Di Luigi Stranieri
Suburbs are never easy to define, they can be extensive, dark and often considered ghettos or dormitories for the less affluent. This is the Western mindset which often translates into reality. On my many trips to Asia I have seen many and all different, but maybe it is in Japan that I have found something unique.
In Japan, as we know, frequent earthquakes condition the way cities have been built and projected for hundreds of years. For a long time, and to a lesser extent still today, wood has been the main building material. Flexibility was certainly one of the main reasons for the choice of wood but there is also another, less obvious one. Following an earthquake, cities were often destroyed by one of its worse consequences: fire. It may seem absurd, but following a major seismic event debris reduced to ash is easier to dispose of. After all, this is the real reason which characterizes the urban history of Japan: building with easily recyclable materials makes demolition, rethinking and rebuilding cost less.
The two main Japanese urban areas are characterized by city centers, which we certainly cannot define 'historical', as in European cities. In Japan, differentiating between Osaka and Tokyo is not easy and as you move out into the suburbs it is almost impossible. The structure of the suburban fabric, in fact, faithfully mirrors the social fabric, which, in turn, enhances the conformity of things and people. The result is that one feels both lost and at ease in apparently recognizable places but in reality they are only replicas of thousands of other identical places.
Convenience stores are certainly a common factor in this idea of conformity. Inherited from the USA after the Second World War, Japan made the Konbini an integral part of society and its urban landscape. There are about 50,000 stores on Japanese territory, open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, places where you can do almost anything, from having coffee to making photocopies and even bank transfers. Their persistent presence creates a hypnotic effect on the urban fabric which may be difficult to understand unless you have lived in Japan for long enough. As often happens here, one place "must" be equivalent to another.
The enormous influence that American culture has unwittingly had on Japanese society, is also evident in the ubiquitous chains of franchised restaurants that define the urban profile of cities and suburbs. These eateries have become a part of daily life but offer a non-existent alternative, in that they too have conformed to the culture and tastes of the surroundings.
Moving away from the centre towards the suburbs, buildings gradually shorten in height and large buildings, here called mansions, leave room for a myriad of low houses that trace a network of increasingly narrow streets, where every inch of land is made use of. All this in typically Japanese order, where once again we are faced with conformity, very few points of reference, and an exasperating lack of street names and house numbers.
Another aspect of conformity are the Love hotels, monuments to bad taste, which proliferated mainly during the Showa period. Short stay hotels dedicated exclusively to couples who wish to create an illusion of being elsewhere if only for a few hours. The architecture of these havens is of all kinds: castles, ranches, tropical settings, spaceships. Once there, you have access to all kinds of erotica material. Today many of these hotels are being converted into "traditional" hotels due to the growing number of tourists and, despite the country having the world's largest eros industry, the decline in libido that has plagued its inhabitants for years.
In such an urban environment, it is not surprising that there is no city centre or main square, the only point of reference or meeting point being the railway station. The station becomes a hub, around which commercial and entertainment activities spring up, in greater numbers in its vicinity decreasing as you get further away and increasing once more at the next subway or railway station.. Near the stations, there are also docking stations for bikes and multi-storey car parks.
The laws that regulate parking in a country forever in search of order, exalt great creativity in finding space for one's car in often unthinkable places. In Japan, you cannot buy a car unless you possess a parking space (owned or rented) and as a result there are no parking spaces on the road except for some very rare exceptions. For this reason, you often come across cars tucked into backyards or parked in oversized car parks, an aspect that influences both the size of cars and the partition of the land on which houses are built.
Unlike the western suburbs, those in Japan are always very peaceful and immersed in silence, places where you can find anything you need without having to move. The basic idea is to recreate in each of these 'satellite cities' the same network of services as the city itself, so that people can live and not just sleep there. The result is surreal: you cross different cities without even realizing it, all identical, with identical services, shops, restaurants and sports facilities.
And that’s right, because sport in Japan is held in high esteem and keeping fit practising your favorite sport is not only important but is above all an opportunity for recreation. And the suburbs, because of the larger space available, offer many opportunities to practice sport even if sometimes in bizarre places such as training courses for golfers. Golf is one of the most popular sports in Japan and now practiced by everyone for reasons that go beyond the sport itself. If it was once the exclusive prerogative of a certain middle class, today it has become an occasion for socializing especially within companies, where the boss often summons employees to endless games on days off, passing off the initiative as a team building moment. Matches during which business is discussed and where everyone tries to lose without being found out.
In the wider spaces of the suburbs, especially in its main arteries, you may come across stacks of containers piled up in the most unthinkable places. At first glance, they look ready for shipping who knows where but then, on further inspection, you will notice that they are so well kept that you suspect they serve a different purpose. The reason is that, in the month of April, Japanese companies, whether public or private, send their employees to branches in other cities, in a bid for constant turnover. Although warned well in advance, not everyone is able to manage the move smoothly and thus the reason for containers on the streets: inside them mostly furniture, bicycles and household appliances awaiting a future move. This service is also the prerogative of students away from home who move in their millions every year towards the most suitable universities for their branch of studies.
The suburbs in Japan are cumbersome, huge agglomerations of small houses and some sporadic blocks of flats that stand out on the horizon, crossed by large arterial roads and connected to each other by impeccable public and private transport networks. Wherever you happen to look, everything is always the same. There seems to be nothing to see, nothing that makes it worthwhile to be in one place rather than another, everywhere so crammed that it looks invisible.