create two living environments-one above ground and the other below.”