[Viewpoint]Falling behind TokyoWhen you visit Roppongi District, which is considered the busiest part of Tokyo, you see a scene that looks a lot like the Cheonggye Stream in Seoul. Tourists from all over the country, traveling from as far away as Hokkaido and Kyushu, visit Roppongi to see Tokyo’s Midtown. Some even take a 60-minute tour of the area, which started being offered in March.
As you enter, you can’t help but admire the project. The exterior is overwhelming. As you look around, you feel like it has been designed to perfectly accommodate an urban lifestyle. The complex is directly connected with the subway, and as you enter the lobby, you can explore a shopping mall full of top brands, wine bars and restaurants. There is also an office building and a high-end hotel. Santori Museum is another noticeable part of Midtown. A handsome residential apartment building sits in the rear of the central tower, and a sizable artificial pond is in the front of the complex as part of the park area.
All these spaces are surrounded by tall Japanese cypresses, projecting a sense of the exquisite balance between the city and nature.
Midtown was built on a site previously occupied for a long time by the Japan Defense Agency. While it is located in the center of Tokyo, it was virtually a military facility, so the neighborhood around it had been underdeveloped.
After the defense agency decided to relocate, a major real estate developer, an insurance company and other partners worked together to create a 21st century-style upscale development. Roppongi Hills, which is only five minutes away on foot, was completely redeveloped five years ago and has made its name an international benchmark for cutting-edge mixed-use location.
Omotesando, one of the most beloved avenues in Japan, has had a complete makeover through urban renewal. The interior boasts an ultra-modern structure with a huge open area throughout three floors, but the exterior maintains the old facade. The Kasumigaseki District of government offices is also transforming itself into a circle of high-rises. Starting next spring, some government offices will open new buildings. The project is also designed to harmonize modernity with tradition by preserving the scenic old roadside.
Tokyo has created many artificially designed attractions. You hear about another one every three or four months. The projects are not coming out of a magic lamp. The Japanese government has renewed its conventional ideas for a better future and is making efforts to enhance the metropolitan city’s competitiveness.
The engines of the changes are the self-criticism brought on by the so-called Balanced Development policy, dating back to the 1960s, and the relaxation of construction regulations, which started in the 2000s. For 40 years, the Japanese government has poured an enormous amount of money into the balanced development of the country, but in this age of globalization, when companies are free to choose where they want to build their headquarters and manufacturing plants, the government-designated local industrial complexes have become deserted and their population has dwindled fast. So the Japanese government set out to change its policy. In 2002, the law that prohibited new construction and the expansion of factories and colleges was abolished, and the Urban Redevelopment Act was passed to urge the remodeling of the city.
The policy has transformed the old-fashioned city of Tokyo into a charming metropolis in five years. Shiodome, which used to be an outlying harbor, has so many skyscrapers that its skyline resembles New York, Hong Kong and Dubai, and the Tokyo Station neighborhood is also getting a complete makeover. As all the new developments line the city, foreign corporations are swarming in. With these changes, Tokyo has officially declared that it is in the running to host the 2016 summer Olympic Games.
The rebirth project of Tokyo aimed at creating an internationally competitive city will continue through 2025. It is following the motto, “An international city full of charms and delights that leads the world.”
What will Seoul be like in 2025? Because of construction regulations both north and south of the Han River, the only thing we see are apartment complexes. While we might be satisfied with the city now, we don’t seem to have a bright future. Fortunately, construction for the 28 trillion won ($31 billion) Yongsan international business district project will start in 2011.
It is quite late, so we need to hurry to upgrade Seoul with a drastic relaxation of regulations. I hope the gap between Seoul and Tokyo doesn’t grow too wide by the time Tokyo finishes its makeover in 2025.
*The writer is the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Dong-ho