The Tokyo Project

If you followed along as the pieces of The Tokyo Project were published, or at least noticed the yawning gap between the timestamps of this and the penultimate post, you might be wondering what took so long to get things tied up. While I was able to complete the last of the short films just under the wire, I didn’t get the chance to reflect on everything I had learned before my family packed up all of our belongings and headed off to Beijing. Though I’m finally getting to it a little later than planned, the time away from the material inadvertently gave me the benefit of a new perspective.

With regard to the big picture, the first couple of months living in Beijing have given me renewed appreciation for the many interesting neighborhoods and ubiquitous public transit in Tokyo that were the focus of the project. Beijing was originally conceived not as a place for meeting the needs of the many, but of just one person, the emperor. The hutong, a unique neighborhood structure specific to Beijing, developed as the organizing unit for the craft industries and advisers that served the Forbidden City, but eventually morphed into rich communities that flourished for many centuries. The double blow of Mao’s obsession with destroying all that represented the past, combined with the Soviet style planning that saw the city purely as a structure for production, eliminated many hutong along with historic sites, leaving wide arterial roads and huge city blocks that aren’t very amenable to walking. Where it goes from here is a topic that I’m following with personal and professional interest. As I search my new home for examples of good transit-oriented development and interesting places to walk and people watch, often finding reality a good distance away from my expectations, I remind myself that China is only at the stage of development that Japan reached several decades ago. Development moves at breakneck speed, but there are still many opportunities to make decisions about what form that growth will take. This is why I think documentation and narrative of Tokyo’s transit and neighborhoods is salient, not just for China but for other developing countries, and even wealthy countries that could stand to reevaluate how communities are conceptualized (I’m looking at you, America).

Tokyo’s transit-oriented development has a long history, but it’s also a living organism. New stations and occasionally new lines are still being added. Above ground stations are neighborhood focal points, especially when retail and services integrated into the station blur the line between it and the surrounding streets. Above ground stations without these things can still perform the function of focal point if the station is porous and welcoming to the outside. Stations that are minimalist, closed up or underground have the least neighborhood presence, but even these play an interesting role that is common to most if not all rail stations.

In Tokyo, the most common way to refer to a neighborhood is by the name of the station at its center. Many cities have informal neighborhood naming conventions that overlay the official postal codes. American cities are divided into zip codes, just like everywhere in the country, but often have subdivisions that are named according to special features of the area, such as historical industries or ethnic groups that settled there. Most people wouldn’t know where to look to find Philadelphia 19147 on a map, but ask them to point to Head House Square and Queen Village and they’d know straight away. Tokyo has wards, then municipalities (usually machi or chō), then the district (chōme), block (ban) and unit number (). While you can plug these into a GPS and it will work just fine, when receiving directions you will almost always be told how to walk from the nearest train station. If you ask the name of the location, you’ll be told “it’s in <station name>”. Sometimes the name is shared with the formal municipality in which it sits. But there can be only one station with that name, so the others derive theirs from historical villages or districts once located at that site, nearby landmarks (bridges are common), geological features, etc. Ivan Ramen is “in Roka-kōen”, the Palm Shōtengai is “in Musashi-Koyama”, and so on. The convention almost implies that you’ll be getting there via public transit.

Shōtengai (shopping districts and arcades) beyond being great places to eat, shop and observe daily life, play a significant role in guiding community character that I’m just beginning to understand. Underneath what you see as the patron, there is the business owners association that takes care of shared needs, such as advertising, filling vacant shops, ensuring the right balance of business types, and even cleaning the shōtengai. Associations similar to this, such as local chambers of commerce, exist in other countries. But because shōtengai are so tightly interwoven with their surrounding neighborhoods, their health has a strong bearing on (or perhaps is a barometer of) the desirability of the area. The superstar shōtengai will probably continue to thrive for the near future, while the smaller ones are already grappling with demographic changes and lack of strong growth in Japan’s macroeconomic picture. If easy access to basic necessities can be said to be one of (if not the key success factor) for walkable and bikable neighborhoods, then the trajectory of shōtengai is something to watch closely.

I hope you enjoyed this very long walk around Tokyo. In hindsight, I can see where I started going down rabbit holes in the written material, or could have stood to edit down some of the large photo sets, but overall I think I became a little bit better at both than I was before this project. I still consider myself more or less a beginner with regard to video capture and editing, so I’m happy that the four shorts turned out as well as they did, and that I can see areas where I can do much to improve. On the whole, I think the project was a good first attempt at figuring out how to create narratives about neighborhoods.

I owe many thanks to Nick Kaufmann, Christian Dimmer, Yurika Takahashi and Brian MacDuckston for help in research, preparation and on the ground in Tokyo. Thank you to everyone who followed along, sent in comments or offered encouragement. Though my drive to do this kind of work comes from within, sharing it with others completes the equation. Now with Japan just a short plane trip away and China’s rapid urbanization occurring in real time at my feet, I anticipate The Tokyo Project will turn out to be just the beginning of this adventure.

Additional volumes: Volume 2, Volume 3