A City Teeming With Life, and Electrons

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img_7469_cr.jpgAlthough my fascination of cities will hopefully take me to other Asian spots, thus far, Tokyo is the only large city that I have visited in Asia. The first time was utterly overwhelming. This time, I could digest it a little more. Even still, one could spend a hundred years traversing the main avenues and backstreets of this city, and still only experience a tiny fraction of its contents, while hardly understanding anything about its workings.

The most striking aspect to me is how the Japanese have mastered the art of urban layering. When you have a metropolitan area, counting the areas surrounding Tokyo, of around 34 million people set on only 7,000 square kilometers, space is a premium. Strangely, though, as dense as Tokyo seems, it’s population density of about 5,000 people per square kilometer is nowhere near the world peak, as most cities in the developing world have a much higher population density. Actually, Tokyo is not even the densest city in Japan, behind Kyoto and Sapporo. Even still, if you are going to fit all those people somewhere, you had better figure out how to perform some amazing engineering feats, both physical and social.

img_7811_cr.jpgBy physical engineering, I mean the construction of the city in multiple layers, both vertical and horizontal. Especially in the urban core of Tokyo, there are so many intricate and coordinating layers built into the urban framework that the result is at times mystifying. Many large buildings have an underground mall of several floors that extends down, possibly to the public transit. Come up around street level and one finds usually about 3 levels that open to the street: one at the actual street level, and perhaps one above and below with inviting steps and courtyards defraying the visual shock of the end of building. Above street level, highways and walkways criss-cross over busy city streets, deflecting the impending clash that would result from funneling all of these people onto street-level. Move up above these highways and hundreds of sky-scrapers dot the urban view of Tokyo, some with high-speed elevators to allow for rapid indoor transit. Unlike a travesty such as Crystal City in Arlington, the underground and above-ground networks are intricately created so as to allow you to move from one level to another. The structure seems to have arisen out of pure necessity and space constraints, but knowing the Japanese ability for planning and order, I have no doubt that lots of really smart people got together to pull off this experiment.

img_7359_cr.jpgHorizontally, the space between buildings is small by European standards, and minute by North American standards. Indeed, as I later found out in some conversations, many Japanese are reticent to part with their land and houses, even despite large potential profits available to them. Instead, if you want to build a building you go up and around, conserving space by jutting up against the next building as close as possible. The buildings are limited in height, though, probably due to the strict provisions for earthquakes. There is no real city center to Tokyo, instead there are multiple urban hubs spread out throughout the urban core, usually centered around the main train stations. As I was told, Tokyo developed without much of a central plan. Instead, development was focused around the main train stations, which were developed through the quasi-public train companies. Thus, major urban hubs exist in places away from the center such as Shinjuku or Ikebukuro, with shorter residential buildings found in between. The result is a sprawl of urbanity, stretching as far as the eye can see with numerous buildings of equal height and tiny, one-land side streets. Thus, Tokyo may have a lower population density per square mile or km, as density comes from vertical expanse, but the Japanese sure have packed in the buildings. Even still, the average commute for people working in Tokyo is over an hour.

The ultimate testimony of this urban steroid pill is the subway and train system. Here’s the map. Can you find your way home?


As I mentioned, urban areas can only thrive with a particular physical engineering that meshes with a social engineering, all enveloped in the local culture. With so many people in one spot, the social engineering of Tokyo society is vital to its survival. By social engineering, I mean the ritual habits and customs that allow this incredibly packed urban center to maintain and not deteriorate into a lifeless collection of stress and anger. For one, the Japanese are incredibly courteous and very deferential towards other people, so as not to offend. Calming classical music streams from speakers in buildings and public places all over. Additionally, there are markings everywhere, telling one where to stand for the cross walks, where to descend in a stairway, and where to enter a train. All of this helps to organize, as much as possible, and mediate the urban chaos, perhaps giving an impression of stability (or oppression, as many people do not like Tokyo) in amongst the bedlam.

img_7828_cr.jpgAnd is it ever busy. Everywhere you look, you have trouble people-watching because there is simply too much to watch. Neon advertisements flash everywhere. Pictures of food served in a restaurant line the buildings of each street. Stores with wide open facades belt out techno and electronic music, topped off by some poor young worker using a megaphone to convey invitations for entry to the store. The Japanese are natural entrepreneurs, and have created an urban place that is teeming with capitalistic life. The actual offices in office buildings usually do not start until four or so floors high, as the lower floors are dedicated to restaurants and shopping, which are all advertised up the sides of buildings in neon lights. There are so many restaurants that it is literally overwhelming to decide between them. True, there are 10 million people to feed, but there may be something else to it. I found out from some of our contacts that many Japanese businesses work hours shifted from what is considered normal business days in North America or Europe. For instance, one contact of mine worked 10M-7PM. Thus, he ate two meals away from the house, whether at restaurants or from a pick-up stand near the office. In general, the Japanese work long, hard hours and are very industrious. Add to this is a culture of work where employees are often obliged to attend post-work functions. Dinners, parties, whatever. The caricature of the Japanese salaryman has them getting into the office in the morning, then going out for a company dinner with lots of booze, drinking late into the night, even spending the night under the desk when it’s too late to catch the train. I am not sure how much of an exaggeration this is from Western misunderstandings related to the 1980’s Japan-fears, but the Japanese do work hard and need to eat. Indeed, lots of small eateries in Tokyo have bars where single men and women sit alone and take down noodles or sushi, before catching a late train back to the house at bedtime.

img_7822_cr.jpgMy colleague and I were, not by coincidence, out late such a working dinner one night with our Japanese counterparts and had to take a train back late at night. After lots of beer and Japanese whiskey (cut with warm water), we hopped back on the train to the other side of town at about 11PM. Simply put, the Tokyo public transport, as well as the suburb of Ikebukuro, was hopping at 11PM. The trains and stations were busier near midnight than at almost anytime of day in Vienna. Add up long hours, hard work, and sometimes oppressive crowds, and it is feat of social engineering that the city does not explode.

Tokyo is truly a marvel. I am sure that Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai will be their own worthy representations of the Asian urban creation, but I will always have a special enchantment with Tokyo, since it was the first that I saw. That and, well, it’s in Japan.

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