The Street and Democracy, Japanese Style

Darko Radović, Keio University, Tokyo

In this essay I intend to discuss some trends in (re)production of local urban quality within the frameworks of relentless globalisation. The focus will be on Japan and some peculiarities of Japanese (urban) culture exemplified by Kuhonbutsugawa Ryokudô, only one of many streets in Jiyūgaoka, a small precinct of Tokyo, the largest city in the world. The essay builds upon parts of Measuring the non-Measurable– Mn’M, the major research project conducted at Keio University in the period 2011–14.

The task was to recognise, capture, analyse and open to discussion a set of evident existing and emergent qualities of that area and to locate them within broader cultural contexts and trends. The original emphasis was elements and gestures that have the capacity to make cities and urban life great, on various manifestations of everyday life and dialectics between the Japanese taste for modernity and the spectacular (as “Global”), and strong undercurrents of local culture. Central to the project were spaces, relationships and interactions which mediate between (or which, indeed, are the in-between) of the built-up and open, the sold and void, public and private (or, various Japanese variations on those themes).

According to David Harvey, globalisation is the process of geographical reorganisation of capitalism. It (re)produces particular conditions and modes of being within which people, economies and cultures are increasingly integrated and connected. He stresses that globalisation is also a political project, a strategy of global economic political expansion (of largely Western nations and corporations) to open up new markets and sources or labour and materials under the ideologies of free trade and neo-liberalism (Harvey, 2009).As projections of society on the ground (Lefebvre, 1996), globalised cities conditioned by those ideologies are acquiring an increasing number of common features. We do not only drive same or similar cars, listen same or similar music and consume same or similar products, but we also live in the environments which are, in the name of efficiency of neo-liberal economy-cum-politics, rapidly losing cultural specificity and acquire the shapelessness of liquid, global capital which produces them. Nevertheless, regardless the formidable homogenizing power of that force, it still gets projected onto the actual ground, upon specific local situations which should be understand as complex, layered milieus of intertwining physical and cultural topographies. The other two segments of Lefebvre’s tripartite definition (ibid.) of the urban celebrate precisely those qualities which arise from inevitable contextualisations.

Understanding the city as projection of society on the ground indeed results from its dialectisation with the second definition, which postulates that “the city is the ensemble of differences between cities” and yet “another definition, of plurality, coexistence and simultaneity in the urban of patterns, ways of living urban life” (ibid.). That phenomenon is at the core of resilience of established urban cultures.Japanese culture is famous for its strong roots and an indisputable uniqueness which has evolved due to relative, and in some historic periods absolute, isolation, which was imposed by both geographic conditions of the archipelago and equally atypical historic circumstances. The milieu of Japan, the Lefebvrian ground upon which the globalised times and rhythms get projected is very complex and, even in comparison with the neighbouring cultures, very peculiar.


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