And we’re off!


Tokyo. puntxote via Flickr –

23 May 2013
Author: Claire Nelischer – City and Regional Planning

This evening, our class of 17, accompanied by Professor Jonathan Martin, will board a flight to Japan. 13 hours and many in-flight films later, we will arrive in Tokyo, bleary-eyed and jet-lagged. But as we’ve learned over the past few weeks of study, this initial disorientation in the new city may actually be beneficial. Because through this disorientation, we may be able to see Tokyo with fresh eyes and begin to understand it’s urban form by reserving judgment and comparison to Western ideals and instead by simply observing and experiencing.

Throughout our pre-departure study of Japanese history, culture, urban design, and architecture, one theme has remained constant: the futility of forming judgments on Japanese urbanism through comparison to familiar Western structures.

Many of us in the class carry with us the “intellectual baggage” of Eurocentric training in planning, architecture, and the social sciences (Shelton, 1999, p. 188). But we know that if we truly wish to gain an understanding of Japanese urbanism, even if at the most basic level, we must consciously and constantly try to be aware of our biases and suspend them as best we can. The patterns and forms of Tokyo are so wildly different than our familiar New York City that we must always be careful not to devalue these unfamiliar forms as inadequate in contrast but instead as something new and simply without comparison.

Our traditional understandings of Western urban design are based on the principles of “visibility, legibility, and comprehensibility” (Shelton, 1999, p. 184).  But in seeking to understand the urban form of most Japanese cities, and certainly Tokyo, these principles will prove inadequate. Tokyo is a layered and collaged city, often described as a living organism or amoeba, very different from our Western concept of city as machine. Japanese cities embrace disconnection, transformation, lightness, ephemerality, and flexibility. They are characterized by horizontal integration, decentralization, transformation, and the layering of disparate parts (Shelton, 1999). As students, we must try our best to understand these conditions in Japanese cities through observation and experience, and try to let go of all that “baggage”.

As we approach our study in Tokyo, full of anticipation (and background information), we will try to suspend judgment as best we can and open ourselves to new places, forms, expressions, and ideas.

Stay tuned for more updates on our travels through daily blog posts and photos.

Works Cited: Shelton, B. (1999). Learning from the Japanese City: West Meets East in Urban Design. London: Spon Press.


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