Japan is facing a lot of problems when it comes to town planning: a decreasing population that will soon be overaged, shrinking towns in the countryside, and a fading government budget that is tinted by last year’s pension scandal. We already introduced you to the Shrinking Cities exhibition that toured Tokyo and dealt with vanishing populations. One of the people working on that was Hidetoshi Ohno, professor at the University of Tokyo. With his Fiber City project from 2005 he had developed strategies for a future Japan. Now, he gives an update with his Shrinking Nippon concept compilation, published by Kajima Institute Publishing. Ohno talked to PingMag about town planning in Japan.
Written by Verena
Your project Fiber City — urban strategies for Tokyo 2050 looked at how Tokyo has to deal with an aged, shrinking population and adjust its town planning accordingly. Is Shrinking Nippon an update three years later? How did it start?
In 2007, we had a three-week exhibition in Akihabara (more from last year here) and, every weekend, we held small symposiums to which we invited two or three lecturers each time. We thought that we should publish the results of this conference to digest and give a different explanation to our Fiber City proposal. Besides that, I had the idea to expand our proposal like the Linux computer platform. Mac and Windows are monopolised by companies, but Linux is shareware and open source, so people can add and improve the system with their collective power. Shrinking Nippon is made with this intention in mind, as I wanted to share the argument during the symposium.
So the second part of the book consists of the results of the conference. These are strategies, ranging from concepts by Yoshiharu Tsukamoto of Atelier Bow-Wow to projects in Kichijoji, or the collective Kandada Art Space. Please tell us more about that!
In the table of contents, you see that I divided them into five categories that I think are necessary to survive the shrinking stage. For example, one is about suburbia, the next is house and family, how to enjoy nature, thinking of stock, and the last one is play within the city. As I explained already in Fiber City, the suburbia is in a shrinking stage with an elderly society. A strategy would be that even the elderly have to work, since society can’t support them. Maybe, Japan will be soon one of the countries with most of the oldest people in the world and the pension budget will be almost near bankruptcy, provided it stays on the same level as the current pensions. When the pension supply will be diminished, the elderly must make money by themselves. This is also the reason why the suburbs will be changed the most.
Next comes the family: Now, the so called nuclear family dominates Japan’s demographics. However, soon the biggest chunk of the population will be the bachelor house including young as well as elderly bachelors. After a while, someone will be married, someone will be divorced and the single family will be prevalent. Because of that, for the next two or three decades, the household numbers will increase continuously — even though the population will decrease. This also means, the single family needs some help from the neighbourhood. Now the idea is that the public and the government will support the single family but, again, this won’t work with the shortage of the public budget.
The third chapter is about the shortage of nature and how people always are talking about the need for more greenery in the city. The government is always comparing this index with the percentage of greenery overseas, like, for example, in London. However, in the future, with a decreased population, we will have lots of vacant spaces in Tokyo!
Getting back to the suburbia: So we all have to get familiar with working our whole life?
In 2050, 40 percent of the overall population in Japan will become over 65 years old — two times of the current level. So if you don’t hire the elderly, maybe the Japanese industry might collapse. If you maintain them pro-active — and also a key-point would be the housing –, then these people would work longer, even after their retirement age. Of course, they can’t work like the current young people and their work style has to be changed. Other the economy of this country cannot continue this prosperity.
Ah, so hiring more foreign workers won’t be enough? Getting to the Japanese city structure: In other cities of the world, people move to the outskirts and abandon the city centres. Not so in Tokyo…
Currently, in Tokyo, it’s the opposite movement: There is a lot of urban housing, first because of young couples with money. Second are the elder couples with an empty nest. Because when their kids move out, they leave their house in the suburbs to move in a smaller house in the city centre. So there will be a decrease in the provincial towns. They will lose half of the population and industries, and the government body will be bankrupt, again.
In Shrinking Nippon, there is a whole chapter and a video report on the included DVD about Hakodate in Hokkaido. Is this a prime example of a town people abandon for the city?
Actually, Philipp Oswalt of Shrinking Cities chose it. Hakodate, as well as Niigata and Moji in Kita-Kyushu are symbolic cities: They are port cities and were prosperous before World War II. Because, at that time, Japan had many colonies, such as in Korea and China, and many transactions due to that. When the colonies went down, as went the port cities. However, in the future Japan will have different connections with these countries. For instance, a city like Russian Khabarovsk or the northern cites in Manchuria: In Manchuria, there are many call centres for the Japanese, in the same way as the call centres for America are in India. These are the new connections across the Japan sea.
Interesting! Let’s get back to housing please. The Japanese architecture is quite special in that regard. Please explain!
In the fourth chapter about stock is about something we already discussed with Fiber City: Japanese architecture has the shortest life-span in the world, around 30 to 35 years — in contrary to the life-span of the Japanese which is the longest in the world. However with a shortage of resources and a lesser budget, there would have to be a better performance of the architecture for people to use the houses longer than before.
Sounds reasonable. What we found most striking about Tokyo’s architecture is that, seemingly only here, the wildest objects come to life…
One reason maybe would be that the urban regulation isn’t as strict as in western countries. The other reason could be that those clients are quite generous when it comes to form and maybe someone would want such a unique form for his house or office. In my lectures, I sometimes give the comparison with a costume: a costume has two roles — one is the social role, the other is the personal role.
A social role would be, for instance, a businessman wearing a suit with a necktie. Internationally, this is the historical costume that expresses the trustworthiness of a businessman. The personal role would express your taste, your attitude and so on. Generally speaking in ancient times, the social role was bigger than the private role of a costume and in many civilisations every class had their own costumes, so people weren’t allowed to chose their own. In modern society this has been liberated. When coming to houses, in European countries the appearance of a house still has a social role. That it belongs to society and is not regarded as expression of the owner’s taste. Because if this house will live longer than you, it will belong to something other than you. However, this isn’t related to the short life-span of a Japanese house, because 30 years is way shorter and you will have built twice a house in your life. This is the difference in the representational system.
Can we learn something from that when it comes to town planning in the future?
I maintain that we have to connect the future with the present situation. Usually, when we talk about an ideal situation, it’s something that is different from the current situation. So the ideal is always a denial of the current state. But especially in this country, the future should be connected with the current. The best argument for that would be the Nihonbashi problem about the Nihonbashi bridge: The old traditional bridge is covered by the Metropolitan Expressway. Former prime minister Koizumi proposed that the expressway should be moved underground to protect the historical value of the bridge. I’m sceptical of this idea because the old Nihonbashi bridge was, when it was built in the Meiji era, a provoking element against the contemporary town sight. In Meiji, the streets were lined with conventional, black town housing. It was quite an alien in this context.
But later, again the same discussion happened when the Metropolitan Expressway was built right over the old bridge [in the '60s]: It was praised when it was completed as symbol of Japanese technology. Then, three decades later, the expressway was blamed and the architectural bridge was praised which once had destroyed the continuity of the traditional townscape. The expressway was to be put underground to stimulate the construction industry. I always say, that, in Japan, people hate the fathers’ work, but praise the work of the grandfathers, like people in Meiji blamed the Edo period, and people in Taisho blamed the Meiji period.
Then, town planners proposed to Koizumi the moving of the expressway and said that Japanese don’t respect the historic monuments. Only the problem is, if you demolish the old structures, you don’t have anything from your ancestors. And if you don’t respect your father’s work, you can’t have your grandfather’s work since with your son, your father’s work becomes your grandfather’s work. This is the historic friction. So I would say both is an heritage. The bridge stands for a time in Meiji when people liked to introduce western products, the expressway comes from an age of construction and stands for efficiency.
That’s very interesting! Even more since there aren’t many old buildings left… Thank you, Professor Ohno and your Shrinking Nippon compilation!
The Shrinking Cities case studies on Japan are available in English, the “Shrinking Nippon” book and DVD, is, for the moment, in Japanese only.