Urban Renewal

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Keisuke Tamura

    Main guest

    Keisuke Tamura, an architect and professor at Showa Women’s University, has spent 20 years researching Tokyo’s major train stations (primarily Tokyo, Shibuya and Shinjuku) and their surroundings. Tamura has received acclaim for his detailed 1:100 scale models of Shibuya Station, constructed after countless hours of on-site research, which showcase the evolution of the site.

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August 1, 2017

Urban Renewal

*You will leave the NHK website.

In 1872, when Japan’s first railway opened between Yokohama and Tokyo, the population of Tokyo was less than one million. Fast-forward 150-odd years, and it has increased to well over 13 million. If you add the larger metro area, that number swells to 35 million. The continued growth of Tokyo’s population has necessitated constant additions and revisions to its infrastructure—and the city’s importance as Japan’s political, financial and cultural capital means those additions and revisions must be carried out without interrupting its daily flow. That balancing act lies at the heart of this edition of Japanology Plus.

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This edition centers largely on Shibuya’s east side, which is currently undergoing massive renewal.

To discover the ultimate example of modern urban renewal in Japan, this edition brings us to Shibuya. Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s most frequented districts for visitors and residents alike, is currently undergoing a massive renovation project that will see multiple new skyscrapers constructed, and its station completely reconfigured, over the next decade. With the help of architect Keisuke Tamura, host Peter Barakan discovers the history of a constantly-evolving Shibuya, while in Plus One, Matt Alt dons a hard hat and gets a firsthand look at how urban renewal is undertaken in Japan.

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Architect Keisuke Tamura has built several 1:100 scale models tracking Shibuya over time.

While Shibuya’s renewal project may currently be Tokyo’s largest, there is construction going on throughout the city at all times. These projects may not be on the massive scale of Shibuya’s, but they do share the same attention to safety and an attempt to interfere with the flow of daily life as little as possible. To that end, construction sites in Japan inevitably have at least one member whose sole job is to direct foot traffic around the site while offering apologies for the inconvenience—with backup from images of bowing cartoon construction workers doing the same. Another interesting feature at many construction sites is a meter that displays the noise and vibration levels of the site in decibels, to show compliance with noise regulations. 

Recent years have seen the proliferation at construction sites of diggers and bulldozers painted not in standard yellow, but bright pink—and occasionally even sporting polka dots. These polka-dotted power shovels apparently came into being as a way to ease the burden on those living near construction sites, giving them at least a bit of joy during loud teardowns.

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An example of Japan's double take-inducing polka-dotted construction equipment.

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Matt Alt navigates Shibuya’s girder-filled underbelly. 

Teardowns are, of course, an inevitable part of the urban renewal process, and they’re sometimes met with mixed feelings, especially when it comes to locations that evoke nostalgia. This author vividly remembers a scene a few years ago at Shimokitazawa Station in west Tokyo—the track was set to be moved from street level to underground, a move that would objectively improve congestion in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, hundreds of residents flooded onto the streets, snapping photos and tearfully bidding farewell to the final train departing from the old street-level Shimokitazawa Station.

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Tamura’s detailed models of Shibuya don’t stop at the surface.

In fact, in the future, urban renewal may be more about tearing down than scaling up. As expert guest Keisuke Tamura mentions near the end of the program, Japan’s population is declining, and Tokyo’s is expected to peak in 2025. For urban planners, this may actually prove an interesting opportunity, giving them a chance to focus less on expansion and more on quality-of-life improvements. A possible preview of this future came very recently, when the infrastructure ministry announced plans to move a section of Tokyo’s expressway underground. While the move is partially about renovating the aging road, it’s also an aesthetic choice: the expressway currently runs over city’s famed Nihonbashi Bridge, and moving it underground will bring back an iconic Tokyo view that hasn’t been visible for decades.

Regardless of what form Tokyo takes in the years to come, its transformation will be aided by teams working to ensure safe, on-time completion that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the city—and using some pretty cute equipment to do it.

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One of the new buildings rising over Shibuya.

*You will leave the NHK website.