BRI Research Paper


Planning History in Japan -A State of the Art Survey-.

S.Watanabe; August, 1980. 36p.


Introduction: why Japanese Planning?

The planning system which dominates most of the contemporary world is of European and American origin. It has come out of the particular sociohistorical background of these Western countries and has naturally carried with it some implicit assumptions regarding the concepts, purposes and ideology of planning. This system has been exported to, and often imposed upon, countries with different social conditions where those assumptions are not necessarily valid. As a result, in many developing countries, planning is considered ineffective, and planners become frustrated.

Thus, it seems to be important, practically speaking, for each country to develop a planning system which is best suited to its own socio-historical conditions. It would also be of importance academically to develop a research field in which planning systems of various countries at various times are compared with each other and are related to their respective socio-historical backgrounds. This approach may be called"comparative planning research".

The above implies that there is no "universal planning system", and emphasises the uniqueness of individual planning systems as well as the differences between various planning systems. The Western planning system, which has been widely accepted as the planning system, must, in a sense, be "relativised". In another words, it is necessary to identify the particularity, not the universality, of planning systems in the U.S. and Europe.

For this purpose, a case study of planning history in Japan can be a source of useful insights, given her non-Western background, her unique achievements, and the problems and challenges facing her now. First, Japan is the only non-Western country which has, in a little over a century, evolved from a feudal agrarian society to a leading industrialised nation.

Japan is a typical, if not average, case of late development. She has diligently studied Western concepts and techniques of planning, alien to her own and has gradually developed (one might say invented) a planning system suitable to her own situation.

Second, the challenges Japan's planning had to face were varied and enormous. Urban population in Japan has risen from 18% of the total in 1920 to 76% in 1975. Most of that population has been concentrated in a narrow strip of land between the Tokyo and Osaka metropolitan areas, a strip now forming the Tokaido Megalopolis. Furthermore, Japanese cities have been vulnerable to frequent earthquakes, fires and floods; many of them suffered air raids during World War II. Most parts of modern Tokyo had to be rebuilt twice, once after the Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and once again after the War. The nation had to face all these challenges under very severe limitations in the form of insufficient habitable land, poor endowment of resources and energy, a strong agrarian tradition, and scarce financial resources.

Third, Japan's planning achievements have been unparalleled and unique. In a brief span of time, she has replaced feudal castle-towns of wood and clay with contemporary cities of steel and concrete. Although often criticised as being designed to suit modern business and industry rather than modern living, Japanese metropolises are, with their low crime rate and continuing high rate of population growth, rare cases when compared internationally. The nation has, in many ways, succeeded in building distinctive modern cities without destroying the traditional Japanese sense of urbanity and social order. High-density living, efficient mass transportation, human-scale and mixed-use developments, and a unique land-consolidation technique are just some of Japan's attainments. Such Japanese strategies are perhaps not readily applicable to the affluent West, but merit consideration by developing countries.

Fourth, despite these attainments, Japanese planning still has some serious problems unsolved, such as soaring land prices and a threatened residential environment in metropolitan areas. The conventional planning system, which was effective for securing urban land for public works, is not so helpful in protecting the residential environment. Local governments complain that the planning system, which is strongly controlled by the central government, lacks flexibility and does not meet local needs. In fact, the Japanese planning system is now at a turning point, which would serve as informative case material for the comparative study of national planning strategies.

In spite of all these interesting characteristics, however, Japanese planning system as such does not yield useful suggestions to foreign planners because its history is not yet made available in Western languages. It is only recently that a handful of Japanese planners and historians have started historical researches and, naturally, their achievements are still very few. There are only a few universities where planning history is now taught as an independent subject.1) Even in these cases, planning history is mostly limited to that of Japan and the West, and does not consider either the socialist countries or the Third World. In addition to these difficulties, foreign researchers would be most critically handicapped with the language barrier.

Nevertheless, the present writer wishes to invite historians and planners the world over to research Japanese planning history. It is a potentially interesting and useful field of study and there is an ample room for foreigners to contribute. In order to stimulate their interests, the writer introduces as follows a brief state of the art survey of planning history in Japan.

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