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Tokyo Vernacular by Jordan Sand

Tokyo Vernacular Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects

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Chapter 1

Hiroba

The Public Square and the Boundaries of the Commons

Politics and the Piazza

In 1939, as the war in Asia escalated and Japanese authorities increasingly repressed dissent at home, Marxist historian Hani Gorō published a small paperback about Michelangelo. The book opened with a photo and description of Michelangelo's "David." Hani portrayed the artist himself as an underdog fighter for justice like the subject of his sculpture. He described Florence's central Piazza della Signoria, where the "David" stands, in the following way:

This was the piazza [hiroba] where several thousand representatives of the citizen masses [shimin minshū] of the free city and independent state of Florence gathered in an atmosphere filled with energy to debate and pass resolutions and translate them to action, in order for the people of the nation [karera kokumin]to manage the politics of their beloved country [karera no ai suru kokka]themselves, and in order to protect and develop their autonomous politics, creating no gap for autocrats to arise from within and protecting themselves from invaders from without.

These words express in a nutshell the ideal that Hani propounded of the piazza, public square, or-in the modern Japanese translation term-hiroba. This term, which literally means simply "broad open space," here represented a universal ideal. In Toshi (The city), a work published a decade later, Hani would call this ideal jiyū naru kōtsū-a free traffic or intercourse among citizens. Although Hani's Michelangelo was not censored, the author was later lionized for speaking out against militarism during the war, and the book came to be revered as a classic. As postwar Japanese rejected what they called their "feudal" past, along with the emperor worship and militarism of the war years, and pursued the language and action of a democratic polity, Hani's portrait of a self-governing urban citizenry acquired a utopian appeal.

Postwar intellectuals feared, however, that Japan lacked not only a tradition of democratic citizen politics but also a tradition of urban spaces suited to such politics. Writing in the journal Toshi mondai in 1956, urban geographer Sugimura Nobuji surveyed plaza types in the cities of European countries and their colonies, noting that plazas marked these cities apart, because Japan-and indeed all of the Orient with the exception of countries that had been European colonies-lacked them. He theorized that plazas had been built in the West in part because when large numbers of people gathered, a sense of citizenship formed. Sugimura thus understood plazas as instruments of citizen making. Without them, civic participation in Japan was naturally hindered.

The absence of plazas was felt particularly acutely by architects. In the urban studies volume of Kenchikugaku taikei (Compendium of architectural studies), a standard multivolume architectural reference work published in 1960, architects Yoshizaka Takamasa and Tonuma Kōichi contrasted the cities of ancient Greece, where the agora revealed "a healthy interpretation of humanity within the community of citizens, however limited," with Japan's ancient capitals, whose urban form expressed "Oriental despotic rule lacking communal solidarity." This trait, they wrote, became yet more pronounced in the feudal cities that emerged in Japan during the subsequent medieval and Tokugawa periods.

To compensate, postwar architects designed "citizens' plazas" (shimin hiroba), most often adjacent to new municipal and prefectural office buildings. Later architects observed critically that these plazas were seldom used by ordinary citizens. Meanwhile, civic aspirations invested in the hiroba were reflected in the term's popularity in journalism and policy circles, along with the term "citizen" (shimin). Newspapers sometimes printed readers' contributions in columns called "readers' plazas." The long-term plan for Tokyo published by the progressive Minobe administration in 1971 was called "Plan for a Tokyo of Plazas and Blue Skies," although it did not in fact propose the construction of new plazas. Like the blue skies-a metonym for antipollution policy-the plaza here was notional, pointing toward a democratic civil society.

Yet as Hani's characterization of Florence's Piazza della Signoria reveals in its promiscuity of terms for the urban citizenry and the national citizenry, popular sovereignty and public authority, the citizens who gathered in the public square were conceived as much in the terms of modern nation-state citizenship as in the frame of an urban public sphere. And although Hani spoke of "free intercourse," suggesting the interaction of multiple subjects and opinions, Japanese advocates of the urban plaza in the 1950s and 1960s were as likely to emphasize its importance as a site of solidarity and of the expression of a unified national voice.

A conception of the plaza or public square as an open commons-the site of a public formed through spontaneous and unorchestrated interaction, where universal access but not universal consensus is guaranteed-thus stood in tension with a conception of the plaza as the instrument of citizen solidarity, the site of a public formed through unified mass action. This tension between different ways of figuring the public politically had its architectural counterpart in the problem of monumentality. In addition to providing space for citizens to gather, trade, and exchange opinions, public squares and plazas have historically been built to enhance vistas of buildings and sculptures, making them monuments bearing symbolic or commemorative meaning. Monumental space symbolically aggrandizes the power of the people who occupy it, too. Much like the excess beyond mere function that a monumental setting imparts to a structure, the space of unified mass action acquires a significance beyond the mere capacity to hold large numbers of people. As a space of politics writ large, the hiroba becomes a monumental site, where the collective will exceeds the will of the individual. The public square in Japan's early postwar decades embodied in unresolved form both the grand political idea of popular sovereignty and an emergent space for the traffic of ideas, the unified voice of the people and a cacophony of people's voices, the monumental and the everyday.

Open Spaces in the City's History

Japanese cities had possessed open spaces, and crowds had gathered in them, for centuries. After Edo was destroyed by fire in 1657, the Tokugawa shogunate created broad avenues and open spaces around bridges to serve as fire breaks. Over time, these spaces were transformed into informal markets and entertainment districts. In addition, some Buddhist temples opened their precincts to the general public, making them popular sites for commercial and leisure activities. What the Tokugawa city lacked, from the standpoint of modern democratic ideals, was a space explicitly granted to the citizenry for the purpose of gathering. Nor did the Meiji government consider the provision of monumental open spaces essential to the city's modernization. German architects Hermann Ende and Wilhelm Beckmann, commissioned in 1886 to redesign the central districts of the capital, proposed a baroque city plan that would have had large public squares, but the Meiji government chose instead to focus on regularizing the street pattern and providing basic infrastructure for commercial development. As the transport network developed, it became common practice to create open spaces-mainly traffic rotaries-in front of train stations. Apart from these, the Meiji city did not have planned spaces called hiroba, plaza, or square. For the modernizing state in the 1880s, traffic flow thus took priority over monumentality. After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, there were once again plans for a new city that would include public squares, but these plans were largely thwarted, this time not by government but by the organized interests of landowners.

Hibiya Park, the country's first planned public park, was one of the capital's first open spaces to acquire political significance as a site of mass gathering. Created in 1903 on grounds just south of the Imperial Palace, the park became a frequent site of mass demonstrations beginning with the protests against the Portsmouth Treaty of 1905. Political rallies continued in Hibiya through the 1910s. May Day demonstrations were held at Ueno Park and other parks in Tokyo from 1920 until 1936, when they were banned. In accordance with the Public Order and Police Law instated in 1900, all gatherings in parks and other outdoor public spaces required permits from the police. The use of public space in these mass political events was thus premised on state sanction. Violence erupted in a few cases when permits were not granted or when the demonstrators transgressed the boundaries of the state-sanctioned public by marching out of the park-as when demonstrators attempted to bring their protest from Hibiya to the gates of the palace in 1905. Two competing models of national sovereignty clashed in this incident: one in which the people amassed in public might appeal to their emperor directly and one in which public parks provided space for pacification of the masses, with police present to maintain order and buffer the emperor and his ministers.

Events tied to a public that was unambiguously coeval with the Japanese monarch, since all sovereignty resided in him, took place in the front plaza of the Imperial Palace beginning in the late nineteenth century. Here, crowds witnessed military parades and displays of captured ar