The rotten heart of ‘ugly Japan’

Taking a break from chronicling the fortunes of Abe Shinzo, I found this article in the Japan Times fascinating.

It reports on talk of relocating the elevated expressway that currently runs over the Nihonbashi Bridge, a historic landmark in the center of Tokyo and once the origin point for the Tokaido trunk road that ran from Edo to Kyoto during the Tokugawa Shogunate. (See Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e print from his series on the fifty-three stations of the Tokaido.)

When I first saw the bridge three years ago, I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that a historic landmark — albeit, one that was built only about a century ago — was trapped in the shadow of a massive concrete expressway. But now, being more familiar with Japan, I’m not surprised at all. There is a mistaken impression that the Japanese have a unique respect for their past, and for nature; it does not take long to see how mistaken this notion is. Particularly when the country was in the frenzy of rapid development during the 1960s and 1970s, considerations of history or the environment more or less fell by the wayside. Just look at Japan’s concrete shorelines and riverbanks. There are, of course, places of substantial historical value and natural beauty — I’m fortunate enough to live among many of them in Kamakura. But to argue that the Japanese have a kind of unique devotion to public aesthetics and respect for the environment is specious.

As for the Nihonbashi Bridge, I’m not the only one who thinks it’s an aesthetic tragedy. It topped Itoh Shigeru’s list of Japan’s most atrocious sites in his 2006 report “Ugly Japan.”

In any case, for a more sustained argument on this point, check out Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons.

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