Page last updated at 12:46 GMT, Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Tokyo's demolition drama

By Andre Vornic
BBC News, Tokyo


The company which runs Japan's traditional form of popular entertainment, kabuki, has announced plans to raze its old theatre in the heart of Tokyo.

In 2010, the Kabuki-za is to make way for a multi-functional complex, scheduled to open three years later.

Tokyo's urban fabric famously thrives on constant renewal.

But the decision to demolish one of just a few surviving historic buildings has shocked local architects.

The Kabuki-za's current look, referencing 16th-Century Japanese castles, is a creation of the 1920s - positively ancient in a city ravaged by earthquakes, firebombed into the ground, and redeveloped beyond recognition.

Badly bombed itself, the theatre was rebuilt in 1950 - a home for the enduring kabuki genre, with its mix of melodrama and pantomime.

Kaubuki poster
The latest kabuki-themed film is advertised in Tokyo

Stately but unintimidating, the Kabuki-za harks back to building styles long outgrown in Tokyo. Its low-rise swagger provides Ginza, the capital's premier shopping district, with a graceful - if solitary - sliver of traditional aesthetics.

Within the next few years, however, Shochiku - the company which owns the theatre and is synonymous with kabuki itself - is to raze the building and redevelop the site.

The new construction will include office space alongside a new drama venue.

Not enough toilets

"This is ridiculous," argues Hiroyuki Suzuki, an architectural historian and Tokyo University professor. "It's an extraordinary thing to do, but - sadly - an ordinary one in Tokyo."

Every year, Prof Suzuki says, parts of the capital are redeveloped to increase the floor area of buildings.

"The bigger the building, the bigger the profit. The Kabuki-za is a typical such redevelopment."

Nothing of the kind, insists Shochiku. The company rejects any charges of greed or cultural vandalism.

Its executive managing director, Tadashi Abiko, explains that the theatre was rebuilt with meagre resources after World War II, and has become inadequate for current needs.

The Kabuki-za is not earthquake-proof, he says. Parts of it are still made of wood; the fire safety system is outdated.

Razing the theatre is an extraordinary thing to do - but sadly, an ordinary one in Tokyo
Architectural historian Hiroyuki Suzuki

"It doesn't have enough toilets," Mr Abiko continues. "And we need to provide a comfortable environment for our customers."

Bulldoze or refurbish?

Could the current building not be refurbished?

Of course it could, insists Prof Suzuki.

"Today's technologies, such as base isolation, allow for the earthquake-proofing of older buildings. The question of safety is just a pretext."

Base isolation, a structural design technique used in seismic areas, involves decoupling a building from the ground's motions by means of rubber bearings.

It has been used on a large scale to rebuild the quake-damaged city of Kobe and, in Tokyo, to retro-fit the brutalist National Museum of Western Art, designed by Le Corbusier.

But Mr Abiko is adamant it would be impractical to retain the Kabuki-za in its present form.

"After careful consideration, we found that adapting the current building would cost an extortionate amount of money.

"Unlike theatres in the West, ours receives no public subsidies of any kind: we finance kabuki privately, from the price of admission tickets."

Tokyo Museum of Western Art
Tokyo's Le Corbusier-designed museum has been made earthquake proof

Jaded view

The view from Mr Abiko's 10th-floor office is emblematic of today's Tokyo: a city of mid- and high-rise structures, sometimes drab, occasionally daring, but one whose historical character has largely been erased.

Within the last 85 years - the life expectancy of the average Japanese woman - Tokyo has been destroyed twice over: by the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, and by wartime bombing two decades later.

In a telling scene from the 1950s sci-fi classic, Godzilla, Tokyo commuters read in the morning paper about the monster's advance on the capital. The city stands to be all but annihilated, its buildings ripped out, crushed, or consumed by flames.

"Evacuate Tokyo? Not again!" grumbles a blase passenger, with a mildly annoyed shrug.

The residents of contemporary Tokyo tend to take a similarly jaded view of impending bulldozers.

"It's a great shame to lose a historic building," concedes theatre-goer Sachiyo Kawashima as she peruses this season's programme with her husband.

"But I know there are safety-related issues, the building is ageing... It can't be helped."

"If they've decided to take it down, it must be for a good reason," adds her husband.

No protection

Tadashi Abiko
Kabuki producer Tadashi Abiko favours redevelopment
A notion persists that when it comes to urban planning, property owners have the final word. And that, generally speaking, the people in charge know best.

There is little protection from demolition for landmark buildings, even when they are labelled - as the Kabuki-za is - "tangible cultural assets".

The Victorian-era Tokyo Station, a prime example of streaky-bacon brick architecture, narrowly escaped being levelled in the 1980s.

Close by, the Imperial Hotel, a grand, turn-of-the-century fusion of Eastern and Western styles by Frank Lloyd Wright, bit the dust in the 1960s.

Architecture critics describe its demolition as a symbolic milestone in the history of Japan's urban renewal.

In 1968-69, with the country's soaring economy demanding bigger and denser office space, many remarkable buildings were torn down.

The practice continues - albeit in more piecemeal fashion, as the economy has long lost its buoyancy.

Tokyo's Central Post Office, a ribbon-like piece of 1930s functionalism, is currently slated for demolition and redevelopment by its owner, Japan Post.

A 37-storey high-rise is to go up in its place.

Wiping out Memory Lane

Omoide Yokocho
Tokyo's Memory Lane faces demolition

In the district of Shinjuku, an early post-war flavour still hangs over a crummy little alley nestling under railway tracks.

Known as Omoide Yokocho, or Memory Lane, the street snakes past wooden shacks offering cheap barbecue menus - a smelly, beery slice of less-than-first-world Asia, crouching beneath the neon blaze of towers and department stores.

Smoke from the sizzling meat frames a scene evocative of the late 1940s, when old Tokyo's rickety alleys hosted a lively underworld of hustling and black marketeering.

But Omoide Yokocho, which is reported to have served as a model for the sets of Blade Runner, is awaiting the wrecking ball.

A full-sized replica of the alley may yet survive in a museum, scrubbed of its odours and life, with its boisterous landladies frozen in waxy poses, and possibly - as has been done elsewhere in Tokyo - models of stray dogs thrown in for extra historical appeal.

"The Japanese only respect temples and shrines," says Prof Suzuki. "For buildings seen as utilitarian, there is no sanctuary."

Modernity vs nostalgia

That may be a harsh verdict.

Japanese culture does treasure nostalgia: a yearning for things lost - childhood, school friends, a way of life - is a frequently voiced emotion.

But the quest for modernity arguably runs deeper.

In his celebrated 1933 essay on Eastern and Western aesthetics, In Praise of Shadows, novelist Junichiro Tanizaki pondered the respective merits of European and Japanese homes.

His study dwelled fondly on the toilet, whose traditional, Japanese version he greatly prefers:

"The parlour may have its charms," writes Mr Tanizaki, "but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose... No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the paper screen, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden."

Yet by his own admission, when it came to furnishing his house, Mr Tanizaki set nostalgia aside and opted for a modern, Western-style toilet.

It is a safe bet that in the new Kabuki-za, when it opens, the toilets will be resolutely modern.

And, unlike now, there will be enough of them.

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Timeline: Japan
10 Nov 08 |  Country profiles

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