Home Truths, April ’12

Minami Senju

Here’s this month’s Home Truths column, which is about cramped urban neighborhoods that could turn into death traps in the event of a major earthquake. Though much is made in the column about the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s measures to address this problem, we don’t really think it will make much of a difference. Anyone who has read Edward Seidensticker’s fascinating, peculiar, and often frustrating history of the city will understand one thing, that Tokyo defies any notion of city planning with an almost rabid resolution. The “low city” that is Seidensticker’s main subject is portrayed as an organic entity, one that resists any foreign (i.e., governmental) claim to its control as if it were a virus. Most of these neighborhoods sprang up almost overnight after disasters devastated other portions of shitamachi. Working class people moved on to farmland in the outer portions of the city because the place they used to live was destroyed by an earthquake, a fire, or American bombs. Economies of necessity superseded any authoritative prerogatives and communities were born. Those communities are still there. Romantic types love these neighborhoods because they represent what it is they appreciate most about Tokyo, its makeshift conviviality and resistance to conventional ideas of city order. And because those neighborhoods did develop organically, they really do characterize the urban experience in its purest form. But part of the appeal has to do with that hoariest of Japanese cliches, the beauty of transience. These neighborhoods were created by disaster and they will disappear by disaster again. The authorities’ means of addressing this situation may seem flat-footed and ill-advised, but the reasoning is unassailable. In their present state, these neighborhoods will go under, and they will take their inhabitants with them. Maybe there’s nothing anyone can do about that, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least think about it.

Vertical life

At present the tallest structure in Japan is Tokyo Tower. In Dec. 2011, a new broadcast tower, the Tokyo Sky Tree, will be completed near Oshiage station in Sumida Ward, thus becoming the tallest structure in Japan at 610 meters. Sumida Ward is the heart is “shitamachi,” the old working class residential district of Tokyo. Though much of eastern Tokyo was destroyed by firebombing raids during World War II, this particular area was spared, so it retains the cramped, maze-like character that makes shitamachi unique. Families have lived here for generations in very tight-knit communities, in mostly old wooden structures called “nagaya,” which literally means “long house.” The streets are so narrow in this part of town that they can’t even be called alleys, and if there’s a fire (and there often is), forget it. No fire trucks can get through. These neighborhoods predate anything approaching city planning, but because of the Sky Tree, a lot of people had to be talked into moving or selling their land. Read More