What do you see when you look at Tokyo? Hypermodern constructions of steel and concrete? Cubic, characterless office buildings? Jared Braiterman sees green … in the back streets, in the small cracks of dirt on the sidewalks and on his balcony. He finds patches, slivers and swaths of nature that tourists and even long-time Tokyo residents seldom see. He shares his findings on Tokyo Green Space (tokyogreenspace.com/), a blog he started after moving to Tokyo with his Japanese common-law husband three and a half years ago.
In Tokyo he has found “the ultimate city,” where you don’t need cars to survive and where even expensive plants are safe from theft or vandalism. In this interview with The Japan Times, Braiterman talks of the effect of community on sustainability, and about understanding a city through its plants and the people tending them.
What is your background?
My profession is design anthropology. I am interested in how people interact with digital and physical environments. Trained as a cultural anthropologist at Harvard and Stanford universities, I worked in Silicon Valley where I studied human behavior in order to make better products and digital services. I directed customer-insight and innovation-design projects for both small startups and giant companies. Today, my work combines academic teaching and research (at the University of Tokyo and Tokyo University of Agriculture), digital-brand consulting and in-the-dirt and virtual garden projects.
What made you start the blog?
I am a researcher and an inquisitive person. In Tokyo, I enjoy walking around trying to understand the city through the plants and the people tending the plants. Through that I find ideas and things I want to share. Judging from the view over the city, Tokyo can look ugly and unlivable, but Tokyo Green Space presents a different view of Tokyo, because this city is not all Shibuya scrambles. Once you get away from the wide, loud boulevards and the huge undesigned buildings, street-level life in Tokyo can be very pleasant.
You have a background in academia — how does that affect the blog?
In a sense, the blog is the antithesis of my academic training. Universities are about restricted knowledge. We study our own things, keep our research to ourselves so no one will steal our work, and we publish results in journals in a language no one understands. The idea of blogs is all about shared knowledge. I love sharing and getting feedback on my findings, and this blog has introduced me to so many fascinating people from all over the world — students, scholars, urban farmers — and it is really interesting to hear their takes.
I think the blog gives you great personal freedom. It’s informal, personal and you can develop it as you go along. And for me, personally, the blog has also been a way to be conscious about the seasons changing, about discovering new plants. I like to have things on daily, and because I am constantly looking for things for the blog, I keep observing and thinking about this city. It keeps me on my toes.
As a blogger, have you actively tried to build a brand?
(Laughs) I’m not sure I even have a blog brand. I always knew I wanted to do this publicly and I’ve written a lot for the popular press, especially Newsweek Japan and also for The Japan Times. But I wouldn’t say I have actively tried to build a brand as such.
Let me ask in another way: How do you use this blog professionally?
Tokyo Green Space is a public research project. It involves observing small public green spaces in Tokyo, sharing images and thoughts online in a diary format and connecting with other people online and in person. I’ve maintained the site for three years out of passion.
Most of your posts are pictures with a short description. How do you make these little discoveries?
Well, I walk around — a lot (laughs). I like to look at things like an anthropologist, which means looking at things from the other side, looking at things as a foreigner. And you can have that perspective even if you are native. It means getting out of the daily routine where you consider things as normal and instead asking the questions “Why is this normal? Is this really unremarkable?” It’s about looking at your surroundings with new filters. And as an anthropologist, I also think about the historical context. When you look at pictures from the Edo Period (1603-1867), for instance, you can see houses with potted plants out front — flower cultivation was central, and people continue that today. The desire of Tokyoites to live with plants is a historical one.
These ways of observing let you look at things in a different way. And anthropology is all about the willingness to have a different opinion.
Some look at Tokyo and just see a maze of concrete, but you have said that it is one of the greenest developed cities. Where do you see that?
If you look behind the skyscrapers, a lot of residential Tokyo is two- or three-story buildings, and children run around and play on the small side streets. For an American, it is shocking to see how unnecessary the car is. I am from San Francisco, a proper city, but you need a car to get around there. Here, you can live a life without any use of a car and that really opens up possibilities. It is amazing to be in a city without driving, even if there is a lot of concrete.
What does the Japanese feeling of community mean for a sustainable society?
To look at Japanese society as a big, like-minded community is, of course, simplistic. There are differences of opinion; just look at the antinuclear movement. That said, I look at Tokyo as thousands of small villages, thousands of small communities connected by an excellent train system. The village-like feeling means that people pay more attention to each other and that creates a safer environment at human street level. That makes it easier to be green. One of the things that amazes me about Tokyo is the plant safety. This is the biggest city in the world, but people can have expensive, well-groomed bonsai trees standing on the street and no one touches them. Compared to Europe and the United States, that is surprising.
Foreigners sometimes think that the Japanese have a special connection with nature, probably with things like Zen gardens in mind. But if that is true, why do we have 54 nuclear power reactors, presenting thousands of years of danger? And look at how Japan treats its rivers, like in Shinjuku and Kanda — they are covered in concrete.
Regarding the antinuclear movement — how has the disaster in Fukushima affected the way Japanese think about sustainability?
3/11 really encouraged people to stand up against the government. And it is quite remarkable that all the nuclear plants are shut down today. That was unimaginable even a year ago.
Another effect is the concern about food safety. People are interested in food that doesn’t need to be shipped from far away and people want to know where the food comes from and how it is grown. The best way to do that is to grow it yourself or buy it from down the street. I am currently working on a project with Jess Mantell (from the blog Edoble.com, and a new Japan Times tech columnist) and Chris Berthelsen (a researcher into creativity) about fruit-growing in Tokyo, and there is a surprising amount of backyard growing.
And, you know, when people start to grow food themselves, there are some excellent side effects. People start to think about their living standards in a different way. Perhaps they say they are afraid of having plants on the sidewalk because of passersby, perhaps they get concerned about CO2 and air pollution. So growing your own food can force you to think about the local environment and to discuss living standards.
How is the public sector dealing with the issue of sustainability?
There are a few things happening on the ward level. Suginami Ward, for instance, has the world’s biggest green curtain. That initiative encourages people to make their own green curtains. The wards are also more concerned about composting and zero waste. The city as a whole, the Tokyo government, doesn’t do much about renewable energy and is not focused on being green. And that’s too bad, because Tokyo is full of potential. I see it everywhere. The elevated train and roadways could be converted into green spaces, the sidewalks have great green potential and so do the rooftops and all the vertical concrete walls. I can really see Tokyo being a lot greener than it is today.
For more information and links to many of the issues mentioned visit jtimes.jp/blogroll.