The Tokyo Moment: What Developing Cities Can Learn from the Postwar Japanese Capital

By Ben Bansal

Tokyo is Asia’s first megacity: its urban agglomeration topped the symbolic ten million inhabitants marker sometime after World War II. While it had been one of the world’s largest cities for centuries, arguably its most relevant growth spurt took place between 1950 and 1970. It was during this period that the already enormous urban agglomeration doubled in population. I call this phase of the city history the “Tokyo moment” (i.e., twenty years of rapid population growth to an already large urban area).

Using these criteria (the doubling of the population within two decades, thereby exceeding 10 million inhabitants within the twenty-year time span), the following agglomerations have had (or are having) one or multiple “Tokyo moments,” according to data from the United Nations (UN):

Time frameCities
1950-1970Tokyo, Osaka
1955-1975Mexico City
1960-1980Mexico City, Sao Paulo
1965-1985Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Mumbai
1970-1990n/a
1975-1995New Delhi
1980-2000New Delhi, Dhaka, Shanghai
1985-2005New Delhi, Dhaka, Shanghai, Beijing
1990-2010New Delhi, Dhaka, Shanghai, Beijing, Chongqing, Tianjin, Lagos, Guangzhou, Shenzhen
1995-2015New Delhi, Shanghai, Dhaka, Beijing, Bangalore, Chongqing, Tianjin, Lagos, Kinshasa, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Lahore
2000-2020Dhaka, Chongqing, Kinshasa, Bangalore, Lahore
2005-2025Luanda, Kinshasa, Bangalore, Lahore
2010-2030Luanda, Kinshasa, Lahore, Dar es Salaam
2015-2035Luanda, Kinshasa, Dar es Salaam

There are 34 megacities today by the UN’s count. Many more cities have doubled in size within the time frame of twenty years. However, the “Tokyo Moment” club is more exclusive, consisting of only 19 cities as shown in the table. These can be regarded as the founding members of a new megacity discourse, or put more simply, that of rapidly-growing, big cities.

These 19 cities only represent 7.9% of the world’s urban population in 2020, and yet they claim an outsized share in the debate on the urban twenty first century. This urban century is also an Asian century as the continent is reclaiming its pre-modern share of the world economy. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Asian cities take 13 spots in this list (or 68.4%), somewhat more than the continent’s share in the global population in 2020 (59.5%).

As Asia’s first megacity and the world’s largest urban agglomeration until today, just how instructive is Tokyo’s 1950-70 experience for other developing cities, primarily those in the various subregions of Asia? I have been asking myself whether the city was a trailblazer and model or an outlier and special case with limited relevance today.

As my research is situated at the intersection of economic history and development studies, I have structured my work along two main threads: first, the city as a site of production and second, the city as shelter. I find that Tokyo’s experience indeed holds important lessons for other big and fast-growing cities. However, we have to understand the idiosyncratic influence of Tokyo’s institutions and planning decisions on these two threads. Combined, Tokyo’s experience can help lay the foundations for an emerging field of the “history of megacities.”

The City as a Site of Production

The motor of Tokyo’s postwar economy was the manufacturing sector, employing almost 40% of the labor force at its peak, around 1960. A large proportion of workers was employed in labor-intensive, small-scale factories and engaged in what was initially relatively low-value-added work. Early postwar Tokyo aligns with our understanding of today’s developing cities, whose comparative advantage is the abundant availability of cheap labor.

An undated aerial view of the expressway connecting Haneda airport with central Tokyo, with the newly built monorail beside it. Both were purpose-built for the 1964 Olympic Games. Courtesy the author.

Driven by small and medium-sized enterprises, the city’s industry quickly moved up the value chain during the 1950-70 period. In other words, the urban manufacturing sector with its small factories was part and parcel of the technological upgrading and not just a remnant of a premodern past. Tokyo thus represents an important but understudied arena in which the Japanese postwar economic miracle took place. Rapid economic growth coupled with such rapid population growth of a large city had not been observed anywhere else in global history before. The labor-intensive, small-scale manufacturing sector, so tightly and uniquely interwoven with the urban fabric, proved crucial (Bansal, 2020).

Tokyo’s postwar manufacturing sector shares some aspects with those in contemporary developing cities, but also diverges in some important respects. In India, for example, there has been a notable outmigration of large-scale manufacturing outside of the cities, while small, informal workshops have generally become more urban (Ghani, Goswami, & Kerr, 2012). This is not entirely dissimilar to Japan’s experience; however, it appears to occur at much earlier levels of development in India. Moreover, the valued added per worker in the informal urban manufacturing in India represents only 10% that of the formal sector (Sharma, 2009), a much wider differential than that observed in postwar, urban Japan.

Besides low competitiveness of their manufacturing sectors, most of today’s developing megacities also have a smaller manufacturing base to begin with. This is a function of a small manufacturing sector at the national level (e.g., India), or reflecting the dispersion of large-scale manufacturing to suburban locations and special economic zones (e.g., China), in line with an increasingly international division of labor. In China, only 20% of the urban workforce is employed in manufacturing as of 2014 (Lardy, 2015).

The study of postwar Tokyo may help lay the groundwork for comparative work on urban manufacturing sectors in developing megacities at different points in time, aligned for their stage of development. This appears at least complementary, if not preferable, to a methodology that lumps cities together or ranks them against each other only because of their similarly large populations.

The City as Shelter

Tokyo’s 1950-70 period was marked by comparatively low living standards. Despite the difficulty of comparing living standards across time and space, some authors have described the Tokyo of the postwar period as having the phenotype of a “slum” (Echanove & Srivastava, 2013). This relative poverty but also successively-improving living standards were a shared experience for most inhabitants. Contrary to the megacity discourse and urban development theory, rapid urbanization did not lead to spatial stratification in Tokyo. In other words, living standards did not differ widely between it and other parts of the city. In fact, the differences between the 23 inner-city wards in terms of living space per capita and other important indicators even declined from 1950-70. Therefore, Tokyo’s experience sits uneasily with that of other megacities today, whose internal disparities tend to widen during their growth spurts.

The reading of official city publications from the late 1960s and early 1970s reveals the authorities’ frame of reference for Tokyo’s urban development as being primarily that of Western cities. These reports shared a scathing assessment of Tokyo’s inadequacies from lack of fully-realized sanitation systems, low housing standards, congestion, and pollution to poor urban transit. While such a focus is understandable given an ever more demanding electorate, it may also distract from the city’s undeniable advances in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly when we compare Tokyo to today’s developing cities.

A more fitting analogy might have been found by the secretary of Tokyo prefecture’s  Socialist governor Minobe in the late 1960s, who remarked that Tokyo still had to grapple with “both the problems of Calcutta and the problems of New York” (Hein, 2004, p. 197). This unique combination makes Tokyo’s postwar experience more, and not less, relevant to today’s developing megacities, which also struggle to provide a basic set of urban amenities to all their inhabitants.

Governor Minobe’s favorite “civil minimum” is an important historical concept in this respect. It defined the “minimum standard necessary for the citizens of Tokyo to enjoy their life” using a large set of quantitative indicators. This attempt to define a “Tokyo model” might be an interesting case study feeding into today’s data-driven and often depoliticized discourse on emerging megacities. The civil minimum, as its name suggests, might have represented a compromise—a pragmatic middle-way of making do with limited resources or better, limited urban space—all while stressing an egalitarian distribution of improving living standards.

1961 map of land use in Tokyo. Some of the most densely populated areas are not on residential land but within industrial clusters in the shitamachi area, where Tokyo’s “default” model of mixed land use has always been most prevalent. Tokyo Metropolitan Government, Regional and City Planning for Tokyo: Basic Materials (1961).

Institutional Underpinnings and toward a Historical Discourse of the Megacity

Tokyo offers a unique historical case study of the institutions governing megacity growth. Today’s megacities are often hard to govern due to governmental fragmentation (a multitude of administrative layers with overlapping responsibilities), a lack of resources (capital investment requirements are larger than elsewhere), weak institutions (the informal sector and business tend to wield outsize control), as well as the interference of national governments in their matters (Kübler, 2012).

During 1950-70 Tokyo avoided some of these governance pitfalls. Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG), an intermediate layer of government, redistributed scarce financial resources between its lower-level administrative units (the 23 central wards) and only gradually upgraded the physical infrastructure of the city (often in situ). Tokyo’s relative success might also be a function of TMG’s very failure to enact large-scale transformational planning in the rapid growth era, or of its light-touch zoning approach. The city’s experience therefore challenges mainstream governance paradigms, such as its fiscal decentralization and institutional capacity.

Finally, studying postwar Tokyo helps historicize the discourse on megacities, which is still in its infancy. While there are important similarities between today’s megacities in terms of their size, organizational complexity, and socio-economic challenges, there are important contextual differences that are best assessed using a historical approach. Traditionally, urbanization has coincided with industrialization, and the European or American experience has been the yardstick with which to analyze other parts of the world, especially as this model has been exported around the world. However, there are varied paths to industrialization, affecting the way that this process has defined cityscapes in different parts of the world. Studying the urban (economic) history of Tokyo’s postwar period can contribute to the history of megacities, offering much scope for future comparative work.


Benjamin Bansal (@ben_bansal) holds a PhD from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. His teaching at Temple University Japan included courses on Tokyo and general urban studies. Besides his academic work on postwar Japan, he has published an architectural guide to Yangon (DOM publishers, 2015) and is researching the biographies of several foreign architects building in Myanmar’s former capital during the immediate post-independence period. He currently lives in Bangkok and blogs on www.benbansal.me.

Featured image (at top): Tokyo, well before the destruction of World War II and the city’s subsequent reconstruction, between 1860 and 1930, “Bird’s-eye View of Tokio” between 1860 and 1930, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

References:

Bansal, B. (2020). Urban Space as a Factor of Production: Accounting for the Success of Small Factories in Postwar Tokyo. In Social Science Japan Journal, 23(2), 281–298.

Echanove, M., & Srivastava, R. (2013). When Tokyo Was a Slum. Retrieved July 28, 2018, from https://nextcity.org/informalcity/entry/when-tokyo-was-a-slum.

Ghani, E., Goswami, A. G., & Kerr, W. R. (2012). Is India’s Manufacturing Sector Moving Away from Cities? (Policy Research Working Paper No. 6271). Washington, D.C.

Hein, L. (2004). Reasonable Men, Powerful Words: Political Culture and Expertise in Twentieth-Century Japan. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Kübler, D. (2012). Megacities and the challenge of governance. In Governance Issues in Megacities: Chinese and International Perspective. Beijing.

Lardy, N. (2015). Manufacturing Employment in China. Retrieved August 1, 2018, from https://piie.com/blogs/china-economic-watch/manufacturing-employment-china.

Sharma, S. (2009). Entry Regulation, Labor Laws and Informality (No. 48927). Washington, D.C.

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