Tuesday 30 November 2021

Tokyo: City of the Future or City of Confusion?

Tokyo, recently the centre of global attention during the Olympics, is undoubtedly one of the world's great cities. It was recently voted 4th in the Economist's global liveablity index (tied with Wellington), largely due to its high marks for stability, infrastructure, and health care (certainly, it has fared much better during the pandemic compared to many European cities). The name Tokyo itself though is rather confusing since it can refer to different things. While Tokyo Metropolis (Tokyoto=東京都) has a population of over 14 million, the Greater Tokyo Area - which includes a number of surrounding prefectures - has almost 37.5 million residents, which apparently makes it the largest "city" in the world (though it seems a bit ingenious to call such a large area a "city"!). On the other hand, the 23 special wards (ku=区), where a little over 9 million Tokyoites live, are generally seen as Tokyo proper, though just to confuse things further, all 23 of these wards (like Shinjuku) refer to themselves as cities!

The Yamanote Line (山手線) is the almost 35km circular train line that links most of these "cities", including Shinagawa, Shibuya, and Shinjuku. To confuse non-Japanese (and Japanese too for that matter) the direction of travel is not "clockwise" or "anti-clockwise" but outer circle (sotomawari =外回り) and inner circle (uchimawari=内回り). Each station has a unique jingle when the train doors are about to close - if the music is still playing you know you just about have enough time to leap on or off (listen to them all here)! Until recently, there were 29 stations on this loop but in March 2020 a new station - Takanawa Gateway Station (高輪ゲートウェイ駅) - opened between Shinagawa and Tamachi Stations. 

East Japan Railway promoted Takanawa Gateway Station as a futuristic hub, an “ecoste” (Environment Earth Conscious Station) boasting high-level energy conservation through the adoption of origami-inspired roof membranes and the use of cedar-wood from the Tohoku region. It also boasts an unmanned automated convenience store and high-tech facial-recognition equipped AI security robots (though I never saw the latter when I visited - must have been stolen). Controversy dogged the opening of the station: while a public naming competition chose Takanawa as the name, JR East decided on adding the English "Gateway" in an apparent attempt to give it a cool/futuristic/international ring. This was widely panned by the Japanese public and spawned a number of memes and parodies (such as the one here).