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.

Kojiro does not offer an overview as did Coaldrake, but instead notes that in the interpretation of Sino-Japanese characters used when Tokyo was known as Edo, form is expressed as kata and spirit as gi, combining to create the word katagi. “In broad terms katagi may be defined as the elements and temperament of a given community that combine to create its distinct atmosphere.”

Simply put, the distinctiveness of a community, whether a fishing village as Edo once was or a world class city as Tokyo is, can be described by its sense of place and purpose; not how it looks, though its looks may have a particular symbolic meaning, but what it does and how well it does it. Understand that and you understand Japan’s predominate design process and products, whether pottery, cars, houses and cities.

Be the design glitz or sublime, separate or combined, corporeal or spiritual, seemingly earnest or blatantly frivolous, pornographic or artistic, commercial or religious, it is accepted if it fulfills a purpose. A more appropriate word to describe the Japanese than the cliche inscrutable might be pragmatic, certainly in the area of design.

And involved in the design process of the varied products, from advertising to architecture, is the nation’s ability to absorb existing cultural and technological achievements, particularly those of the West, and combine them with forms rooted in Japanese culture and tradition and improve them.


The results often go beyond the creativity Japan’s artists and designer are so fiercely debating at present, and are measured not by their originality but more simply as a product to serve the nation’s needs, including aesthetics, function, pride, profit, sense of history or whatever. Again, pragmatism predominates.

Japan’s ultimate product, of course, is Tokyo, being in effect the capital of almost everything in Japan, including government, finance, commerce, education, entertainment, sports, art and architecture. Yet the city also functions on another level as a collage of various towns and villages, further reduced in scale to a collection of animated settings where people actually experience the city as they live out their lives. It is in these settings that a city’s worth is tested.

With this apparently in mind that the exhibit was organized by co-curators Martin and Mildred Friedman of the Walker Art Center as three-dimensional “environments,” not static displays. According to the announcement of the exhibition, the environments focus on seven themes of daily life in Japan: Tokyo Spirit; Walking, symbolized by the street; Living, the house; Working, the shop and factory; Performing, the theater; Reflecting, the temple; and Playing, recreation.

It is interesting to note that with the exception of the introductory environment of Tokyo Spirit setting the tone of the exhibit, the themes are all active verbs (functions), representing nouns (objects) in their service. Thus, for example, the exterior and interior design of the house, including furnishings and lighting, are viewed not simply as works of art and craft representing a particular period, style or vision, as most displays in museums are organized in the West. Rather the house is viewed first and foremost as a tool for living. This does not lessen its metaphysical or aesthetic potential, but only puts them in a proper perspective.

As for the exhibition, its test will come not in the environments and their themes, but in the viewing. It is a test that should be instructive to designers, clients, and the public, indeed anyone who experiences and questions the built environment, and its purpose.

Particularly challenging also should be the exhibit’s announced intent to display “how the work of contemporary artists, while influenced by Western modernism, is still deeply rooted in Japanese culture and tradition.” It is a statement that comes as many of those whose work is exhibited are consciously seeking their own identity apart from Japan and the West.

How will individualistic architects very much in the international arena such as Arata Isozaki, Fumihiko Maki and Tadao Ando resolve this apparent conflict within the context of an exhibit that is suppose to express the essence of Japanese design? That should lend the exhibit an extra dimension. Isozaki, who is the architect of the new MOCA complex scheduled to open downtown late this year, designed two of the “environments” and the overall installation.

But beyond the personalities and the abstractions involved, the exhibit promises to be a provocative introduction to the Japanese culture and a different way of looking at history, cities, art and architecture.


“Tokyo: Form and Spirit” runs through Oct. 16 at the Temporary Contemporary, 152 N. Central Ave. in Little Tokyo, Wednesdays through Mondays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on Fridays, until 8 p.m. Funding for the MOCA presentation is being provided by the Mitsui Group, with additional help by the Bridgestone Corp.