Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Urban History, History of the Western World, History of Commerce
The stagnation and decline of central shopping districts in provincial cities have long been reported in Japan. Now, it appears not only shopping districts but entire cities are in decline. To verify the causes and resolve the problem, I believe it is important that we investigate and confirm the process of growth and decay each city has gone through and make a comparative review of the trends each city has experienced up to the present. It may be more common to perceive learning about the past as something separate from analyzing the present, but the perspective of history is located in the present. The future becomes visible as the extension of a line running from the past to the present. Past circumstances, trends and changes provide us with clues when we try to analyze the present and think about the future. Comparing the historical progression of cities illuminates the special features of each city and leads to a comparison of the cities that were able to develop and those that failed to develop, potentially providing clues in the search for the key to urban development.
Japan’s urban problems are sometimes compared to those in the West. However, not only the starting points for the two regions but also the processes they have gone through up to the present are different. In Western cities, there has been a tradition of the inhabitants going to war to preserve their freedom since the Middle Ages, which has persisted as a sense of citizen autonomy. The citizens of Western European cities are subject to restrictions on the free use of land in the city center as well as limitations on private ownership, such as having to live in housing complexes. On the other hand, they are proud of the unique cities where they live, the city center is arranged in a compact manner and fully equipped with public parks and other facilities, and citizen autonomy is established. In Japan, there are few constraints in urban areas besides an upper limit on the floor area ratio of buildings. There aren’t even regulations that would prevent a landowner from building a one-story single-family house in the heart of the city. This environmental difference is one reason for the lack of variation in the scenery around Japanese train stations, which are invariably built to prioritize convenience, the vast urban area stretching from the city center to the suburbs with a mix of offices, shops and residential buildings, and the general lack of personality in Japanese cities. This may explain why people in Japan do not feel a strong sense of attachment or affection for the city in which they live.
It is difficult to directly compare cities with significantly different conditions, but it seems they can be compared in terms of the conditions for their development. For example, if we consider Japanese and European colonies, we notice that the cities the Japanese built in Ayutthaya and Manila have disappeared without a trace, while many of the cities established in Eastern Europe still remain and some have grown into bustling metropolises. The difference between the two is that the former cities were simply supply centers of foreign specialty products to Japan while the latter cities were needed in the region. Although the relationship between cities and farming villages varies (the two mutually support each other in Northern Europe, while cities control farming villages in Switzerland, Italy and other countries in Southern Europe), they have primarily formed a mutually complementary relationship, with cities supplying the farming villages in a region with production tools and daily commodities, and farming villages supplying cities with food. At the very least, cities have been an essential component of regions.
What sets the cities that develop into big metropolises apart from other cities with similar conditions in Western Europe? As an example, let’s look at two German cities that lie at the base of the Jutland peninsula protruding north from the European continent: Hamburg on the North Sea side and Lübeck on the Baltic Sea side. The major route for east-west trade between the commercial zones of the North Sea and Baltic Sea that had passed through the two cities was redirected around the peninsula and through the Sound around the 15th century, separating the cities from the main trade route. Although Hamburg enjoyed the advantages of being situated at the mouth of the Elbe, a large river, and its position near the Atlantic Ocean during the subsequent era of ocean trade, it is still surprising that this city has grown into a metropolis of about 1.8 million people while the Lübeck only has a population of around 300,000. It is also a fact that Hamburg’s rapid development started during the modern era. When we consider the factors that triggered this development, however, we see that inexpensive, high quality beer has been one of Hamburg’s specialties since sometime between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the early modern period, and that the consumption of this beer at home and abroad has financially supported the city. The export of this local specialty often involved foreign merchants. Foreigners were allowed to engage in unfettered economic activity to encourage its export, leading to an increase in visitors and the formation of a distribution network. This network is thought to have led to the city’s development as a trading center for colonial products. It seems Hamburg can be viewed as an example of a revitalized city.
In Western Europe, it appears that people who grow up in unique cities and take pride in them develop their cities and make them more prosperous. Thriving cities and shops in Japan also seem to be directed by leaders and shopkeepers who actively devote themselves to the local character of the area, fully absorbing it and using it to their advantage. This local character is, I believe, cultivated in cities and regions. In our country where individuality is disappearing and unique environments are becoming harder to find, we will be able to create cities that are friendly to the environment and to their visitors if we reassess the uniqueness of each city and Japanese residents who love their cities work to develop specialty products, following the example of the people’s civil consciousness found in Western European cities and their love for their towns. A city cannot become vibrant simply by imitating other vibrant cities. A vibrant city is a city that has leaders who love it, and it seems one of the conditions for such a city is to have competitive specialty products that people actively want to sell outside the city.