Column & Interview

This page introduces columns and interviews about art and culture from various viewpoints by Arts Council Board members, professionals in the field, etc.


The Topographic Study of Tokyo

Board member of Arts Council Tokyo / Emeritus Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, The University of Tokyo
Takeo Funabiki

須弥山も 五岳も富士も 一同に
  どつととわらふ 春はきにけり 
All at once, Mount Meru, the Five Great Mountains and Mount Fuji
  burst out laughing. Spring has come.

What a cheerful tanka. With Mount Meru of India and the Five Great Mountains of China in mind, the poet looks out over the Kanto Plain on a clear, sunny day at the beginning of the new year. He sees Mt. Fuji to the left, the urban area of Tokyo to the right, and below, the deep blue of Tokyo Bay. Written by Ota Nanpo about 200 years ago, the comic tanka still fits this panorama perfectly, because the topography of the manmade city Edo/Tokyo has hardly changed at all since its urban planning was carried out four centuries ago.

The terrace starting at the Musashino Plateau extends to the west side of the Imperial Palace. There the moat is deep and forms a steeply slanting slope. On the east side the moat’s stone wall is shallow, and beyond Hibiya-dori (avenue) there forms the lowland of Shinbashi and Ginza. Actually, the surface level of the water in the Imperial Palace moat is different on the west side and the east side. The reason, in a word, is that the base of Mt. Fuji extends to that exact point–or, more correctly, Ieyasu Tokugawa built a castle at the “exact” end point of that slope. This is a valley, as suggested by the name Hibiya (the syllable “ya” meaning “valley”), and the area extending from here to the ocean, with Mt. Atago on the right, is a reclaimed land zone.

In short, Tokyo has the Hibiya crossing at its very center and, extending from there in three directions, is made up of three different land types: plateau, lowland, and reclaimed land. The plateau was mostly occupied by daimyo residences, while the townspeople lived in the lowland and reclaimed land areas. This is the basic “topographic/geographic” structure of Tokyo.

A view from the Hibiya crossing, with the low moat in the foreground and the plateau beyond

Actually, just 50 years after the start of Edo’s urban planning, the population of the city had grown to nearly 500,000. Buildings were crowded together, and tens of thousands died in the Great Fire of Meireki in 1657. Following the disaster, the administration expanded the scope of the original city plan. In addition to building a reclaimed land zone beyond the Sumida River in the Fukagawa area, it dispersed the urban functions (daimyo residences, shrines and temples, etc.) more widely. As a result, the population of Edo subsequently grew to a million, and today, Tokyo is a huge city of over 10 million people.

At the beginning I wrote that the topography hasn’t changed. Actually, the earth’s wrinkles, created from ancient times, never do change much, even when human beings whittle down the surface to some extent–as long as we don’t do something like turn a mountain into a valley. What is troubling, then, is that whenever a disaster has occurred in Edo/Tokyo–the Meireki Fire and subsequent large fires, the three great floods of Edo, the Great Kanto Earthquake, the bombing of Tokyo–the area that suffers major damage and casualties has always been the low, flat area to the east of the castle, and especially the lowland between the Sumida and Arakawa Rivers, which was created through reclamation and irrigation. More detailed explanation is required, of course, but this is the big picture. And the thing we need to be more concerned about is that, even in the situation I’ve just outlined, Tokyo’s expansion plan is always moving eastward–beyond the Sumida River, beyond the Arakawa River, irrigating the land, reclaiming the ocean, working to accommodate an increase in urban functions in these areas. The reason is that this is the frontier, the place where there are possibilities. The problem is that this region, where development is newly anticipated, has the fundamental topographical weakness of being a flat area of reclaimed land, vulnerable to fire, water and earthquakes.

In terms of the vitality of Edo/Tokyo, it’s the western part of the city that becomes increasingly interesting and abundant on its own, even when nobody makes a specific plan. The lively places are the amusement areas of the western plateau. And Kichijoji, Jiyugaoka and Shimokitazawa, areas of western Tokyo, are always mentioned as places where young people want to live. But now the east of Tokyo is in the spotlight again. It’s a new start in the development of eastern Tokyo.

First, places in the east of Tokyo like Skytree, the fish market, Asakusa and the Kabukiza Theatre are getting a lot of attention as tourist spots, and many apartment buildings are springing up in the Tokyo Bay area. In the 1964 Olympics, the venues and the Olympic Village were located on the western plateau, but in 2020 the Olympic Village and many venues for swimming and other events will be built in the east of the city. But place names are valuable historical records, and all of these new plans and projects are located in places whose names tell us that they were originally ocean or waterfront: Oshiage, Tsukiji, Toyosu, Shibaura, Daiba, Harumi, Kaihin Park.

The point is technology. The words of a technological layman like me may not count for much, but the biggest theme in the history of the development of eastern Tokyo–an area which has repeatedly bounced back from adversity as it moved forward–is how to use technology to overcome the danger of being “on water.” Having begun with a happy tanka, this might have been a more heartwarming essay if it had concluded with a slightly warmer and cozier word–“satoyama” (traditional agricultural landscape), for instance. But we mustn’t forget that Tokyo is a city that originated with a plan. Central Tokyo is a place in another dimension–the only place in the Japanese archipelago that is unaffected by the concept of the “satoyama.” And this exceptional manmade city with a history of just 400 years is the capital of the country.

It’s a city on a scale that has no model anywhere else in the world. And in the case of Tokyo, if you ignore this scale and technology when you talk about cultural policies, the discussion turns into a scattered little game. But even though this feeling of scale is a difficult problem, it’s also a major attraction which “bursts out laughing.” This is where not only civil engineering, but also social systems and communications technology, will surely be mobilized.

I’ll leave the rest to the experts in those fields. My assignment for this year is to read Ota Nanpo.