An Interview with Associate Professor Murayama Akito of the School of Engineering, the University of Tokyo

Interviewer : Yijiang Zhong (Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia)

 Associate Professor Murayama Akito

Thank you for taking part in this Global Japan Studies interview today. If you don’t mind, could you start by telling me about your research?

I specialize in urban planning and community development. The Faculty of Engineering recently created a PR brochure about this.

Is that so? I also found quite a lot of information on the Faculty of Engineering homepage.

Yes, that’s right. What I am doing is the same as described on the website. As is also written in the introduction to our research unit, we think about how to develop, manage, and maintain urban spaces that face multiple challenges, including a declining and rapidly ageing population, environmental issues, and intensifying natural disasters. We also consider policies to realize our image of how urban spaces in the cities where we live should be.

An urban space consists of land, buildings, and urban infrastructure like roads and parks. Each building and piece of land changes according to the will of its owner, be it reconstructing buildings, demolishing buildings to convert land into parking lots, or building new structures on agricultural and vacant land. Urban infrastructure also entails the installation of new roads, widening existing roads, and making parks and squares. We show how an urban space transforms due to each of these initiatives, and consider methods to effectively intervene when we think this is heading in undesirable direction.

Although this is called urban planning, because we don’t simply design cities however we like in the manner of a dictator, we also research techniques for the collaborative management of urban spaces formed through the activities of various actors.

In the introduction to your research, it also says there are interesting aspects relating to the humanities and social sciences. Cities, their design, and research on this not only requires scientific know-how, but knowledge from the humanities and social sciences. This is indeed a very interesting point.

While we plan cities, in Japan now there are no towns or cities planned and built from scratch. In the past, the population was rapidly increasing, and so agricultural land was developed, and forests were cut down to build new towns and urban areas. Because the population is now in decline, however, such projects have stopped. The towns and cities that have built up over the years are the basis upon which we must consider the future. Consequently, it is necessary to have a grounding in history and culture, and one must understand the people who live in these places. The use of land and the construction and demolition of buildings is affected by the economy, while land usage and building regulations are based on various laws and ordinances like the City Planning Act and Building Standards Act. Although making and maintaining roads, parks, and public facilities are public undertakings, in recent years, the money spent on cities has decreased as it is funneled into social security. This is the world of public administration and finance. To begin with, I also believe we should think about and decide how to develop a town or city together with the multiple actors that make up a society in a manner that is satisfactory to everyone involved. This relates to sociology and politics. The Department of Urban Engineering is in the Faculty of Engineering for historical reasons. However, urban planning is deeply connected with various fields within the humanities and social sciences in this way. Urban planning is simply not possible with just engineering and design.

Looking at it from this perspective, it seems that the discipline of urban planning is not only concerned with Japan, but with resolving problems shared by people around the world.

That’s right. In my case, as I am in Japan, I usually end up researching how to improve life in Japanese towns and cities and engage in related activities. However, I also have one eye on what is happening around the world. Other countries may be experiencing similar problems or serve as a source of reference having already effectively dealt with comparable issues. Conversely, what is happening in Japan now may become a reference for other countries.

Is that so? The discipline of engineering, it seems, has always been an international field of research.

The Department of Urban Engineering where I am based was set up in 1962 and is a relatively new department inside of the Faculty of Engineering. While the Tokyo Olympics was held in 1964, the 1960s was also a decade of rapid economic growth in Japan. At that time, there was migration from rural to urban areas and city populations greatly increased with the post-war baby boomers. Various problems resulted from cities becoming overcrowded, and it was necessary to enlarge them by creating better residential areas in the suburbs. Although attempts were made to install urban infrastructure like roads, parks, and sewers before such housing was built, in many places residential areas were constructed without sufficient infrastructure. The rapid urban growth led to environmental problems such as water and air pollution. In addition to the Urban Planning Course which I am affiliated with, there is an Urban Environmental Engineering Course at the Department of Urban Engineering. This course dealt with the environmental problems and hygiene issues of the growth period.

I see. It’s a discipline that really contributed to Japan’s high economic growth.

Yes. It was able to do this in the latter half of the 20th century, but as we enter the 21st century there is now a declining population. Consequently, different problems arise from those of the growth period. In the past, there was not enough land and housing for people to live. Now though, there is an abundance of land and housing and the problem is an increasing number of vacant properties. City centers and shopping districts that were once crowded have now been hollowed out. After the war, Japan rapidly grew both in terms of its economy and population. In recent years, though, the population is steadily declining. We must create cities and towns where everybody can live happily in a situation where the population is dropping and there is little economic growth. The problem, though, is how to go about this.

I am really interested in this. What I understand by vacant land is that the owner of the property is not known. What happens in this case? Does it become the property of the state?

As has recently become topical, there is certainly vacant land where the owner is not known. But there are also pieces of land and buildings which owners simply don’t use. Even land that has been passed down within a family may not be used if there are only a few descendants. Land and buildings are inherited by children after their parents pass away, but if they have a home in a different place or are based somewhere else, then although they own the property as an asset and pay taxes, they don’t actually make use of it. There are many examples of places being neglected. Alternatively, the land rights are often split between the recipients of an inheritance. Even if someone wants to do something with the land, there are many right-holders and they are not able to contact or reach an agreement with everyone. There are an increasing number of cases where the owner of the land is not known.

Does this result in an increase in the land available?

Even if the area of land doesn’t actually increase, it gets divided into many smaller lots of land.

If so, then I think the price of land is going to get cheaper. Isn’t this a positive thing?

It is perhaps positive in terms of land becoming easier to buy. On the other hand, it is troubling because there is an increase in land which has become unmanaged. Because the total area of land per capita increases under a declining population, it should become possible for people to comfortably live in more spacious properties if such land is well managed. However, things are not so easy.

If you look at Tokyo and the greater metropolitan region, as you would expect, people gather in convenient and attractive areas, while the population of less convenient and appealing areas is steadily dropping. For example, many high-rise apartment blocks are being built in Toyosu and waterfront areas with good access to central Tokyo. Young families prefer to live in these places as they are new and in good locations. If you look at the planned residential areas that were built in the 1970s in suburbs located 40 or 50 kilometers out from central Tokyo, however, the population is both steadily declining and aging, and once the people who currently live there pass away, empty properties will begin to appear and whole areas are likely to end up becoming vacant land.

On the one hand, small areas of land are heavily developed, and a relatively high density of people live there. On the other, the density of the population in less popular areas drops, leading to a polarizing effect.

This was the content of your lecture for the summer program. Looking at this issue as an outsider, it seems like an easy problem to resolve. For example, couldn’t new apartments be built, or transportation improved using public money?

If the population was continuing to grow, then money invested into public transportation could be claimed back as the people living there would make use of these services. Because the population is in decline, however, it just costs money. The cost of maintenance is high as well.

It is expensive.

That’s right. Because the burden of the cost of maintenance increases into the future if you make something that few people are going to use, this cannot be done. There is also an argument for regulating the construction of new buildings such as high-rise apartments. The idea being that if the supply of new residences was halted, land and buildings that are currently vacant would be used instead. However, there is a demand for more convenient and attractive places to live. Because developers supply such properties to meet this demand in a market economy, it is very difficult. In the end, even if the population continues to grow in Tokyo and the greater metropolitan region, there will be areas where the population drops. Though it is unlikely that the population of these places will ever reach zero, in any case it will become of a very low density. If one thinks positively about this, people should be able to live more comfortably since it is possible to enlarge the area of land per person. I think we can create a richer environment and maintain the value of a region even though the population decreases and becomes of a lower density if land is well managed, such as through expanding one’s own property by purchasing adjacent land that becomes vacant at a lower cost, using land that is available together with one’s neighbors, or making small parks or greenways.

However, it is only Japan currently confronting these issues and we therefore have to think about the solutions on our own. Researchers from other countries are observing the towns and cities of Japan as the precursor of a declining, elderly population.

Changing the topic slightly, I heard that classes are held, and theses written in English at the Faculty of Engineering. Is that correct?

At the Department of Urban Engineering, Japanese students are basically taught and write their theses in Japanese. However, students will write and contribute to journals in English depending on the field. Classes are basically taught in Japanese, but as there are also many foreign students, lectures in English are prepared at the School of Engineering. It is not only lectures. A lot of effort is also put into the studios where groups of multiple students identify issues and put together future proposals for specific towns and cities. While the studios at the undergraduate level are in Japanese, graduate school seminars are conducted in English. Right now, I oversee a seminar about the suburbs of west Tokyo. There is a mix of residential and agricultural land. We consider how to conserve farmland and create ecological towns in urbanizing regions where the amount of agricultural land is shrinking. Exchange students from overseas also participate. Furthermore, professors from the Politecnico di Torino in Italy are also interested in this topic and we hold web seminars together, while in March 2018 professors and graduate students from Torino will come out to Tokyo for a joint workshop.

About ten people?

Yes, about ten students from the University of Tokyo will take part. There are another two seminars held by other lecturers in addition to mine. Another thing is an urban design workshop that takes place together with professors from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States. There is a studio examining Tokyo at Georgia Tech that runs for thirteen weeks. In the tenth week, the graduate students come out to Tokyo and hold a workshop here with graduate students from the University of Tokyo. It is like an international project seminar where the initial proposals drawn up in the U.S. are tested in Tokyo and debated with graduate students from Tokyo University in to order to develop better plans. Here is a final report from the previous year, it is very well done.

It does look good.

Yes. This report analyzed and made a proposal for the town of Urawa Misono.

Why did they become interested in Tokyo?

Professor Perry Yang of Georgia Tech originally had research exchanges with people at the National Institute for Environmental Studies. He himself also travels to and from the United States and China, stopping off in Japan along the way. He feels strongly about getting the graduate students in Atlanta to study how best to carry out urban planning and design in situations completely different to that of the United States from an international perspective. I also want graduate students at our university to approach their work with an international mindset, and so we ended up doing stuff together. Also, Professor Yang seems to have especially wanted to deal with Japanese cities and towns that are totally different to the U.S. in terms of the density and scale of buildings and population.

These education programs are very international with many stimulating challenges. Are these collaborative relationships with external universities for credit at the Faculty and School of Engineering?

These sorts of programs started due to my personal connections with both the Politecnico di Torino and Georgia Institute of Technology, and they are still very much in the experimental stage. We have had agreements with Politecnico di Torino and Georgia Tech from before [we started these programs,] but I think this is the first time there has actually been exchanges with the Urban Engineering Major. We have a memorandum of understanding for a year of education and research exchanges with this major, which we are currently proceeding with.

What sort of system is in place in terms of funding.

Although funded by Politecnico di Torino, we wrote the budget application together. It is a project fund. I would really like to secure funding and take our students out there as well.

We have talked for quite a while now and I think we will have to discuss this more next time. We are currently planning the summer program for this academic year. Do please talk with me again when this takes place. On that note, I would like to end today’s interview. Thank you so much for coming today.

Thank you, it was my pleasure.