Geographical Notes: A city that dances on the edge of a volcano

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MORE THAN most cities, Tokyo lives with an apprehension of its own destruction. Perhaps some of the frenetic life of the city, the feeling of dancing on the edge of a volcano, is a result of that knowledge. Certainly, a part of the apathy, the lack of preparedness, is due to a general awareness of inevitably.

This air of the transient is enforced by the fact that traditional Japanese architectural styles are rarely seen. In present-day Tokyo, unlike old Edo, new buildings are constructed in fashions that are flamboyantly modern and no unity of architectural style is striven for or achieved. Just as some Japanese are meticulous about their family or office but neglect what we might call civic duties, the buildings are complete within themselves, and no attempt is made to harmonise them with either their setting or those structures adjacent to them.

This explains the random appearance of the modern Japanese city - just one individual expression after another. The reason for the feeling of unreality usually experienced by Westerners in Japan is that their assumptions concerning urban grammar are not there to be read. After all, the buildings do not "fit" the streets - in particular, the rectangular edifices located on curved byways tend to result in singular effects.

On observing people on the street in Tokyo, a foreign fashion designer said that "the clothes are beautiful . . . but the people are not really wearing them yet". There was something, he added, not quite modern about that.

And there is something not quite modern - nor quite real - about the Tokyo architecture. As a consequence, Japanese cities often feel like the back lots of movie studios. The various sets, all of them quite large and seemingly permanent, are constructed, used and left standing. There seems to be no reason for their arrangement. They were built for reasons of economy and convenience, and there is no unifying style because the uses of each were different. Though they look sturdy, they were not designed to last - and indeed they will not.

The Western municipality which Tokyo most resembles is the only "city" the West erects in the knowledge that it is temporary: the international exposition, where massive buildings are thrown up, avenues are constructed, and vast crowds are accommodated, but only for a season. The assumption is that all of this will shortly be pulled down. Building only for now, and only for show, architects are encouraged to be extreme. Tokyo is like an international expo which has remained standing.

Tokyo lacks those architectural monuments which speak so eloquently of timelessness, of immortality, except, as we have seen, in the very concept of timeless impermanence that the Japanese city has incorporated into itself.

Western visitors are thus presented with an anomaly when they visit a city such as Tokyo. They cannot detect the natural and organic shape of the city because structural logic has no place in such a form, yet they find an anthropomorphosed city in that the more-than-human is unstressed and the merely human is emphasised.

Nor is Tokyo, despite its seeming modernity, a city that makes Western assumptions. That one often cannot locate an address without outside (police, postman, local resident) help would indicate that it is not in any Western sense an efficient urban complex. As D.J. Enright wisely remarked, though in another context, "Ambiguity interests the Japanese a good deal more than does logic."

Indeed, much is illogical and inefficient. Kurt Singer, speaking of the Japanese language, noticed that it is so rich in ambiguities that "nobody deplores the resulting measure of haziness. It is by higher degrees of clarity and precision that the Japanese would feel inconvenienced."

Donald Richie is the author of `Tokyo: a view of the city' (Reaktion Books, pounds 14.95)