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The impact of rail service-based inversion in Japan and what it can teach us ‘Downunder’

This is a guest Post by Rob Mayo

My background is in marketing, advertising and customer experience development. Since the 80s, with an MA in Japanese under my belt, I have lived and worked in the Tokyo/Yokohama area as well as in a number of cities in the Asia region. From 2009, I’ve been working on transit network-oriented customer marketing and service delivery initiatives in Japan, part of that time running the country’s largest cross-media marketing agency.

Over the years I’ve seen the result of a Japanese variant of the urban phenomenon known as ‘inversion’ – a term made popular by Alan Ehrenhalt in his 2013 book ‘The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City’.

Inversion has been shaping cities and towns all over Japan since the 1950s and it is very much tied in with the growth in commuter rail services.

One area of Tokyo that I lived in, is a product of that inversion process – a process that in fact took place there from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. In the picture below, the red Google marker point is the house my family and I lived in. Near it are three rail lines – the Ikegami Line running roughly east-west, the Yokosuka Line running roughly north-south and a third east-west line following the Tama River – the Mekama Line, now called the Tamagawa Line.

Rob Mayo Tokyo suburb

The large green patches dotted around the area towards the river that is about a kilometre from our house, are the residences of the landowners who still own the large tracts of subdivided land within a 5-10km radius of their ancestral homes.

After the Ikegami and Mekama Lines were opened in the 1920s, land subdivision all along each line took place in the 1930s and by the early 1960s, inversion in suburbs such as ours (Ontakesan / Kugahara) was well underway, because at that point, the Ikegami and Mekama Lines were connected up to the nearby Toyoko Line between Tokyo and Yokohama which in turn was linked into the Tokyo subway system and the overground Yamanote loop line.

All land area north of the Tama River quickly became sought after due to the number of rail lines criss-crossing the area, their seamless integration into the overall rail network and the ability for large numbers of people to reach any part of the Tokyo metropolis with ease.

The density and property size diversity as shown in this Google map picture of 2014, has been pretty much in the same state since the mid 1960s. Ancestral homes dating back to the 1800s and earlier, sit alongside ‘new money’ homes from the 1900s-1930s and thousands of middle class homes and government housing built in the same area from the 1940s onwards – all properties coexisting either cheek by jowl or in clusters by housing type, yet all still within cooee of each other.

Urban Inversion in Tokyo has happened in this manner in waves over the years from when rail lines were put in or existing lines extended/interconnected. The inversion processes in various parts of the Tokyo metropolis have occurred over a comparatively short period of time – on average each taking place during a 15-20 year period, sometime even faster.

Yes, Tokyo has sprawled like any other city and when you go from Tokyo through Kawasaki to Yokohama for example, it doesn’t feel like three separate cities you’re moving between but through one large sea of concrete. However, as much as people have spread out over a 20-30 year period, they have also spread back in at the same time and this is due to the rail system that became fully interconnected and interwoven into the social fabric from a very early stage.

The other reason that inversion has happened in Japanese cities so quickly, is societal. Japanese society places much emphasis on respect for elders and the importance of maintaining an overall social cohesiveness. This means that there has never been the kind of housing / social segregation that is so common in North America, the UK and Oceania. Although their children may go to schools outside the area, families from all social classes share the same suburbs, shop daily at the same local outlets, eat out at the same local restaurants and attend the same local festivals throughout the year. That level of social interaction is reflected in the development of commuter rail services and those commuter rail services have in turn directly influenced where/how people live and the speed at which urban density has developed.

Over the years, the urban density / rail service interlinks that Japan has home-grown, have been replicated consciously or subconsciously in Seoul, Shanghai and Hong Kong since the 1970s and in a highly planned/ordered variant deployed in Singapore throughout the 80s and 90s.

What I believe Japan can teach us here ‘Downunder’ in 2014, is how rail lines facilitate ‘positive density’ quickly through retail and amenities placed right next to, above or below stations…and how narrowing of streets makes cycling to school, work and local amenities easy and makes societal interactions necessary and ‘compelling’. Direct-connect retail at stations need only be a small supermarket or a convenience store, a florist and a bakery to be immediately successful and that is not anything particularly Japanese…it is common to all of us humans – we are attracted to places where we can easily see others obtaining food and drink.

Japan can show us how we can make inversion happen / continue to happen in a number of places city-wide in Auckland and how it can break down societal / class barriers, rejuvenate, reconnect and interconnect communities.

34 comments to The impact of rail service-based inversion in Japan and what it can teach us ‘Downunder’

  • Neil

    This is what London did in the 1920s. They also owned the land so used the capital gain to pay for the rail and stations.

  • Dave B (Wellington)

    Very instructive and thought-provoking. But there is no mention of any effect the private car might have had in all of this? Was car-ownership contained or restricted early-on, such that the spiral into car-domination with which we are so familiar, somehow did not happen? Was provision for mass-car-use not made, enabling maximum continued effort to be focussed instead on non-car based living? Or did Japanese simply not aspire en-masse to car-ownership the way other developed nations did? How has the scene pictured above avoided being criss-crossed by arterial highways à la Auckland? Do you think that, had Auckland proceeded e.g. with Sir Dove Meyer Robinson’s rapid-rail proposals of the 1970′s, Auckland might have more closely followed the inversion principle which perhaps the swing to car-based development killed?

  • Ari

    Japanese don’t need cars if they can get everywhere by train. Having said that, Japan still has high car ownership rates. I just don’t think I can stand being so densely packed in one place. Of course, thats why they still have 70% of their landmass as forest rather than housing.

  • mfwic

    Having your city fire bombed probably changes your thinking about where to buy a house as well.

  • Stevenz

    36 million people can’t be wrong!

  • Jeff H

    Japan’s PT dependent lifestyle is also a very healthy one which the young to the very (very) old participate in. Lots of daily physical activity; walking, climbing stairs, sometimes running between home, work,entertainment and through busy stations keeps people active and fit compared to the sedentary SOV, drive the kids to school culture that’s the norm here.

    A high percentage of suburban Tokyo families do have cars, but you must have an off street car park to own one and they tend to use them mostly locally. Motorways within the city are tolled in fairly short zoned sections and tolls make it prohibitive to drive to town compared to PT.

  • greenwelly

    Although residential housing trends in Japan need to be viewed with an understanding that in japan houses are seen by most people as a durable consumable item,[like a fridge], and most houses are demolished after 30 years,

    Compared to the “west” there is almost no market for second hand houses in Japan,

    see this paper from nomura for more info

    http://www.nri.com/global/opinion/papers/2008/pdf/np2008137.pdf

  • Dom

    Sorry but what exactly is inversion? the article doesn’t define it as far as I can see.

    • Basically former suburb dwellers returning to reside in more “inner” city areas,

      On an individual suburb level it is often expressed in gentrification, but the term “inversion” is being used to describe the wider demographic shift.

    • potential inverter

      Thanks for asking the question and answering it. Wasn’t clear from reading the post but now I want to invert as soon as possible

    • mfwic

      Inversion means turned over or upside down or the act of turning it over. Not really something to be encouraged in town planning. cf everted which means inside out.

      • The inversion in ‘great inversion’ refers to the trend lines of various factors relating to transport and land use when graphed. A lot of trends that had been under regular growth since the fifties inverted around a 2003-2005 tipping point and went into decline. Things like vkt per capita in New Zealand for example.

        • mfwic

          OK so it’s a decline. Google didn’t give me that. But when I searched evert the kind people at Google put it into a sentence as follows: “the brown hyena deposits chemicals by everting an anal pouch”. And I am not to proud to admit that I didn’t know that.

          • I don’t think your pride has been dented by that admission mfwic. :-)

            I also don’t think I have ever seen the words “anal pouch” in a sentence. Quite an achievement.

  • bjfoe

    Makes me wonder which is the worst uninverted city in NZ…which Cbd would people avoid at all costs after dark? (chch excluded due to extenuating circumstances)

  • Geoff Blackmore

    Japan – 127 million people.
    NZ – 4.5 million people.

    We have the luxury of being able to live spaciously, whereas much of Japan probably doesn’t.

    • Sailor Boy

      Sadly we don’t have the luxury of living densely because a few NIMBYs won’t let us.

      • Michael

        Yep as a first home buyer in Wellington I’d love a simple terrace house or apartment, but these are so few and far between. Will probably end up with a single story 1/4 acre in Upper Hutt or Porirua….
        I’d love the luxury of living densely.

    • But if even a fraction of Japan’s population tried to live like you Geoff, there wouldn’t be any more forest or natural areas. And the same goes for NZ.

      Japan has managed to keep itself as 70% forest (40% man made) because its people live so densely.
      http://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/economies/Asia-and-the-Pacific/Japan.html

      Once again you have shown that your rural utopia only works so long as everyone doesn’t want to do it because it is completely unsustainable in an even partly industrialised society. We would all need to go back to an agrarian existence with only a few billion people in the world (not necessarily a bad thing) for your ideas to work.

      But no please tell me again how urban dwellers in cities are the real problem.

  • John Mackay

    Around the centre of both Kyoto and Tokyo the grids of arterials are high-rise and supercharged, but the back-streets in the rest of the blocks between the arterials, are often narrow and quiet, lined with small single-houses (usually timber) on tiny lots. This is in contrast to western cities, where we tend to zone large areas for similar building types and even exclusive activities. Does anyone know how the Japanese planning system works ?

  • John Mackay

    And I forgot to mention – looking north of Shinjuku from the TMG tower, you could see where the high-rise spiked up at the intersections of the arterials, where there were also subway stations. I wondered whether this pattern had anything to do with Tokyo sustaining almost twice the population of any other city. Other booming cities all seem to stall once they reach New York size.

  • John Mackay

    Incidentally, the well-organised grid of Hiroshima makes a nice story, but Kyoto, which was left completely off the bombing schedule, has a very orthogonal grid of wide arterials, interspersed with half a dozen narrow one-way streets. I understand it (and others) were inspired a couple of thousand years ago by classical Chinese models. And – in unconnected parallel with European civilisation – Tokyo, where the power later shifted with the Shoguns, has a mediaeval “higgledy-piggledy” layout.

    • And that ‘higgledy-piggledy’ layout in Tokyo is fantastic; fine grained, rich, enchanting.

      • Glen

        That it is. Having lived in Tokyo for 5+ years and actively explored it whenever possible (though of course never enough), the character of Tokyo back streets is as fascinating as the layout is ‘higgledy-piggledy’. The mixture of building types, the random shops/eateries/etc. that passionate people have opened based on the oddest concepts… enthralling.

        BTW Patrick, next time you’re in Tokyo, check out the Hiroo/Azabu/Shirokane area for some very expensive mid- to high-density central Tokyo housing. Well worth a look.

  • Glen

    Having lived in Tokyo for 5+ years (and further out in Ibaraki for a few more), I’ve been thinking about how good this post is and what we can learn from it… the answer is a lot.

    Among many other points, this post illustrates something that Patrick R often talks about – that urban motorways are fundamentally dispersive (i.e. no one wants to live by one) and urban rail is accumulative (people want to live near electrified rail lines). Not only is urban rail attractive, as it disperses people at fixed points (stations) it provides opportunities for the retail etc. that is a tangible benefit of the ‘positive density’ Rob talks about. None of this is huge news. But it is the quality of the experience and the lifestyle benefits it brings that need to hit home to people here.

    As one of the few foreigners living in a suburb of Tokyo (technically Saitama Prefecture but for all intents and purposes a satellite bedroom town of Tokyo), getting to know people was not easy. There are just not that many opportunities for interaction, which are even fewer in an atomised, door-to-door car-based travel pattern. But when you are regularly walking through local streets (principally to the station), you necessarily pass people in the street, bringing the opportunity for the beginnings of social connection.

    Then when you add the amenities Rob mentions, it brings more opportunities for interaction – with the convenience store staff, curry house owner, izakaya (bar/restaurant) chef, cake shop maestro… accessibility drives foot traffic drives amenity drives convenience drives commercial development. Critically, because it is grounded in the local and walkable, all of this drives interaction on a human scale, bringing opportunities for human interaction and developing a sense (even if superficial to begin with) of belonging to a place and wanting to be a part of it. This all contributes to the development of a community (people who know and look out for each other), as opposed to simply a place with people in it, all doing their own thing and ignoring each other.

    All this originally stems from public transport and the density it brings. Japan can indeed show us how we can make inversion happen and get great benefits from it. But only if we do it well – while the Council and AT have some good ideas about density around PT nodes, we must not let the NIMBYs, poor developers and the usual moaners cut off such benefits before they happen. That would truly be a shame.

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