- Urban Regeneration and Community Survival in Postwar Japan
As we can see it written on the fabric of their townscapes, Japan’s cities have been in crisis for generations. In regional Japan, economic stagnation, the decline of agriculture on their peripheries, and the migration en masse of cohorts of school graduates to work on the Pacific coast left urban centres underpopulated and often lacking in social and economic vibrancy. Even in the more prosperous cities, including Tokyo and Kyoto, a programme of relentless economic development at all costs, albeit interrupted every generation or so by periods of economic slowdown, has delivered a steady dose of physical demolition and psychic instability that is reflected in the hodge-podge of building styles, construction qualities, and alternating pockets of cohesiveness and disarray that comprise the patterns of their urban texture. Yet over the course of nearly seven decades since the end of the Pacific War, Japanese in the Tokyo metropolis, in Kyoto and Kobe, and in the regions have attempted to respond to this crisis of physical and cultural dislocation. Each in their own way, the authors of the four books under discussion here attempt to chart the ways in which Japanese have sought to achieve the elusive goal of ‘livable cities’, in the term used by Sorensen and Funck, marked by the active involvement of citizens in city planning processes and efforts toward community sustainability.
A look at a quintessential smaller city, Uozu, on the coast of Toyama prefecture, where I have researched early postwar cultural preservation [End Page 259] activities, reveals both these patterns of decline and some of the strategies commonly employed to combat them. Uozu is important in Japanese history as the site of the first of the 1918 Rice Riots that quickly spread nationwide, threatening the stability of conservative rule and forcing the government to install a populist, Hara Kei, as prime minister. In the present day, however, the city appears to the visitor to have passed its prime. Centred on an off-the-shelf train station clad in plain steel panels, Uozu’s streets are pockmarked with empty buildings and overgrown lots. An abandoned chemical plant stands rust-covered near the waters of Toyama Bay. The coastline is wrapped in a broad ribbon of corrugated concrete, an erosion barrier estimated by some to affect up to fifty-five percent of Japan’s 35,000-kilometre coastline.1
The coastal armament aside, Uozu resembles many smaller cities in deindustrializing regions in Asia, Europe and North America. However, also like many of those areas, Uozu displays the results of efforts not only toward economic strengthening but toward social and cultural revitalization as well. The Uozu Cultural Properties Protection Society, established in the summer of 1953, was largely ineffective in its mission to marshall and cultivate popular interest in the city’s heritage. In the following decades, however, various institutions and programmes were put in place to highlight the city’s distinctiveness in its region and nationwide. Some of those features are facilities purpose-built to draw tourists into town. The Uozu Buried Forest Museum stands just offshore, where the stumps of a grove of 2,000-year-old Japanese cedars have been preserved by the waters of Toyama Bay. Nearby are a substantial parking lot and a viewing platform designed to offer a clear view of another local phenomenon, the ‘spring mirage’ through which ships far out...