‘Help me, Google!’ : How the internet makes the representation of Tokyo smaller – Marcus Hirst

Marcus Hirst is an architecture student from the University of Sheffield working in London. His interests lie in the international cultural differences in architecture.


‘Help me, Google!’ : How the internet makes the representation of Tokyo smaller

“Google-sensei tasukete!” (“Help me, Google!”) is something I found myself exclaiming in the Asakusa district in central Tokyo where I’d met up with students I previously met in Milwaukee, USA; over 6,000 miles away. As I am a foreigner by both Japanese and American standards, help from the Internet was crucial for my time abroad. As it turns out, the Japanese sometimes refer to Google as ‘teacher’ the same way I had done.


Fig. 1: Haruka (left) getting her portable WiFi hotspot to work and Nikki (right) looking for an Okonomiyaki restaurant in the area. I was fortunate enough to meet them on the final day of my program.

The photo above perfectly illustrates the question this essay intends to investigate: How does technology like the internet make the representation of the megapolis Tokyo smaller? I’ll be exploring this issue through the use of traditional academic sources as well as my experiences in the megapolis. I was fortunate enough to take part in a month-long study abroad program to Japan through the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee which included a week in Tokyo.

Above you can see Haruka using a device to turn cellular data into a WiFi signal for her laptop. Mobile data is abundant in the megapolis, even in the underground metro system, meaning its 9 million citizens (I will omit the Yokohama region which brings the population to 13.35 million) can remain connected to a wealth of knowledge on their home city. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government maintains links on ‘Living’, ‘Medical Information’, ‘Disaster Preparedness’, ‘Transportation’ and ‘Sports’.[1]

The government in Tokyo owns some of the underground lines known as the Toei Subway and the other is owned by Tokyo Metro, a private company. Furthermore, both the Rose Line A, and the Asakusa Line belong to the Toei Subway system. Not only does the government assist in funding Tokyo’s mobile network to help find your way home but also the trains. With this in mind, it is possible to conclude that it is in the government’s best interest to make the city smaller than its physical representation. Typically, smaller cities are easier to manage, and Tokyo is certainly not small. Using technology to link and combine systems does begin to put in place controls and mechanisms for management; making the representation of the city much smaller.


Fig., 2: busy and crowded Asakusa (left), just across the river, the large and spacious Asahi Beer Headquarters (right)

Using software or guides to reference a location in Tokyo seems perfect because of the megapolis’ complex urban fabric. The book Made in Tokyo calls itself as such because Tokyo’s physicality provides no urban axis, grid, or visual reference points.[2] From experience, I can say the same after being guided through the city by a resident. Densities of blocks will change rapidly without warning. Taking one of Tokyo’s 23 wards, Taitō for example, a Buddhist temple is located in the heart of the district Asakusa [Fig., 2, left].

However, across the Sumida River, back onto the main highway, there is the Asahi Beer Headquarters [Fig., 2, right] with its unusually shaped architecture and plazas which open up space. Although temples and distinctive architecture are adequate for limited way marking, if you’d prefer to navigate to either place from across the city, you would have to conduct more research. Taking these two way-points with about 150-meters between them, is still somewhat challenging. Asakusa Temple’s grounds contain three gates on a 400-meter pathway. I was with Haruka and we were meeting up with Nikki. We were at one end, she was at the other, highlighting the lack of physical representation in Tokyo by us arriving at the same destination, or, almost arriving. The technology pointed both parties to opposite ends of the shrine’s grounds, even though everybody had navigated to the same place from different points of the megapolis.


Fig., 3: Tokyo Metropolitan Area overlaid with a satellite view and network of roads.[3]

Historically, wards were municipalities used until 1943 to create the Tokyo Metropolis area. This map discounts the Yokohama region to the west. The map above [Fig., 3] includes the larger metropolitan area, with Asakusa marked very close to Tokyo. It is possible to surmise that the expansion of Tokyo and the integration of the municipalities has created conditions where the boundaries of the 23 wards are observed for administrative purposes. Wards no longer reflect the social, cultural or economic conditions as technology has advanced, thus allowing the rapid expansion, but more importantly, the movement of people with relative ease.

This too affects the architecture: wards do not have particular architecture as they might have done in the past. Junzo and Kaijima have coined the term Da-Me Architecture (ダメ = No-good) to reference the typical architecture with mixed private and civic uses without “an ounce of fat” in their appearance or construction.[4] Concurring, Betsky alludes to architects’ spatial organisation as ‘pushing building’ because they are no longer effective or beautiful.[5] Tokyo’s Da-Me Architecture has flourished, therefore, as it is a very efficient typology but is not very beautiful. This representation of fabric explains the lack of visual reference points and also how Tokyo has mostly escaped a single unifying grid for its fabric. Wards have provided the disruption to the axial organisation, and the contents of buildings lack visual clues to their locations.

Nevertheless, buildings which do provide visual clues [Fig. 2, right] choose forms that are only really there for ‘play’ as a break from the already disjointed fabric.[6] Conversely, Da-Me can also be replaced with “an illusion of high-tech” as Greve calls the lean aspect of Tokyo architecture.[7] With space at such a premium, it leaves architects and city planners the necessity of using all the space they can. The city government was even toying with the idea of selling the airspace above major highways’ land-rights to counteract the shortage of land.[8] A building’s value is no longer in its construction, or even its use at a more extreme point, but the land it sits above.[9] Da- Me and High-Tech, to that end, could be seen as a result of the unique, compressed fabric that has no comparison to Western cities. Buildings that are forced to share unrelated functions with little space creates a representation where buildings are hard to find, as they are not categorised as they would be in the West.


Fig., 4: Asakusa from above (left) and Asakusa on the street (right)

Figure 4 shows Asakusa from two vantage points at different scales.[10] However, there is a striking similarity between the images themselves: there are no visible marks unless you know what you are looking for [highlighted in red on the left].

Technology searches tend to overlay information. Google Maps will drop a marker or give you a logo to find (猫カフェモンタ= Nekocafé Monta on the right, find the cat) to alter your perception depending on your point of view. Satellite images aren’t something we are accustomed to seeing every day. However, they are very useful as diagrams for providing navigation from start to finish [Fig. 4, right, highlights the walking route to find Nikki].

Images of companies can help you hone in, once you reach your final destination. Would you call the building on the right, Da-Me (not- beautiful) or high-tech (space-functional)? The West has traditionally seen this as ‘makeshift’, temporary or awaiting further construction, or ‘wholesale reorganisation’.[11] This impermanence has embedded itself in the housing market itself. Architects are given much more freedom to design with clients as a typical house’s lifespan in Japan is only 30 years.[12] Furthermore, Japan’s location near the Chūō Kōzō Sen (中央構造線 – Japan Median Tectonic Line) means that it sits between 5 separate geographic plates making it susceptible to natural disasters. The typology of Da-Me / High-Tech itself is very flexible, giving the representation of Japan, and Tokyo, resilience and adaptability to rapid change.


Fig., 5: Shibuya Crossing and the Eki

The image above only partially describes the chaos when the walk lights turn on at Shibuya Crossing. The camera was trapping a moment which can be analysed and explained. The figure above displays two conditions I want to explore: the crossing and its people below and the train station above. I found myself arriving at the train station and exiting the platform on the third floor of a デパート (Depāto = Department Store). It is common in Tokyo to combine department stores and stations. A little confused, I asked an attendant who approached me “出口はどこですか?” (Deguchi wa doko desuka? = Where is the exit?).

In retrospect, I now realise that after I crossed the lower deck of the building (in Figure 5), as it becomes difficult to see where the department store starts and the train station,(駅 = Eki), ends. Large scale High-Tech typology will merge functions at any level.That can relate to the building’s function or appearance. For example the Depatō/Eki, or cat café/office combinations.  Shibuya crossing is very much Depatō/Eki/crossing/Depatō/Depatō. The High-Tech topology blends buildings together. A department store is no-longer confined to its own building, but has become part of a larger network of architectural and functional entities.

Taylor describes High-Tech as an ‘overriding cohesive ‘bigness’’ to make sense of these combinations and style of architecture.[13] Provided that you have some information about this ‘bigness’, it can be navigated. Technology is providing enough information that it is no longer necessary (or possible in some places) to separate building by representation as we do in the West. Typically in Western shopping centres, you can shop and eat and lounge and so on, but they are standalone buildings which do not interact with the wider world.  Shibuya Crossing is a much more interwoven fabric.

The crossing itself sees approximately 45,000 people every half hour period. The area is known for shopping and fashion, and being adjacent to a busy railway station also adds to the tumult of the area. Amplify this with the fabric, (the network of buildings, people and open spaces), of the area and suddenly the crossing is overwhelming. Of course, this is where technology assists on many levels. Traffic and pedestrians are kept separate by well-tested timing, signage and graphics to distinguish the rules and necessary directions. That said, these tactics only work at a hyperlocal level. What happens after the bridge? What if your destination is a couple of blocks from the Eki?


Fig., 6: The Tokyo Metro system map (left) Google (right)

We can alter the representation of space through technology by abstracting only the critical information. Figure 5 above displays the ‘spaghetti’ of train routes under the greater metropolitan area.[14] Using these kinds of abstracted diagrams tends to remove extraneous information which is not unnecessary to help you reach your destination or transit. It is complicated enough to travel in a subway system, let alone one printed in a foreign language. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government provides maps in English (Romaji = ロマ字) and in Japanese (Kana = 仮字). However, with foreign-sounding names and spellings different from the West, it is still a challenge to locate both departure and arrival stations.

Of course, technology can distil all of this information further. Looking at figure 6, right, Google has found my departure and arrival stations, how many stops are needed, the price of my journey and the walking route to my hotel. Tokyo has ceased to be Tokyo and become a set of simple instructions from start to finish. However, this representation is not entirely divorced from reality, nor is it foolproof. Even with these instructions, I missed my transfer. Abstraction does not remove the human element from this architecture, it’s just another lens through which we can view the architecture. Its physicality has gone, but its location and connections remain.

The representation of a megapolis like Tokyo is quickly disseminated to its constituent parts. Tokyo’s representation can use technology as a sense to separate out information and has eased the growth and subsequent homogenisation of the city from its old wards. Mass transit systems, such as the Toei and Metropolitan subway systems, are a prime example of this phenomenon because locations have become divorced from their actual co-ordinates and have been abstracted to form clear diagrams. Technology such as Google can digest this information and provide simple instruction as a means to an end which divorces Tokyo from its fabric. The reduction from reality becomes sometimes necessary as navigation becomes nearly impossible, even for inhabitants, as Tokyo itself doesn’t follow an urban grid, uses axes of has visual references.

Tokyo’s fabric itself has allowed Da-Me and High-Tech architecture to coincide and provide a unique way of inhabiting and multifunctional environment which is specific to Japan. Some have argued that this is a ‘makeshift’ approach, however, it is still successful and providing for the city.[15] Rapid regeneration through the housing market and skyrocketing land values have given architects an ability to make a ‘makeshift’ city. Combining functions such as department stores and train stations is commonplace and while the architecture isn’t enticing, it is highly functional.

In conclusion, Google has become an invaluable tool for navigation as its representation, high data availability and prevalence makes it an easy tool to use almost anywhere in the megapolis due to its ability to narrow down and abstract data. It makes a megapolis like Tokyo much less intimidating to use despite its large population and potential language barrier. This makes the representational physicality of the city that much smaller.


[1]Tokyo Metropolitan Government. ‘Guide for Residents’ [Accessed 14 Jan 2016] <http:// http://www.metro.tokyo.jp/ENGLISH/&gt;

[2] Junzo Kuroda and Momoyo Kaijima. 2001. Made in Tokyo pp. 10-11.

[3]Adapted from: Tokyo, Earth View and Map View. Google. Google Maps [Accessed 11 Jan 2016] <maps.google.com>

[4] Junzo, Kuroda and Momoyo Kaijima. 2001. Made in Tokyo pp. 10-11.

[5] Aaron Betsky, ‘Architecture in the Floating World’, Bartlett International Lecture Series. <https:// vimeo.com/55776375>

[6] Ibid.

[7] Anni Greve, 2013. ‘Learning from Tokyo urbanism: The urban sanctuaries’, Cities, 30 pp. 101-102.

[8] Alastair Townsend. “Why Japan is Crazy About Housing” 21 Nov 2013. ArchDaily. [Accessed 11 Jan 2016] http://www.archdaily.com/450212/why-japan-is-crazy-about-housing/

[9] Ibid.

[10]   Alastair Townsend. “Why Japan is Crazy About Housing” 21 Nov 2013. ArchDaily. [Accessed 11 Jan 2016] http://www.archdaily.com/450212/why-japan-is-crazy-about-housing/

[11] Sarah Chaplin, 2005. ‘Makeshi : Some Reflections on Japanese Design Sensibility’, Architectural Design, 75 p. 79.

[12] Alastair Townsend. “Why Japan is Crazy About Housing.”

[13] Jennifer Taylor, 2006. ‘Fumihiko Maki’, Architectural Design, 76: p. 19.

[14] ‘spaghetti’ was the term used by Prof. Matt Jarosz, the Professor responsible for organising the Japan trip.

[15]  Sarah Chaplin. 2005. ‘Makeshi : Some Reflections on Japanese Design Sensibility’, Architectural Design, 75 p. 79.

Figures and Diagrams

All photographs are by the author unless otherwise specified

Fig. 3: Adapted from: Tokyo, Earth View and Map View. Google. Google Maps [Accessed 11 Jan 2016] <maps.google.com>

Fig. 4: (left): Adapted from: Tokyo, Earth View. Google. Google Maps [Accessed 11 Jan 2016] <maps.google.com>

Fig. 5: (left) Bureau of Transportation, Tokyo Metropolitan Government ’Tokyo Metro map’ [Accessed 24th Jan 2016] <http://cdn.deepjapan.org/content/images/.user/_image1_1__8j-lA1396407638221.gif&gt;

Fig 6:  Google, Google Maps for iOS, Transit View

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