Japanese architecture and town planning explained

Why is there so little graffiti in Japan, despite the huge interest in B boy culture?

The local governments took all the fun out of it by especially setting aside walls for graffiti to be done on.

Why is there so much illegal housing by river sides in Japan?

It is very difficult to evict someone in Japan- to give an idea of how property rights work, “if a person builds a structure without authorization on land owned by another but the interference with the owner’s rights is minimal, causes only slight damage, and would require great expense to remove… the property owner cannot demand the removal of the obstruction” Kodansha Encyclopaedia of Japan pg 5 (1983)

Why are there so many patches of land that is unused, derelict or farm land even in really developed parts of Tokyo?

Property taxes are low, but property sales tax, inheritance tax and gift tax are all high, making it cheap to carry on the same and expensive to change

Why is there less of a distinction between posh areas and poor areas in Japan than in many other countries?

A smaller difference between rich and poor, the difficulty of moving when your finances change, quite a lot of land squatting in places like riversides, odd sizes and shapes of land and people converting parts of their own land or house into rented accommodation

Why are there no city walls in Japan?

To stop daimyo local lords getting too powerful

Why are so many of the castles in Japan reconstructions?

Why was the Frank Lloyd Wright Imperial Hotel torn down?

It’s not the only famous bit of classic architecture in Tokyo to fall to that fate, Tokyo International Forum also stands on the place where one of the most famous Tokyo buildings of its time was. In 1967, when the FLW one was torn down, modern was everything

How could Japanese cover Nihonbashi with expressway?

Why do Japanese streets have no names?

All Japanese communities, including parts of cities, have always been like little villages where everyone knows everyone else and so there is no need to have street names or even house numbers in order. This was even more so in Tokugawa times, when blocks of Tokyo streets would be surrounded by walls and watch towers dividing them from other parts of the city.

Why do the Japanese have no concept of noise pollution?

It’s not just the Japanese. The Turkish and Thais pipe music into almost every park! Even more than the Japanese, Asian countries are only a generation or two away from the countryside and the silence of a rice field means being backward and even ‘lonely’. Add to that Japanese salarymen in the safety department and advertising department doing their gambaru best by adding sounds to escalators, vending machines, posters etc. and there you have it.

Why are areas of temples and red light districts so often close to each other?

Both are often in the Northeast of the city. This was considered the direction that bad luck, ghosts and demons come from so respectable people wanted to live there and temples were built to protect the rest of the city. Another reason is that temples were often built near main roads and pilgramage routes, where the travellers would often be wanting ‘entertainment’ in the evenings.

Why is Tokyo so ugly and unplanned?

There is little financial and electoral incentive when people are still more focused on life being convenient and modern than on esthetics and keeping their heritage. This is partly because most of the people living in Tokyo and the politicians making the decisions come from the sticks and so have little interest in preserving a heritage they know nothing about.

Why is Omotesando so different from other streets in Tokyo?/ Why does only Omotesando look like a French boulevard?

“This broad, tree-lined promenade had been designed as the ceremonial entrance to [Meiji Jingu] the vast Shinto shrine honouring the Meiji emperor” Shutting Out the Sun pg 146

Why did the Japanese never use arches and domes in their traditional buildings?

It wasn’t through lack of ability as the technique of building bridges was exactly the same. It was probably a lack of need, as wooden buildings could be made as big and light and airy as you like without, unlike stone cathedrals. Many of the examples in the Christian and Islamic traditions can also be traced back to the influence of a few examples such as architects trying to copy and outdo the dome of Aya Sophia in Constantinople/ Instanbul. There are probably cultural/aesthetic reasons as well.
 
Why do traditional Japanese houses not have chimneys?
 
Why are there lots of hooks on the outside of dosou (土蔵-traditional warehouse buildings next to houses, also known as kura)?
 
According to an exhibition in Nikko Edo Mura, they were used to hang fireproof screens on during fires or hang buckets on while repairing the walls

Why is the quality of Japanese homes so bad?

When “the value of a newly-constructed residence falls by ten to fifteen percent immediately upon purchase, simply because the home becomes ‘used’ and thus less desirable” (Saying Yes to Japan pg 74) and this doesn’t depend on the quality, there is little point building to last

Why is second hand housing so unpopular in Japan?

A traditional belief that bad karma can transfer to homes and other goods, a bad image of draughty and insect ridden old houses of their grandparents, a general love of the new and modern, higher taxation on second hand than new housing until the 90s, and a vicious circle with bad building quality

Why do you see so much derelict and unused in Tokyo?

“property tax rates can be extremely low…combined with capital gains on land sales that can reach a whopping 42 percent, it encourages owners of dormant land to hold it” Saying Yes to Japan pg 74

Why do Japanese temples not follow the regular Chinese symmetrical layout?

Early Japanese temples are much squarer than later ones, but as temples moved out of the capital city and into the surrounding mountains they became more irregular to match the terrain. As this also matches the Japanese love of irregular forms (also seen in Japanese gardens), this form stuck and came back down the mountains into the cities.

How has the old Tokyo Station survived when just about every other red brick building has been knocked down to be replaced by concrete and glass?

The land is owned by several companies, none of them being JR, and this has held up development and therefore saved the old station building- JR would have knocked it down years ago if they had had the chance, but the public mood on conservation seems finally have turned and it should be safe.

How can Japanese parks with huge empty spaces still ban ball sports?

As always in institutional Japan, the emphasis is on avoiding complaints

Why are all the castles reconstructions made of concrete?

There are some original castles left (e.g. Matsumoto) and like a lot of Japanese architecture wood is a major factor and so most of them have not escaped the ravages of typhoons, earthquakes, fires and WWII bombing. Even before that, though, the Tokugawa shoguns tore down some castles and limited the number and size of others to stop regional daimyo lords getting too powerful and independent. When it comes to making a reconstruction, not only are there few people who can construct it the old way, the construction industry friends of the mayor or governor usually work in the concrete industry.

Why are the Japanese more likely to have a traditional interior in a modern building rather than visa versa?

Yet again, status is the main factor. The shoin style of Japanese interiors with sliding shoji screens, tokonoma alcove etc. that has become standard was originally reserved for the samurai class; and working class interiors like wooden floors with no tatami, and open fireplace in the middle of the room and a dirt floor wooden entrance are rarely seen in new houses even in the countryside. The most high status part of the outside of the house has long been pottery tiles (rather than wood, thatch or bark), and these too continue to be popular. I predict that as thatch becomes more and more expensive it will see a slow revival.

Why do you never see the stone lanterns in shrines lit?

They are symbolic and not meant to be used as real lanterns.

Why are there no bins in the street?

Apparently, having no bins actually cuts down on littering.

How have sento traditional public baths survived?

Government subsidies, a lack of interest in converting them into trendy bars, and some obsessive hobbyists 

Why are Japanese houses never built in brick?

The reason you will often hear in Japan is that brick buildings do not resist earthquakes. In a country that now builds 40 storey glass buildings this is quite unlikely. Anyhow, the Frank Lloyd Wright Imperial Hotel was one of the few buildings to escape the 1923 Kanto earthquake relatively unharmed (it later succumbed to the 1960’s love of concrete instead), as the main danger is actually fire rather than the shaking itself.

The real reason is that the building industry has the whole game totally sealed up and has nothing to gain from being forced to change- not only do they own the companies that supply the cheap crappy materials that modern Japanese houses are made from, they also ‘own’ the government agencies that regulate them.

Why are there so many pylons everywhere?

Again, the industry has no incentive to change as burying them is more expensive, and the government agency staff they take out to expensive Ginza hostess bars is not likely to force them. And again, the explanation of earthquake problems is totally bogus- during the Hanshin (Kobe) earthquake falling electrical wires caused a major danger by blocking roads.

Why do Japanese streets have no names?

All Japanese communities, including parts of cities, have always been like little villages where everyone knows everyone else and so there is no need to have street names or even house numbers in order. This was even more so in Tokugawa times, when blocks of Tokyo streets would be surrounded by walls and watch towers dividing them from other parts of the city. This last reason is why homes have block numbers in their address but not street names, even when there is one.

Why do the Japanese have no concept of noise pollution?

It’s not just the Japanese. The Turkish and Thais pipe music into almost every park! Even more than the Japanese, Asian countries are only a generation or two away from the countryside and the silence of a rice field means being backward and even ‘lonely’. Add to that Japanese salarymen in the safety department and advertising department doing their gambaru best by adding sounds to escalators, vending machines, posters etc. and there you have it.

Why does Tokyo seem so instantly Asian when you first land, despite being a much more developed place than most Asian cities?

Smelly drains, brightly lit buildings, power lines, narrow streets, small cars, Chinese writing, open shop fronts, small shops, the smell of food everywhere, people eating at all hours of day and night, love of concrete constructions, elevated expressways etc. etc.

Why are areas of temples and red light districts so often close to each other?

Both are often in the Northeast of the city. This was considered the direction that bad luck, ghosts and demons come from so respectable people wanted to live there and temples were built to protect the rest of the city. Another reason is that temples were often built near main roads and pilgrimage routes, where the travellers would often be wanting ‘entertainment’ in the evenings.

Why is Tokyo so ugly and unplanned?

There is little financial and electoral incentive to beautify things when people are still more focused on life being convenient and modern than on aesthetics and keeping their heritage. This is partly because most of the people living in Tokyo and the politicians making the decisions come from the sticks and so have little interest in preserving a heritage they know nothing about.

Why do the Japanese knock lovely old wooden houses down and build horrible plastic ones?

There are numerous reasons to knock an old country-style house down in any country- infestations, gaps in the woodwork letting in cold air, cost of upkeep. The thing that might stop a suburban European from knocking it down is a belief that something old is necessarily good. The average Japanese city dweller is only a generation or two away from the countryside, and nowhere near getting that romanticized view of rustic things. In fact, you’d soon see the average European yokel cover their fields in plastic if the urban ruling classes weren’t stopping them.

Why are the Japanese more likely to have a traditional interior in a modern building rather than visa versa?

Yet again, status is the main factor. The shoin style of Japanese interiors with sliding shoji screens, tokonoma alcove etc. that has become standard was originally reserved for the samurai class; and working class interiors like wooden floors with no tatami, and open fireplace in the middle of the room and a dirt floor wooden entrance are rarely seen in new houses even in the countryside. The highest status part of the outside of the house has long been pottery tiles (rather than wood, thatch or bark), and these too continue to be popular. I predict that as thatch becomes more and more expensive it will see a slow revival.

12 Comments

  1. January 7, 2008 at 12:23 am

    [...] More on this in Japanese architecture and town planning explained [...]

  2. Renaud said,

    June 1, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    Japan has many vending machines with a variety of products ranging from levi’s jeans to hot corn soup. So, why are there no vending machines with chocolate bars or candy?

  3. alexcase said,

    June 3, 2008 at 10:34 am

    There are cultural reasons- the culture means people can’t eat while walking and only hot foods or icecream (sometimes seen in vending machines) are worth standing still or sitting down for- and practical/ economic ones- the drink companies have a monopoly on places and the profit margins are higher on drinks than food

  4. martin gandiwa said,

    August 2, 2008 at 10:12 am

    want correspond with town planners in Japan about city planning or land use planning activities which broadly can be divided into two segments, namely, strategic land use planning and development control.

  5. crella said,

    September 27, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    Odd small parcels of land are also caused by ji-ageya, people who sweep in and buy up lots of land. We asked one , who once owned 4,000 tsubo in Sannomiya in Kobe (and who became very rich in the bubble) about those small odd lots you see around.He said they keep small parcels (50-60 tsubo) that they attach to deals as incentive.

  6. alexcase said,

    September 28, 2008 at 2:16 am

    Thanks, that makes sense and explains a lot.

  7. AnaerseUnsape said,

    December 19, 2008 at 4:00 am

    Hi all!

    As a fresh japanexplained.wordpress.com user i just wanted to say hi to everyone else who uses this site ;-)

  8. lobHibEvomo said,

    January 6, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    What is bumburbia?

  9. crella said,

    January 13, 2009 at 9:15 am

    ““if a person builds a structure without authorization on land owned by another but the interference with the owner’s rights is minimal, causes only slight damage, and would require great expense to remove… the property owner cannot demand the removal of the obstruction” Kodansha Encyclopaedia of Japan pg 5″

    Thank you. That explains something I have not been able to figure out in over 20 years…..MIL has a 50-tsubo plot of land abutting her back garden that has been rented out to the same person for about 40 years. He said he was going to put a shed and something else on it, but he has built a garage-type thing where he works on motors, rebuilding them or something. The smell of soldering lingers in the air on muggy days…she hasn’t been able to budge him off that land, and he says he ‘wants to talk’ to my husband about us footing the bill for tearing it down when he retires soon. Now I know why, the law is screwed up :-) Oi-vey……she has lent a garage to someone for their car, but he now uses it for storage for tools and equipment and she can’t get him to stop it either. Marvelous that the law has no teeth to help landowners, people who will take advantage are given free reign!

  10. Adrienne Scherer said,

    October 18, 2009 at 2:49 am

    How the couples do to have sex in a house where the paper walls are so reveling in terms of noise,having in mind that the children and grandparents are sharing the house, how do they do it?!

    • Tori Ustika said,

      April 9, 2010 at 6:31 pm

      Love hotel, is the simplest way. But, now a days Japanese people do have westernized style homes as well.

  11. Dustin said,

    July 4, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Another great post! You answered some questions I never even thought of asking.

    You did miss one question:

    Why are so many of the castles in Japan reconstructions?

    Very few castles survived the U.S. bombing of Japan. The U.S. targeted castles for several reasons. One was because the Japanese Imperial forces took up base in some castles. Another was because the U.S. thought that by destroying some of Japan’s cultural heritage, they could lower morale and chisel away at the population’s support of the government.


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