Emergent Tokyo

2022-07-03 07:10

#What makes Tokyo a megacity that remains intimate and adaptive?

Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City leaps beyond the dominant narrative that Tokyo emerged out of either cultural exceptionalism or an intrinsically Japanese culture to seek the underlying conditions that created the city.

It examines five archetypes found in Japanese cities (particularly Tokyo)

#Yokocho alleyways

'Warrens of lively, micro-scale bars and restaurants centered around tiny alleyways and backstreets'

Like many of the archetypes, these can trace their beginnings to the post-war period. During this time black markets popped up near transit, which the US occupation forces then uprooted. However, rather than being shut own, they were accommodated in a more formalised fashion. These became yokocho.

Many of the establishments in yokocho only seat 4 or 5 people, making them uniquely small. This smallness is paired with independence for each owner. The clustering of small, unique establishments, together with collective ownership of the land (in many cases) forms a uniquely resilient, bottom-up approach to entertainment districts.

#Zakkyo buildings

'The term zakkyo', literally meaning 'coexisting miscellany,' primarily refers to multi-tenant buildings containing a mixture of offices with a wide range of consumer establishments'

When you picture an iconic busy neon-lit street of Tokyo, it's probably one lined with zakkyo buildings. They have a proliferation of public signage, one business per floor and maximise their internal volume by placing circulation outside - often as external elevators.

They evolved out of a combination of building regulations specific to Tokyo (although similar patterns can be seen in other Asian cities like Hong Kong) and small land plot sizes.

They create an active edge to the road and achieve both vertical density and an ability to evolve over time - a rare combination in contrast to many examples of vertical density such as modern shopping malls. One zakkyo in it's own would look odd - but together they create the a distinct, exciting character.

#Undertrack infills

Similarly to yokocho, these grew out of post-war black markets. They combine many of the good qualities of the two previous archetypes.

#Ankyo streets

Ankyo means 'dark canal' - these are roads that were previously rivers, meaning they are often wiggly and narrower than a typical street. They originate in population boom in the Edo period, which caused many green spaces to be converted for housing. This led spring water to dry up. The remaining rivers became increasingly polluted, and so ahead of the 1964 Olympic Games the Tokyo government covered them up, turning them into ankyo.

Their spacial qualities make them hostile to vehicles, and therefore more pedestrian friendly. They are often more ambiguous in-between spaces, allowing neighbours to overflow their domestic space into them, creating opportunities for meeting. Their fundamental redundancy is their strength.

#Dense low-rise neighbourhoods

Dense neighbourhoods were common in Tokyo even in the Edo period, but their development was accelerated in the post-war period. More than any other archetype, they are shaped by seemingly orthogonal policies.

Firstly, as people moved to the cities, Japan implemented a major inheritance tax. This encouraged people to subdivide plots to pay for it. Without limitations on minimum spaces, lots shrunk further.

Anti-disaster regulations mean that every house must be detached, encouraging individuality. Property land rights mean that any homeowner is free to open a business on their land. A further requirement for vehicles to be parked off-road creates even more idiosyncratic houses and layouts.


There are clear commonalities between these archetypes, most pertinently that they are emergent from conditions rather than directly designed. This emergence allows resilience through adaptability, permeability and ambiguity. It allows a multilayered sense of scale, creating highly livable spaces and tight communities.

Many of these conditions came from the social, economic and cultural dynamics of postwar Japan - but this does not mean that conditions for emergence which make sense for a specific locale cannot be designed elsewhere.