Japanese Cities in Their Global Context: Special Paper Sessions at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Los Angeles, 13 April 2013

By Edgington, David W.; Hein, Carola | The Town Planning Review, September 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Japanese Cities in Their Global Context: Special Paper Sessions at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Los Angeles, 13 April 2013


Edgington, David W., Hein, Carola, The Town Planning Review


After an interval of some years in which interest by scholars appeared to have waned, Japanese cities are back in vogue. With an eye to exploring the position of Japanese cities in a broader global context, the 2013 Association of American Geographers' meeting in Los Angeles hosted two consecutive panels bringing together research into aspects of Japanese urban history and contemporary urban development, as well as political, social and cultural issues. Participants and their audience came from a wide diversity of sub-disciplines, including geographers, planning historians and architects from universities in North America, Japan, Singapore and Australia. Working at the frontier of their fields, they all were interested in a multi-disciplinary approach to discussing the complex nature of urban life and the forces shaping metropolitan development in the Japanese context.

Global influences on Japanese approaches to town planning

To what degree are overseas approaches to urban development, policy and governance found in Japanese practice? Tristan Grunow, an urban historian from University of Oregon, developed this theme by examining the American and European influences brought to bear upon planning Tokyo as it transformed from a feudal castle city with narrow streets unfit for vehicular traffic into the Meiji capital of Tokyo during the late nineteenth century. Grunow's close reading of urban plans and improvement projects - the 1872 Ginza Bricktown project, the 1880 Matsuda plan, the competing Home Ministry and Foreign Ministry plans of the mid-1880s and the Tokyo Urban Improvement projects of the 1890s and 1900s - revealed a constant emphasis on transportation, street widening and the persistent recognition of the role of Tokyo as the seat of the national government and the residence of the Japanese emperor as the primary reason for undertaking such improvements. At the same time that western practice in New York and London emphasised sewerage and street lighting, the first recorded urban planning legislation in Japan, the Tokyo Municipal Improvement (Tokyo Shiku-Kaisei) Act of 1888, was instigated directly by the central government and was much more concerned over the capital's economic and political functions rather than its appearance or the social and housing conditions of its citizens. Notably, this emphasis on public works totally ignored housing and local residential environments. The history of early planning in Japan reflects a lack of interest in people and their needs, underlined by a long-standing lack of civil society in the country. To sum up, Japanese planning, at least until 1945, took a significantly different form from that practised in Europe and North America. While British planners emphasised public housing and redevelopment and American planners focused on strict land use controls in suburban areas, Japan followed a system of weak regulations and strong public works programmes heavily geared towards economic infrastructure.

The stark difference between Japanese and Western urban planning traditions was also considered by urban planning historian Fukuo Akimoto (Kyushu University). He contended that while western urban planning was wide-ranging, visionary and drew from Greek philosophy of the 'philosopher king', Japanese approaches to planning legislation established a pattern under which the national government held responsibility for planning, while municipal governments (with some national subsidies) were in charge of expenses and implementation of various projects. This planning system was appropriate to the highly centralised power which produced it, and it had an immense impact on all subsequent planning concepts. For instance, up until 1945 Japanese administrative style of planning had no public review or input into the new planning system due to the lack of civil society in Japan. Akimoto concluded that this system of city planning (toshi keikaku) persisted into the post-1945 period despite some decentralisation of decision-making given to local government in the 1968 Urban Planning Act. …

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