Sitting on his mother’s lap, Hisaki Kurosawa was among the anxious spectators watching the men’s pole vault finals at Tokyo’s National Stadium during the 1964 Summer Olympics.

That competition turned out to be one for the history books. Kicking off at 1 p.m. on Oct. 17, the event stretched late into the night as the fiberglass bar inched higher and temperatures steadily dropped. The showdown arrived at around 10 p.m., when American world record holder Fred Hansen cleared 5.1 meters and beat German rival Wolfgang Reinhardt to claim the gold medal. This was, and still is, the longest pole vault final on record.

“I was 3 years old at the time and have no memory of the event, but my mother would often recall how I caught a cold because of staying out for so long,” says Kurosawa, a writer and photographer who has been documenting the changing face of the world’s largest city for the past few decades. One of his latest books, “Tokyo Jiso Tanken” (“Tokyo Time Layer Exploration”), is a photo essay dissecting the capital’s lesser-known landscapes and architecture.

“Those were the days of black-and-white television, when the population could exult and despair over a common spectacle through their small screens,” he says. “But that has changed, just like this city.”

Kurosawa was born during a period in which Tokyo underwent an unprecedented infrastructure drive — a massive urban makeover that would transform the war-ravaged city into a first-world metropolis. A new sewage system gushed into action and a hundred kilometers of highways were freshly laid. Thousands of new office buildings and homes sprang up, and the world’s first bullet train roared between Tokyo and Osaka.

As if to rise above the polluted cloud of dust and industry, the city aimed higher and higher — just like the athletes young Kurosawa watched compete over half a century ago.

An author, photographer and Tokyoite, Hisaki Kurosawa has been documenting the capital over the past several decades. | HISAKI KUROSAWA
An author, photographer and Tokyoite, Hisaki Kurosawa has been documenting the capital over the past several decades. | HISAKI KUROSAWA

The 1964 Games would eventually come to symbolize Japan’s return to the international stage as a peaceful, economically confident nation.

Emulating that scale and significance, however, is a feat unattainable for the mature city Tokyo has evolved into in the decades since. Instead, what it might be presenting is a taste of both its unique history and what’s to come as an ever-changing supercity home to the world’s oldest population.

“I’m sure organizers were hoping the games would buoy Tokyo and the rest of the nation like it did in 1964, especially when the pandemic is weighing on the economy,” says Kurosawa. “But things move on. We’re living in the age of individualism. Be it the Olympics or the World Expo, these ‘national projects’ can no longer rouse the masses nor let host cities reap the benefits they promise.”

The three occupations

The Greater Tokyo Area is the world’s most populous metropolitan sprawl. Consisting of the capital and seven surrounding prefectures, the region is home to 37.8 million people and accounts for over a third of the nation’s entire population.

Nearly 3,000 firms capitalized at ¥1 billion or more are joined by the headquarters of more than 75% of foreign companies in the nation in Tokyo, whose gross domestic product accounts for roughly 20% of Japan’s total. On the other hand, 99% of business establishments in the capital are small and midsize, often resulting in glassy high-rises and traditional mom-and-pop shops rubbing shoulders on the same block.

“Tokyo is an abnormal megalopolis, not only for its gargantuan size but also for how it’s been sucking up Japan’s population and resources when the rest of the nation is facing demographic decline,” says Shunya Yoshimi, a cultural sociologist and professor at the University of Tokyo.

Nestled under some of the capital's many high-rises, the canals of Tsukishima are populated with houseboats. | HISAKI KUROSAWA
Nestled under some of the capital’s many high-rises, the canals of Tsukishima are populated with houseboats. | HISAKI KUROSAWA

After peaking in 2008, Japan’s population has been shrinking while the number of older people grows. As of January, those over the age of 65 accounted for a record 28.8% of the population, or 36.21 million people. Meanwhile, a quinquennial national census survey conducted last year and released in June showed that, despite the decrease seen in the rest of the nation, Tokyo had the highest rate of population increase at 4.1%, beating the rate it logged in 2015.

“Tokyo is a black hole, and if it continues to swallow up talent and capital, the rest of Japan could perish,” Yoshimi says. That phenomenon, he explains, can be traced to three “occupations” it has been subject to over the course of its history.

The first “occupation” was in 1590, when warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu entered Edo, present day Tokyo. Ieyasu would found the Tokugawa Shogunate and transform a sleepy little town into a city of 1.1 million through public works projects that included new canals, land reclamation and clean water supply systems.

In 1867, the Meiji Restoration would see outlying samurai from the southern Satsuma and Choshu domains (modern-day Kagoshima and Yamaguchi prefectures) topple the shogunate and play central roles in a new government. The emperor was moved from Kyoto to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo and became the new capital. Under imperial rule, the city would become a military center, Yoshimi says, with railways replacing canals to connect the city to the rest of Japan.

Finally, after its defeat in World War II, the Allied Forces occupied Japan until 1952. In the run-up to the ’64 Olympics, the conversion of imperial facilities and the return of U.S. military compounds concentrated in the west of Tokyo saw that area eventually overtaking the traditional east side hub for business, commerce and culture.

“The center of action shifted from districts in the northeast such as Ueno and Nihonbashi to those in the southwest including Aoyama, Akasaka, Roppongi, Harajuku and Shibuya,” Yoshimi says. “But what’s interesting about Tokyo is how traces of the change brought by these three ‘occupations’ coexist. You can still find patches of the Edo Period and the Meiji Era in the city.”

A crowded alley in Shinjuku’s labyrinthine Kabukicho, an entertainment and more recent (compared to Yoshiwara) red-light district that remains open 24 hours a day. | HISAKI KUROSAWA
A crowded alley in Shinjuku’s labyrinthine Kabukicho, an entertainment and more recent (compared to Yoshiwara) red-light district that remains open 24 hours a day. | HISAKI KUROSAWA

Unlike the West’s approach to city planning, in which an entire area is razed before new construction takes place, the approach in Tokyo has been to work around whatever is already there, inadvertently retaining a sense of the past, according to Yoshimi, who last year penned “Tokyo Ura-gaeshi” (“Tokyo Upside Down”). The book explores the north of Tokyo, arguing that these neighborhoods — largely neglected by postwar developments — harbor the potential to return as the cultural center of the city.

“What Tokyo needs to consider is decentralizing its capital functions and corporate offices to less populated urban centers. And now might be the right occasion with a pandemic-induced rise in teleworking,” Yoshimi says.

Rather than investing in high-speed maglev trains, for example, he calls on the city to reduce traffic and free up its roads for pedestrians and cyclists, perhaps even reviving the trams that used to be one of the primary means of transportation for Tokyoites.

“The city has approached that phase when it needs to slow down,” he says. “It needs to pursue quality of life, resilience and sustainability — not speed.”

Stuck in a rebuilding loop

It often feels as if Tokyo is under perpetual construction. Buildings torn down and rebuilt. Roads being repaired. New shops replacing old ones.

In a sense, Tokyo has never been able to shake the habit of continuously rebuilding itself, an identity that served it well coming out of World War II and into the bubble era.

This repeating cycle is nowhere more evident than in Shibuya, the chaotic shopping district that’s home to an iconic scramble crossing. As part of a huge redevelopment project, multipurpose skyscrapers have been erected around the station complex, and Shibuya River has gained new prominence.

While the area used to be known as a mecca for teenage fashionistas from across Asia, the store placards here — H&M, Uniqlo, Ikea — look more and more like the ones you’ll also see in Harajuku, another teen hangout, and Shinjuku — and on the streets of New York, London and Shanghai.

Shibuya Crossing is an iconic symbol of the frenetic side of living in Tokyo. | GETTY IMAGES
Shibuya Crossing is an iconic symbol of the frenetic side of living in Tokyo. | GETTY IMAGES

Similar redevelopment projects are underway in Shinjuku and Ikebukuro, major transportation and commercial hubs that were designated alongside Shibuya in 1958 as Tokyo’s “fukutoshin,” or sub-metropolises.

“The aim (in the ’50s and ’60s) was to decentralize business districts that used to concentrate near Tokyo Station and to move some of that function to the west of the Imperial Palace,” says Hitoshi Kuwata, a professor at the Shibaura Institute of Technology in Tokyo and an expert on city planning.

“The redevelopment of Tokyo’s office districts was part of a plan to reinvigorate the economy after years of stagnation” following the burst of the asset-price bubble in the early 1990s, he adds. “From around the 2000s, urban regeneration became a keyword among policymakers and these projects began accelerating.”

And under the shadows of skyscrapers, efforts are also underway in the traditional quarters of the city to preserve historical structures through careful renovations. Civil society groups, for example, are working to maintain classic architecture in Yanaka, an old neighborhood in northern Tokyo that was spared from American firebombings during the war. On weekends, the district brims with tourists curious to explore its temples, winding lanes and privately owned artisanal shops and eateries. More notably, there are no Ikeas here.

Kuwata, who has visited the area to learn about these local initiatives, says walkability is key for cities like Tokyo that are home to a graying population.

“With its residents aging, we need walkable, human-scaled neighborhoods and streets that can connect individuals to their environment and necessary lifelines.”

The subdued Games

Director Kon Ichikawa’s “Tokyo Olympiad,” a critically acclaimed documentary about the 1964 Games, begins with images of an iron ball demolishing old buildings in Tokyo.

“The scene was symbolic of how Japan was trying to build a new society after the war,” says Shinsuke Sano, a director at the Sasakawa Sports Foundation and professor of sports management at Shobi University in Saitama Prefecture.

From a firebombed ruin to an ultramodern metropolis, Tokyo has indeed reinvented itself over the past half century. And as much as the nation has changed, its residents have too. Sano recalls there were television sets installed in each of his elementary school’s classrooms during the 1964 Games so children could watch the competitions and write essays about them.

“I was 10 years old and would never have imagined the technological advancement we would achieve,” he says. “Now we’re living in the age of smartphones and social media, and that has altered how we interact and watch the Games.”

Socioeconomic priorities have also shifted as climate change takes center stage — a direct result of the enormous carbon footprints Tokyo and other cities have accumulated over the past decades as they raced ahead with urban development.

Perhaps emblematic of a vision for a more ecological future is architect Kengo Kuma’s new National Stadium. Replacing the old concrete and steel venue where Kurosawa, the writer and photographer, watched the Games in 1964, the new arena features wood and other natural materials.

The men’s pole vault finals will be held on Aug. 3. Kurosawa, who turned 60 this year, says he probably won’t be watching the competitions. The spate of scandals and controversies that have rocked the Tokyo Olympics and the ongoing pandemic are factors ebbing his enthusiasm, he admits. But moreover, it may simply reflect the changing times, when these international corporate-sponsored events just don’t resonate with the population as they had before.

“It’s a different world we’re living in now.”

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