Place-making in Kōenji: (Re)Invented Spaces and Traditions

December 8, 2014

Short essay by Christian Dimmer.


Mas issue tokyo placemaking in koenji 01

Awa Dance festival, 2003. © Christian Dimmer.

Located west of the Shinjuku subcenter, along Tokyo’s central Chuō line, Kōenji is a place that seems to reinvent itself constantly. A cluster of residential houses and a large variety of vintage and book shops appear to be result of autocatalytic place-becoming processes rather than conscious place-making. Even the neighborhood’s biggest attraction, the yearly Awa Dance festival seems to be rooted in age-old traditions, not mundane politics of place.

Every year, during last weekend of August, hundreds of thousand of spectators squeeze through the narrow streets and alleys of Kōenji. The area is drenched in an intense atmosphere, created by nearly two hundred groups frantically performing the Awa Dance in endless processions, the rhythmic sounds of the percussion instruments and flutes, and the smell of festival snacks.

The crowding is most intense where the dance groups press through the eight meter-narrow PAL shopping street; with the sound and the tension of the masses caught between the facades of some hundred stores, underneath a two hundred fifty meter-long glass arcade.

Indeed, here one gets a sense of how dramatic traditional public spectacles like the famous massive fireworks and the cherry blossom viewing, or huge shrine festivals must have felt in Edo, as Tokyo was called in pre-modern times.

But what appears as legacy of vernacular folk culture is not old at all and is, however, the result of careful branding efforts: though inspired by a sixteenth-century dance from the distant island of Shikoku, the festival debuted only in the summer of 1957. It was conceived as a conscious response by young local shopkeepers, who felt challenged by the new summer festival of a neighboring shopping street that was attracting visitor crowds. In the absence of a central festival square, conventional event formats could not take place and, therefore, the place-makers embraced the Awa Dance, as it proceeds in long lines, able to fit the narrow streets.

Moreover, Japan’s seemingly archetypical shopping street, or Shotengai—central scene of the spectacle—is another place-making invention. Only in the early twentieth century Japan’s Shotengais emerged as a joint response of small shopkeepers to compete with the dawning department store shopping culture and to create safe and controlled retail environments in the rapidly industrializing, sprawling metropolis. In their sophisticated organizational structure and management, Shotengais are an early forerunner of today’s business improvement districts.

A proliferation of suburban shopping malls and ubiquitous convenience stores, along with a greying of Japan’s society, has caused a decline of these shopping streets, with shutters pulled down for good, or individual mom-and-pop stores replaced by chain stores. Kōenji is no exception.

As a reaction, a new generation of young shopkeepers have banded together and since 2011 host the much humbler Koenji Festival—a small, decentralized art, food, and performance festival, much more in tune with a new post-growth zeitgeist. The decline of established shops has also opened up new inexpensive opportunities for young socially engaged entrepreneurs, who are now experimenting with alternative economic models and community outreach projects.

It is not clear if these new place-making efforts will be sufficient to turn the tide, but they do show that the fine-grained Japanese city is versatile enough to adapt to new challenges.