Tokyo's iconic buildings being lost to zoning laws

By Brett Bull

In the first half of the 20th century, Tokyo was bitten by the modernist bug. The violent upheavals seen in Western art, literature, music and fashion found parallels over here—but it was architecture that provided the most visible and lasting testament to the changes underfoot.

Buildings like the Tokyo Central Post Office (1931) in Marunouchi demonstrated the increasing influence of such Western architects as Le Corbusier and concepts like Bauhaus. In the decades following World War II, with industrialization suffocating creativity, postmodernism came to the forefront. Experts considered architect Minoru Takeyama’s colorful Ichibankan (1969) and monochrome Nibankan (1970), situated in the nightlife quarter of Kabukicho, to be the first examples of this new avant-garde spirit.

Today, Ichibankan is completely closed, and Nibankan, whose exterior is riddled with chipped paint and cracked concrete, maintains only a first-floor restaurant in operation. Ownership changed two years ago. During a meeting with the buildings’ present owner, Sankei Hotel, a lodging operator that specializes in business and love hotels, representatives of the company indicated that the future use of the structures has not been decided.

Such a potential reprieve is rare, as the elimination of Japan’s landmark properties becomes routine and calls for preservation are crushed by developers’ wrecking balls.

The challenges facing preservationists are numerous.

Last October, entertainment company Shochiku announced that the Kabuki-za theater in Ginza, Japan’s home for kabuki since it was founded in 1889, will close next year and be reinstalled inside a large office complex by 2013. Reconstructed twice, its 1924 incarnation incorporated a new style of non-burnable building materials. The current five-decade-old building achieved tangible cultural property status in 2002.

Shochiku said in an email statement that the Kabuki-za is an aging structure that is susceptible to earthquakes. “Taking into consideration that its facilities are not barrier-free, we decided that it would be in the best interest of our customers for us to rebuild the theater.”

In addition to the financial hurdles inherent in upgrading aging mechanical and electrical systems, architects believe that revisions to earthquake-proofing requirements within the Building Standards Law in recent decades are also burdensome. “You have to spend a lot of money to make a building seismically sound, and there is no aid from the government to do that,” explains Jun Mitsui, principal architect of JMA Architects in Meguro. “The owner has to basically assume the financial burden himself.”

Financial incentives given to developers

Crucial, too, has been the financial incentive given to developers. In 2002, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi passed legislation that lifted regulations on zoning and building height in exchange for the establishment of public parks or plazas on any newly constructed properties. Often referred to as an “urban renaissance,” the deregulation was intended to maintain Tokyo’s competitive status with nearby metropolises Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore.

“That was the stimulus to Japan’s economic upturn,” says Mitsui of the economic expansion that took place in the middle of this decade. “Property owners wanted to maximize their buildings’ floor space because that is what makes more money.”

Non-property firms with robust real estate assets, like Shochiku, have also been taking notice. Japan Post, which became a pseudo-private entity two years ago, is in the process of constructing a 200-meter-tall building on the site of the 78-year-old Tokyo Central Post Office on the Marunouchi side of Tokyo station. The curved brick building will eventually incorporate parts of the older structure’s exterior facade in the new design. Last-ditch attempts to save the original building resulted in Japan Post announcing that it will seek tangible cultural property status for the property and retain more of the structure than first planned.

Last year, film studio Toho acquired Kabukicho’s Koma Stadium theater, a popular venue for enka and musical shows that dates back to 1956. Toho also owns the adjacent Shinjuku Toho Kaikan and plans to redevelop both plots. Publisher Kodansha’s Noma Dojo training facility, established in 1925, was knocked down in late 2007 in favor of a more modern complex.

“In Japan, the idea of scrap-and-build has been dominant for a long time,” explains Kengo Kuma, a leading architect whose firm designed the Suntory Museum of Art at Tokyo Midtown. “So there hadn’t been much attention paid to the preservation of buildings. The debate over the Tokyo Central Post Office, however, has provided a good opportunity for the public to think carefully about the preservation of old architecture.”

Many other preservation pushes have failed. The Sanshin Building (1930), an eight-floor structure that overlooked Hibiya Park and contained elaborate ceilings and columns, was demolished by developer Mitsui Fudosan in 2007. The concrete Dojunkai apartments were innovative housing structures—featuring trash chutes and gas lines—upon their completion between 1924 and 1934 at 16 locations in Tokyo and Yokohama. In 2003, the five-story Otsuka Women’s Apartment House was demolished, and the Aoyama site was replaced three years later by Tadao Ando’s concrete and glass Omotesando Hills shopping center. Just two apartment blocks remain today.

Mitsui believes that as a solution to here-today-gone-tomorrow, Tokyo needs to adopt master planning. “The formation of a master plan will define such things as the height and use of the building,” he says, adding that complications within private land ownership and a lack of government impetus thus far have made such a concept very difficult.

Yet the government does offer some support—albeit through a tradeoff that benefits developers. In exchange for preservation of its notable Mitsui Honkan (1929), Mitsui Fudosan was allowed to develop a nearby site into the 39-floor Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower (2005). The height of the new structure exceeded that permitted by law, but Mitsui was allowed to transfer the unused air rights (i.e., potential additional floor area) of the old building following its preservation.

The Paris-based conservation group Docomomo International, which works to preserve modern buildings, established a Japanese branch in 2000. Its group of experts has designated over 135 local structures as important. In addition to the remaining Dojunkai units and the Tokyo Central Post Office, the list includes Frank Lloyd Wright’s Myonichikan (1921), Tokyo Bunka Kaikan (1961) and the Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972), the Kisho Kurokawa-designed structure of stacked concrete residential modules.

Hiroyuki Suzuki, chairperson of Docomomo Japan and a professor of architecture at Tokyo University, says that the group submits appeals to landowners of listed buildings scheduled for demolition. He sees some hope with regards to preservation, citing the restoration of Tokyo Station’s red brick building, set to be completed in 2013, as an example. “Progress is small to this point,” he says, “but we will continue to make appeals against the demolition of important works because it is essential we do so.”

The group is now focusing its attention on buildings from the 1970s—a move probably too late for the Kenzo Tange-designed Hanae Mori building (1977), the glass-walled Omotesando landmark that is scheduled to be pulled down following the removal of its tenants this year.

As to Ichibankan and Nibankan, Docomomo’s Suzuki says that the group finds Takeyama’s work to be very significant. Yet an approach and time frame for preservation of his buildings has not been determined. “At Docomomo, we realize that there is a connection between modernism and postmodernism that needs to be discussed,” he explains.

Should the near future bring an end to the Kabukicho creations of Takeyama, the man himself says says he would not be irritated, knowing that the business is financially driven. He also looks at Ise Jingu, a Shinto complex in Mie Prefecture whose buildings are dismantled and rebuilt every 20 years in an effort to ensure a new appearance. “I can’t really say if it is positive or negative,” Takeyama explains. “They have been up for 40 years. That’s not too bad. Maybe it is time.”

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (

© Japan Today

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A surprisingly level-headed and well written article.

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Japan does not respect architecture at all. The nostalgic post-war buildings of Omotesando, with listeria on the walls, and a horribly ugly mall was built instead. I am surprised to read above that it is actually designed by somebody. In the U.S. they at least have the decency to put these malls outside of the city center.

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There are no zoning laws in Japan, you can live and work anywhere... I agree about Omotesando, it is like it has no soul now.

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totally biased article. gotta agree with the "scrap and build" thing. tear down old crap and build up better stuff in its place. almost the single biggest reason why japan is better than the u.s.

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When they knocked down Frank Lloyd Wright's old Imperial Hotel, there was no hope after that.

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To some extent, preservationists can be too overbearing in their desire to prevent change. A great thing about Japan is that it is constantly changing while some core aspects remain unchanged. This applies to architecture as well as the culture in general. Certainly, there are structures that have historic importance and deserve protection for that purpose alone. Others are just really old and should be maintainted due to their cultural importance regardless of their architectural qualities. Of the more modern buildings, it is my opinion that only those of true excellence should be preserved. This is surely a very small number of buildings; but nostalgia can be a very strong emotion that I think makes change difficult for some people...

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Interesting article. One other building I was sad to see had disappeared is the former Sofitel near Ueno:

Built in 1994 and demolished in 2007 --> another example of how "impotant" the environment seems to be in Japan - probably on a par with the US. Just imagine the waste.

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in a country so prone to earthquakes, to some extent it is understandable that buildings aren't thought of as permanent parts of the landscape. that said there is so much ugly, utilitarian architecture. legislation is desperately needed to start turning japan into an environment that's pleasant to live in

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Cities in Japan seem like they were designed by overworked, spirit-broken drunks which is perfect because those are the people that use them the most.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

People buy houses in Japan for the land. They have no issue knock down the house and building something new. I guess I'm not suprised.

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