If you read one book about Japan this year, it should be the beautiful, new Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City by Jorge Almazan and his Studiolab colleagues, including Joe McReynolds. But if you read two books about Japan, as you should, the second one should be André Sorensen’s essential The Making of Urban Japan.
American (and European) YIMBYs point to Tokyo as an icon and model – proof that nationalized zoning and a laissez faire building culture can protect affordability even when demand is very strong. But this body of work is over-reliant on a classic 2014 Urban Kchoze blog post. As the YIMBY movement matures, it’s time to go deep – books deep – into the fascinating details of Japan’s land use institutions.
As with any complex social phenomenon, we are tempted to essentialize Japanese zoning. It works because it’s top-down. It works because Douglas MacArthur imposed strong property rights. It works because of Japanese traditions of impermanence. (If you’re a planner rather than a YIMBY, replace “it works” with “it’s broken”).
Sometimes – often – essential simplifications are useful. And there’s no type of book more boring than the one that promises to tell you how “everything you know about X is wrong,” and then proceeds to offer a bunch of minor caveats to the basically-correct narrative you already knew. Thankfully, this isn’t that kind of book.
Instead, what you come away with is an appreciation for how wrong each of these narratives is: Japanese land use is a delicately-balanced synthesis of centralized and scattered power. If you take away an essential story or lesson, it should be the contingency of outcomes. It works because the central planners were powerful enough to preempt local government but not powerful enough to sideline landowners. It works because local governments encouraged modernization but never had enough funding to execute urban renewal. It works because otherwise strong property rights coexisted along with Land Readjustment. It works because the postwar US and Japanese authorities did not fully enforce their own edicts. It works because of the mini-kaihatsu loophole.
It works because a very specific sequence of institutions rose and declined over a very eventful century, and none of them had the time, power, or money to fully execute its vision.
In the next sections I will draw four notable episodes or themes from the text. This is not a synoptic review – the closest you’ll get to a full narrative is the “it works” section above.
The MacArthur Myth
First off, let’s go all Harry Truman on Douglas MacArthur. One of those essential stories is that the postwar U.S.-written constitution imposed strong property rights. This isn’t just incomplete-wrong, it’s wrong-wrong.
As Tsuru (1993) carefully explains…the American draft of the article on land rights was strongly resisted by the Japanese government. The original Article 28 in MacArthur’s draft read, “The ultimate fee to the land and to all natural resources reposes in the State as the collective representative of the people.”
Wait, what? “Reposes in the state”? Did the Soviets get there first?
This approach of the MacArthur draft was eventually replaced by the following wording suggested by the Japanese side which is now Article 29 of the Japanese constitution: “The right to own or to hold property is inviolable. Property rights shall be defined by law, in conformity with the public welfare…” Tsuru (1993:27) suggests that this wording is basically identical to the old Article 27 of the Meiji constitution, and is much more conservative in its protection of the rights of landowners and its weak conception of the public interest than the initial American draft.Sorensen, p. 156.
A country with inviolable property rights wouldn’t let a two-thirds majority of landowners force the minority to give up their land for a joint development scheme, would it?
I told you it was a delicately balanced synthesis.
The basic structure of LR is that two-thirds of owners representing two-thirds of land can vote to pool a specified area of land, overriding holdouts. Public ways and land are then laid out and the remaining land is redivided among the original property owners.
Planned growth in Japan has relied on Land Readjustment (LR) to an extraordinary degree. With no need for up-front funding and landowner votes as a check on bad ideas, LR may well be superior to eminent domain or land assembly for laying out new neighborhoods.
Sorensen characterizes suburban Japan as a patchwork of planned spaces, where LR succeeded, and “sprawl”, where uncoordinated rural development preceded planning via loopholes and political meddling.
Mini-kaihatsu, here and there
One American myth of Japanese land use is that national bureaucrats keep local planners on a leash, preventing them from zoning more strictly. Where that’s correct, it’s almost accidentally so. National bureaucrats, in Sorensen’s telling, have consistently pushed for greater regulation. But when prefectures had the choice of setting a key regulatory threshold at 500 or 1,000 square meters, “only a few” took the stricter option (p. 236).
That 1,000 square meter threshold became the “mini-kaihatsu loophole”. In rural fringe areas, a development below 1,000 square meters did not need development permission.
A typical mini-kaihatsu development consists of 12 houses fronting on a narrow 4 metre lane running at right angles from an existing road.Sorensen, p. 238
A common size for rice paddies was, “conveniently”, one tan, or 992 square meters.
Here’s a picture of a typical mini-kaihatsu:
Oops, wrong photo. That’s Houston. Here are some Japanese examples from Google:
The concept is the same, and it’s no coincidence that both arise in places with light regulation, strong demand, and little public streets funding. As I wrote about Houston:
Houstonians achieve privacy by orienting many new townhouses onto a share courtyard-driveway, sometimes gated, which creates an intermediate space between the private home and the public street…
The courtyard-driveways also provide a shared play space, as evidenced by frequent basketball hoops. Despite what Jane Jacobs may have told you, city streets are not viable play spaces for 21st-century children. But cul-de-sacs can be. Houston’s courtyard-and-grid model may be the ideal blend, unlocking the connectivity of a city while delivering the secure sociability of a cul-de-sac to a large share of homes.
Cul-de-sac alleyways played an important role in pre-modern urban Japan. Sorensen calls them “back-alley nagaya” (shacks or tenements) and notes that the “landowner would often manage and live above a shop fronting the street,” while their employees, or poor artisans lived in the rear areas accessed by a narrow covered lane.”
Other authors have put a more romantic gloss on the alleys. Jinnai Hidenobu says that “designs displayed a sensitivity to what Maki Fumihiko has called ‘hidden depth'”.
[New] groups of urban dwellers, such as factory workers and low-wage white-collar workers, also made their homes in the backstreets. At the entrance to the alley, a wooden wicket was placed, clearly demarcating the main street (public) from the backstreet (semi-public) spaces… In such backstreets, not only could landlords and tenants form a trusting relationship, but tenants themselves lived with one another on the most neighborly terms.
…In Edo, it was in such micro-spaces that a certain degree of self-government took shape; it was in these same back alleys that the foundation of stable society was laid.Jinnai, Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology, pp. 124-125.
Jordan Sand’s Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects includes a chapter on how alley exploration and appreciation helped form one neighborhood’s identity in 1980s Tokyo.
Most recently, Almazan and Studiolab’s Emergent Tokyo profiles Tsukishima, a modern neighborhood “famous for its narrow roji alleyways.”
[Roji] are often used almost as an extension of the domestic space. As in so many Tokyo neighborhoods, in Tsukishima one sees subtle transitions along the spectrum of public to private space rather than a hard division between the two.Almazan & Studiolab, p. 172
American urbanists generally hate cul-de-sacs, which prevent connectivity. But residents, especially those with children, love them. And even New Urbanists have re-invented them, calling them “cottage courts.” The “Houston mini-kaihatsu” is a proven economic model for an urban form too universal to be dismissed.
The planner’s gaze
It isn’t just alleys that Sorensen judges more harshly than other writers do. In fact, he has a hard time finding anything good to say about Japan’s land use.
Sorensen’s virtue is his stolid Canadian insistence on presenting facts clearly and with a minimum of emotion. As a reader, one senses that Sorensen’s prejudices seep into the text against his will. (And one trembles to think what unreadable diatribes would have been produced by someone with his sensibilities but not his restraint).
A key example comes on pp. 222-223, where Sorensen nets up the effects of Japan’s zoning code, which allows very mixed uses. He has a long paragraph noting the positive effects – but the words are all in others’ mouths. He cites Jane Jacobs, Jinnai, and six others who point out “very positive consequences of Japan’s radically inclusive approach to land use zoning.” In the next two paragraphs, however, he provides the counterpoint – in his own voice, with only one citation.
It is hard not to feel that Sorensen is favorably disposed toward anything planned and skeptical, if not hostile, to anything unplanned. To Sorensen, “sprawl” denotes unplanned, “haphazard” growth (p. 326). Planned growth, at the same densities, in the same areas, is not sprawl. The same bias pervades his (otherwise excellent!) 2001 article, Building Suburbs in Japan.
He rarely defends his planner’s-eye view. He doesn’t holistically compare planned to unplanned areas and find the latter lacking. Nor does he define key metrics of urban success (e.g. pollution levels, commute times, and housing costs). Instead, he seems to have an intuitive desire to see plans made and brought to fruition, regardless of the merits.
In an era when Tokyo stands as “humanity’s greatest urban achievement,” the institutions that created it deserve a little more credit. But even if Sorensen doesn’t like them, he reports their workings faithfully – and that makes his book a must-read for Tokyophile market urbanists.