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Alleys and Boulevards: Japan’s Modern Urban Spaces

Mikio Wakabayashi
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Yume-no-Ohashi Bridge, Center Promenade

The composer Masahiro Hiramoto, an acquaintance of mine, publishes a series of conversations held with different guests online (http://teknatokyo.com/document). In January 2013, I was his guest to talk about the Yume-no-Ohashi Bridge, part of the Center Promenade connecting Tokyo Big Sight to Odaiba in the Rinkai Fukutoshin area. To me, this is a unique place that gives a real sense of present-day Tokyo, with open skies above a 60m-wide walkway and hardly any pedestrians. Contrary to its name, Center Promenade is close to but separated from the city center and offers a view of Tokyo that is rather like a cross-sectional CT scan of the city. This huge, empty space seems like a new side street created by the giant metropolis of Tokyo.

Speaking of side streets, the first time I met Hiramoto was in a shop in an alley near Kita-Senju Station. “Senju” is a town which has many attractive back streets. Each of the labyrinthine alleyways that run like cracks through the urban blocks, presents a new landscape. Located northeast of the city center in Adachi ward, Senju itself is a sort of back street area of the metropolis of Tokyo. It is here that people live out their daily lives in a way different from the main streets of Tokyo’s “center”, like Kasumigaseki, Marunouchi, Ginza or Hibiya.

Back street in Kita-Senju

I use the terms “center” and “main streets” but, as is often pointed out, Tokyo has no generally recognized center in the form of a square or other central point. There is no single space acknowledged by everyone as the “face” of the city, where people gather when something happens, or where the flow of people is particularly concentrated, such as Broadway in New York, the Champs Elysees in Paris, Tiananmen Square in Beijing, or Piazza San Marco in Venice. Of course there are many busy entertainment districts—Ginza/Yurakucho, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Omotesando, and Roppongi. There is also Marunouchi, sometimes called the “doorway” to Tokyo. But this city does not have a square or street that is the daily focal point of its residents as well as a space for festivities, where people can express and share their joy, sadness or anger, a single hub of cooperation and communality in public life. Modern day Tokyoites have centers of business and consumer activities but no shared center of civic community, and they have developed their city based on such a way of life. The city that we call Tokyo is not one group of people with a common center, but a number of groups existing in their respective local areas. In the daily life of these local areas, the spaces that act as the “squares” of their communities are the back streets.

The subcenters of Shinjuku, Shibuya and Ikebukuro were originally Tokyo suburbs that evolved into amusement districts around the Yamanote Line's suburban commuter hub stations. Even now, there are many alleys hidden behind the main streets, particularly in areas such as Shinjuku’s Golden Gai and Shibuya’s Hyakkendana. Omotesando and Roppongi, too, have attractive alleyways and alley-like spaces tucked away here and there. Even in Ginza and Hibiya, which I mentioned above as Tokyo’s main streets, there are numerous narrow spaces concealed between buildings or underneath railway tracks. The multi-tenant buildings seen all around Tokyo’s entertainment districts are also like multi-story alleyways and backstreets.

In his book Miegakuresuru toshi (“Glimpses of the City”,1980), leading contemporary architect Fumihiko Maki points to the characteristic structure of layered depth in Japanese-style spaces, as in traditional inns that have been successively expanded. Alleyways are spaces of “depth” created within Tokyo during its process of becoming a megalopolis. One of the pleasures of walking through Japan’s cities, not only Tokyo, is wandering through the many hidden, and mostly nameless, back streets.

There are no backstreets in the suburban planned towns that sprang up around Japan’s major cities after the war. But Tsukuba Science City, itself a kind of government-built suburban planned city, does have a section of alleyways. The tavern district known as Kuidaore has rows of multi-tenant buildings named after the entertainment districts of Tokyo—Aoyama, Roppongi, Yurakucho, Kabukicho, and so on. Despite being a bleak rectangular area, flanked by a two-lane main road, a park and a junior high school, which cannot be described as being “hidden” or having “depth,” it seems to show that even people living in such a planned community need this kind of “tucked away” space.

When we consider the aspects of “hiddenness” or “depth,” what does the vast Center Promenade in Rinkai Fukutoshin say about our present-day city? Above, I wrote that it is a “new side street created by the giant metropolis of Tokyo,” and yet it does not convey the same feeling of “hiddenness” or “depth” as an alleyway. Confining human activities and lives within giant office buildings and high-rise apartment blocks, and with only a handful of people in the street, this place seems to be a new style of city created in the modern era. In a sense, it reduces the city of Tokyo to a huge backstreet, yet Rinkai Fukutoshin itself has neither a “hidden” nor a “public” face, not even an urban space where people will gather.

Mikio Wakabayashi
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Wakabayashi serves in the Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences at Waseda University. He specializes in sociology, urban theory and media studies.
Born in 1962, he earned an undergraduate degree from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a PhD in Sociology, both at the University of Tokyo. He held several positions including professor at the University of Tsukuba before taking his current post in 2005. His many publications include: Sociology of the Suburbs: Living in the Modern Era [Kogai no Shakaigaku: Gendai o Ikiru Katachi] (Chikuma Shinsho, 2007); Malling of Cities and Society: Theories of Giant Commercial Facilities [Moruka suru Toshi to Shakai: Kyodai Shogyo Shisetsuron] (NTT Publications, 2013); Twelve Books for Learning Urban Theory [Toshiron o Manabu tame no Junisatsu] (Kobundo, 2014).