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Tsukuba's Empty Center: October 2001

Author:Paul Axton, Issue: October 2001, Topic: Commentary

(Editor's note: This article is reprinted from the Jan. '98 issue since it goes together so well with Stephen Marshall's article.)

"...the thing to be symbolized in this instance is Japan as a state. Willy-nilly, I was compelled to select a style that would stand for the whole Japanese nation..." (Isozaki Arata, Architect of Tsukuba Center)

As you walk along the oval plaza of Tsukuba, modeled as it is after the piazza on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, you might expect to eventually come to a center where, as in Rome, the emperor sits astride a horse or some other tower or monument that represents the nation. After all, the city itself is a kind of monument as the only new town project conceived and executed by the state after the war. Tsukuba was conceived at a time when Japan was beginning to feel a new confidence, and it was to serve as the resource and model of a state that was finding its voice and direction and was rediscovering its identity. The city planners did, indeed, want to express this in the central square of the city with some monumental structure to reflect a masculine nation state, but the architect, Isozaki Arata, defied them and created a city center revolving around an empty hole and a drain. He created a clearly defined central axis around which the center devolves to this empty, sunken, concave plaza.

He meant this empty hole and the surrounding buildings to be a metaphor for the city and the nation. The city itself was supposed to express the power of the state, but at the center of that state, Arata thought the most powerful image was of something missing - an absence. Tsukuba was itself an attempt to fill a hole, to rediscover identity, to mark a new direction, and yet the effort lacked a center.

The original plan for Tsukuba included relocating the central government here to escape the overcrowding of Tokyo. Though this part of the plan was dropped, the city was still meant to act as the new center of internationalization. After Japan lost the war and the Emperor denied his divinity, Arata says, the national state vanished. There was a very literal attempt to relocate that lost center in Tsukuba.

Arata meant the city center to represent the rediscovery and melding of emperor, state, and capital, and the center hole represents the void that has brought about their amalgamation. The city was conceived in the cabinet of Prime Minister Ikeda in 1963, who, as we shall see, focused the political and national will on economic improvement. Ikeda, more than any other postwar prime minister, was responsible for reuniting the national effort and setting it on the goal of national prosperity and improvement. Tsukuba, which would be the centerpiece for that improvement, would be thoroughly modern and an attempt to plant modern thought and methods in traditional Japanese soil. It would be the national state's initiative to help stimulate Japanese modernization. So the convergence of state and capital and its future course was to be found in this new center.

The converging streams of water disappearing at the very center of the plaza are meant to represent the earth devouring the various symbols contained in the periphery. Among those symbols, there is no coherence or pattern but just "so much historical refuse crammed helter-skelter into a framework." Arata means this helter-skelter pattern to portray Japan's lack of a clear identity and the unsuccessful attempt to forge one. The form or substance of these images, including the state and the invisible imperial presence, are consumed by the earth - the one abiding reality in Arata's metaphoric conception.

Tsukuba's planners, in attempting to start from scratch and build the future, began figuratively and almost literally with a vacant lot. The land is not ideal for farming and the closest local industry, fishing, died off as Lake Kasumigaura became polluted. The national Housing and Urban Development Corporation was able to buy a large tract of land at the base of Mount Tsukuba in the area that was mostly rural farm land or woods. Though Tsukuba is only forty miles from Tokyo, the area has historically been one of the most insular and undeveloped in the region. Its location next to Edo (the old name for Tokyo) caused the Tokugawa Shoguns to create a cultural vacuum here that would offer no possible threat to the capital, and so the population was at one time among the most poverty-stricken in Japan.

Dr. Junichi Saga chronicled life in the area before the war, and the dominant theme of the period was survival. Rice was a luxury that most could not afford. Many were reduced to subsisting on barley or millet. Girl infanticide was an accepted practice and prostitution was one of the only successful enterprises of the area. There was little cultural infrastructure even in the 1960's to be accommodated. So the location presented the opportunity to construct a city that would leave little trace of the previous environment. It is, in other words, as close to a visible representation of the modern ideal, without interference, as it is possible to come.

The city, as an expression of the advancing national will, would pursue science, create an educational and intellectual center and embrace internationalization. The academic atmosphere created by the five colleges and the national university extends beyond campus boundaries to include most of the city. The 46 government research institutes and some 210 private institutes (some still in the planning stage), create a pervasive atmosphere of study and research. There are more Ph.D.s, more professors, and more researchers concentrated in this relatively small city than anywhere in the world. So Tsukuba has also been called the city of brains.

There are also more foreigners here per capita than in any other city in Japan. As the largest city in the world devoted to science, Tsukuba is the main point of exchange with the foreign scientific community. Japanese scientists from Tsukuba often spend a year or more abroad and many foreign scientists are invited to Tsukuba's research centers. Tsukuba University likewise, was built to be a new kind of international national university. It has the highest percentage of foreign students among the national universities, and it boasts a famous, Nobel Prize-winning, internationally-minded president. Meikei High School, the daughter school of the university, is likewise aiming at an international style education, and both schools have a special entrance system and program for Japanese students returning from overseas. So a greater percentage of Tsukuba's 150,000 plus residents will study and learn English, live overseas, live and work with foreigners and foreign ideas, than any other comparable group in Japan.

The makeup of the city contains the contradiction that is modern Japan. As Arata says, he sensed "the shadow of the nation in the task of designing a central set of facilities for Tsukuba Science City." The shadow of the state and its reanimation of right-wing conservative thought falls across the entire city. The national institutes are carrying out government research for state purposes and the national university is sometimes referred to as the "Monbusho University" because of its close ties to the Ministry of Education. Yet, it is this reconstituted conservative creation that serves as Japan's international and intellectual doorway. The place that is meant to be the most open and most international is precisely that place where state controls and state purposes are being worked out. Tsukuba and its institutions reflect the fact that Japan's effort at internationalization in all of its various phases is subordinate to its nationalization.

In this sense, Tsukuba is the ideal place to come to understand the direction Japan is headed. It is a living model of what the entire country is experiencing at different rates, and it is a concrete image of what the country has projected as its identity.

<< Alienated by the Planning of Science City | Master Index | Tsukuba Walking and Mountaineering Club: October 2001 >>

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