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Tokyo after the Olympics: A Science Fiction at the Center of the World’s Attention

Keigo Kobayashi
Associate Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Four years have passed since Tokyo was chosen to host the Olympics. Besides the fact that major construction sites are noticeable around the city, the reality has not yet quite sunk in. This marks the third time for Tokyo to plan and organize the Olympic Games, each time in a vastly different historical backdrop with major impact on the city. The plan for the 1940 Olympics, which never took place, was the first Olympic Games held in Asia, and was an opportunity for Japan to showcase its national power and recovery from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The 1964 Olympics was a stage to present to the world its recovery from the war and the postwar economic miracle. How about the upcoming Olympics in 2020? Along with the results of the recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake, what kind of a historical backdrop will Tokyo be presenting itself to the world this time?


Going back a year and a half before the decision to host the Olympics, an article in the American journal The Wilson Quarterly left a strong impression. The article talks about the future of Japan as a country embarking into the world of science fiction. By science fiction, it is not referring to the high-tech futuristic city that fiction novelists saw in Tokyo during the bubble era in the 1980s. According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, the population of Japan 50 years from now will drop to 90 million, with 40% of that population consisting of senior citizens. In the other words, there has never been a nation on Earth that has experienced this sort of extreme shrinking and aging of its population, referring as a phenomenon right out of the world of fiction.

Whether directly related or not, in recent years, there have been an increasing number of invitations from universities in the West to conduct joint research and workshops. Most of the themes are related to Tokyo or metropolitan areas in general, revolving around the potentials of architecture and urbanism in the face of these social challenges. While the Japanese media mainly focused on the controversies surrounding the National Stadium and the moving of Tsukiji Market, the viewpoint from overseas seems to be focused on the future beyond the Olympics.

Sugamo Jizo-dori Shopping Street

Just this year, in the beginning of spring, we took part in a collaborative research workshop titled the Tokyo Ghost Guide with professors and students from UCLA. As two cities that have the experience of planning for three Olympic Games, we were examining how Olympics projects can have impacts on cities from a behind-the-scenes perspective and documenting them in a form of a Tokyo guidebook. By tracing back through time, and to observe both the surviving remnants as well as the disappeared sites as resulted directly or indirectly by the Olympics, we attempted to reveal another image of the city that could have existed within the ambiguous and vulnerable areas of Tokyo.

Few weeks following the workshop, the Harvard University Graduate School of Design held an international symposium in Tokyo, titled Tokyo: Future City, Future Citizen. It was an event of interdisciplinary discussions on urbanism and architecture with experts from the automotive and IT industries alongside with architects and researchers. It is said that the transformation of mobility and the paradigm shift brought upon by big data will certainly have a major impact on the city and the lifestyles of its citizens. One of the topics that became clear in the discussions was how the decentralization and dispersion facilitated by technology could also lead to the problems of accelerated dilution and hollowing out of the city. Especially in the areas of high-density residential districts surrounding the city center, it is crucial to sought out new ways for physically reconnecting individuals, and thus suggesting a possible scenario of two independent Tokyo: the urban center and the surrounding ring.

The Takashimadaira housing complex

In the summer, students from Columbia University visited Japan as part of a project titled Aging Tokyo, which examined Tokyo from the perspective of the society and its rapidly aging population, in order to look for hints that may shed light on similar problems that face New York City. While researching the rapidly proliferating tower structures of senior citizen housing in the city, as well as incentives provided to young households for living in suburban social housing complexes, the project took a unique outside approach to envision future of Tokyo through hints from Sugamo shopping street, known as elderly’s Harajuku, and the small alleyways of old wooden house residential neighborhoods and the human relations they foster.

In the next academic year, there is already a plan for collaborative workshop with students of the National School of Architecture of Versailles France that aims to examine the future of residential typologies in Tokyo. While it seems that this trend is set to continue for the foreseeable future, needless to say that those students and professors are not coming here because they are worried about the future of Tokyo. Beyond this realm of fiction, they are seeing the realities of the futures of their own cities. Just like how 100 years ago when Manhattan served as the testing ground for a city built in the framework of capitalism, Tokyo is now serving as the new testing ground for the world. Today, there are already many young architects and activists who are alert and responding to this opportunity, venturing into the world of science fiction. What I think is important is that each of these local activities serves as a way of blazing a trail to the future of the world, and that such individual awareness is the key for Japan to stay in the forefront of the world stage, despite its shrinking background.

Keigo Kobayashi
Associate Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Born in 1978, Professor Kobayashi graduated from the Department of Architecture, School of Science and Engineering at Waseda University in 2002 and completed his Master’s degree at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University in 2005. He worked at an architectural design firm in the Netherlands until 2012 before becoming assistant professor at the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Waseda University. In 2016, Professor Kobayashi became associate professor at Waseda University. His works include the 2014 Venice Biennale of Architecture Japan Pavilion, the Enemane House 2015 Waseda Live House, and more.