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Tokyo has a long and storied history, and yet little of it can be traced back to when the city became the country’s de facto capital under the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603.

This is largely the consequence of a need to rebuild the city constantly following frequent periods of destruction. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the firebombing of Tokyo in the final months of World War II are the two most obvious examples, and yet its residents have also survived massive conflagrations on a regular basis.

Between the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 that eventually allowed Tokugawa Ieyasu to establish the shogunate three years later and the Meiji Restoration of 1868, historians estimate that Edo (present-day Tokyo) experienced anywhere between 49 and 85 large fires that devastated vast swathes of land.

If smaller fires are included, historians estimate this number skyrockets to almost 1,800 and, even today, Edo is sometimes called “kasai toshi,” or “city of fire.”

As a result, much of Tokyo’s architecture has been constructed in the 20th century, with the city constantly rebuilding areas that have been destroyed. The architecture and aesthetics of the capital today reflect its past, while continuously being reimagined for the present.

A Herculean task

The postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games have been the latest impetus of change, with developers in the city gaining access to a range of attractive financing packages once organizers secured the rights to host the games in 2013.

Rail companies in the capital have taken advantage of favorable market conditions and, given how entrenched their operations are with property developments in areas surrounding stations, have planned numerous projects to overhaul the infrastructure of their investments.

Shibuya Scramble Square rises high above the neighborhood's iconic scramble crossing. | KYODO
Shibuya Scramble Square rises high above the neighborhood’s iconic scramble crossing. | KYODO

As a result, train stations around the city appear to be in a constant state of flux. Subterranean Ginza Station, for example, was a warren of taped-off zones and construction screens for three years, with its renovation finally finished in October. It cost around ¥22 billion ($200 million) to redevelop the hub and the work is part of a wider renovation of stations along the Ginza Line — Tokyo’s oldest underground railway.

Shibuya Station is also a constantly shifting transport hub, with temporary routes from A to B changing direction almost on a monthly basis. Raised footbridges at the station overlook gigantic holes gouged in the Earth, waiting for the arrival of additional skyscrapers and other structures that will comprise an “Entertainment City” — a dream for 2027 that will finally realize a neo-Shibuya that was partly prophesied as “neo-Tokyo” in Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga “Akira.”

“It may sound presumptuous,” Shibuya Mayor Ken Hasebe told The Japan Times several years ago, “but I want people to think of Shibuya in the same way they do London, Paris and New York.”

Of the large-scale developments planned for the Shibuya area, the Hikarie building was completed in 2012, while Shibuya Stream and Shibuya Scramble Square were finished in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Three more developments — in Dogenzaka, Sakuragaoka and the southern area of Shibuya Station — are in the works.

Writing for an online travel guide, Tim Hornyak states: “By the end of the decade, Shibuya will have completely changed into a nearly unrecognizable new town. But if you’re longing for the past, you might still be able to find Nonbei Yokocho (Drunkard’s Alley), a collection of tiny postwar bars by the Yamanote Line tracks that survives to this day and is proudly scruffy. The cooperative that runs it is determined to keep the establishments alive, along with the original community spirit of Shibuya.”

Just behind Nonbei Yokocho, however, looms large a potential rival: Shibuya Yokocho. Part of the Miyashita Park development that opened in summer, the new collection of izakaya (traditional Japanese pubs) located here is a decidedly modern take on the retro grit of typical yokochō establishments. The constant crowds and lines have already affirmed its popularity and, for now, both alleys survive side-by-side — for how long remains to be seen.

Pedestrians walk by the redeveloped Miyashita Park in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward. | AP
Pedestrians walk by the redeveloped Miyashita Park in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. | AP

Moving further east, an entirely new station opened on the Yamanote Line in Minato Ward on March 14. Dubbed Takanawa Gateway after crowdsourcing ideas for the name, the station and surrounding area is a joint project between JR East and the Urban Renaissance Agency to transform the neighborhood into “a global transportation and business hub.” Skyscrapers, commercial buildings and hotels are scheduled to be built in the area over the next four years.

It’s certainly not the first time the capital has overhauled itself ahead of an Olympic Games.

Tokyo’s selection as host city of the 1964 Olympics prompted many advancements that are now an accepted part of the furniture.

The Tokyo Monorail was finished over Tokyo Bay just 23 days before the games’ opening ceremony. Meanwhile, a number of metropolitan expressways were created in the capital and the Tokaido Shinkansen was unveiled. Roppongi-dori was also widened and a host of large hotels — Tokyo Prince Hotel and Hotel New Otani, to name two — sprang up.

What’s more, there was infrastructure directly related to the games themselves: Yoyogi Park — home to several venues and the Olympic Village — and Komazawa Olympic Park, for example, reshaped whole districts of the capital and still provide meaningful recreation spaces for locals.

But Yoshiyuki Kawazoe, an associate professor of design of architecture at the University of Tokyo, warns against comparing the property development in the city in 1964 to that which has taken place ahead of the 2020 Games.

“The situation of the city is very different between the Olympics held during the postwar recovery period and the Olympics 50 years later,” he says.

Takanawa Gateway Station | KYODO
Takanawa Gateway Station | KYODO

Ricky Burdett, director of LSE Cities and a professor of urban studies, says new developments should try to incorporate historical elements of the areas they’re replacing.

“In order for cities to remain alive and energetic, they need to accommodate change,” Burdett says.

“An old city like London has the capacity to adapt and absorb new development without completely losing its identity and DNA,” says Burdett, who was chief adviser on architecture and urbanism for the 2012 Olympics in London. “Given that the Olympic site at Stratford used to be a railway yard and became redundant and empty, the planning approach has integrated — wherever possible — new and sustainable types of development with the historic fabric and grain of London.

“It is not a question of either/or but about inclusive growth and integration.”

In Tokyo, however, this may be difficult to accomplish.

Sayonara, Harajuku Station

A short distance from Shibuya, one of the capital’s long-established landmarks is slated for removal: Harajuku’s iconic wooden train station.

Designed by Railways Ministry engineer Kaoru Hasegawa, the station was built in 1924 following the Great Kanto Earthquake. It sits opposite the frenetic and equally iconic Takeshita-dori.

Citing the station’s limited size and issues with fire safety, local lawmakers decided to dismantle the station following the Paralympics (a process that has already started due to the postponement of the games). A new station building has already appeared, unveiled without much ceremony, and started handling operations on March 21.

Replacing the old station is a minimal structure, aesthetically distant from the original — a revision to the Harajuku skyline that occludes the greenery of Meiji Shrine behind it.

Thomas Daniell, a professor in the department of architecture at Kyoto University, isn’t bothered by the design of the new building.

“I have no problem with it,” Daniell says. “The old one was a charming hybrid of Japanese and European elements, but it was too small.”

However, Daniell says the fate of the old station was probably determined by its lack of space.

“Private landowners are difficult to relocate (because the domain laws are weak), so it is difficult for developers to assemble sites large enough for coherent projects,” Daniell says. “Land readjustment is the usual model, which is quite bottom-up in principle.”

Tokyo's Harajuku Station in 2016 | REUTERS
Tokyo’s Harajuku Station in 2016 | REUTERS

In 2016, Regis Arnaud, editor-in-chief of Japon France Eco, wrote an article that was published by Tokyo Keizai titled “The major problems of Japanese tourism policy as indicated by the dismantling of Harajuku Station.”

In the article, Arnaud equates ruthless edificial change with a lack of knowledge in what overseas visitors really want.

“Shabby” Golden Gai in Shinjuku Ward, he says, is now “one of the trendiest places on Earth” — and Arnaud says that this is primarily due to foreign tourists. New developments such as Akasaka’s Tokyo Midtown, for instance, provide only “mechanical interactions” and are not necessarily where foreign tourists want to go.

“In other words,” Arnaud argues, “the places where ordinary Japanese people do not find value are really ‘Japanese-like’ places.”

Arnaud calls Harajuku Station a “symbol of Japan’s unique culture of the fusion of old and new things” found nationwide, and cannot understand why it is scheduled for removal.

“Harajuku Station is about to become a symbol of mottainai (waste),” he writes.

Nevertheless, it is out with the old, in with the new insofar as Harajuku Station is concerned. After its removal — a slow process — a replica is planned to be built nearby, partially using parts of the original.

Julian Worrall, a professor of architecture at the University of Tasmania, notes that the new station “appears to make little attempt to respond to the history or context of its site.”

That said, he goes on to qualify this statement somewhat.

“It does, however, have large glazed exterior walls and a branch of an upmarket cafe. Coffee and transparency (for both views and for shopping) are two features of contemporary urban culture that are found in many cities,” he says. “In this sense, the new station building is weakly expressive of the period that it has been built in — as was the old one.”

Similarly, Kawazoe believes that the new station buildings, including the rail company-operated stores inside and around stations, do not necessarily detract from a city’s character.

“The personality of a city is updated daily, so I don’t think that newness means that a city loses personality,” he says. “However, I do think it’s important that each new building creates its own individuality.”

Kawazoe admits it is probably “better to think more seriously about the beauty of a building than just its function.” The look of Harajuku Station — bar the green backdrop that exists on the Meiji Shrine side — is more utilitarian than aesthetically pleasing: glass for shopping, coffee for stopping.

A renovated Harajuku Station opened in 2020. | KYODO
A renovated Harajuku Station opened in 2020. | KYODO

Although the old building at Harajuku Station is being replicated at a site nearby, not all defunct architecture is so lucky.

Still, those that are saved from the proverbial fire may find a home alongside other architectural monuments of the past at Meiji Mura, a museum at Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture, founded by architects Yoshiro Taniguchi (1904-79) and Motoo Tsuchikawa (1903-74).

The museum began preserving buildings in the midst of Tokyo’s rapid development in the 1960s — when value was placed on economic growth rather than preserving old things.

The story goes that Taniguchi caught sight of the Rokumeikan (1833) — a prominent and controversial Western-style building in Hibiya — being demolished whilst riding the Yamanote Line. He immediately felt that historic structures needed to be preserved rather than knocked down, and the rest is, well, history.

Today, the museum holds treasures such as the lobby of the 1923 Imperial Hotel, designed in the Maya Revival style by celebrated U.S. architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).

“A more satisfying approach,” notes Worrall, “would have been to produce a design in a contemporary architectural language, but ensure that it consciously explores and expresses the historical layers of the site and context. You can see the results of a more historically sympathetic approach at Maach Ecute, designed by Mikan Architects at the site of the old Manseibashi Station down near Akihabara.”

Although somewhat alien to Western sensibilities, the idea of “rebuilding” heritage is something that has been done again and again in Japan to “general approval,” Worrall says.

However, if such plans fall through for Harajuku Station and it is to be lost entirely, it may be better that it is displayed in the architectural shadow box of Meiji Mura than not at all.

Looking to the future

In the “Japan Now 2020” episode of BBC Radio 3’s “Free Thinking” podcast, the state of “progress in Tokyo” is discussed by guests, including novelist and former voice actor Yukiko Motoya, who states that globalization is a “desirable direction” for the country.

“I go to places such as Shibuya and Shinjuku in Tokyo, and there’s no sense of history there,” Motoya says. “They’re a patchwork: They’ve been demolished and rebuilt, and I haven’t come across that lack of history anywhere else. I think it’s very Japanese. And I think, rather than clinging onto our image of what Japan should be, I think that this is much more interesting.”

That sense of Japanese-ness in the spirit of new buildings is something Worall agrees with.

“‘Built heritage’ has a different meaning and a weaker support base in Japan compared to many other countries in Europe and elsewhere,” he says. “In general, buildings are valued based on their economic and functional contribution, in addition to a short-lived fashion-based dimension that is related to their ‘newness’; they are essentially consumables, more akin to clothes than monuments.”

Property developers have grand redevelopment plans for the area surrounding Takanawa Gateway Station on the Yamanote Line. | KYODO
Property developers have grand redevelopment plans for the area surrounding Takanawa Gateway Station on the Yamanote Line. | KYODO

The landscape of Tokyo is constantly changing, something that has always been the case. Remembering that the old Harajuku Station was once new and expressive of 1920s Tokyo actually helps to process the new station building — a reflection of Tokyo 100 years later.

And as the retro facades and tiles of Tokyo’s train stations are being renovated, it’s also important to remember that the city itself is in a constant state of flux. Although a sense of history may be more and more difficult to find in increasingly densified areas such as Shibuya, it still exists.

“I don’t think (the city) much cares about history at all,” Kawazoe says, “but sometimes you can find fragments of the past where it wasn’t intended.”

In closing, Worrall sums it up well. Eschewing a “singular, privileged and protected version of the past,” he believes that history is bolstered by buildings that can link to different layers of the past instead.

“However,” he warns, “this should not overwhelm the future-oriented aspirations of those living in the present. Both the dead and the living have their rights.”

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