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5_A case study :: Tokyo post-Urban

The process of Tokyo’s Modernization, which started with the Meiji Period in 1868, has made its public spaces lose their effectiveness as meaningful places where individuals interact, and has brought a destruction of its traditional family structure that gave identity and a sense of purpose and security to its people – a people who have thus begun facing an existential crisis of sorts as they find themselves alone in the mega metropolis. Tokyo’s inhabitants have become unable to connect with other individuals in the city’s public spaces, where, because of Tokyo’s size and population, everybody is a stranger. These developments have led to the growth of the Tokyo underground Manga/Anime culture. An online based community that has reinstituted among its members a sense of identity and connectedness to a larger sphere; a community where real social interactions have bloomed again. Tokyo Post-Urban argues the death of the city’s physical social spaces and its rebirth in virtual space.

The case study will begin with a brief historical look at the birth of Edo (Tokyo in the Tokugawa Shogunate period), and then follow to the Meiji era, where, after a period of total seclusion from the outside world brought about by the Shogunate, the complete reverse took place – Edo, now Tokyo, began a phase of complete modernization to try and catch up with the rest of the more technologically advanced western world (modernization taking place not only at an economical and technological level, but also politically, socially, and even at an urban level). The changes that took place during this period, which includes Japan’s eventual defeat during World War II and its transition to a Democratic state, are, the case study will try to argue, what created the death of public space in Japan; and, what at the same time would later also bring its revival in virtual space.

To understand how all these changes came about one must understand how Tokyo emerged, and particularly the Shogunate that rulled it for more than two and a half centuries. Tokyo, formerly known as Edo (literally: estuary, or mouth of the river), appeared on the map as the capital in 1603, however, what allowed that to take place was a cunning move by its founder, Tokugawa Ieyasu, in1590. Tokugawa, a warlord of eastern Japan whose power was quickly rising, was beholden to Toyotomi Hedeyoshi, the Shogun or Generalissimo and military ruler of Japan at the time (the Shogunate was a period of time in Japan’s history, starting in the late twelfth century, where power resided with the warrior clans, not the Emperor). Toyotomi, in trying to shift away Tokugawa from the nexus of power in the capital Kyoto, proposed to exchange some of Tokugawa’s valuable property there for possession of extensive lands in the under populated area of eastern Japan where Edo was located – then nothing more than a few houses at the edge of Hibiya Inlet. Tokugawa’s followers were stunned that their leader would accept to exchange his lands in the imperial city for what was then isolated and considered, in comparison, worthless land. Tokugawa, however, had a vision he had not shared. And, with the death of Toyotomi in 1598, his rise to power after the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, and three years later receiving the title of Shogun, he officially moved the seat of civil and military power from the then effete capital of Kyoto to Edo.[1]

Once there, one of the most important decisions taken by the Shogun was the partial closing of Japan’s borders to the outside world. By this point a great amount of trade existed between Japan and neighboring Korea and China, but also with European nations like Portugal, and Holland. However, this trade that had been going on with the Europeans also brought in the introduction of Christianity, and many of the Daimyo – powerful feudal warrior families that ruled vast amounts of territory during Japan’s Shogunate period – had converted. As a consequence, most of the trade with the Europeans happened with these Daimyo; who happened to be located mostly in the Island of Kyushu to the south. Thus, the hopes of Turning Edo into a major port city had been hampered by this, along with the fact that the Shogun’s official plans for trade with China had also not been accepted.[2] The Shogun then moved to control the remaining official trade. Meanwhile, Christianity began being seen as a threat to the Japanese way of life, and since Edo did not benefit from most of the trade happening with the Europeans, Tokugawa, in the Closed Country Edict of 1635, outlawed any Japanese from traveling outside of Japan, or if someone left of returning to Japan. Christianity was also banned from the country at this point, and all Europeans, with the exception of a few Dutch on the island of Nagasaki, where expelled, and some even executed.[3]

Along with this event, the other equally important move made during this period by the Shogun, at least for the outcomes argued for in this case study, was the official adoption of Confucian ethics. Chinese influence on the Island state of Japan can be said to have existed since the start of her historical existence as a country. However, Brumbaugh argues in the book Religious values in Japanese Culture that the latest it could have taken place was with arrival of Buddhist missionaries from Korea and China. The Buddhists preached a gospel of spiritual enlightenment which was inextricably associated with Chinese continental civilization, which Brumbaugh points out, was very much like Occidental missionaries had confused European Civilization with Christianity during their exploits. Thus, Confucian ethics made its way to Japan.[4]

Japanese Thought and religious culture has had many influences. Among them, Brumbaugh writes, if taken chronologically, one finds: native primitive Animism; Polytheism; Chinese culture, including Confucian and Taoist elements; Buddhism; Shinto; and Christianity. And each shows a stronger presence in different aspects of Japanese life. From the three most influential, Shinto becomes more apparent when dealing with earthly fortune; Buddhism with deities and life beyond, while Confucianism in the dealings of morality. Consequently, none were as instrumental in the formation of Japan’s societal structure as Confucianism. In Religious Values in Japanese Culture Brumbaugh argues that “Undoubtedly the most elemental of the Chinese social principles adopted by Japan was the sacredness of the family patriarchally conceived… True order and regularity in family life were not achieved until the acceptance of the Chinese ideal. Thereafter we find a rapidly developing moral conscience on marital and filial relations, which made loyalty to the family the most sacred of social obligations in Japan.”[5]

Confucianism’s code of ethics, which could be more directly appropriated by the masses (as opposed to its harder to pin philosophical tenets), was the Confucian Five Relations of Propriety. The five Relations are: service to one’s father, i.e. filial piety; service to one’s prince or ruler, i.e. patriotic loyalty; propriety between husband and wife, i.e. conjugality; subordination of the younger to the older offspring, i.e. primogeniture; and finally regard for friends, i.e. fidelity. That was the code, as taken from the Chinese, that impacted Japanese society’s moral conduct for centuries. However, with Edo’s Shogunate, Confucianism became officially the orthodoxy of the ruling class and a slight modification was made: “whereas the Chinese put first in all social relationships regard for the father, the Japanese, perhaps inspired from imperial sources, put first service of one’s prince, or loyalty, which is second in the Chinese order.” And “a perfectly logical alteration it was, too, in a land engaged in building a strong consciousness of national solidarity with the monarch as head and father of a great mass of as yet incompletely assimilated subject-children.”[6] This would be the birth of the all-encompassing patriotism which united the Japanese in utter loyalty to their Emperor; and also where the great stress that is put on the significance of filial piety, and fidelity to one’s other family members originated.

Anesaki writes in Religious Life of the Japanese People that the influence that Confucianism was able to exert on the Japanese people is based on the great power and authority the Shogunate had in Japan, and its ability to enforce it. In the seventeenth century the Tokugawa government also established the Shushi School of Confucianism as the orthodoxy of the ruling class, the Samurai. Its enforcement, of course, can be linked to the effort it put to expel Christian influence and strengthen Japanese roots, which with time would come to influence not only the Samurai, but all of Japan’s people. It created a perfectly hierarchical society where subordination was enforced to everyone by a superior, and everyone had a fixed place in society and family life. Additionally, and complementarily, Confucianism emphasized a number of cardinal virtues, which for the Japanese came to be symbolized by Loyalty, among them: benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and sincerity.[7]

Despite all of these developments, the rule of the Shogunate was to come to an end with the arrival in Tokyo bay in 1853 of four ‘black ships.’ This was the event that can be said to have marked the beginning of the end for the Samurai as the ruling Class in Japan. Among other factors, however, one can also find economical and political crises that began to emerge.

Matthew Perry, the American Commodore of the small flotilla of four black ships, brought a present for the Samurai. Irokawa Daikichi describes the event as follows:

“He brought the Samurai of this closed country a small model train as a present and set it in motion before their eyes. At first the Japanese watched the train fearfully from a safe distance, and when the engine began to move they uttered cries of astonishment and drew in their breath. Before long they were inspecting it closely, stroking it, riding on it, and they kept this up throughout the day. A mere hundred years later those same Japanese, by themselves, developed and built the high speed “Hikari” train that travels safely along Tokaido at speeds of two hundred kilometers an hour. And now they are exporting the technology to Perry’s country”[8]

This event showed how much seclusion the Shogunate had put Japan under, and how in the meanwhile the country had been technologically left behind by the western powers. This event and a series of others, but most importantly the emergence of doubts of the Samurai class being able to defend the country against such machines, precipitated the collapse of the Shogunate as the ruling class, and led, in 1867, to the restoration of fifteen year old Emperor Meiji to head the new government. The main objective of the new government was to rapidly modernize, in an attempt to gain equal footing with powers of the west. This also brought an inferiority complex upon the country, and negative views were started to be harbored toward Japan’s Traditions – which had not allowed it to develop at the same level as the westerners had.

The major concern of the Meiji period was to quickly master the secrets of their western enemies’ wealth and power. With this goal in mind Japan began to adopt everything that was seen as positive from the western world, including (at an early phase), its educational, economic, technological/industrial, and urban systems; but later also its political system: with promulgation of a Constitution and adoption of a bicameral legislature, along with a 1% suffrage democracy (all heavily based on European models). Throughout this development the constitution still provided for the emperor as the sovereign source of supreme authority. This was to last until the defeat of the Japanese during the Second World War. At which point the final phase of Japan’s ‘modernization’ took place, and Japan welcomed in universal suffrage and the removal of the emperor from power, as well as the removal of his divinity status. Other changes included: emancipation of women, freedom of speech, and, particularly: the official destruction of the ie, or the traditional family system with patriarchal control and inequality among its members (as described before by the Confucian Five Relations of Propriety). The Constitution of 1947 introduced a more democratic structure among the members of the family, be it between husband and wife or among the offspring. In fact, the Japanese constitution was partially imposed by the USA during its occupation period of 1945-52. The phase that started in 1945 is referred to as the Americanization period (as opposed to ‘modernization’)[9], given that the Japanese started adopting everything that was American, culture included. Surprisingly, the Japanese “spontaneously and enthusiastically supported the institutional reforms and new social systems implemented.”[10]

One of the great benefits the Japanese saw in Americanizing was the freedom the individual gained in comparison to the previous societal structure. Tony Guzewicz writes in Tokyo’s Homeles: a city in denial, of the experience of some of Tokyo’s homeless: of how strict the society was, and how it shunned down all that attempted to take an individual stand. The person who wants to be different has to be homeless, or is considered a very strange individual:

“It’s like being a bird in a cage. I felt that I was slowly, slowly, dying because this societal structure was killing me. Very slowly I was losing something inside myself because I had to be like everyone. If the homeless had the chance to be human beings working in society… but they have no chance because in this society no one can say the opposite because society pushes and pushes, and you can’t say the opposite because you risk being outside, and to be outside means you have no job, no family and no friends and you have to be homeless,”[11] Fujiyama-san describes to Guzewicz.

For the Japanese, with a very structured traditional society, being part of a group was everything. At every level of society the Japanese are very aware of who is on the inside and belongs to the “us” group, versus who is on the outside and constitutes the “other.” It is part of the hierarchical society, and helps define proper behavior. Any attempt to break loose inevitably leads to disaster Guzewicz writes. The penalty for deviance in Tokugawa’s day was often death, while the penalty today is ostracism. Today excessive individualistic behavior can result in serious ostracism and, even worse, expulsion from the group; to be treated as a non person: “To be socially ignored in the tightly knit community of Japan in many ways perhaps resembles a faith worse than death – it is, in fact, something like a living death.”[12]

Thus, one can understand the push many in the society were making toward the Americanization process, given that the USA symbolized the pinnacle of individual freedom, and with it they would get released from the chains of their old traditional societal structure. Patrick Smith argues, in his book Reinterpreting Japan, that this is the defining step that Japanese society is beginning to face today. And, after having accomplished what the Meiji period set out to do (catching up with the west), and especially after the Emperor died in 1989, Japan was finally released from its past and a new goal laid in front of them: to seek altering the very thing that most people think sets them apart – the relationship between the individual and society – the relationship between belonging and social duty versus the individual and his inner self.

There are many examples of this struggle taking place today. The most blatant, in so far as it directly challenges the traditional strict and hierarchically minded family structure of the past, can be found in Japan’s current problems with youth deviance. Robert Yoder reports:

“The past two decades have been characterized by rampant youth-adult conflict. Juvenile delinquent arrest rates for Penal Code offenses dramatically increased in the 1970’s and youth arrests for criminal offenses nearly doubled from 1972 to 1983. Rates for status offense more than doubled during the same period, reaching a post-war record high in 1983, with nearly 8 percent of the country’s youth being sanctioned for misbehavior. From 1990 to 1997, rates of school violence increased three-fold, school absentee rates doubled and school drop-out rates spiraled to post-war record highs. Clearly in the past twenty years, adult social controls in Japan have not successfully quelled youth discontent”[13]

Among the adult population, rebellion is more subtle. Adults not willing to completely sacrifice their standing in the group and become ostracized have gone about standing up to society by shifting into roles and scenes they normally don’t occupy, but where they can protest aggressively given its distance from their main groups (i.e. the family and work members). Jennifer Matsue describes one such occurrence taking place in Tokyo’s underground hardcore music scene:

“Most significant about the underground Tokyo hardcore scene was that its performance stood in opposition to mainstream society and commercialism, yet participants were firmly operating within the parameters of the mainstream or parent culture, at times enacting a dynamic tension between resistance and conformity. Indeed, performers can be understood as actually playing with resistance in the context of the scene, as they played in spaces distinct from other established spheres of their lives. Performers further played with their identities, as they shifted out of expected daily roles into roles that momentarily challenged or confronted those very same expected roles.”[14]

Yet, perhaps the most daring example of this revolt against a hierarchical and group minded society, and a search for the uniqueness of the individual can be found on the streets of Harajuku – Tokyo and Japan’s nexus of fashion. Harajuku is one of the stops along Tokyo’s famous Yamanote subway line, and has put Tokyo on the world’s fashion map, alongside New York, Paris, London and Milan. Interest in the area began at the end of World War II, when Harajuku was the site of US military residences and shops catering to the Servicemen’s families. Japanese youths flocked to the area to see Western products and be exposed to western culture. Now it is the center of Tokyo’s youth. One cultural guide to the city of Tokyo even warns to avoid Takeshita-dori, one of Harajuku’s main streets: “More than a hundred boutiques line this very crowded street… It is best to avoid Takeshita-dori on weekends when all of young Japan seems to flock to this 900 foot mecca for fashion.”[15]

The youth go there “seeking a new identity separate from the one dictated by standard social norms. What characterizes Harajuku’s street fashion is precisely this search, which is clearly expressed in the costumes these kids wear,”[16] writes Tiffany Godoy in the book Tokyo Street Style, Fashion in Harajuku. The rise of the mainstream acceptance of these kids’ cutting edge street fashion brought with it willingness by some to accept some of the more trendy brands as ready-made “cool” items that brought, by merely using them, ‘cool’ status. Photographer, Shoichi Aoki, however, saw signs of further change in the streets of Harajuku. Noticing that kids were taking a less passive approach, recombining unexpected elements and using fashion as personal statement, or better, even street art, Shoichi launched the magazine FRUiTS. The goal of the magazine being to document what Shoichi saw as a movement and an inspiration. As also the magazine photographer, he stationed himself in Harajuku, sometimes four days a week, photographing and interviewing the most outlandish and cool-looking kids. Godoy writes:

“The kids started upping the ante, wearing stuff that no one else would wear in order to be photographed by Aoki. The short Q-and-A texts that accompanied the photographs called attention to the fact that the kids who made it into the magazine were assembling their looks from multiple shops and designers… Everyone was trying to outdo everyone else. Wanting something unique, they might still buy Heisei or DC brand items, but they’d rip them up or layer them, altering the effect. Everyone became a customizer, essentially making their own brands. To be photographed by Aoki meant that you were a fashion god, and because you got into FRUiTS by your own creative inspiration, the kids pushed themselves off Olympian heights of fashion excess.”[17]

All of these examples point to how the last phase of Japan’s modernizing effort, begun in 1945, was starting to bear its fruits. Yet, one element that dramatically improved the chances of this latter phase’s desire for individuality and freedom from the previously very stringent society was a change in Tokyo’s Urban and Architectural development; changes that took place after the great earthquake of 1923 and after the ending of the Second World War.

These changes, however, besides bringing in the much heralded individual freedom, also brought about, concurrently, grave problems! Problems that appeared as a consequence of the very autonomy and independence the Japanese were seeking, and that, from hindsight, might have not been desired, and therefore the whole process not embarked upon. The change was what has been described in this case study as the worst thing that a Japanese person could undergo: exclusion from his group; something that Guzewickz has described, in his work with the homeless in Japan, as akin to a “living death.” This consequence seemed to have been without solution. Today, however, with the further development and modernization of Japan, new technological advancements have shown there is hope.

One of the elements of Tokyo’s urban development that aided in bringing the problem mentioned above is the fact that Japan has been going through a phase of phenomenal population migration towards the country’s cities – Tokyo being the main target, given that it is the center of the country’s economy: in 1945, half of all the Japanese population still lived in the countryside; by 1970 the number had fallen to bellow twenty percent; and by 1996 less than five percent lived in rural areas, of which forty percent was over the age of 65. Besides the obvious problem that this exodus poses to the rural areas, Tokyo has grown to become, according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the world’s largest urban agglomeration, and the most populated metropolitan area of the world with around 35 million inhabitants – which is larger than the next two biggest cities combined (Mexico city – 16.9 million, and Sao Paolo – 16.72 million).[18]

This case study tries to argue that Tokyo’s public spaces don’t function as a place where the people occupying them interact with one another anymore. And, in a city of 35 million people one can start to understand why, if one considers that a person in the city can know only an infinitesimal amount of the city’ total population. Thus, every time one goes out and into one of its public spaces, a shopping district in Shinjuku for example, one will most probably not see even one familiar face – everyone in the space probably being a stranger to one another. If one considers that the people migrating into the city are usually younger rather than older, and that therefore they probably left their family behind (which in Japan is the most important social group one belongs to) one can begin to understand how extremely lonely living in the big city can be.

In addition, the city has gone through two drastic physical transformations – the great earthquake of 1923 and the bombing of the Second World War, both being events that erased the city and made it be completely rebuilt. Thus, one can easily come to the realization that any existing community links or groups of people formed by the proximity with which they lived to one another, probably got destroyed as the city got reshuffled at each of those events. Therefore, for a period after the war, even people that were from the city (i.e. not migrants from the countryside) probably saw their social circles disrupted, and suffered from the big city syndrome of too much independence and disconnection from one’s social circle.

Yet a third phenomenon that Tokyo went through was its process of suburbanization and urban restructuring as a consequence of its economic growth. As Tokyo’s population grew, so did Tokyo’ the physical dimensions. Hence, as the rural population was moving in, Tokyo’s population was moving out, especially given that the height of its buildings was limited by the earthquake prone grounds Tokyo stands in. Such crowding puts enormous strain on the housing stock, and in an attempt to escape the fearsome housing prices of more central districts, many retreat to distant suburbs and satellite towns. The area of Tokyo’s greater metropolitan region is 2,187 km² and continues to grow: “The blocking-in of farmland with suburbs continues remorselessly, dependent only on the continuing growth of the economy and of employment opportunities within it and the willingness of the commuter to put up with travelling an hour, an hour and a half, or two hours to work and back, often standing the whole way, five or six times a week.”[19] This was a very carefully calculated equation, where cheaper prices, more spacious living conditions, and closeness to work were carefully balanced out when looking to buy an apartment.

These types of distances commuting, however, add to the isolation of the individual, and limit his possibility of social contact. The extra distance one would have to travel to get to a neutral place (distance wise) between all the members of a group, in addition to the tiredness one would already be feeling after spending a long day at work, would all add up to making meeting one’s friends almost a chore. Thus, the life of a ‘Tokyo’ resident can become nothing more than her journey back and forth from her house to work – with no connection to the rest of the city. Peter Popham describes the experience of the Tokyo suburbanite as follows: “The new nomad of Tokyo wanders in from his no-place in the wilderness, and if he barges into the nestlike centers of the old city, each with its concentrated sense of place and history, he is an utter stranger. That’s part of the sadness of the contemporary city: that the sections which cradle, as the cells of a honeycomb cradle honey, the richest distillation of the city’s essence, have nothing whatsoever to do with the lives and feelings of the mass of the city’s people.”[20]

Furthermore, the economic developments that caused major city re-urbanization brought still other effects. The effect most linked to the suburbanization process mentioned above, was the destruction of the existing residential building’s communities which were being replaced by business centers and other types of activities that could sustain the prices of the city center (much like was mentioned previously would be the case with the communities that were destroyed during the earthquake of 1923 and the bombings of the Second World War). Another result of these economic developments could be seen to take effect on the urban fabric of the city center. The center blocks had a certain grain, character, and a specific crowd that it attracted. However, it got replaced by a very blend western style of city planning, with its large traditional boulevards, streets, and building footprints that not only were alike everywhere, but of course also had nothing to do with the history of the place. Jinnai Hidenobu argues the same point:

“District and street re-planning created a number of wide, straight avenues modeled after European designs. But a question still remains: did such splendid thoroughfares bring delight to modern Japanese, who still possessed a traditional sense of space? They did not seem to. In the West, urban streets and squares thronging with offices, stores, restaurants, and apartment buildings have become the focus of activity where citizens willingly gather. But not in Japan. Here… it is the backstreets that contain bustling, if somewhat disorderly, urban spaces overflowing with activities and dense with human sentiments.”[21]

Hidenobu goes on to further argue that Tokyo possessed a different system, a system which he describes as organic and flexible, and where the parts don’t follow the “totalizing logic” of western planning, but rather, sparkle with a plethora of different images created by the particularity of each locale. He also laments that when “we look at Tokyo’s modern history, we see that this rich historical and cultural legacy has eroded; the city has been destroyed in the name of functionality and economy,”[22] getting hollowed out ever more rapidly.

In ­A Comparative Study of Street Life in Tokyo, Manila, and New York, William H. Whyte describes and studies how people use some of the type of spaces discussed in the previous paragraph. The main finding that he makes is that the most prevalent activity is people watching, not other types of social activity (that’s if one can call ‘people watching’ a social activity). Thus the point made earlier that public space in Tokyo is “dead,” as far as being able to stimulate interactions between its users, can also be defended based on direct observation of the activities taking place in them.

The first example Whyte gives is of a Plaza in the Ginza district. Ginza was one of the first areas to undergo “westernization” as a guide to the city of Tokyo points out: “The streets further along Chuo-dori are at the heart of the Ginza district. Having arrived at the Ginza district it is appropriate to look at the development of this portion of the city which was one of the first to attempt to move into the new world of Western architecture in the 1870’s.”[23] Ginza also happens to be one of the most affluent areas of Tokyo. The plaza is located at the intersection of Chuo-dori mentioned in the short excerpt above and, and Harumi-dori (both very significant avenues in the district). Comparing the plaza to others in New York, Whyte writes:

“…people obviously like the plaza very much. Our sightings were of lunch periods on only two days, April 14 and 15, and it was overcast and cool. But there was a good sized number each day; averaging 120 and 134 people sitting at any one time, plus fairly heavy crosscurrents of people walking… In general, however, the most favored spots – chairs and tables – were those in the middle of pedestrian flow and the prime activity was people looking at other people. While the proportions of female were low –only 28% by one account – there was the same elaborate inattention paid them by men in New York.[24]

At a later point in the study Whyte describes a section of the Chuo-dori that gets closed-off on weekends:

“Now let us look at Sunday. On the Chuo-dori pedestrian volumes about double. Though there is now fifty more feet of walkway to traverse, the sidewalks get more traffic than they do on weekdays… This is where the vendors are. It is also where the stores are and Tokyo’s are much more aggressive… they put out displays, special promotions, fast food stands, and they hustle for the business. The street is less used but well used. The line of chairs in the center of the street has proved successful in seeding activity. As soon as they are put out, the people come. Sitting there they can watch two strands of people traffic and the watching seems the main pastime.”[25]

Finally, one last description that could not prove what was described in the previous paragraphs any better. Whyte continues:

“One of the most interesting of all streets is the alley-like one in the Asakusa district… It is laid out in the traditional Japanese fashion: as a linear progression of shops, and it is narrow. The width is about seventeen feet… The pace was slow. There was considerable self-congestion; people stopped frequently to look at the merchandise, reassemble their groups, buy something to eat… It is probably happenstance that so many of the most popular walkways range between fifteen and twenty feet in width. This is narrow by modern planning standards, but it seems to be quite functional… The merchants in Osaka developed guidelines over a proposal for a broad Ginza-type avenue. The merchants decided against it; they felt that the traditional 15-17 foot width was better for their mutual businesses.”[26]

There are many other examples in the book, but these should be enough to defend the positions taken earlier about public social spaces in Tokyo: in most of them the people are nothing more than spectators, voyeurs to a spectacle that they do not take part in. Functionally they are completely ineffective in fostering social interaction between its users, and if one is not there with a group already, the main activity one will be engaged in is people watching, or shopping.

From an understanding of Japan’s social structure, and its histories and traditions, one can see why the people in these spaces shun from social contact – they are all strangers to each other, and therefore in Japan’s view of things, belong to the group of the “other”, not the “us.” It is very hard to get admitted to a social group in Japan, and in their view if you don’t belong to any you must have done something very wrong. In addition, if you don’t belong to any you are already supposed to be very embarrassed about the fact, and therefore would be very unlikely to let other people know of your ‘social disgrace.’ Thus, from both directions, people would be looking to avoid contact.

Panopticism, as described by Jeremy Bentham and expanded upon by Michel Foucault, aids in understanding this phenomenon: discipline and order in a group or society can be brought about by oversight, that is, one is less inclined to commit a criminal act if one knows that one is, or simply could be, being watched. A corollary of this is that people in the public eye behave like they are supposed to behave. Not necessarily like they would prefer to act. Or still further, that in the public eye there is a character one is supposed to portray, and if one doesn’t it implies that there must be something wrong. Thus, to try and hide the fact of one’s “grouplessness” in Japanese society, one would avoid social contact to not expose the fact – and hence the ‘character’ that one plays according to the principles of Panopticism, that is, pretending one already belongs to a group, and therefore shunning away from contact in the public realm with ‘outsiders.’[27]

Panopticism further illustrates why in fact the only ‘rational’ social posture for one to have in today’s public spaces is one of avoidance. The social posture should be of avoidance because the person walking next to you, or who you could talk to and bring into your life, could be anything from a murderer, to the average good person. But because of the character that one is forced to assume in today’s social spaces, and the moral code one must follow in order not to be punished (go to jail, or be fined), one can never really know if the person walking next to us in the street is acting normally, or if he is acting in the way that society expects him to act in order to avoid punishment. The risk of you talking to them and trusting them could cost you a great deal in the future if they turned out to be lying just to take advantage of you.

This condition in fact is one that pertains to the metropolis in general: be it Tokyo, New York, or Berlin in the early 20th century – it is a condition which can begin to be described by the blasé attitude that Georg Simmel identified in “Metropolis and mental life,” but more radically exposed by Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” painting – an exasperation of sorts with living in the Metropolis. This exasperation can be witnessed in Tokyo, despite all earlier wishes Japan had made for modernization, breaking away from old societal structures, and an arrival of an autonomous and free individual. It is the gift and the curse of modernizing: on one side independence, but on the other loneliness in a cold world.

Moreover, if one considers that the number of single-person households has gone from 6% in 1920 to 24.5% in 1993, and concurrently the extended family households (the traditional Japanese family household where 3 or more generations live together in the same space) has gone from 37.5% in 1955 to 13.1% in 1992,[28] one can argue that the wish of the Constitution of 1947 for destroying the traditional family has come to fruition, and more: the population is truly becoming lonelier. As a result, one of the only meaningful social interactions one can have today in Tokyo is with one’s coworkers.[29]

A great example of this exasperation being present in Japanese society can be seen to take place in the world of the Otaku. Tomohiro Machiyama writes a nice story depicting the Otaku and its origins, which will next be shared to illustrate an example of the very lonely personality type a big metropolis such as Tokyo is capable of generating, but also to show how a solution to the problem has already started emerging.

Tomohiro Machiyama wrote a book in 1989 called Otaku no Hon (The book of Otaku) that helped popularize the word Otaku in Japan for the first time. The book was about people that were very deeply involved in the world of manga (Japanese comics), anime (Japanese animation), dojinshi (fan-made comics), bishojo (“beautiful girl”) figures, yaoi (male-male love), computers, pro wrestling, and B-class Idol singers. However, the word was first used in this context by Akio Nakamori six years previous in an essay entitled Otaku no Kenkyu (A study of Otaku), and in it he studied a particular type of personality “people who line up in front of theaters all night before the opening of an anime film, people trying to take photos of rarely seen trains only to nearly get run-over by them, kids with Coke-bottle glasses who hang out near computer stores, men who go to Idol autograph sessions early in the morning to secure a good seat in front, and audiophiles that are extremely uptight about sound quality.”[30] People displaying those types of behaviors were called maniacs, or enthusiastic fans. Otaku was introduced to give these people a name. When translated into English the word simply means “you,” but in Japan, there are many ‘yous’, depending on the context and the age of the person being talked to. Of the many ‘yous,’ Otaku is formal and impersonal. So, for example, it can be used at afternoon tea gatherings where middle-class housewives use the word because they regard each other not as individuals but as representing their respective families. It is a kind of aloof way of referring to other people, and therefore Nakamori thought it odd that high school kids addressed themselves by that at comic and anime conventions. Yet they probably did so to avoid crossing personal boundaries and getting too personal, which wouldn’t be too comfortable. In addition they mainly want to exchange information about each other’s hobbies and interests, and by calling each other Otaku, personal feelings are put off the table, which affords for effective and simple communication.

However, the word would come to take a life for more somber reasons. Around the time that Otaku no Hon was published, Tsutomu Miyazaki, a man who kidnapped, raped, and murdered three little girls was arrested. Tomohiro describes him as follows: “Miyazaki was a worst case scenario otaku. With messy long hair, a pale face, and geeky glasses, he was twenty-seven years old, unemployed, and living with his parents. His room was full of anime videos and Lolicon (Lolita Complex) manga. Because the case was so sensational people began wondering what kind of lifestyle had created such a monster.”[31] Since the book had just been published, people came to link the two, and started believing that Otaku were dangerous perverts. Thus, it quickly became a social problem, and buzz word in people’s minds, becoming the new ‘witch hunt.’ Otaku even began discriminating against themselves. The more extreme cases of Otaku, Otaku who could never have normal lives, were called “Itai” (The Painful) and fellow Otaku condemned them. The anime Otaku even stopped using it to refer to themselves. In the late 1980s before the bubble economy burst in Japan, the ideal man, was supposed to work in finance, wear an Italian suit, drive a BMW, and enjoy nightlife in upscale discos. The Otaku represented the dark side of that coin in Japanese culture. However, the Bubble Economy began to burst in 1989, ending a long period of economic growth, and starting a deep recession that lingers to this day.

In that looming economy only the Otaku market kept booming, not only within Japan, but also as one of the favored exports to the outside world. Marketers and economists began researching the world of anime, manga and video games, to find the Otaku consumer’s tendencies. Academics started researching the psychology of the Otaku, now considered a model of human beings in a new post-modern society. Meanwhile the famous anime creator Toshio Okada transformed himself into a social critic, christened himself “Ota-king” and began explaining the world of the Otaku to Japanese society. Suddenly the tables shifted, and the Otaku was seen as a subculture of Japan that they should be proud off, and learned from. After all, it was through their purchasing power that a big part of Japan’s technological advances were supported, especially with the consumer electronics and computers they used to view, play, and store their favorite products.

Tomohiro concludes his story of the Otaku by explaining how now one can say “’I’ve a little bit of otaku in me’ without feeling ashamed. The word “otaku” has acquired a positive connotation, suggesting that a person has his or her own sense of values, is not a snob, has a child’s purity and passion, and possesses in-depth knowledge and an uncompromising opinion on his own likes and dislikes. A person minus otaku leanings is assumed to be without uniqueness, originality, or creativity.”[32]

The Otaku are a very peculiar case indeed. The same process that created them – the modernization effort led by Japan described in this case study – would also be what would save it from a very sorrowful and lonely existence. This shift – from a very lonely existence focused on the fantastical worlds of manga and anime, to a more meaningful social existence based on interactions with other people interested in the same subjects – began to take place with the advancement of technology, specifically communication technology. And, as was described in the earlier portion of the case study, technological advancements, together with a host of other areas, were started with the decision in the Meiji era to open up Japan’s border to the world and begin a process of modernization.

It is hard to imagine living in such a massive city as Tokyo (with all of the problems described above) without any of the communication technology Tokyo has been championing for the last couple of decades: the cellular phone, sms text messaging, and particularly the internet with all its derivatives.

Rebecca Black writes about the opening world of virtual spaces:

“If asked to give a definition of space, the vast majority of individuals most likely would reply on metaphors and descriptive terms rooted in physical and material dimensions. However, in recent decades the development and proliferation of new information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as the Internet and the World Wide Web, have forced us to rethink our notions of space. Explorations of text-based Multi-user Dungeons and Multi-user Object-Oriented Domains, online discussions, journaling, instant messaging, Web sites, chatrooms, Usenet groups, virtual communities, and Massively Multiplayer Online and Video Games have called attention to the range of complex social interactions and forms of participation and learning that take place and play a formative role in the development of such ‘virtual’ spaces.”[33]

In Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction, she further notes how “social practices surrounding fan fiction mostly center on canons related to anime and manga,”[34]but doesn’t answer why. I will venture to say that the online communities’ locus is around manga and anime because in Japan the need is greatest for alternative means of social interactions. One can make such a claim based on all the factors, discussed above, that make Japan such poignant case for the negative effects of modernization; especially if we can concede that in Japan, since they started from such a radically opposed social structure, the differential is much bigger when compared to other big metropolises; thus the need for social contact they harbor is that much more intense, and satiating it, therefore, also a bigger concern.

This case study has tried to show the conditions that have led to the situation Tokyo finds itself in today – with the very modernized society they had for so long wished for, yet with also all the social problems such a modernized metropolis of Tokyo’s size has come to face. To comprehend how Tokyo got to this situation, several key aspects of its history must be understood. The first of these was the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Tokugawa made two critical decisions for the development of Tokyo: first he adopted Confucianism as the official orthodoxy of the ruling class; this cemented Japan’s very hierarchical society, and brought great unity to the people of Japan. The second critical move he made was to close the country to the outside world. In hindsight the seclusion was a good move because when they finally did have contact with the west the difference was so great that Japan forced itself to take radical steps to catch up (something that otherwise might not have happened). These modernizing changes started taking place under the Meiji emperor, and would finish with the defeat of Japan during World War II. By then Japan had been completely revamped according to western models: economically, politically, socially, technologically and urbanistically. After the end of World War II, the last change that Japan would try and embark on would be to free itself of the constraining limitations its societal structure placed, and finally liberate the ego to become autonomous and free of any societal obligations, and be able to establish itself as independent without any reservations.

Additionally, with the mass migration of the population of the countryside into the city; and great suburbanization and urban reconstruction processes brought about by tremendous population growth, economic developments in the city center, and destruction by both natural hazards and war; the city of Tokyo has finally achieved the dream many of the Japanese had formulated, when in 1947 they wished for a break from old societal structures and autonomy of the individual by accepting a Constitution that officially disintegrated the ie (hierarchical family household). However, together with the autonomy of the individual came great loneliness, given that the modern mega metropolis is designed to ostracize individuals, since in it everyone is a stranger. The Otaku are a great example of the type of lonely being the cold metropolis can create. However, with the appearance of the internet, social interactions that could no longer take place in the city’s public spaces, have been revived in virtual spaces and there is hope once more for the occupants of the city to lead a healthy social life.


[1] John H. Martin. Tokyo, a cultural guide to Japan’s capital city. (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1996) p. 17-19

[3] Duncan McCargo, Contemporary Japan. (New York, N.Y. : St. Martin’s Press, 2000) p. 14-18

[4] Brumbaugh, T. T. Religious values in Japanese Culture. (Tokyo: Kyo Bun Kwan, 1934) p. 56

[5] Ibid. p. 57

[6] Ibid. p. 60

[7] Masaharu Anesaki. Religious life of the Japanese people, its present status and historical background. (Tokyo: Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai 1938)p. 38

[8] Daikichi Irokawa. The culture of the Meiji period. Translation edited by Marius B. Jansen.

( Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1985) p. 7

[9] Ian Buruma. Inventing Japan, 1853-1964. (New York : Modern Library, 2003) p. 131

[10] Fumie Kumagai. Unmasking Japan Today. (London: Praeger, 1996) p. 3-4

[11] Tony D Guzewicz,. Tokyo’s homeless : a city in denial (N.Y. : Kroshka Books, 1998)p. xi

[12] Tony D Guzewicz,. Tokyo’s homeless : a city in denial (N.Y. : Kroshka Books, 1998)p. 11

[13] Robert Stuart Yoder. Youth Deviance in Japan. (Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2004) p. 1

[14] Jennifer Milioto Matsue. Making Music in Japan’s Underground. (New York: Routledge, 2009) p. 23-26

[15] John H. Martin. Tokyo, a cultural guide to Japan’s capital city. (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1996) p. 256

[16] Tiffany Godoy. Tokyo street style : fashion in Harajuku; edited by Ivan Vartanian, Keiko Hirayama, Tetsuya Suzuki. ( London : Thames & Hudson, 2008)p. 13

[17] Ibid. p. 111

[18] Time out Tokyo. (London : Penguin, 1999) p. 12

[19] Peter Popham. Tokyo : the city at the end of the world; with photographs by Ben Simmons.
( Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International; New York: Distributed in the U.S. through Harper & Row, 1985) p. 54

[20] Peter Popham. Tokyo : the city at the end of the world; with photographs by Ben Simmons.
( Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International; New York: Distributed in the U.S. through Harper & Row, 1985) p. 58

[21] Hidenobu Jinnai. Tokyo, a spatial anthropology; translated by Kimiko Nishimura. (Berkeley : University of California Press, c1995) p. 130

[22]Ibid. p. 171

[23] John H. Martin. Tokyo, a cultural guide to Japan’s capital city. (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1996) p. 119

[24] Hidetoshi Kato, William H. Whyte and Randolph David. A Comparative study of street life, Tokyo, Manila, New York.  (Tokyo, Japan : Research Institute for Oriental Cultures, Gakushuin University, 1978)p. 6

[25] Ibid. p. 12

[26] Ibid. p. 14

[28] Fumie Kumagai. Unmasking Japan Today. (London: Praeger, 1996) p. 19

[29] Joy Hendry. Interpreting Japanese Society. Second edition. (London: Routledge, 1998)p. 237

[30] Macias Patrick and Tomohiro Machiyama.. Cruising the anime city : an otaku guide to neo Tokyo. (Berkeley, Calif. : Stone Bridge, 2004) p. 13

[31] Ibid. p. 14

[32] Ibid. p. 15

[33] Rebecca W Black. Adolescents and online fan fiction. ( New York : Peter Lang, c2008)p. 31-32

[34] Ibid. p. 14

One comment

  1. Hy Sid, u ever been to Tokyo?



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