Saturday 21 October 2017

In Harmony with Nature? Gloomy Nihonbashi and the Construction State

The zero milestone plaque (Nihon Kokudo Genpyo) at Nihonbashi
All roads lead to Nihonbashi
Nihonbashi (日本橋 literally "Japan Bridge") is both the name of a bridge and also a specific business district (as well as home to the original Tsukiji fish market) located right in the heart of Tokyo. Indeed, distances to Tokyo are calculated from the bridge - see the zero milestone plaque pictured right known in Japanese as Nihon Kokudō Genpyō (日本国道元標). Today the bridge is designated an important cultural property (jūyō-bunkazai =重要文化財). The original wooden bridge dates back to 1603 but was replaced by a larger stone bridge (with a steel frame) in 1911. A full size replica of the original wooden bridge can be enjoyed at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Unfortunately the museum is now closed for renovation until the end of March 2018, though don't despair - you can also walk over (and under) a rather lovely half-scale replica of the bridge at Haneda Airport (pictured below).
At both the airport and the museum, the roof may detract from the illusion of walking across a real bridge but the actual bridge itself is not much better - it is dark and gloomy with sunlight (and views of Mount Fuji) blocked by a massive highway running right over the top of the bridge (pictured below)! The highway was built in the rush to get ready for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and very much reflects the priority put on infrastructure over environment during the sixties and seventies, the years of Japan's rapid economic development (kōdo keizai seichō  =高度経済成長). 

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Fortunately, moves are afoot to undo the damage, with the national and metropolitan governments recently agreeing to move the highway underground after the Tokyo Olympics. Nevertheless, contrary to stereotypes of Japanese being "in harmony with nature," much of Japan is like this, as epitomised by the unsightly yet ubiquitous utility polls and wires running above ground and the presence of concrete all over the coasts and countryside. Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan (right) starts with a chapter on Japan's "construction state" and the author argues that Japan "has become arguably the world's ugliest country."