Paris, Jan 30, 2009. It’s Couture Week, and the City of Light is inundated with thousands of the world’s best-dressed power brokers, all heading to Porte de Versailles for the massive ready-to-wear trade show, Prêt a Porter Paris. The Paris Expo center is packed with buyers, designers and journalists. Unlike haute couture, ready-to-wear is about mass consumption — high-volume, off-the-peg “fast fashion” — so being “on trend” is imperative.
Amid all the measuring and haggling, the fashionistas’ ears are pricked by the incongruous sound of a railway train, a short musical tune and then a soft female voice: "Shibuyaaa, Shibuya desu." It’s the unmistakable sound of Tokyo.
“Tokyo has never managed to place itself at the heart of the global fashion calendar, but as a source of inspiration, it’s unique,” says Nicole Fall, trend director of Five by Fifty, a Tokyo-based consumer research and trend-forecasting company. (The name refers to the projection that there will be 5 billion consumers in Asia by the year 2050.)
Late last year, Fall received a request to be Tokyo Ambassador to a “trend zone” at the heart of the Prêt a Porter show, alongside representatives from Stockholm, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles and, of course, Paris — selected as the world’s “New Generation Cities.”
“The new nomadic generation is stealthy, informed and connected,” says Alexandra Senes, the French creative director in charge of the trend space, whose theme changes each season. “At this time of global crisis, it’s appropriate to be looking for ideas and solutions from new places.”
Among the other ambassadors, Los Angeles is represented by GOOD, a magazine that describes itself as “for people who give a damn” (Al Gore’s son is a publisher); Rio by stylist Renata Abranchs, who recreated the city’s beach in her space; and Stockholm by the New Blood Agency of photographers.
For the Tokyo space, Fall worked with a slate of artists to create a sensory exhibit that lets visitors see, hear, touch, taste and even smell Tokyo. Among the highlights are original fragrances by scent designer Kaori Oishi that represent different parts of the city, a film by visual artist Stuart Ward, and a soundtrack by musicians Yasuharu Ohkouchi and Jeff Wichmann. In the middle of the space are five conceptual “bento boxes” filled with products from convenience stores: PET bottles of tea and other curious drinks, only-in-Japan snacks, and girly-pink cigarette boxes.
“One reason Tokyo leaves a unique impression on visitors is because it’s such a sensory experience,” says Fall. “Unfamiliar smells, a strange way of writing, the constant invasion of your head by noise — these are all reasons that so many people leave Tokyo feeling inspired.”
Tokyo is undeniably inspiring to many, but does this graying concrete metropolis really have what it takes to become a “New Generation City” — a global hub for the Asian Century?
Fast-forward to 2050
Tokyo, January 30, 2050. Life is good for Taro Tanaka. The 41-year-old works for Fukuden Ltd, a Japanese nanotech company founded in 2015 that has grown into the world’s largest manufacturer of clothes that capture energy generated by human movement. After returning from his morning run (since the fabric was commercialized in the early ’40s, Japan has become fitness obsessed!), Tanaka drops his self-cleaning nanotech tracksuit into the home battery box. The device transfers energy from the fabric into power to charge his zero-emission, crash-proof vehicle. The introduction of the 30-hour human workweek has allowed the Tanaka family to spend more time together. They take virtual cookery classes from chefs in China and France — thank goodness their Tetsu Dai 3-series domestic helper robot speaks ten languages!
Crystal-ball gazing aside, Japan’s technological prowess should give the nation a head start in the New Generation City stakes. Automakers like Honda have already moved ahead of most foreign rivals by being first to introduce hybrid vehicles. Japanese companies like Sanyo are also world leaders in making powerful batteries and electric motors that will become more commonly used as the era of the green economy nears.
But what else will a city need to be a world leader in 2050?
“Cities that support bio and cultural diversity, urban and biological ecology, provide sustainable public transport, as well as maintaining their cultural heritage — these are the cities that will be successful in the future,” says Kristina Dryza, a designer, strategist and writer who spent most of last year in Tokyo. Dryza’s own list of cities to watch includes Singapore, Mexico City, Istanbul, Pune (India) and San Francisco.
“In 2050, Tokyo will be more integrated to the greater Asia Pacific region and highly robotized,” she says.
The emergence of China and India and their economic capitals, Shanghai and Mumbai, is an obvious challenge to Tokyo’s role in the region. But their dominance is not inevitable, and Tokyo has a card that they’re unlikely to be able to trump: livability.
Tokyo 3rd on list of most livable cities
Last year, Monocle magazine, an arbiter of both sense and taste, placed Tokyo third on its list of most livable cities, behind Copenhagen and Munich. But speaking about those two metropolises in the same breath as Tokyo is like comparing a couple of shiny apples with one huge, over-polished, genetically modified orange.
“Tokyo is three times the size of most comparable cities, but has an infinitely better infrastructure than any of its rivals — Paris, London or New York,” says Monocle’s Asia editor, Fiona Wilson. “Better public transport, better-behaved citizens, less litter, less crime; it’s full of people but manages to be quieter somehow. The aggression that characterizes even small encounters in many large cities is just not an issue here. It’s not perfect — no city of this size could be — but it’s hard to imagine any other city functioning as well with so many people.”
Indeed, Tokyo prides itself on livability. What the Bhutanese termed Gross National Happiness, Tokyoites might call Gross National Convenience. But convenience is not enough if the city wants to be more than a New-Generation Disneyland.
“Japan can make the greenest cars, the fastest trains, and have the cleanest streets, but ultimately what does it matter if there isn’t anyone here to run the place?” asks Fall, whose company has recently completed a research project into the world’s most innovative cities.
Japan will soon be losing a million people a year and the population will shrink from about 128 million today to less than 100 million by 2050, according to Cabinet Office projections. And forty million of those people will be over age 65.
“If you’re trying to build a dynamic economy, you can’t have more than half your team on the bench,” adds Fall.
Some politicians and pundits don’t see a problem. Labor shortages will be less of an issue as robots take the roles of nurses, receptionists and cleaners. Yet others realize that they are missing a vital ingredient to maintaining its status as a world leader, one that can be summed up in a two words: creative fission.
The view from London
London, January 15, 2009, 11 a.m.: It’s the middle of the worst economic calamity in 60 years and commuters look glum as they arrive for work in the City of London, ex-financial capital of the world. Thousands pass through the vaulted Victorian concourse of Liverpool Street station every hour. For most, it’s the start of what looks like a horrible business year.
Suddenly, a voice sings out over the speakers: “You know you make me wanna shout!”
As the Little Richard '60s classic booms across the station, a few people start to dance in unison. Each time the music changes — to The Contours, Yazz and the Plastic Population, and even The Pussycat Dolls — more and more passersby drop their briefcases and start to groove.
“Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me!”
Suits are grinding and grannies are laughing, while hidden cameras record every jive and smile. After 120 seconds, as fast as it started, the music cuts, the dancers pick up their belongings and normalcy returns.
“The train now at platform 12 is the 11:07 stopping service to Norwich.”
What just occurred was a “flash mob” advertisement by Saatchi & Saatchi for the mobile phone company T-Mobile, screened on prime time TV the following evening. The agency planted 350 dancers in the station to turn it into an impromptu disco.
This is the sort of creative freedom that Tokyo lacks — and exactly what it needs if it wants to maintain its edge.
Although the Japanese are good at innovating within existing fields to make technology-driven enhancements — smaller microchips, faster trains and greener cars — “when it comes to game-changers, they fall flat,” says Fall. “Innovation is a creative and disruptive thing that forces you to broaden your horizons and change direction. Society here works against that. Change disrupts harmony, and harmony is what makes the trains run on time,” she adds.
It’s not that smart people in Tokyo aren’t creative; rather, that the idea of starting a spontaneous dance party in Shinjuku station would be squashed a hundred times over by the impulsive heels of bureaucratic conformity. The police say no; JR says no; your boss says, “Don’t bother asking.”
By contrast, Londoners these days will accept their daily routines being disrupted by disco-dancing weirdos because diversity is part of their daily lives. According to one recent survey, more than 300 languages are spoken daily in London.
Japan, on the other hand, has struggled with the question of how wide to open its door for centuries. Dryza says Tokyo could learn a lot from cultural melting pots like Melbourne, Australia, that have successfully integrated different ethnicities while retaining their high standards of living.
She also recommends “integrating science, the arts and technology to increase creativity and innovation—for industry, as well as government and education.”
Meanwhile, in Sweden
Stockholm, February 4, 2009. Four days after its launch, Prêt a Porter Paris is over and Tekla Knaust of the New Blood Agency has disassembled her photography exhibition, boarded a plane at Charles de Gaulle International Airport, and landed home in Stockholm.
Along with other northern European cities like Copenhagen, Helsinki, Munich and Zurich, the Swedish capital often tops league tables in terms of, variously, standard of living, creativity, innovation and design.
But for Knaust, Sweden isn’t cool; it’s downright freezing.
“It’s just so cold in Sweden,” she complains, “and it’s so far from everywhere that everyone longs to leave. The conversation in Sweden among young people always starts with, ‘When I leave for Tokyo or New York...’”
Knaust’s view is a reminder that every city has its problems: Stockholm is too cold, Paris is too stuffy, Rio is too dangerous, Los Angeles is too polluted and Tokyo is too… [insert your own adjective here]. “Sweden is a very closed cold culture, a bit like the Japanese, I guess,” Knaust says. “I want people to be more open and less snobbish and less stiff, more like the Brazilians.”
Five by Fifty’s Fall has a different suggestion: take a pinch of style from Paris, some creativity from Stockholm, the joie de vivre of Rio, money from Los Angeles and efficiency from Tokyo. “It’s the recipe for the perfectly formed city of the future.”
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today