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Vanishing Japan

Does all the Concrete in Japan Bother You?

  • Can't stand it

    Votes: 8 25.8%
  • Am quite concerned

    Votes: 9 29.0%
  • It is OK

    Votes: 3 9.7%
  • Doesn't bother me at all

    Votes: 11 35.5%

  • Total voters


23 Jun 2002
After 20 years in Japan, one of the things that bothers me most is how the natural and cultural heritage of this beautiful country has been destroyed in the past century and a half. Just walking from my home to the train station can get me stressed out.

Whenever I visit one of the increasingly rare places that has not yet been completely covered with asphalt and concrete and still shows beauty, I sigh in great relief.

Most of the Japanese I encounter in my private and business life, say it bothers them too. Yet, the concrete trucks continue rolling. Japan uses three times as much concrete as the US, a country with twice the population and many times bigger in size!

To get my frustration about this out of my system, and to make a statement, I just uploaded a photo essay about this issue. Have a look, and let me know if the concrete bothers you as well, or if it is just me.

The construction lobby seems to be extremely influential in Japan. Sad.

I don't know if anyone has read Alex Kerr's book "Lost Japan". He deplores the environmental and cultural destruction in Japan (great book btw, I heard he has just recently published a new book on Japan):


Wonderful photo essay, Kjeld! Have you ever thought about publishing your work as printed edition?

Yes, Alex Kerr just published 'Dogs and Demons'. I have put links to both of his books on the front page of the essay (a little self-interest here, they link to Amazon...).

Actually, a book with essays and photographs of my hand will be published in September. It is called 'Woman Breaks Loose' and dives into contemporary Japan. Unfortunately, you will have to be able to read Dutch...

No English language books on the horizon yet, but there ARE plans and hopes, so who knows. You will be the first to know!
Looking forward to that, Kjeld!

PS: I don't speak Dutch, but German speakers are able to grasp quite a lot of phrases if they are read aloud.
It doesn't bother me at all, it is part of evolution I think. Of course, there are times I long for nature, and living here near Osaka doesn't make that easy. But doesn't the fact that people actually sign up to live in these concrete buildings imply that they are necessary? I believe we should remain realistic and stop thinking of Japan as some wonderful traditional country, an image we all form in our minds, an image we treasure,...Japan is a dynamic modern state and not a static postcard. Besides, Himeji castle and the sakura trees won't be destroyed, I give you my word! ;)
But can't there be another way to be modern than concrete and highrises? It is not that Japan should get rid of these things - in part because they are necessary in modern life. But what Kerr and many others are upset about is that no effort is being made to save historic areas or neighborhoods (save for a few token areas that end up becoming very much like tourist traps).

Japan doesn't have to be a static postcard state to be modern. Is Paris a modern city? Is Berlin, or Boston, or San Francisco? All these places have great historic areas and are quite postcard-esque. But no one would call them worse for it. Imagine what building ugly, prefabricated highrise apartments would do to the feeling and draw those wonderful cities. Imagine how much more Japan's historic places could be with even the slightest of help. Even if you just preserve the fronts, the exteriors, of old buildings the situation would be much better.

Other cities with histories as old and wonderful as Japan's have managed to strike a balance. The question is, why can't Japan do the same?
I agree with Mandylion 100% on this. Evolution is inevitable, but there are many kinds of evolution and simply pooring concrete everywhere and destroying the forests, mountains and historic neighborhoods in order to build endless seas of eyesores is in many ways a step back rather than a step forward.

Its funny, Musashi, that you give the example of Himeji castle and the Sakura trees not being destroyed because I live right next to the moat of Himeji castle. The castle's buildings are exceptionally well preserved and won't be destroyed, but a lot of developments around the castle have certainly damaged its beauty. I mean, the first site you see when you enter the castle gate is the Himeji zoo with its huge, garishly colored entranceway. Why did they need to build that right in the middle of the castle complex? And if you ever head to the north side of the castle (most tourists skip that) you'll see that there is also one of those car driving schools with its mini driving course and ugly concrete administrative buildings built within the nakabori (middle moat). As for the sakura trees, you may have noticed that the ones they have at Himeji castle are unusually short. That is because city officials have the tops of them cut off once every couple of years to prevent them from getting too big. The reason? Because of all the hanami parties they are worried that if the trees get too big drunk salarymen will try climbing them and then fall down, injuring themselves.

And from what I've seen, Himeji castle is one of the best preserved and most attractive historical sites in Japan. But even it hasn't escaped the ravages of mismanagement, which I think is the biggest problem facing Japan from an aesthetic point of view.
Ok, I have to agree with you on that. Aesthetically it isn't very nice and there should be a better system of consveration and restoration, but, and I'm totally not sure on this one, since it is not really my field of study, doesn't the fact that most old buildings were/are made of wood have something to do with this, not to mention the Kanto and Hanshin earthquakes and WWII for that matter...

Anyway, I understand your opinion very well and sometimes feel the same way, but I have yet to be convinced that this is just a Japanese problem. When I hear my father talk about his youth and his stories about catching frogs near the river where there is a huge road now with not a single tree left, I cannot but find that sad, but on the other hand, that's just how things are, that's just how things evolve. Fourty years ago there weren't as many people as there are now...

So if this is just a Japanese problem, who's to blame? The construction lobby?
Similar things happen all over the world (loss of historic buildings, damage to nature in the name of progress etc.) - we are not just picking on Japan :)

Have you read "Dogs and Demons" by Alex Kerr? If you haven't and are interested on this stuff, it would make a great read for you. It goes into a lot of detail on this and other issues, but in short, you are correct. In the US, these would be called pork barrel projects. The government gives money for "improvement projects" to prefectures, villages, companies, other government ministries etc. who, instead of using the money as needed, must be seen to apply all the funds given or they will be cut the following year.

So this extra cash - use it or lose it - gets poured onto hills in the form of concrete, made into huge roads leading nowhere and shunted into the poorer rural areas to support construction (jobs for rural folks). Then you add the graft that goes on and you have a huge machine that only knows how to do one thing - build things - anything.

Things have gotten so bad that some people are starting to see the patterns of concrete as a unique expression of Japanese asthetics. Apparently there have been art shows in places like NY City of photos of this crap. When making a roadcut for a highway, where in Europe landscape designers might work with the builders to shape the hills to look as natural as possible, Japan takes a cut and concrete approach. This rough and ready approach to construction also extends into putting up buildings and apartments. Kerr makes the point that because people haven't seen any other way to do things, they don't know that what is going on it a problem...

Then you have the construction lobbies. If you look on most of the major components of a modern Japanese home you will see a JIS sticker. I can't remember what it stands for right now, but it is a group that must approve almost all materials for buildings in Japan and regulates the application of foreign technology. As a result, many cheaper, longer-lasting, and better made foreign products are not available to the housing market in Japan.

I'm running a little long but work is slow today- last thing for now. Kerr talks about this in his book, but as an example for the JIS-ness of construction in Japan, almost everyone agrees that burying powerlines would make Japanese cities look much better. The technology exists to do so fairly cheaply. But some groups in Japan claim that the tubes used to hold the lines underground are not safe for earthquakes and that they would need to place transistors every 50 meters or so on all roadways. Both claims are nonsense. In earthquake-prone areas it makes more sense to bury powerlines (so they don't start fires when they break and fall on houses - like they did in Kobe) and the tubes they are in would withstand everything short of a nuclear war. You don't need a transistor every 50 meters, more like one for every average sized city block. But because a few companies and the political goons that back them don't want to do it, it won't get done.

One of my favorite pork barrel projects in my area is a huge bridge a way up the Shimanto River. On one side of this bridge is a small town and a school that doubles as a hostel in the summer for vacationers. Can't be more than 5 families up there. On the otherside of the bridge, the road ends, and running along either bank is a one lane road that themselves become dirt within 50 meters. If I am ever up that way, I will take a photo for you. The bridge itself is at least five stories (not counting the distance down to the river), a single span suspension bridge of steel and concrete. This bridge would not look out of place in the middle of Osaka handling tons of traffic everyday. As it is, I doubt it sees a ton of loading in a year.
That is sad indeed...I guess I'll have to read Kerr's books...

Although I have big hopes for the reconstruction of the Doutonbori-bridge.
One thing I have yet to see in this country is a riverbed that isn't lined with concrete, though perhaps I'm not looking hard enough.

I would also like to request that whomever wants to vote in a long-dead thread please share a bit of their opinion instead of voting and abandoning the thread. I've noticed an obnoxious trend of really old polls like this one getting resurrected with absolutely no new discussion.
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Old, but, what disturbs me is not the amount of concrete, but a lack of grass. The only grass I know in my city is either next to the river (Arakawa river dividing Tokyo and Saitama) or near a new shopping center where it is roped off and occasionally people are allowed on it. Compare this to my own home which had a yard out front and back, as well as 4 different soccer sized parks within a 5min walk.
I also not a fan of concrete. It not tradition thing and not looking attractive and damages to the nature. Also concrete wall sometimes smoothly shape so climbing much more difficulty for ninja. Not impossibility of course because ninja.
No doubt, Japan has some beautiful and amazing buildings and architecture. But it also has some of the most beautiful Nature in the world. That should never be destroyed for any reason whatsoever, especially commercial reasons.
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