The City Remade, the City Evaded: Transformations of Life in and Away from Urban Japan

Title: 1311 | The City Remade, the City Evaded: Transformations of Life in and Away from Urban Japan
Area: Northeast Asia
Stream: Urban Studies
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Nathaniel Smith, University of Arizona, United States (organizer, presenter, chair)
Heide Imai, Senshu University, Japan (presenter)
James Farrer, Sophia University, Japan (presenter)
Susanne Klien, Hokkaido University, Japan (presenter)


Urbanity is a filter for life in Japan, orienting labor, social space, and regimes of taste. This panel brings together ethnographically-driven research in the social sciences to consider changes in urban life as it evolves both within and beyond the megacity. We take up novel places like the “hidden” slices of urbanity found in the narrow back-alley, shopping street, or crusty postwar yokochō, consider the "bistro battleground" of a suburban neighborhood where entrepreneur chefs draw competing global culinary cultures into pockets of decidedly everyday life, examine forms of resistance to urbanity enacted by young “lifestyle migrants” pursuing new food ventures and hoping for a slower life in rural areas, and evaluate how parts of Tokyo stand as symbolic Petri dishes for the coming “diverse Japan” of the future, as tourism remakes and attempts to gentrify the famously gritty neighborhood of Kabukicho into a would-be welcome mat for the world. As Japan’s population ages and its rural centers wane, dynamic urban development in the Tokyo megacity is conversely reaching new heights. In the run-up to the Summer Olympics, we focus on how the megacity of Tokyo is being remade or evaded by locals and visitors alike and consider what revitalization campaigns, new forms of cosmopolitanism, and efforts to imagine alternatives to the clout of urban Japan reveal about changing aspects of society.

Panel Abstracts:
Tourism, Taste, and Tokyo 2020 in Kabukicho
As Tokyo readies itself to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, its most infamous postwar red-light district, Kabukicho in Shinjuku ward, has been surprisingly proactive in welcoming a growing number of international visitors: it boasts new large-scale hotels, capsule hotels created for salarymen now reinvented as low-cost options for tourists, and multi-language menus are ubiquitous at local restaurants. A diverse Kabukicho, however, is not a recent development. The nightlife-oriented neighborhood has long been the home of multiple communities stigmatized in postwar Japan, including former colonial subjects cum ethnic minorities, new migrants, the political and artistic fringe, organized crime groups, and precarious workers in its prominent sexual services industry. Based on ongoing fieldwork in Kabukicho aiming to extend work in the anthropology, politics, and history of urban Japan to examine how ‘native and newcomer’ coexist in ‘neighborhood’ Kabukicho of the present moment, this paper asks how the interplay of multiple marginalities found in a neighborhood like Kabukicho might demonstrate potentials and limitations for life in an increasingly diverse Japan. In the near term, however, how has the boom/bust cycle of tourists from Asia and beyond for 2019’s Rugby World Cup, the sharp decline in tourism from China due to the Corona virus, and the run-up to the Summer Olympics affected Kabukicho as a social space for visitors, residents, workers, and entrepreneurs?

Tokyo's Hidden Alleys and Lanes – Redefining the City’s Alternative Landscape in Times of Change
Tokyo is characterized by many dense corners, nooks and crannies of urban life, which are closely intertwined. These walkways and alleyways are known as yokochō, shōtengai, or roji and mirror the social pattern of the neighbourhood. Whereas many yokochō and shōtengai are named, well known, and recognized by the neighbourhood as commercial life lines, the hundreds of ‘no name’ roji that make up an extensive part of Tokyo’s urban tissue are underrepresented and under researched, yet play a role as cultural, everyday and social places and increasingly as places of economic transactions, spaces with the potential to raise the economic value of properties around them. In comparison, yokochō can be found inside passages or under train tracks, emerging in the form of diverse eateries such as izakaya (pubs), yatai (food stalls), tachinomi (standing bars) or similar. In recent years, approaching the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, these kinds of alleys are in the spotlight again as many new customers look for chances to experience the dance of ordinary life and the local spirit of the Japanese hospitality. This paper aims to compare and redefine the socio-spatial meaning of the roji and yokochō to ask why some such places are not revitalized and others turn into famous tourist spots. Can we not instead realize "hidden" spaces as a concept to pursue revitalization of existing districts or are shiny new trends such as train cafes or anime streets the only options attractive for developers in a changing Tokyo?

Bistro Battleground: Cultivating Western Cuisine in a Tokyo Neighborhood
Japan’s reputation for culinary artisanship now extends beyond traditional Japanese cuisine. Of the eleven three-star restaurants named in the 2020 Michelin Tokyo guide, three are French (the rest are Japanese). Of the 48 two star restaurants, 13 are French, one Italian and two Spanish. The accolades for French cuisine alone are remarkable (though this measure might reflect Michelin’s French bias). However, the presence of French, Italian and other Western cuisines in Tokyo neighborhoods is equally remarkable. This paper looks at the changing careers and business strategies of Western cuisine chefs in a Tokyo neighborhood know for privately owned restaurants serving affordable cuisine. There are no Michelin starred restaurants in this semi-suburban neighborhood, but rather there are scores of owner-chefs striving to create a culinary experience for local diners. The agglomeration of casual French and Italian restaurants near the station was even described by one restaurateur as a “bistro battleground,” yet it is also a type of culinary community bound together by a common set of practices and principles. How is this kind of non-Japanese culinary community fostered in Japanese urban neighborhood? How have the careers of chefs changed in this scene, which dates back to the immediate post-war era? Based on interviews with over 50 chefs and restaurant owners in the neighborhood, the paper identifies three distinct generations of chefs and restaurateurs, showing a transition in the meanings and practices involved in creating Western food, and also in the career paths of culinary workers.

Of Slow Food and (Not So) Slow Lives: Urban lifestyle Migrants in Rural Japan
The 2008 Lehman Shock and governmental revitalization policies introduced by the Abe government have resulted in a rise in urban lifestyle migrants who relocate to rural areas across Japan for non-economic reasons. This ethnographic paper focuses on individuals in Tokushima Prefecture who seek greater work-life-balance and healthier lifestyles in rural Japan by pursuing entrepreneurial activities away from Japan's urban core. Critically questioning conventional notions of work and lifestyle, these individuals struggle to implement their ideal lifestyles in their rural environments that are often characterized by deeply ingrained local societal norms and values. Drawing on fieldwork from 2017, I will examine two cases of young entrepreneurs who have started their own food ventures. While they are enthusiastic about rural life, they also discuss their difficulties in pursuing experimental lifestyles that do not only transcend the locale in multiple ways, but are sometimes shaped by transnational features. Narratives indicate that lifestyle migrants struggle to carve out livelihoods for themselves while implementing lives that afford more time with their families and leisure activities

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