A New Deal for Japan (1)

Urban design specialist Christian Dimmer looks at the longstanding problems afflicting Japan’s peripheral regions that have been highlighted following the March 11 disaster. Japan has made critical errors in rebuilding its cities from destruction in the past; to avoid these errors in rebuilding Tōhoku will require broad-based participation in the debate and the reconstruction process.

Urban design specialist Christian Dimmer looks at the longstanding problems afflicting Japan’s peripheral regions that have been highlighted following the March 11 disaster. Japan has made critical errors in rebuilding its cities from destruction in the past; to avoid these errors in rebuilding Tōhoku will require broad-based participation in the debate and the reconstruction process.

More than 470 square kilometers of Japan’s northeast have been devastated by the tsunami that followed the massive March 11 earthquake, leaving tens of thousands dead or missing and many more living in temporary shelters. The shutting down of numerous nuclear power plants, part of a highly centralized, hierarchical power generation system, has caused an unprecedented energy crisis with severe repercussions for the national and even parts of the global economy. The aftershocks have sent tremors far beyond the areas directly hit by the natural disaster.

I believe that the current devastations, horrific as they are, have only exacerbated an existing, crawling structural crisis in these parts of rural Japan. I propose that a comprehensive, long-term strategy is needed in order to use the reconstruction effort to help solve the demographic, social, environmental, and economic problems that were already in place prior to March 11.

The Disaster Preceding March 11

I must first address the widely accepted misconception that the earthquake, the ensuing tsunami, and the nuclear crisis were a “triple disaster.” This view obscures the fact that the disaster-stricken areas had been afflicted by deep structural problems for decades. Moreover, these symptoms are nothing peculiar to the northern Tōhoku region, but are shared by nearly all of the nation outside the large urban agglomerations of Osaka-Kobe, Nagoya, and the Tokyo metropolis.

A comparison of the current crisis to the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake throws these demographics into stark relief. The 1995 quake primarily struck Kobe, one densely populated city of 1.5 million inhabitants with 13.5% of the residents aged 65 or older; the Great East Japan Earthquake hit hundreds of kilometers of coastline in mostly rural regions with a population of nearly 7 million, 22% of whom were older than 65.

A high share of the younger population has left their hometowns in Japan’s periphery to study or find work in Tokyo. The result is a demographic imbalance, with the rural share of people older than 65 rapidly rising and the economic base of those regions eroding. The agriculture, fishery, and forestry labor force is also shrinking, with the result that the country’s food self-sufficiency is on the wane and food imports are growing.

The large-scale shopping malls that have proliferated in rural Japan have sapped the last energies of retail districts in existing town centers in a manifestation of the growing attraction of energy-intensive, car-centered urban development patterns. This has left the old and immobile isolated in dilapidated, atrophying downtowns.

Generic, low-cost architecture has not only leveled once characteristic townscapes and erased local differences, but also necessitates high energy consumption for cooling in summer and heating in winter due to the lack of insulation.

Learning from the Past: Great Visions, Little Support

The counterpart of this hollowing out of the regions is an overconcentration of government functions, corporate headquarters, educational facilities—in short, political, economic, and cultural power—in metropolitan Tokyo. Experts agree that there is no doubt whether another big earthquake will directly hit Tokyo; the only question is when it will happen. With much of the country’s actual and symbolic capital concentrated in the world’s largest metropolitan area, 35 million people live in permanent danger and the nation’s economic future is highly vulnerable.

When Honda Seiroku, designer of Tokyo’s first modern park in Hibiya (opened in 1903), submitted plans to the Imperial Reconstruction Board after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, he envisioned an elaborate system of parks, greenways, and waterfront promenades. Home Minister Gotō Shimpei, in charge of the overall reconstruction, did not merely want to rebuild the status quo. The goal was to provide Tokyo with a new foundation for orderly, sustainable future development. However, in the struggle between competing government bodies and conflicting interests, the parks budget was reduced by 90%. Worse, private landowners resisted the contribution of 10% of their land for urgently needed public facilities such as parks, schools, streets, and sidewalks. Although the value of their land would have increased as a result, they put their private interests over the greater public good.

More than 20 years later, another visionary planner, Ishikawa Eiyō, drafted a 1946 reconstruction plan for the charred ruins of war-devastated Tokyo. As Gotō and Honda before him, he proposed a sophisticated system of parks, playing fields, and agricultural green spaces that would form a huge greenbelt around Tokyo’s 23 wards, offering great amenity to the urban populace. Two decades later nearly all of the green spaces had disappeared. Again, a grand vision had failed because of a lack of political, institutional, legal, and popular backing. Public companies had built in the greenbelt because of the availability of land and farmers sold off their property as building plots to make profits.

In this way petty political struggles, coupled with superior private interests and popular disinterest, led to the failure of even the boldest visions. If structural reform is to succeed, it must enjoy broad societal support and people must have the feeling that they are part of the vision making and not mere subjects of government plans.

In the following section of this essay I will sketch out some ideas on what a New Deal for Japan could look like. My intention is not to draw up an extensive catalogue of concrete measures for rebuilding and restructuring Japan’s devastated northeast, but rather to explore some comprehensive, far-reaching visions that address the wider scope of problems confronting rural Japan. The swift provision of sufficient temporary housing for the victims of the March 11 disaster should of course be the highest priority. However, the past has shown that temporary structures easily turn into permanent ones, and therefore reconstruction should be guided by a broad vision-making process. This will take a long and sustained effort by many, and it is not only experts who should debate a restructuring of the country, but the public as a whole. (Written on May 1, 2011. Continued in part 2.)

Christian Dimmer

Christian Dimmer

Graduated from the interdisciplinary Spatial and Environmental Planning program at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern, Germany, and earned his PhD from the University of Tokyo. He has cooperated with architectural firms like Arata Isozaki and Associates and property developers like Mitsubishi Estate Inc. as an urban design consultant. In 2006 he co-established the architectural practice Frontoffice Tokyo. He now teaches sustainable urbanism and planning theory at Waseda University’s School of International Liberal Studies and is a research associate at the University of Tokyo. He is @Remmid on Twitter.