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date: 18 August 2019


Abstract and Keywords

This article discusses urbanization in Japan from the nineteenth century. After the Meiji Restoration (1868) urban change was initially slow, but from the end of the nineteenth century Western-style industrialization, along with state reforms, energized modern urbanization — building on the advanced urban system of the early modern era. By the 1920s urbanization rates had reached 18 percent, the big cities were growing fast (Tokyo, for instance, numbered nearly 4 million at the time of the 1923 earthquake), while the urban infrastructure was modernized with the introduction of town planning and social welfare reforms.

Keywords: Japanese cities, urbanization, Meiji Restoration, industrialization, urban infrastructure, town planning, social welfare reforms

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 presents itself as one of history's great turning points. Indeed, it would be hard to deny the extent of the rupture that occurred around this time. Members of the military class fled the principal cities; Edo (the city soon to become Tokyo) in particular lost almost a third of its population during the years of uncertainty of the 1860s. Among those who remained were artisans and traders and many poorer samurai who had lost their domain positions. Conditions had been hard for some decades; the unease was considerable; and incomes fell. In the cities, the distinction between military, temple and shrine, and commoner territories was abolished in the first years of Meiji rule. The feudal lords were ‘bought out’; their inherited right to receive land tax in their provinces was translated into government bonds.1 In the emperor's new capital, the compounds of the feudal lords lay empty.

Early modern Japan was already highly urbanized (see above, Ch. 18; also Regional Map II.5). Cities had distinct functional roles—castle town, port, market town, although castle towns dominated. Under the conditions of rapid economic and social transformation that prevailed for much of the Meiji era (1868–1912), cities gained new or modified functions. Many castle towns became administrative centres. To take but one example, Kanazawa, centre of the powerful Kaga lords, became capital of Ishikawa Prefecture in 1872, with the abolition of feudal domains and after a brief process of administrative consolidation. The changed circumstances accelerated the growth of two newish settlements, Yokohama and Kobe, which serviced the needs of foreign traders and became centres of cultural as well as commercial ties between Japan and the world beyond. But perhaps the overwhelming trend of the Meiji era lay in an intensification of growth around the country's ‘three great cities’, Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo, and especially the latter two.

The country's first railway line, completed in 1872, connected Yokohama with nearby Tokyo. By 1887, Tokyo was connected with Osaka, and by 1907, lines were completed from Aomori in the north to Kumamoto in Kyushu in the south-west of the country. The railways were a part of a more generalized move from water to land. Within cities in particular, Osaka and Tokyo foremost among them, goods had been moved around predominantly by boat; Tokyo (and Edo before it) in particular was linked to the broad (p. 543) Kanto plain, through a network of waterways. And while the shipment of industrial goods meant that coastal port cities grew in importance, within cities people and goods were increasingly conveyed over the improved surfaces of city streets with their growing number of bridges. Later, in the course of the 20th century, the transport infrastructure of rail and road accelerated the growth of an urban strip stretching along the country's Pacific coast, punctuated by swelling conurbations around Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto. Industrial production has throughout the modern period been overwhelmingly concentrated along the Pacific coast, and in particular in these three metropolitan areas (Table 29.1).

This process of concentration of population and productive capacity has accentuated and culminated in recent decades in what has been called ‘unipolarization’ in Tokyo, with Japan's capital city dominating the urban hierarchy to such an extent as to weaken the (p. 544) (p. 545) economies and social structures of other urban areas, including even the Osaka conurbation. Tokyo and its surrounding conurbation now has a population in excess of 35 million (over twice the size of the Osaka–Kyoto–Kobe conurbation), almost 30 per cent of the entire national population, while well over 60 per cent of Japan's population inhabit the narrow coastal strip that runs from Tokyo to Fukuoka in the south-western island of Kyushu. The hierarchical pre-eminence of Tokyo has reinforced a longstanding attenuation of regional distinctiveness in what one might call a Tokyo-ization of the urban landscape. It is this process of gradual and then much quicker urban growth along the country's Pacific belt and its more recent shift towards concentration in the centre that presents itself as a recurrent theme in this chapter. These processes of rapid but geographically skewed urbanization are readily apparent in Tables 29.2 and 29.3;see also Regional Map II.5.

Table 29.1 Proportion of the Japanese Population Living in Cities and Densely Inhabited Districts 1903–2000a

Total population

All cities (shi) (%)

DID population (%)



6,809,976 (14.0)



8,299,744 (16.0)



8,999,264 (16.3)



6,809,976 (14.0)



10,096,758 (18.0)



15,444,300 (23.9)



27,577,539 (37.7)



31,365,523 (65.2)c



59,677,885 (72.1)

38,648,657 (43.7)



75,428,660 (76.2)

52,704,136 (53.3)



89,187,409 (76.2)

66,358,923 (59.7)



95,643,521 (77.4)

73,839,118 (63.2)



99,865,289 (78.0)

78,510,281 (64.7)

(a) Densely Inhabited Districts are contiguous square kilometres with a population density of over 4,000 inhabitants and a total resident population of over 5,000. Because administrative boundaries in Japan tend to be either over-drawn (including large areas of rural and mountain land) or under-drawn (with contiguous cities part of the same conurbation), the DIDs tend to be a more consistent measure of the extent of urbanization.

(b) Figures before this date are derived from the household register. From 1920 on, figures are derived from the National Census.

(c) The proportion of the population living in urban areas increased dramatically in the 1950s as a result of the first post-war amalgamation of administrative units and the consequent increase in the number of cities.

Source: Sorensen, The Making of Urban Japan, 172, and Historical Statistics of Japan (

Table 29.2 Population Growth in Japanese Cities with a Population of over 1 Million in 2000











Kita Kyushua


















































































































(a) The city of Kita Kyushu was formed in 1963 out of the amalgamation of five municipalities.

Source: Historical Statistics of Japan (

Table 29.3 Value of Manufacturing Output as a Proportion of the Total by Geographic Area

Area (% of Japan)









Tokyo MA










Nagoya MA










Osaka MA










Three MAs










Pacific Belt










Tokyo Metropolitan Area (MA): Tokyo Metropolis, plus Chiba, Saitama, and Kanagawa prefectures.

Nagoya MA: Aichi, Gifu, and Mie prefectures.

Osaka MA: Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, and Hyogo prefectures.

Pacific Belt: The three metropolitan areas, Shizuoka, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, and Fukuoka prefectures.

Source: Sorensen, The Making of Urban Japan, 170; Historical Statistics of Japan, 2: 414–418.

1880s and 1890s—Looking Both Ways

In the 1880s and 1890s, the mid-Meiji years, Japan's largest cities were being remodelled to reflect the new institutional setting and the new infrastructure of a modernizing and westernizing urban condition. These are decades in which are rooted the triple departures of Japan, modernization, industrialization, and westernization—modernization of the infrastructure and westernization of the prevailing institutional ideology according to which social change was orchestrated. The import of Western ideas, institutions, and technology always involved a process of translation and adaptation, and this can be seen clearly in the setting of Japan's cities. The creation of a modern urbanizing society (p. 546) involved massive changes in urban infrastructure. A new sense of urban order had to be created. Space was needed in city centres for the institutions of government, finance, and the military. New government and business centres were required.

The pre-Meiji structures of Japanese cities, and Tokyo in particular, lent themselves well to this transformation, as the compounds of leading samurai families were centrally placed, conveniently sized and immediately available. Edo, a city of walls and gates, had been built around a girdle of moats and forbidding revetments, within which the shogun lived with his close retinue and his officers of state worked. In the years immediately before and after the Meiji Restoration (1868), more and more of the castle was destroyed by fire. But despite, or more probably because of, the connotations of this space with the aura of power, the Meiji emperor eventually moved back in, although his quarters were in a palace newly built in an Occidentalized style. The ample compounds around the castle, in which the more powerful members of the feudal elite had lived, were transferred to the army and to ministries of the new government. This new spatial configuration was reflected, as had been the old one, in many of the former castle towns around the country. While the scale differed, there too the compounds of leading retainers, which had ringed most of the larger provincial castles, were transferred to government hands and became the site of prefectural offices.

Under the Tokugawa shogunate, the urban economy had been sophisticated and diverse, with powerful merchants bound together in trade associations. With the change of political and landholding regimes, a number of merchants imposed themselves both on the political scene and on the geographical territory of the new imperial capital. Interests associated with the Mitsui family established themselves through land acquisitions in the part of Tokyo that now houses the Stock Exchange, while the family later to become known as Mitsubishi took control of a large swath of land that today houses the headquarters of many of the nation's leading businesses. Embryonic modern Japanese capitalism had stamped its authority on the soil of Tokyo; corporate land ownership has remained a prominent feature of the city centre.2

Urban improvement meant an early attempt to remove the more egregious backstreet slums that existed as hangovers from the previous period. A process of removing poverty and ‘unclean’ occupations from the public gaze to locations on the urban periphery was replicated in Osaka.3 The new urban order involved a need for transport and movement. Physical and human impediments were removed from roads. Traffic, and in particular wheeled transport including rickshaws, required improved road surfaces and a clear passage.4 The number of bridges needed over even modest waterways increased. Both in Tokyo and Osaka the provision of a modern and Western infrastructure (neatly elided) became the main features of urban policy.5 Consideration for the wellbeing of urban dwellers had to wait.

Gas lighting was introduced to illuminate a few major roads in the early 1870s, while the first essays in street electricity occurred a little over a decade later.6 Space was found for a wide range of modern urban institutions, including universities, hospitals, and schools. Western styles of consumption and recreation—or, sometimes, Western adaptations of traditional approaches—began to figure. In a previously neglected corner of (p. 547) central Tokyo, an unparalleled experiment in urbanism occurred. The district of Ginza had been burnt down in a fire in 1872; its buildings became the first to be rebuilt in brick, its pavements the first to be paved. Indeed the district, which was adjacent to the recently completed railway station at the head of the country's first line linking Tokyo to Yokohama, was planned to be a sort of showcase of Western urbanism with its shop windows, roadside trees, and gas lights. After some significant early problems, Ginza became the locus classicus of modern urbanism not only for Tokyo but for the whole country, a paradigmatic example of the benefits that modern commerce, technology, and consumption practices could confer.

At about the same time that the new Ginza was being planned, Japan's first public parks were designated. Five in number, they all occupied sites in Tokyo that had been popular recreation spots in Tokugawa times. It was not until 1903 that the country's first ‘Western-style’ public park was opened, at Hibiya in central Tokyo on the site of an army parade ground.7 But the difficulties that planners and politicians faced in conceptualizing and laying out this parcel of land reveal the task of translation that was faced in importing Western urban spaces into Japanese cities. Only a few years after its completion, in 1905, Hibiya Park became the site of political rallies, some of which spilled over into surrounding streets in violent protests against the treaty that ended the war with Russia.

Surprisingly perhaps, of all Japan's cities the one that underwent the greatest changes at this time was Kyoto. In an attempt to reinvent a city that suffered a long period of decline and helped by a donation from the Imperial Household, large Western-style avenues were built; street lighting was provided; and a tram system was planned. A commemorative shrine was built, the Heian Shrine, and land was cleared around it for various government offices.8 In this way, many of the appurtenances of Western urbanism were introduced into Japan. It was a piecemeal process, and it was one that availed itself of existing urban land use.

After some hesitation involving Kyoto and Osaka, Tokyo was chosen as national—and imperial—capital. While Osaka retained its commercial pre-eminence, all aspects of national life were centred on Tokyo. But what sort of capital should Tokyo be? The mid-Meiji years were characterized by an intense debate over the direction in which Tokyo should develop: should it become a grand ‘baroque’ capital in the style of Paris or Berlin or should the government concentrate on expanding the port and making the capital a great centre of trade and commerce like London? The argument was never really resolved, but financial constraints led inevitably to a scaling down of the grand baroque plans that had been drafted by eminent German engineers who had been invited over by the Japanese government.9 The debate culminated in the first attempt to regulate in a concerted fashion the shape of Japan's cities. The Urban Improvement Ordinance of 1888 was chiefly concerned with roads, bridges, and the urban infrastructure. It was applied in Tokyo over a period of years with decreasing effectiveness as the stock of funds available dwindled, and with little impact beyond the capital.

The Meiji government, comprised as it was of former samurai mainly hailing from peripheral provinces, was reluctant to create conditions for the formation of competing power structures in the country's largest cities. While other cities were granted mayors (p. 548) and municipalities in 1878, that privilege was withheld from Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, until, in 1898, the government capitulated in the face of widespread discontent.

Life in Tokyo and Osaka and the other largest cities was, as it were, like existing in a world that looked both ways. The experience of urban life is well illustrated in topographical accounts of writers who cast their accounts in retrospective idioms and often express wonder at the changing physical and human landscape of the city. Hirade Kōjirō is one such figure. His account of Tokyo manners and customs, published from 1898, draws an enticing picture of a city in which traditional pastimes that celebrate the changing seasons exist alongside, and even share space with, new recreational pursuits such as cycling and angling.10 His and other accounts are valuable documents that contribute to a more complete picture of life in Japan's cities at the dawn of the industrial era.

Most of Japan's cities of the Meiji era inherited a twin condition from the Tokugawa regime. Since the military class of samurai had been compelled to leave their land and base themselves around the castles of their lords—as their lords themselves had had to spend fixed periods of time in the shogun's capital—castle towns throughout Japan were both centres of consumption and of artisanal production. Consumption grew again quickly as the political situation stabilized and urban populations started growing rapidly by the 1880s. But arguably, one of the crucial elements in the transformation and growth of Japanese cities was the strength of artisanal manufacture. Members of the artisanal class were joined by former samurai, many of them poorly off, to form an urban stratum of producers making all sorts of products for the urban market, largely managed and controlled by wholesaler-contractors (ton’ya). Out of this production system, full-fledged urban industrial capitalism grew, with a number of small-scale manufacturers successfully innovating and transforming themselves into industrial capitalists.

Despite the great political and social changes that revolutionized urban (and rural) life in Japan, the geography of Japanese cities retained many of their Tokugawa-period features. Patterns on the ground evolved slowly during these decades, but the pace of change would pick up, driven above all by incipient urban industrialization, centred on Osaka and to a lesser extent Tokyo. By 1886, Osaka already had over 5,000 factories (1,000 more than Tokyo) employing over 200,000 workers.11 Urban growth trends were not, however, uniform across the country. While the population of the ‘three great cities’ of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto grew vigorously throughout this period, as did that of thriving port cities such as Nagasaki and Hakodate as well as Yokohama and Kobe, more than doubling between 1878 and 1898, some former castle towns like Toyama and even Kanazawa now found themselves peripheral to the main thrust of economic activity and failed to register population growth.12

1920s—Metropolitan Expansion

By the 1920s, the hesitations of the mid-Meiji period had disappeared, and Japan's urban infrastructure was rapidly modernizing. Japanese cities were swiftly spreading outwards. The number of rickshaws was declining fast, their place taken by trams and then (p. 549) buses.13 By the mid-1920s, the largest cities such as Tokyo and Osaka had extensive tram networks. These linked into an expanding network of suburban railway lines. Beginning in Osaka in the 1910s, privately run suburban railway lines soon became—and have remained—a pivotal feature of Japanese cities. They were owned and operated by business tycoons who both developed real estate along the line and built opulent department stores adjacent to their terminus stations.14 Primus inter pares amongst these shapers of Japanese urbanism, was Kobayashi Ichizō, owner of the Hankyū company, which operated a rail line out of Osaka. As Jordan Sand recounts in his history of House and Home in Modern Japan, Kobayashi created various and varied tourist attractions at the two outbound ends of his line. A few years later in Tokyo, a railway company owned by one of the country's foremost industrialists, Shibusawa Eiichi, built a garden suburb at the end of its line just outside Tokyo. Den’en Chōfu is said to have been inspired by, if not modelled on, Ebenezer Howard's first garden city at Letchworth.

At the same time as the new private railway lines were enticing people to live in suburban areas, the older districts of Japan's largest cities (as well as a number of smaller ones) were fast becoming important centres of manufacturing, characterized by numerous small establishments among which were interspersed much larger factories. Osaka, whose leaders were very conscious and proud of references to their city as Japan's Manchester, remained the centre of industrial activity, a role it inherited from the Tokugawa centuries, although it would soon lose its position to Tokyo.15 Industrial production swung to the political centre in the years leading up to total war on the continent, when the dredging and improvement of Tokyo port led to the development of the Keihin industrial zone along the coast.16

The growth in modern industry, nearly all of it located in Japan's cramped and increasingly urbanized alluvial flood plains, was spurred by World War I, when colonial markets were suddenly opened up for Japanese goods. That growth was facilitated by the electrification of manufacturing plants that had previously been powered by steam. And it was around this time that gas and electricity were being brought to an increasing number of homes, as was piped water—but not the sewerage system (Table 29.4a-b).

The catastrophic event of the decade was the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, which destroyed nearly all of central and eastern Tokyo, as well as Kawasaki and Yokohama. (p. 550) While the disaster caused some 100,000 casualties and some terrible localized disasters, its impact was not such as to cause a rewriting of Japanese urbanism. The city that grew out of the ruins was not so different from that which had stood before. The earthquake did allow for a partial standardization of plots and widening of main thoroughfares, but some of this had already been planned before the earthquake struck. Many of the houses that were rebuilt were, however, given exemptions from fire regulations (highly ironic in the circumstances), exemptions that were later extended indefinitely, leading directly to their destruction in the wartime air raids.17 The principal effect of the earthquake was to displace thousands of Tokyo's inhabitants, compelling them to move further out, in many cases to hastily built and poorly planned districts just beyond the city boundaries.

Table 29.4a Households Served by Gas Supply in Selected Tokyo Wards























Source: Compiled from Tokyo Statistical Yearbook.

Table 29.4b Households Connected to Electricity Supply in Selected Tokyo Wards
















Source: Compiled from Tokyo Statistical Yearbook.

This outward expansion of the urban population was formally recognized in 1932, when the city's borders were moved outwards and twenty new wards were carved out of the surrounding lands to be added to the existing fifteen. This occurred seven years after Osaka had undergone a similar process of administrative expansion. Population growth in urban areas and the accompanying expansion of cities was a pattern that replicated itself throughout the country. Results from the first national census, in 1920, and the census conducted in 1930 show steep population increases in the largest cities, and larger than anywhere else in Tokyo prefecture, despite the devastating earthquake and consequent haemorrhage of residents from the city centre and inner city (Table 29.2). At the same time, the population of all administrative areas having a population of over 30,000 rose by 12 per cent within this decade.

If the Great Kanto earthquake was an event that might have led to a new beginning for Japanese cities, so too might have been the passage in 1919 of the country's first Urban Planning Law, which was implemented on a city-by-city basis in the 1920s and 1930s. This was accompanied by a number of other measures, including the city-by-city introduction of zoning plans. The effectiveness of the Urban Planning Law in Tokyo was considerably curtailed by the earthquake, after which a further ad hoc law was passed. The zoning plan was descriptive rather than prescriptive, recognizing existing land use patterns rather than attempting to ascribe new ones.18

More important to the shaping of Japanese urbanism were the positions taken and plans adopted by Seki Hajime, mayor of Osaka from 1923 to 1935.19 He is the pre-eminent (p. 551) example of a generation of politicians and bureaucrats who worked to alleviate overcrowding in urban areas, garden cities being among his favoured remedies. Many of the urban and social reforms of this period were introduced at a municipal rather than a national level. Social welfare legislation is a case in point, with the district commissioner (hōmen iin) system introduced first in Osaka and Okayama in 1917, but full legislation was not enacted until 1929.20 The system relied very much on the voluntary efforts of members of the new managerial and professional classes.21 In Tokyo, the city government had set up in 1919 a Social Welfare Bureau, which played an important role in pinpointing and tackling poverty. Meanwhile, throughout Japan's cities, sanitation committees (eisei kumiai) had been set up, generally on the initiative of local citizens, and these were now being brought within the compass of local administrations. In the decades that followed, and especially in the 1920s, neighbourhood associations were set up in urban areas throughout the country, many of them modelled on the sanitation committees, helping establish a strong role for civil society in the fostering of socially cohesive neighbourhoods.

The 1920s are often depicted as a sort of golden age during which a distinctive mass urban culture developed, with a growing middle class of salaried employees with spare time to enjoy and income to spend. Certain specific districts in Tokyo, Osaka, and other large cities came to be associated with consumption practices, leisure pursuits, and crowds of shoppers, many of them young women. The archetype of such districts is Ginza, which in the 1920s and 1930s was unquestionably the most modish part of town. Its cafés, shops, and milk bars exhibited an exquisite blend of Western products and Japanese sensibilities. It was the city catwalk for the new middle classes. This was a time when the number of office workers in Tokyo was growing, but a sense of what a modern middle-class urban lifestyle might be had to be invented, while industrialists like the railway and property magnate Tsutsumi Yasujirō invested in model urban villages that he hoped would attract members of the city's professional and managerial classes.22 Many of the window shoppers in the Ginza, however, were in town for the day or were clerks and other lowly paid employees for whom one of these hybrid Western homes would have been way beyond their means.

The Japanese state played little part in the provision of housing, which remained a private prerogative. Experiments in social housing were limited; Dōjunkai, the state's first essay in public housing, was inaugurated in Tokyo after the Great Kanto earthquake, but it only ever completed 7,000 dwellings. Most of the middle classes, whether they inhabited Tokyo or other cities, lived modestly in small two-storey wooden terraced or row housing, with little to differentiate their dwellings from those of factory employees and their families. Japan's rapid industrialization was sucking into the cities large numbers of working men and women, with and without families, many of whom lived lives tightly constrained by factory discipline, long hours, and low pay. While the 1923 earthquake had cleared Tokyo of many of its concentrations of bad housing, it had not eliminated poverty. By the end of the 1920s, Tokyo, like Osaka and most other Japanese cities, was characterized by an unusual combination of poor quality housing, built of wood, for the majority of urban dwellers alongside a lack of significant slum districts.

(p. 552) As with the European colonial powers, the capture and recasting of major cities and the construction of new ones were central to Japan's imperial policy in Korea, Taiwan, and China (for a fuller discussion of Chinese cities during the decades of Japanese imperial aggression, see Ch. 28 on chinese cities by Kristin Stapleton). Imperial authority was translated into grandiose buildings for governor-generals in Seoul and Taipei. Koreans and Taiwanese were shunted around to make room for new residential districts for Japanese colonialists and business people and their families. The officials who planned Japan's advance through Asia were able to call on the services of architects and planners who jumped at the chance of being able to plan without regulatory encumbrance, often from a tabula rasa, in a way that they would never have been able to experience back home. The Japanese made Shenyang the capital for their puppet state of Manchuria. Here they planned a new city, adjacent to the existing settlement, of vast size and ambition. Its main government buildings were linked by broad avenues laid out in radials and grids with a liberal provision of green space.23

Land readjustment, which involves the rationalization of adjacent land plots and provision of infrastructure in return for small contributions of land from landowners, was trialled on a large scale by the Japanese in their colonies. In later years, especially after the war, it was increasingly used as a tool for the redevelopment of both urban and rural areas—city centres and in particular land at the urban fringe.

The Destruction and Reconstruction of Japan's Cities

Disaster and destruction are a leitmotif of Japanese urban history, and arguably something of an imaginational obsession. In terms of the sheer scale of damage inflicted there is nothing to compare with the destruction wrought by the blanket fire-bombing of Japanese cities in the last few years of World War II. Tokyo and Yokohama had only recently been rebuilt, having both been destroyed in the cataclysmic earthquake of 1923. Later much of Kobe too was destroyed by an earthquake in 1995, although the casualty rate was much lower, at about 6,000. But there were many other disasters that caused countless deaths in the history of modern Japanese urban life. Among them, one might single out the great floods of 1910 that hit Tokyo and surrounding cities, the floods that paralysed much of Kobe and Osaka in 1938 (616 fatalities), the Ise Wan typhoon which killed some 5,000 people in Nagoya in 1959, the Niigata earthquake of 1964 (26 victims), the Nagasaki flash floods of 1982, which killed 299 people, and on 11 March 2011 the earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of northeast Japan and caused up to 20,000 fatalities. There have been many others, but this list conveys something of the regularity and geographical spread of these disasters. The immediate post-war period was one of particularly regular devastation, with over 1,000 people killed almost each year from 1945 to 1960. But this was as nothing compared with the devastation of the bombing during (p. 553) World War II, from which only Kyoto and Kanazawa were spared, and the destruction by atom bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the last few days of the war.

In the immediate post-war months, a series of ambitious plans were set out for Japan's destroyed cities, the most ambitious of all being for Tokyo, the work of visionary planner Ishikawa Hideaki. However, at a time of extreme national stringency, very little funding was available to bring these plans to fruition, and indeed proportionately Tokyo enjoyed even less funding than did other cities. Most activity involved not orderly reconstruction and the provision of park land as envisaged in these plans but the rapid provision of housing, with ‘the majority of rebuilding schemes…consistent with prewar planning culture, concepts and techniques’.24 Land readjustment was to have been the tool for this rewriting of Japan's cities along orthogonal lines. However, conditions were not favourable, and Nagoya was one of the few cities in which land readjustment was effectively used. The technique had been deployed from well before the war in agricultural areas around the city, but was used in the aftermath of war destruction to bring about broad new avenues in the centre of Nagoya and throughout the urban area. The city as a result lost that impromptu and unplanned appearance that is for many the hallmark of Japanese urbanism.

It was in the countryside that the greatest changes occurred in the six years that Japan was under the control of the Occupation forces, but the impact of these changes was felt acutely in urbanizing areas. The programme of land reform instigated by the Allies and implemented in 1947 led to the creation of an irredeemably fragmented pattern of growth at the urban fringes. At the same time, as Sorensen argues, strong property rights were reinforced as a result of Japanese representations during the process of writing the new post-war constitution.25 It is certainly the case that the basic patterns of mid-and late 20th-century urban expansion in Japan have been deeply etched by the small size of landholdings and the deep-rooted proprietorial instincts of landowners.

1960s and 1970s: Megalopolis—Japanese Cities in the High-growth Era

In the post-war decades, Japanese landscapes were transformed through extensive urbanization and industrialization of much of the country's alluvial flood plains. As the flood plains filled up with concrete, land was extended into the sea through an acceleration of reclamation work. The population along the Pacific coastal corridor grew exponentially in the high-growth years of 1955 to 1970, but growth was rapid in cities large and small throughout the archipelago, even allowing for successive rounds of administrative mergers. Much of Japan's coastline was carpeted in concrete, while special zones were created for heavy industry through the construction of so-called kombinaato, giant industrial complexes named after Soviet counterparts and based around the petrochemical and oil refining industries. Virtually the whole of Japan's narrow Pacific coastal strip, (p. 554) which runs with only small interruptions from Fukuoka to Tokyo, had been converted into the base for the production of the consumer goods that penetrated and eventually saturated world markets. And linking it all together was the Shinkansen, the bullet train line, whose first section, along the ‘Tōkaidō megalopolis’ from Tokyo to Osaka, had been completed in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Olympics themselves had provided a catalyst for various urban ‘modernization’ projects, notably the construction of overhead expressways in Tokyo (followed by other major cities).

Rapid economic growth whetted the appetites of architect and developers. Hyperbolic plans were drafted by leading architects such as Tange Kenzō for a new city to colonize Tokyo Bay, and although these came to nothing, they helped lay the ground for the various mega urban projects that were to be built along the bay in the 1980s. One of the high water marks of this grandiose development-led approach to planning was prime minister Tanaka Kakuei's Rebuilding Japan: Plan for the Remodelling of the Japanese Archipelago (1973), which stoked a frenzy of land speculation around the country leading to the withdrawal of many of the plans outlined.26 Economic growth was so rapid that even the economic targets of the government's 1960 income doubling plan were soon exceeded. Most of the growth was concentrated in the Tōkaidō corridor along the Pacific Coast. This concentration elicited a certain amount of political opposition. The central government's regional and land development plans during this period vacillated between accommodating these voices and those of the centralizers. In the end, the impact of the various plans was probably neutral; and in any case, growth for most of the 1950s and 1960s was so fast as to make planning almost meaningless.

The single-minded pursuit of a form of economic growth based on the export of industrial goods and mass development of the landscape in concrete was unsustainable. By the late 1960s, a number of deadly pollution cases had broken out, alongside many smaller ones—the courts eventually ruling in favour of the plaintiffs. Citizens agitated up and down the country, and voted in reformist mayors and governments to run Japan's largest cities. Japan's local government system had been thoroughly revised and rewritten, largely in the years after the Pacific War. Local autonomy was, however, generally considered to be rather limited. Central government exercised a large measure of control, through funding mechanisms, secondments and legal structures, although there was a considerable degree of overall agreement about directions at a time of rapid development.

Faced with a picture of untrammelled sprawl, the Japanese government undertook a major revision of the City Planning Act in 1968. The primary intent behind the legislation was to give shape to urban growth by channelling it in desired directions. Urban control and promotion areas were created, but as Hebbert and Nakai showed convincingly, the upshot was perverse in that exemptions led to construction in urban control areas, while strategic land retention by farmers contributed to a disorderly conversion of urban promotion areas.27 In addition, an ‘escape clause’ for plots of under a tenth of a hectare led to a proliferation of tiny match-box developments deprived of proper infrastructure.

(p. 555) Despite the scale of wartime destruction, the construction of housing was left largely in private hands. State provision of housing remained limited throughout the post-war years, the state seeing housing as primarily a household responsibility. The size of the average dwelling remained small, and life in the major cities was generally rather frugal. State intervention in housing, however, was not entirely absent. Starting in the 1960s, new towns were built by the Japan Housing Corporation on the edges of large cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. Later new towns were developed by private railway companies and contained principally detached houses. But throughout Japanese urban areas in the 1950s and 1960s, four-floor apartment blocks were built to the same pattern. Known as danchi, they were intended to mitigate urban sprawl while providing dwellings for rapidly growing urban populations. The baby-boom generation is known, appropriately enough, as the danchi generation. But the housing that they occupied has aged along with its inhabitants, and the whole issue of what to do with decaying housing estates came to the fore in the 1990s.

Many of the accoutrements of a comfortable life were missing, as long commutes on crowded trains became the standard pattern of life for young female staff and the ubiquitous male salaried employees (sarariman). Commuting distances continued to grow well into the 1980s, as rising prices for residential property pushed homeowners further and further out (a trend accelerated by the continued policy of promoting home ownership and by the normal practice of companies paying their employees’ transport bills).

The cliché of Japanese urban life was captured in the picture of station staff cramming commuters onto crowded trains or the traffic police standing in the middle of busy road junctions wearing face masks. Poor quality of air and a lack of green space contributed to the common picture of urban life at this time. The defining moment came in a leaked 1979 document in which an official of the European Community described the Japanese as ‘workaholics living in rabbit hutches’. The reaction in Japan was one of both indignation and agreement. There was much talk of Japan in terms of rich country, poor people, in a reference to GNP as opposed to quality of life.

Japanese Cities in the Post-bubble Decades

The Japanese economy adapted better than most others to the era of high energy prices in the 1970s. Japan's had become the second largest economy in the world, and by the early 1980s it was seen as a paragon of economic management. At the same time, Japan was running massive trade surpluses with the US and other countries at a level considered unsustainable. A combination of repatriated profits in search of a safe berth and American pressure to boost domestic demand in Japan led to rampant speculation on land values in Japan's major cities, especially Tokyo. A frenzy of speculation led to an (p. 556) absurd state of affairs where the Imperial Palace in Tokyo was said to be worth as much as the whole of the state of California.

The economic bubble burst in 1991 when the first in a series of political scandals broke out. By the mid-1990s land prices had plummeted to the levels at which they had been in the early and mid-1980s. But the juggernaut of urban projects rolled on. The time lags that are an inevitable part of large urban projects meant that many developments planned in the 1980s actually came to fruition in the early 2000s, by which time the Japanese government was once again promoting greater exploitation of urban space, and once again largely in the name of international competitiveness.

Recent decades in Japanese cities have been characterized by successive (indeed, excessive) waves of urban development capital driving Japan's largest cities out of horizontality and into dizzying verticality and by a concentration of functions, funds, and people in the Tokyo conurbation (for more on this see below, Ch. 38). And while higher order service industries have moved to Tokyo, provincial cities have suffered further through the proliferation of out-of-town shopping centres and American-style strip developments. The deep malaise that appears to have afflicted Japanese society at least since the collapse of the economic bubble in the early 1990s has manifested itself in the triumph in mayoral elections of unorthodox and maverick politicians, including comedians and, in Tokyo's case, the ultra-nationalist figure of Ishihara Shintarō.

A host of measures have been developed from 1980 onwards to introduce a more orderly note into urban landscapes and give residents more influence (most notably the District Plan system implemented in 1980), but these have tended to be recast as deregulation measures, taking their place alongside a host of other measures introduced in the 1990s and 2000s whose cumulative impact has been to allow much higher floor area ratios, exploiting vast new amounts of vertical air space and greatly accelerating the number of high-rise buildings in Japanese cities.28

Sharp rises, and more recently falls, in property prices have had a destabilizing effect on life in Japanese cities, even if in many respects life has become more comfortable (Table 29.5). With lower prices for land and for property, there has been a return to city centre living in Tokyo as well as Osaka and one or two other large cities. The population of city centre wards, which had been falling dramatically in the 1980s and into the 1990s, started rising again, as it had not done for many decades. The picture in provincial cities could not however have been more different. While the population in prefectural capitals with under 1 million residents grew rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s and even the 1990s in many cases, it then flattened and started to fall in a number of cities, a process that is inevitably spreading and deepening. In many provincial cities, a shrinking population as well as deregulation and other measures favouring the construction of out-of-town shopping and eating establishments has led to a deep-rooted decline. Meanwhile, as retail outlets move out of smaller urban areas, in the big cities consumption comes to play an ever greater role, and proliferating subcultures feed urban diversity.

It would, however, be a mistake to see the urban life-spaces of Japan as being detached from those in nearby countries. Various commonalities exist between the way life has (p. 557) been lived in recent decades in Japan and in South Korea, Taiwan, and China. This is not surprising. It would be strange indeed if the Japanese approach to economic development had been such an influence without some sort of related impact on urban areas and urban life. Thus in each of these countries the last few decades have seen the materialization of a very plastic urban environment. This is an environment that has been constantly changing under the pressure of corporate investment in urban land and property as business interests take advantage of the shift from a production-based urban landscape to one that derives its dynamism from the activities of finance and related industries, and of consumer and culture capital. Over the last few decades too, many of the products of Japanese culture and its proliferating subcultures have infiltrated neighbouring countries in a flow which, although not one-way, is predominantly outward from Japan.

Table 29.5 Index of Average Prices of Urban Land, 1980–2010

All urban land

6 major cities













The six major cities: the 23 ward area of Tokyo (roughly equivalent to the 33 London boroughs), Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe.

2000 is the base year (31 March).

Source: Japan Real Estate Institute (

Conclusion: Plans, Capital and Perpetual Change

The great challenge that now faces municipal government leaders in Japan (a challenge that will soon be replicated in large Chinese cities), as well as ordinary residents of urban areas, is that of a declining population and ‘shrinking cities’. If properly managed, this could provide an opportunity. If left unmanaged, the result could be calamitous. But these are issues beyond the scope of this chapter.

Running through this chapter, reflecting the three thematic threads of urban landscape, governance, and life-spaces has been a sense of the pace of change in modern Japanese cities, fuelled (especially in recent decades) by a dynamic of outward sprawl at the edges and upward growth in and around the centre. Japan's largest cities extended (p. 558) into surrounding farmland and merged with nearby towns and cities; they did this through incremental growth as farmland was converted into urban plots. As this process began to run its course, they pushed upwards, exploiting the vertical space made available through the relaxation of building regulations. Given the lack of visual evidence that remains, it is sometimes hard to imagine an earlier time, earlier in the modern period, when urban areas in Japan were predominantly two storey and built of wood, and rickshaws were the main form of conveyance. While Japan's cities have frequently suffered from calamitous fires and floods, it is not the grand acts of politicians and planners that stand out as formulators of the urban terrain but rather a piecemeal but constant process of demolition and reconstruction that provides the underlying impulse. Those who live in Japanese cities have had to respond and adapt to the ever-shifting spaces within which everyday life is conducted.


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(1.) André Sorensen, ‘Land, Property Rights, and Planning in Japan: Institutional Design and Institutional Change in Land Management’, Planning Perspectives, 25: 3 (2010), 279–302; Kōzō Yamamura, ‘Pre-Industrial Landholding Patterns in Japan and England’, in Albert M. Craig, ed., Japan: A Comparative View (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 276–323; Kōzō Yamamura, ‘The Meiji Land Tax Reform and Its Effects’, in Marius B. Jansen and Gilbert Rozman, eds., Japan in Transition: From Tokugawa to Meiji (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 382–99. All names of Japanese people are given in the usual Japanese order (family name first) except where they appear as authors of English-language works.

(2.) Fujimori Terunobu, Meiji no Tokyo keikaku (Meiji Plans for Tokyo) (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1982), 177.

(3.) Jeff Hanes, The City as Subject: Seki Hajime and the Reinvention of Modern Osaka (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2002), 183.

(4.) Ishizuka Hiromichi ‘Meiji Tōkyō no sakariba to hiroba, dōro kisei’ (The Crowded Places, Open Spaces, and Road Regulations in Meiji Tokyo), in Tōkyō Toritsu Daigaku Toshi Kenkyū Sentaa (Tokyo Metropolitan University Center for Urban Studies), ed. Tōkyō: Seichō to keikaku, 1868–1988 (Tokyo: Urban Growth and Planning, 1868–1988) (Tokyo: Tōkyō Toritsu Daigaku, 1988), 43–52.

(5.) Hanes, The City as Subject, 180.

(6.) Fujimori, Meiji Plans, 184.

(7.) Paul Waley, ‘Parks and Landmarks: Planning the Eastern Capital along Western Lines’, Journal of Historical Geography, 31:1 (2005), 1–16.

(8.) Paul Waley and Nicolas Fiévé, ‘Kyoto and Edo-Tokyo: Urban Histories in Parallels and Tangents’, in Fiévé and Waley, eds., Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective: Place, Power and Memory in Kyoto, Edo and Tokyo (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 1–37.

(9.) Fujimori, Meiji Plans, 228; Hanes, The City as Subject, 178.

(10.) Hirade Kōjirō, Tōkyō fūzoku shi (A Record of Tokyo Customs), 3 vols. (Kyoto: Yasaki Shobō, 1975 [1899–1903]).

(11.) Quoted from official statistics in Tōkyō Hyakunenshi Henshū Iinkai (Tokyo Hundred Year History Editorial Committee), ed., Tōkyō hyakunenshi (A History of Tokyo's Hundred Years), vol. 3 (Tokyo, 1979), 380.

(12.) Takeo Yazaki, Social Change and the City in Japan: From Earliest Times through the Industrial Revolution, trans. David Swain (Tokyo: Japan Publications, Inc., 1968), 312.

(13.) Carl Mosk, Japanese Industrial History: Technology, Urbanization, and Economic Growth (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2001), 168.

(14.) Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan: Architecture, Domestic Space and Bourgeois Culture, 1880–1930 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003), 132.

(15.) Hanes, The City as Subject, 195.

(16.) Mosk, Japanese Industrial History, 244.

(17.) Ishida Yorifusa, ‘Japanese Cities and Planning in the Reconstruction Period: 1945–55’, in Carola Hein, Jeffry Diefendorf, and Yorifusa Ishida, eds., Rebuilding Urban Japan after 1945 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 17–49.

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(19.) Hanes, The City as Subject.

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(21.) Sally Ann Hastings, Neighborhood and Nation in Tokyo, 1905–1937 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995).

(22.) Sand, House and Home, 234.

(23.) David Buck, ‘Railway City and National Capital: Two Faces of the Modern in Changchun’, in Joseph Esherick, ed., Remaking the Chinese City: Modernity and National Identity, 1900–1950 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000), 65–89, 79.

(24.) Carola Hein, ‘Rebuilding Japanese Cities after 1945’, in Hein et al., Rebuilding Urban Japan, 1–17, 3.

(25.) André Sorensen, The Making of Urban Japan: Cities and Planning from Edo to the Twenty-first Century (London: Routledge, 2002), 155.

(26.) Tanaka Kakuei, Building A New Japan: A Plan for Remodeling the Japanese Archipelago (Tokyo: Simul Press, 1973).

(27.) Michael Hebbert and Norihiro Nakai, How Tokyo Grows: Land Development and Planning on the Metropolitan Fringe (London: STICERD, 1988).

(28.) Sayaka Fujii, Jun’ichirŌ Okata, and André Sorensen, ‘Inner-City Redevelopment in Tokyo: Conflicts over Urban Places, Planning Governance, and Neighborhoods’, in A. Sorensen and Carolin Funck, eds., Living Cities in Japan: Citizens’ Movements, Machizukuri and Local Environments in Japan (London: Routledge: 2007), 247–66.