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Capturing The Elusive Tokyo Spirit

August 31, 1986|SAM HALL KAPLAN

Garish, yet subtle, strange, yet familiar, overwhelming, yet convivial, Tokyo bemuses, frustrates, frightens and fascinates. To city watchers it is a vision at once of the past, present and future; a Western overlay of a Japanese fishing village turned castle town turned international corporate center turned intergalactic bazaar.

Clouding that view with emotion is that in this century alone Tokyo has been destroyed and rebuilt twice: in 1923 by a vicious earthquake; in 1945 by a firestorm triggered by American bombs. Since the postwar years the recycling has accelerated, driven by greed and heedless growth in a parody of American values and cities.

With land in Tokyo among the most expensive in the world, buildings are demolished in a blink to make way for bigger ones, neighborhoods bulldozed overnight for megastructures and the bay and rivers filled in haphazardly to accommodate an avaricious real estate market and an expanding population. But somehow the variegated experience of a decidely Asian, sympathetic city persists.

At last count the population within Tokyo's complex administrative web stood at about 12 million, and in the surrounding suburbs 15 million more, for a metropolitan total of 27 million, or about twice that of the New York region. Its mass transit system pulsates daily with an average of nearly 23 million riders, a number equal to nearly the population of California.

Despite a density about 10 times that of San Francisco, Tokyo at times can be serene, a feeling aided by a minuscule crime rate. In 1980 Japan had 1.9 robberies per 100,000 people; the United States had 234.5. And above all else, Tokyo works; the trains run on time; people smile; the quality of life on balance appears good and getting better, and at a time when in most other world cities it is getting worse.

A portrait of what makes Japan, and its fulcrum, Tokyo, unique will be unveiled in a major exhibition that opens Monday at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Temporary Contemporary. Organized by Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, in association with Japan House Gallery in New York, the exhibit labeled "Tokyo: Form and Spirit" examines "the inventiveness and continuity of Japanese design from the Edo period (1603-1868) to the present" by focusing on fragments of the city's art, architecture and design.

Anticipating the exhibition excites the mind, given the complexities and contradictions of Japan's culture, and the confusion and constant change that rock an expansive and electric Tokyo where trends tend to fade as fast as cherry blossoms in a brief spring.

Trying to capture the form and spirit of any major city in an exhibition confined by walls is difficult enough, for if a city of note is anything it is a museum without walls--the true test of architecture and design being in their function and ultimately in the marketplace, not as models placed on pedestals or how well they photograph and titillate.

But however difficult exhibiting a city's form and spirit may be, it is more so with Tokyo. To those who have visited and studied Tokyo, the form behind its chaotic facade can be as elusive as the ancestral ghosts said to haunt select back alleys of the city's labyrinth of teeming unmarked, unaddressed streets, its spirit as mysterious as the glow of a lonely paper lantern swaying in the dark night. Or it could be as distracting as the flickering jumble of neon signs along the city's gaudy shopping strips.

It is no coincidence that a favored Japanese food is raw fish, sashimi, the aesthetics of which are appreciated by eating it fresh, slightly flavored and in a gulp. Tokyo can be enjoyed in a similar manner, as an acquired taste.

"Tokyo invites description but defies analysis," declares William Coaldrake in an essay in an appropriately diffuse, well-illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibit. "It is intimate in scale despite its mind-shattering size, infinitely varied while remaining homogenous, Westernized, yet insistently Japanese. Although the city somehow resists interpretation it has a sense of its own identity that sets it apart from other Japanese cities and from other national capitals." The view of Coaldrake, who teaches the history of Japanese architecture and cities at Harvard University, is a sweeping one of Tokyo's form and spirit from 1868 to the present.

In another essay, Yuichiro Kojiro, a professor of architecture and design at Japan's Meiji University, explores Tokyo's earlier history, when it was known as Edo, and grew from a castle town in the beginning of the 17th Century to the world's largest city in the mid-18th Century. But Kojiro's approach to the subject is quite different than Coaldrake's, a Westerner, and hints at the how the Japanese come to terms with something as seemingly chaotic as Tokyo.

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