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Rituals of Urban Life in Post-Growth Tokyo

Shimokitazawa, Tokyo
Photograph by Sam Holden

Recently, as I pondered how the rituals of life in modern Tokyo emerged and evolved alongside the growth of the city, and what the rituals of post-growth Tokyo could become, I spent an afternoon wandering through Shimokitazawa, a neighborhood in western Tokyo that is popular for its sense of local charm. Since the end of the war the neighborhood has organically evolved into a mosaic of jazz bars and quiet cafes, shops filled with exotic fabrics and quirky trinkets, and artisans and residents who make their homes in a disorderly web of alleyways that emanate from the crossroads of two train lines.

In a little second floor used book shop, I plucked a book off a shelf filled with titles on memory and ruins. My Map of Tokyo, written by Ineko Sata in 1949, is an elegy of the author’s lived experience of the city, recounting walks through the neighborhoods of her past, wooden planks over dirt alleyways lined by row houses, the oily smell of grilled meat wafting across the grounds of a quiet temple, the names and faces of individuals who were as essential to the geography of her city as the buildings and streets. As the title suggests, it is a chronicle of a Tokyo only she knew—a small world of personal meaning derived from local places and rituals that have mostly disappeared as earthquake, war, and economic development continually erased and rewrote Tokyo during the 20th century. In a city where the average building is less than 30 years old, history is often difficult to find in physical form—it is easier to seek out in the pages of old books in Jimbocho or the traditions and craftsmanship passed down through generations in Asakusa.

Modern Tokyo is a vast, artificial landscape home to 35 million people, but by paying attention to place names, we can imagine the network of villages and locales that occupied the region around old Edo just 150 years ago: bucolic names like Yanaka “in the valley,” Kayabacho “thatch fields,” Gotanda “five rice paddies,” or Shimokitazawa “lower north stream” are reminders of the very local features that defined communities just a few generations ago. Today, the place names are little more than waypoints to be entered into our smartphones as we navigate underground through a landscape that has been rendered increasingly placeless, everywhere smothered with ubiquitous convenience stores, train stations, and drab concrete buildings.1

Tokyo skyline

While cities have existed for millennia, the capitalist cities of the industrial age arose together with an altogether new way of life: rapid innovation in transport and communication technology allowed people, products, and information to travel ever more widely, enabling economies of scale, but also turning individuals into interchangeable cogs in a system of industrial production. Local communities, each with their own accumulated history of social, economic, and cultural rituals were gradually subsumed into new, larger social and economic systems. There arose a need not only to devise new rituals of daily life, but also new sources of identity and meaning to supplement the disintegrating traditional familial and geographic ties.

As midcentury Tokyo recovered from the destruction of the war, many found this meaning in the shared national pursuit of wealth and the objects of modernity—most famously represented by the “three sacred items” of a refrigerator, television, and washing machine. A culture that valued hard work and sacrifice valorized the rituals of legions of salarymen who endured commutes in inhumanely crowded trains to spend long hours at monotonous jobs. Meanwhile, the physical city spilled outward across the surrounding plain, covering rice paddies and hillsides in new subdivisions for a striving middle class, and upward as expressways smothered rivers and local neighborhoods gave way to featureless office facades that made every place look the same. In the high-growth era, getting rich was the point, both for individuals yearning to move beyond the deprivation of the defeat and for a society obsessed with catching up to the West. Life was improving so rapidly that individuals and society had little time to worry that the process of growth was erasing much of the city’s history and its rituals—if anything, homogenization was something to be welcomed, as it meant shared prosperity.

However, in the early 1970s, as society emerged from the pressure cooker of high-growth society, individuals were no longer content to be only interchangeable workers and passive consumers of the same mass-produced goods and culture as their neighbors. A new yearning for meaning in individualism began to be expressed in the rituals and urban form of the city.

As documented by sociologist Shunya Yoshimi in his book Dramaturgy in the City: A Social History of Popular Entertainments in Tokyo, an enterprising urban developer seized upon the cultural shift towards more individualized sensibilities and set about transforming the area around busy Shibuya Station into a participatory stage for the performance of various consumer and fashion subcultures. This effort took several forms: the segmentation of stores into various different sensibilities, the branding of different streets and areas with names that signaled style and refinement, and the integration of urban space with increasingly sophisticated media and marketing. The dozens of lifestyle magazines became “scripts” that guided individual “actors” in their different roles as they “performed” the city. For the city’s newly prosperous denizens, consumerism became a potent source of meaning and a means of expressing individual identity, and for the city itself, it became the lifeblood of urban space that would be rendered meaningless without the constant renewal of ritual consumption.

Today Shibuya remains a bustling hub of shopping and entertainment, and developers continue to churn out evermore-refined stages for the performance of consumer culture. But twenty years of economic stagnation have left their mark on Japan’s youth, for whom consumerism holds little of the appeal it did for previous generations.2 Indeed, it seems possible that the individual expression and subcultures that blossomed in Shibuya were perhaps only an intermediate station in the dematerialization of the idea of happiness. During the period of high economic growth, living the good life was all about attaining the trappings of material comfort. Later, the young people of Shibuya found that prosperity could buy them more intangible identity and self-expression. There is no doubt that these desires remain powerful forces in the culture today, but there is a sense that they are diminishing as more people see the arrival of Japan’s demographic and economic maturity as an opportunity to build a society focused instead on community, creativity, and less competitive lifestyles.

Zoshigaya, Tokyo

Away from the clusters of cranes in Tokyo’s redevelopment zones, pockets of the post-growth city are now beginning to reflect this sensibility. I often visit the neighborhood of Zoshigaya, where I like to sit in the grounds of a quiet temple and listen to the rustling leaves of an enormous Ginko tree. The owner of a quiet coffee shop in a renovated two-story wooden house tells me that residents call the neighborhood “Zoshigaya Village.” “This is Tokyo’s countryside,” he adds, “you would never imagine it’s just a few minutes down the street from Ikebukuro,” one of the busiest train stations in the world. Sure enough, the last of Tokyo’s prewar streetcars still rumbles by outside, and on an empty lot next to the tracks, the community has created a small vegetable garden and erected a small rest space in a wooden hut, complete with a slowly turning water wheel. In a city whose land was said to be worth more than the entire United States during the development frenzy of the 1980s bubble, deflation has brought the economy back down to the ground, where there is once again space for people to create local places.

Kengo Kuma, an architect whose work has been praised as a modern expression of traditional Japanese aesthetics of localism and simplicity,3 has written that Tokyo’s future lies in knitting together a patchwork of “villages,” or “places where individuals can live securely within a community, with a variety of lifestyles and choices.” He uses the word fermentation to describe the process by which these “villages” emerge—suggesting that they must be given time and space to evolve organically. Urban growth and development more often than not swallowed such local communities, but like a balloon slowly losing air, the urban environment is once again becoming more wrinkled, and spaces for new villages to ferment are reemerging.

People I have met in recent months are creatively making use of empty and underutilized buildings to create new guesthousescafesart studios, share houses, exhibition spaces, shops, and community restaurants. One organization is renovating dozens of old apartments in a suburb of Tokyo to create an entire village of artists, with various community events and other programming.

Overhead view of dinner table in a share house in Tokyo

The rise of such efforts in Tokyo suggests a new set of rituals for the post-growth city that emphasize a reconstructed notion of the city as local, specific, and animated by something more substantial than mere market interaction or consumerism.

One manifestation of this new culture is the share house where I live with seven other people in central Tokyo. Houses like mine have been springing up across Tokyo and Japan in the last five or six years, as people adopt a set of cultural values centered on community and individual happiness, not material wealth. I found my house through word of mouth, but one can now use special websites to search through hundreds of unique listings, including some designed for single mothers and children, or collaborative multi-generational housing. Although I pay less than a quarter of the price that I would for a cramped apartment in our prime location, the attraction of such a living arrangement goes beyond mere frugality. When choosing new residents, we intentionally maintain a diversity of careers (freelance writer to political activist), lifestyles (bohemian wanderer to busy salaryman), and ages (currently 19-60). The house is also a semi-public space that is constantly enlivened by non-residents who hold yoga sessions and meetings in our large living room (a rarity in Tokyo), and by itinerant acquaintances who stay rent-free when they drop through Tokyo.

The open, shared ethos of the sharehouse was described in a 2012 book as sumibiraki, literally “open living,” a lifestyle which the authors said created “a community not rooted in monetary relations, facilitating a flexible third connection beyond familial, geographic, or professional relationships.” Living becomes an act of place-making, in which interaction between residents and outsiders simultaneously engenders a culture of openness and intimacy. In the last six months, I’ve met members of half a dozen other sharehouses across the city that form a loose network of spaces operating according to similar ethos. Perhaps symbolic of these values, our door is never locked, and I don’t even have a key.

While the post-growth city’s wrinkled texture provides a ripe environment for the fermentation of a culture rooted in de-consumerism and communalism, capitalism’s perpetual need to find profit requires the constant rationalization and redevelopment of urban space4—oftentimes destroying the rituals of local places in the process. Shimokitazawa, the funky neighborhood where I came across Sata’s book, is a quintessential example of the sorts of organic village communities that Kuma argues are the lifeblood of the post-growth city. Despite vehement opposition from some neighborhood residents and patrons, the local government is implementing a redevelopment plan that includes the burial of one of the intersecting train lines and the construction of a large road through the center of the community and high-rise apartment buildings around the station. Opponents contended that the road plan was originally drawn up in the 1960s, when Tokyo was bursting at the seams from population growth, and few believe the additional road capacity is necessary in the post-growth city, but in many cases public policy and private profit motive still align to snuff out such fermentation.

Similarly, many architects and citizens voiced displeasure at the government earlier this year over plans to demolish the old national stadium to make way for a massive new $2 billion structure resembling a spaceship for the 2020 Olympics. Occupying a quiet site in one of Tokyo’s few public green spaces, critics have contended that the stadium will tower over the park and will barely be used after the games, whereas the old, more open stadium was frequently used by citizens. The dispute over the stadium revealed a rift of opinion over issues deeper than simple architectural aesthetics—many question whether mega-events should still be seen as a sign of national greatness.

How long can the system continue to operate according to values devised in an era of rapid growth? The Olympics are being positioned as the symbol of the government’s effort to rejuvenate Japan’s deflationary economy and national confidence, but many of the development projects they have engendered feel out of sync with the city’s maturity. Regardless, the transition to a new post-growth society will come sooner or later. If the inhabitants of this city seize the transition as an opportunity to reimagine social rituals and urban space to build a mosaic of local communities, Tokyo’s most interesting chapter could just be beginning—and perhaps my map of the city will end up just as rich as Sata’s was.


Sam Holden is currently a graduate student of Urban Studies at the University of Tokyo. A native of Denver, Colorado, he studied International Relations and Asian Studies at Pomona College. He writes on occasion about his life and ideas on Medium (https://medium.com/@samjapn) and is on Twitter at @samjapn.


 

  1. Marc Augé identified this condition of late capitalism as the invasion of the world by “non-places,” a phenomenon that he argued results in a profound alteration of awareness and curtailment of organic social life. See for example Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity (New York: Verso, 2009).
  2. Roland Kelts, “The Satori Generation,” Adbusters, May 7, 2014, https://www.adbusters.org/magazine/113/satori-generation.html
  3. Roger Pulvers, “Architect Kuma Kengo: ‘a product of place’,” The Asia Pacific Journal 11 (2014), http://japanfocus.org/-Roger-Pulvers/4141.
  4. See David Harvey, “The Right to the City,” New Left Review 53 (2008), http://newleftreview.org/II/53/david-harvey-the-right-to-the-city.

1 Comment

  1. Dear Sam, Thank you so much(and thank you Arrow Journal) for this article. I visited Japan for the first time in late August– early September this year. I had expected to just travel through Tokyo to explore other parts of the country but I found myself fascinated with many of the things you identify here and I stayed explored the Tokyo for several weeks. I had not prepared for the trip by doing research of any kind and I am fascinated by your report on this evolution of urban culture. I am admittedly not up to date on current economic and social thought and this article has proven to be a really good start. I hope you keep writing on these subjects. With appreciateion, Wendell Beavers

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