USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Conformity of the Urban

Upon first observation, the citizens living in Tokyo seem self-disciplined to a strict adherence to order and structure. The robust Tokyo transportation system is highly efficient, accurate, and punctual. In an almost ritualistic manner, Tokyo train commuters silently form a line, allow passengers to exit the train, and board the cars with the utmost fluidity. This blasé attitude described by Author Georg Simmel is clearly evident in their behavior. Most train passengers spend their commute staring at the train’s floor or focused on a book. Social interaction between commuters that do not know each other is rare, or even non-existent. After observing the first layer of the psychology of Tokyo’s society it seems that individuals act together as one to create a better society.

Simmel extensively theorizes how the psyche of the modern man has changed with intensification of city life. Simmel describes how the metropolitan man develops a blasé attitude to cope with the amount of stimuli in a city. Furthermore, Simmel argues that as a city grows, calculability as well as the market economy grows in power. These developments are evident in many cities around the world. However, Tokyo seems to incorporate all these elements to create a level of mechanization unique to its urban fabric. In many ways the existence of the complexity found in Tokyo seems only possible through the emergence of mechanization, and the suppression of individuality.

However, as the layers of Tokyo’s society are peeled away to expose the deeper psyche, the yearning for individualism begins to show through. In subtle glimpses and hints, expressions of individuality begin to emerge from a sea of homogeneity. For the most part the society seems to stick to strict social stereotypes, but tucked into the many alleys of the city, vibrant sub-cultures thrive. Many of these subcultures act as an escape, reaction, or even a defiant notion against, the aggressive stereotypes of Japanese society. Some of these subcultures such as pachinko and anime are clearly recognizable around the city, while others stay hidden within the shadows of general Japanese society. Nonetheless, all of these subcultures pale in comparison to the driving force of cultural uniformity.

The emergence of mechanization within the Japanese Society has enabled the creation of the Tokyo metropolis, but sacrifices go hand in hand with the suppression of individuality. In his description of a generic metropolitan man, Simmel writes, “the individual has become a mere cog in an enormous organization of things and powers which tear from his hands all progress, spirituality, and value in order to transform them from their subjective form into the form of a purely objective life” (Simmel 422). The reduction of the individual to their specific duty within society seems very pronounced in Tokyo. However, the worshiping of individual freedom and power in America carries its own weaknesses and sacrifices. The cleanliness and precision of Tokyo unmistakably contrasts with the sprawl, grime, and inefficiencies of Los Angeles. Nonetheless, people around the world strive to make their way to America. Due to the influx of immigrants, the United States boasts one of the highest population growth rates among industrialized nations. In contrast Japan scrambles to find solutions to accommodate a rapidly diminishing population. Furthermore, the empowerment of the American individual may be one of the reasons why America is known for creative and technological innovation. In contrast Japan ranks last among twenty-four industrialized nations for entrepreneurial activity. The urban sprawl of America is unequivocally unsustainable. Many elements of urban development evident in Tokyo could have significant impacts if applied in the US. However, the suppression of individuality in Japan may hamper the ability to innovate creative solutions to human problems. Perhaps both societies can learn from one another in order to reach a greater future potential.

Sam R

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cost of efficiency

It’s astounding how quickly ones perception of a place can begin to shift. Japan, during the months preceding our arrival, had become built up in my mind as a place of fantastic efficiency and sense, where society functioned as it should. Coming from L.A. or more broadly, the U.S. in general this seemed incredibly appealing; on arrival this dream experienced a level of affirmation. The population exuded a certain level of awareness, blasé as Simmel calls it, that I had never seen before. Things work “properly,” public transportation is impeccable which should lead to a certain equalization of class, people are aware of their impact on the collective whole, quickly amassing into ordered lines and standing on the correct side of the escalator, they wait patiently at intersections, they follow the rules. The population, as a whole, is aware of its purpose, to make Japan economically more successful. But after this first impression, which could be described as the macro view, akin to de Certeau’s experience from the top of the World Trade Center, I had to come back down, I had to examine the situation from the micro level, from the street, and quickly my opinions on Japanese society headed in the opposite direction.

In the hope of making my impressions more understandable I will start with my conclusion, the majority of the Japanese population, like much of the globalized world, suffer from a complete absence of a self-determined consciousness, but unlike the majority of modern society, they are aware of their conscious death and have accepted it. With that said it is necessary for me to better describe my somewhat metaphorical notion of death, and death may be the wrong word for I am not sure there was life to begin with and can one exist without the other?  But I refer to the lack of self-consciousness or self-determination that permeates not only Japan but the majority of the modern world. They have no mental independence, and therefore, in my opinion, do not experience true life what the human mind is capable of. What strikes me about Japan is that the population has realized their lack of self-consciousness and accepted it. In order to achieve a consumerist society with this level of efficiency the people have had to, in what could be argued as their last conscious act, choose to give up their free will and consequently have every desire, ambition, dream catered for them.

Waro Kishi described Japanese culture as one of refinement, agglomerating technologies, ideologies, religions from their neighbors and vigorously polishing them, but instead I would describe Japan as the culture of imitation. Imitation is at the heart of consumerist culture and Japan, in my experience, is the champion of consumerism. From the vast shopping centers massed around transportation hubs to the Hips entertainment palace in Osaka, consumerism reigns supreme here and no one seems worried or ashamed. Debord describes it well near the conclusion of his work the Society of the Spectacle stating, “The acceptance and consumption of commodities are at the heart of this pseudo-response to a communication without response. The need to imitate which is felt by the consumer is precisely the infantile need conditioned by all the aspects of his fundamental disposition.”

Michael dH

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The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.



AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu