Next, I would like to present Dr. Angus Lockyer, who teaches Japanese history at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London. Today he’ll give us a speech titled “Self-organization and complexity: the life and death of great cities.” Dr. Lockyer, thank you for waiting.
Thank you for the introduction and the invitation to join you today. It is a pleasure to be with you again.
I have fond memories of the first meeting of our Asakusa project just over a year ago. The lessons that I learnt then were valuable ones. Since returning to England I have taught two courses, one on the history of Japanese cities and one on the history of London. Both courses have benefited from our conversations a year ago. And teaching them at the same time has driven home how much the histories of the two cities resemble each other. I would like to draw on my experience in teaching these two courses in my remarks today.
When Yamashita-sensei gave us the title for today’s symposium, I had to think hard. After all, when you hear the phrase ‘the charm of Tokyo’, the first inclination is to pick out the things that make Tokyo special. Of course, many things do. And everybody has their own list. I am sorry to say that sound trucks are not on my list. But to give you some idea of where I am going, let me note that it does include both small shops (a wonderful, now disappeared fish restaurant in Asagaya) and big projects (I’m a fan of the Nanboku-sen); brief moments (the first plum of the year in the East Garden of the Imperial Palace) and broad panoramas (the view from the top of the Mori building).
It is tempting, of course, to stick with a list. More precisely, it is tempting to enumerate one’s favourite things individually. But as Dr Schulz has already shown us, these things are not so special on their own, but rather because they exist alongside each other. Edo-Tokyo, like all great cities is complex and diverse. Many different kinds of time and space exist alongside each other. This is clear when you walk around the city. The juxtapositions are startling. (Tokyo, like London, is a great walking city. Paris, I think, is not.) (Laughter.)
There is another temptation. We need to know where the charm of Tokyo came from. In trying to understand this, it is easy to assume that the charm of Tokyo, both of its individual characteristics and of their diversity, can be explained as the expression or product of a unique Edo spirit - or of a unique Japanese culture. But this too is a mistake, I think. The particular flavour of places may be particular to Tokyo. But I would like to think that they exist because of a process common to all great cities.
In abstract terms, this process can be called self-organization. This is a term with some very technical applications in physics and the other sciences, but it is also very useful when thinking about social systems, like cities. For our purposes, the most important thing about this process is the following. It is a process governed by the actions of individuals, rather than one governed from the top or from outside. And it is these actions that give rise to the characteristic complexity of great cities: people come together to do business, to pass the time; sometimes they spread out to start a better life. Out of these interactions, however, comes a rich, internally differentiated urban environment within which individuals and communities can find their niche and fulfil their potential. There are perhaps two more important points. First, this kind of complexity comes about when the system (the city) is open to its environment. Second, this kind of complexity is much more stable than the alternatives: the system it produces is decentralized, distributed and self-healing.
That’s enough technical language. In the remaining time, I would like to explain how this might help us think about the charm of Tokyo by applying it to some concrete cases.
Asakusa is perhaps the most striking example of self-organization in the city and the complexity that it produces. Sensoji is of course the heart of Asakusa, but Asakusa is not only the temple. Rather, the temple and the neighbourhood flourished during the Edo period because of the number of different activities that could be accommodated in and around the temple. Different people used the space for different purposes. But that was not all. Asakusa was well-connected. It flourished in part because of its position on the way to Yoshiwara as well as way out of the city - catering to the demand for both prayer and play.
Nor was Asakusa’s position quickly threatened, as city and country swept into the modern era. Older habits remained and newer customs were added. As we all know, Asakusa was the epicentre of interwar popular culture. It was Asakusa, rather than the newer centres of Ginza or Shibuya, that attracted Kawabata’s attention with its Ero Guro Nansensu.
By the Occupation, however, the action had moved elsewhere. Takeyoshi Tanuma could still catch dancers resting on a rooftop, but Hayashi Tadahiko showed an absence of customers. Tokyo was moving westward. By the end of the last century, Kikai Hiroo could produce compelling portraits of the individuals who passed their time in Asakusa. But it is telling that he posed them singly against the wall of the temple: their relationship is with themselves and the camera; there is no one else in the frame.
In one way, what happened to Asakusa is simple. Without a terminal, without a connection to the transport network that defined life in the city, its chances were grim. But what happened to Asakusa also tells us something about the charm of Tokyo in the 20th century. Increasingly, older, dense, complex geographies were replaced by newer, more rational ways of moving and living. The basic outlines of this story are familiar. Private rail lines, subways and the first suburbs in the prewar period. Freeways and suburban sprawl during the period of high economic growth. There is no doubt that a great modern city needs an efficient modern transport network. But the Tokyo version of this imperative is distinctive.
One intriguing suggestion comes from some work in urban computing by some colleagues at the University of London. What they did was measure the length of each section of street in the city, until it was crossed by another street. Longer streets suggest less complexity of the urban environment. They did this for a number of cities around the world. What they discovered was two basic patterns. The first was dense and dominated by short lines. This, they suggest, was the product of local initiative and planning. The second was much more open. Here, they suggest, top-down planning was predominant. Tokyo fell into the second category. And here is their map of Tokyo.
In part this is a function of history. As Tokyo moved westward, it moved from the dense low city into the open high city. But as it build outwards, so it left behind the world of self-organization and complexity. Increasingly, I would argue, people’s lives were governed by official planning and homogeneous developments. I do not know whether Homma Takashi has captured the charm of Tokyo Suburbia; but it does seem a long way from the attractions of Kawabata’s Asakusa Kurenaidan.
Let me end with one more observation. Development never stops of course. And more recently, there has been a trend back into the city. The archetype of such new development, perhaps, is Roppongi Hills. As I said, the view from the top is a favourite of mine. What is striking, though, is the contrast between the dense urban fabric that is revealed from the top and the simple space of the development itself. Mr Mori and his colleagues tell us that this is an “artelligent city”, presumably a combination of aesthetics and intellect. But this is intelligence by design, aesthetics by diktat. It has little of the diversity that Dr Schulz mentioned or the complexity that I believe is important. It is not clear to me that such a system is open; it is not clear to me that it is distributed and therefore has the capacity for self-healing. Perhaps we need to learn a little more from Asakusa. (Applause.)
Thank you very much, Doctor. I was very pleased and grateful to hear Tokyo explained as a great place for taking walks in. The speech defined the contrast between a way of being for cities that are created by decree, or based on strategy devised by superior authorities, as opposed to those that manage to organize themselves in a community-based style. The final photograph shown by Dr. Lockyer was symbolic in that it was taken at a very simple space overlooking a highly concentrated space, both of which coexist within Tokyo, and I personally found this very interesting.
I’m sure you all have questions to ask, but I hope you will bear them in mind until the panel discussion later on.