Japanese cities are unusual. Compared to those in Europe or even the United States, there are few physical reminders of a Japanese city’s appearance or atmosphere. Tokyo, notoriously, tears down or gentrifies buildings, but even Kyoto with some of its old architecture still standing provides few clues to a palpable past.
Meanings for urban landscapes must then be sought elsewhere — not in edifices and monuments but in some narrative of continuity and change, something that requires a different form of historical imagination.
This is what this interesting collection of papers attempts. “Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective” had its origins in a 1997 European Association of Japanese Studies conference. Nine of the papers presented then, are collected here, along with five others. These are the works of a very diverse group, comprised of architects, historians, anthropologists, geographers and urban planners.
Despite such diversity, the papers do share attributes: an appreciation of spatial composition, the interplay between power and memory, and a recognition of places caught between a preserved past and a future interested only in the new.
All consider architecture. As Nicolas Fieve states in his excellent paper on social discrimination and architectural freedom in the licensed quarters of Kyoto, “architecture stands like a petrifaction in time of the theatre in which men and women once played out their lives, a concrete expression of ways of life now long gone.”
Gone particularly in the ancient capital, Kyoto. Ryoichi Kinoshita, writing about the vanishing traditional town-houses of the city, states that in the decade between 1978 and 1988 alone, over 50,000 prewar wooden residences were destroyed. And, as Masafumi Yamasaki and Paul Waley write in their paper on Kyoto’s attempts to preserve its urban landscape, “the national government, apparently, is not interested in conservation of the historical environment of Kyoto.”
This indifference, plus an amount of interested commercial investment, permitted not only the destruction of much of old Kyoto but also the construction of the two major modern symbols: the Kyoto Hotel and the new Kyoto Station.
How construction rules were bent and zones adjusted is explained in full detail. In addition the reasons behind what might be described as machinations are revealed — among them, exorbitant inheritance taxes resulting in forced land-selling to “developers,” the special role of the “land-owner” in Japan and the arbitrary nature of the “laws” governing construction.
As an example of the latter, if someone wanted to make a traditional-style tea-house, a false application claiming the structure to be intended for storage only would first have to be made. Why? Because the height of the ceiling in the traditional tea-house is too low to satisfy the Building Standards Law.
Tokyo is, of course, Kyoto writ large, but there is now much less left to destroy and the area was never seen as any tranquil repository of the past. Nonetheless, architectural opportunism and construction company connections have prevented the kind of urban planning that might be considered as memorable.
As Carola Heim notes in her paper on “visionary” plans and planners, though some 115 cities were to be reconstructed after the end of World War II, only two of them benefited by anything resembling city planning: Nagoya, which used a variant of old plans from 1920 that had already been approved, and the special case of Hiroshima.
As Kenzo Tange, the architect of Hiroshima’s “Peace Park,” writes, the successful planning of this small part of the city was “an unusual and fortunate opportunity in Japan. For it has been possible to gain the cooperation of various administrative and governing interests and get them to agree to act together as a single body.” And, as implication suggests, in all other cases it was not possible.
This thoughtful collection represents something of a new approach to urban studies. As Paul Waley writes, “Land is a powerful tool of capital accumulation.” Japanese cities “have stories where other cities have monuments. This is narrative urbanism.”
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