A quick story about me, public seating and Japan: It’s 1994. I’ve been in Tokyo less than a week and this is my first time in Shinjuku. Lunchtime comes and my student thriftiness and Australian love of the outdoors beget a plan: I’ll grab something at a department-store food counter and eat it on a seat or a bench somewhere. The first part goes off without a hitch. The second ends in disaster. For half an hour I wander about looking for somewhere to sit, eventually settling for a bench in a bus stop in the very middle of the west Shinjuku bus terminal. Each time a bus comes, commuters shuffle past, glancing piteously in my direction. Red-faced and with a mouthful of tonkatsu sandwich, I wave them ahead. Better to pretend I’m just waiting for a different bus, I think, rather than explain I’m just there for the seat.

At the time, a vague notion formed in my mind that Japan had less public seating than the other (mostly Western) countries with which I was familiar. But I tended to see such realizations merely as new opportunities to adapt myself to the ways of the “Romans.” I was soon introduced to the wonders of Japan’s fast foods, such as Yoshinoya, and I’ve never again even tried to find somewhere to sit outside — not in this country, anyway.

Sixteen years later, I now realize that complaints about the lack of benches in public spaces are a fairly common gaikokujin (foreigner) gripe. Various ex-pat blogs decry the dearth of places to sit, and now, perhaps more significantly, there are surveys that indicate tourists feel the same way.

For the last three years, the “lack of benches and garbage bins” has registered as one of the top complaints made by tourists to Tokyo, according to a survey conducted by the Japan National Tourism Organization.

Public seating is not a common topic of discussion among Japanese — especially not bureaucrats. Research for this article found that not a single government (national, prefectural or local) has acted in response to the JNTO survey results. Many times potential sources expressed surprise when told why they had been called. And yet Japan still hopes to boost its annual visitor intake to 10 million by the end of this year (6.8 million visited last year). And, more importantly, the nation has a famously aging population. Surely it makes sense to discuss whether — and if so, why — Japan lacks places where people can take a load off in public.

The JNTO survey includes a sampling of what particular tourists said. In 2009, an Austrian tourist aged between 20 and 29 said that he or she would like to see “more garbage bins and benches.” Similar statements were made by an English person (20-29 years), a Belgian (20-29 years) and a Dutch person (60-69 years).

Tokyo and every smaller city in Japan is a maze of administrative jurisdictions. If the Austrian tourist was hoping to find a bench on a sidewalk, for example, his or her gripe could be with the local ward office, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government or even the national government. Each public road in Tokyo is administered at one of those levels of government, and sidewalks are considered parts of roads. If he or she was hoping for a bench in a park — which is less likely, as most parks in Japan already have benches — again, his or her gripe could be with any of those same three levels of government, as each manages parks within Tokyo.

No one spoken to questioned the premise that Japan did in fact have less public seating than Western countries. Perhaps the reason is that it seems no one has ever made an in-depth comparison. Another reason is that there really are an array of factors that impede the placement of benches in Japan’s public spaces.

The first was explained to me by Hiroshi Naito, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Department of Civil Engineering. “Japanese law does not recognize what would be called a ‘public square’ overseas,” he said. “There are ‘roads’ and ‘parks,’ but there are no ‘squares.’ ”

If land is classified as a road, Naito continued, then its primary function is to convey traffic, be it vehicular or pedestrian. “As far as the law is concerned, you are not supposed to be standing or sitting still on a road,” he said.

Some bureaucrats contacted expressed this sentiment, but only off the record — perhaps in deference to a 2006 law that actually makes the situation a little less clearcut.

That law was designed to enable the “smoother mobility of the elderly and handicapped,” and it established a new classification of road, the tokutei doro (designated road), along which it said that facilities for resting, such as benches, should be installed where possible. Tokutei doro were defined as roads on which the elderly or the disabled were likely to travel regularly, such as roads connecting train stations with hospitals.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG), for example, toes this line, placing benches on streets around hospitals and similar facilities.

As for footpaths that aren’t near hospitals, Shinichi Tanaka, chief of the road safety section of the TMG’s Construction Bureau, explained that there were other reasons they tend not to install benches. “The fact is that we really don’t have the resources or the budget to be actively installing them more broadly,” he said.

Tanaka also said that the TMG has decided that benches should only be placed on footpaths wide enough to accomodate both the bench and also at least 2 meters of space for pedestrians — “for safety reasons.” And considering that the most shallow bench made by one of Japan’s largest outdoor furniture makers, Kotobuki, has a depth of 42 cm, and that benches can’t be placed flush with the curb, that means a footpath in the capital must be at least 2.7 meters wide before it can even be considered for a bench. Anyone who has ever walked through Tokyo will know that this rules out most roadways.

One of Japan’s leading “landscape designers,” Eiki Danzuka, confirmed that the public sector’s lack of resources often translates into a lack of street furniture. “I always propose benches, but public sector clients usually turn them down,” he said. “They want such spaces to be zero-maintenance, because they don’t have the budget for the upkeep.”

Considering a lack of funds is a factor, you’d think that Japan would consider going the route of the 40-odd countries that now employ the servies of the French company JCDecaux, which provides street furniture free of charge in exchange for the right to adorn it with advertisements. JCDecaux has an office in Japan — MCDecaux (the “M” stands for Mitsubishi Corporation, with which it is a joint venture) — but they have been hamstrung by laws banning advertising boards on public land.

Toshiaki Endo, of MCDecaux, explained that in 2003 a loophole emerged that would allow bus stops with advertisements to be installed in public, and they now have contracts with several cities, including Kyoto and Yokohama. “But we can’t do any of the other forms of street furniture, such as plain benches or lamp posts adorned with ads, as we do in other countries,” Endo said.

The problem of Japan’s homeless people is often connected with a lack of benches, although the threat of having people effectively set up camp on benches seems to have resulted less in a knee-jerk aversion to them than in adjustments to their design. “Any bench that is permitted by the public sector will always be designed so that you can’t lie on it,” explained Danzuka.

Perhaps the tourists who complained of a lack of benches were expecting to find open cafes spilling into squares or footpaths — like those in Europe. If so, the lack of such eateries in Japan stems from the same problem pointed out by Naito: There is no such thing as a “square,” and a “road” is for moving, not sitting or eating.

It’s also worth noting the role of the police. As designated “traffic administrators,” prefectural police departments must be consulted before any local government can build anything on a footpath — be it a bench outside a hospital or anywhere else. Naito explained that as far as the police are concerned, there is no incentive for them to allow objects on pavements that might — in their eyes — impede their ability to “administer.”

Finally, there are those who postulate historical or behavioral reasons for a lack of public seating in Japan. A spokesman from Kotobuki, Makoto Ichiki, explained that the concept of outdoor furniture really only arrived in the postwar period.

It was so new, in fact, that in the mid-1970s Kotobuki tried to trademark the term “street furniture.” (The application was turned down, as each of the component words were deemed too common.)

However, despite the many factors allied against the spread of benches in Japan, tourists such as the Austrian, Briton and Dutchman mentioned above have some reasons to applaud. In recent years, the private sector has awakened to the value — literally — of outdoor seating.

Mitsui Fudosan, one of Japan’s most prominent developers, first experimented with external seating in their LaLaport Toyosu retail project, in Tokyo’s east in 2006. “At first it was really a quirk of the site,” explained Mitsui Fudosan’s Miki Kurobe, who worked on the project. “There was an old port in the middle of the project, and we couldn’t build over that, so we decided to provide external seating.”

It was landscape designer Danzuka who eventually created the complex’s now well-known undulating ground surface and punctuated it with fun, marine-themed benches. “The seating proved really popular with the public, particularly mothers with small children,” said Kurobe, adding that the rest areas prompted visitors to spend more time in the complex.

“We are now careful to include areas of external seating in our projects,” said Kurobe, and similar approaches can be seen in most new private developments, including Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown in Roppongi.

The private sector also plays a central role in what will likely become one of the most prominent examples of “public space” in Tokyo. In five years’ time, the Tokyo Station/Marunouchi redevelopment project will be completed with the planned creation of a giant square — roughly 60 meters by 60 meters — immediately to the west of the station. The land is owned by the East Japan Railway Company — and hence it doesn’t suffer from the same restrictions as a “road” would — but it is being developed in coordination with various stakeholders, including surrounding landowners, the TMG and operators of subway train lines. A broad-brush plan for the area, which was published in 2004, includes a recommendation that “objects that can be sat on, such as low walls around planters, could be included.”

Occasionally it is not just the business sector but individuals who manage to work with the public sector to create pockets of benches in Japan’s urban tangle.

Tadashi Ishikawa, an architect based in Tokyo’s Jiyugaoka neighborhood, was instrumental in creating a 400-meter strip including hundreds of benches along the so-called Marie Claire Road in his local area. “There used to be a small river running down the center of the road,” Ishikawa explained. “They filled that in, and then that strip of land became a de facto bicycle carpark, which wasn’t very nice.”

Hoping to improve the situation, Ishikawa and others decided to take matters into their own hands, building and then installing benches along a portion of the strip with neither the assistance nor the permission of the local authorities.

Miraculously, the presence of benches discouraged people from parking their bikes. Eventually, the local Meguro Ward government was convinced of the benches’ utility, and it has since supplied even more benches there. Marie Claire Road is now so popular that it has shifted the commercial center of gravity in Jiyugaoka from the north side of the station to the south.

There is a secret to Ishikawa’s success, and it lies in the fact that the strip of land on which the benches stand was once a river. Hence its administrative classification is not that of a “road” and the local government thus had greater freedom to develop it. They didn’t, for example, have to consult with the police department.

It was the University of Tokyo’s Naito who pointed out the loophole that allowed the Jiyugaoka benches. Without such loopholes — or significant changes to planning laws — he thinks it is unlikely that anything will change in terms of public seating in Japan.

The awakening of the private sector to the utility of benches is unlikely to influence the thinking of government, Naito said, because only the private sector sees commercial value in them.

The desire to please foreign tourists, too, is unlikely to motivate governments to change, as tourism still accounts for such a small percentage of Japan’s gross domestic product, he said.

Naito also explained that the forces stacked against public seating in Japan run far deeper that one might imagine. “Japan has had two chances to really revolutionize its urban planning,” Naito explained: after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and then at the end of the Pacific War, when many of the nation’s cities had been reduced to smoldering ruins. “But,” he said, “on each occasion efforts to incorporate increased public space, including the establishment of public squares, was met with resistance from bureaucrats who feared that such places would become gathering places for political dissenters, particularly communists.”

During the student demonstrations in the 1960s and 1970s against the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, he continued, if kids were out on the street singing folksongs, then the police were able to move them along. “After all,” Naito explained, “roads are made for conveying traffic — not for singing songs.”

And hence it seems the greatest reason that Japan really does seem to lack seating in public spaces is simple: the government has no incentive — and perhaps even has a disincentive — to create it. As Naito said, “If people want public seating in this country, they are going to have to fight for it.” That would seem to be the lesson learned from success stories, such as Ishikawa’s in Jiyugaoka, too.

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