Since ancient times, the Japanese people have been known for their fatalistic response to catastrophe. Their calm reaction to the latest disaster amazes foreign observers. But there is a darker side to this awful saga. The disaster has drawn attention to not only the economic disparities in what is traditionally depicted as a wealthy nation, but also to the high-handed and heedless stance of the urban elite towards poorer areas.

The starkest example of this concerns the poverty of the northern Tohoku region, which was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. Life in its seaside towns has never been easy. Manufacturing never took root in the region and many people have traditionally had to migrate to the big cities, seeking seasonal work to support their families. In this latest disaster, countless people in closely packed settlements lost their livelihoods – if not their lives – in an instant.

When nuclear power stations are built, local residents receive generous subsidies. That is why, in spite of the risks, residents and local governments of Tohoku consented to host them in their region. The sight of such plants along the coastline is arguably one product of the disparities characterising the region.

Major corporations and politicians in Tokyo seemed oblivious of these disparities. Tokyo Electric Power Company’s approach towards the maintenance of nuclear power plants hints at the complacency of a large urban-based organisation with regard to outlying regions. The wealth of Tokyo and other cities fails to trickle down to outlying regions while those same areas have to accept risks, such as nuclear power.

The government has also been insensitive, adopting a “do-nothing” attitude to the large disparities in our small country. Though the populist policies espoused by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan resonate, this government has been even less sensitive to economic disparities than were its predecessors in the Liberal Democratic party. Now fate has sent a radiation scare, which serves as a warning against the “obliviousness” of the big-city organisations and the corporate media. Yet Tokyo has nothing to say.

The September 11 terrorist attacks exposed the vulnerability of the skyscraper, the symbol of urban society. The March 11 disaster in Japan reveals the anger of the gods at the complacency and arrogance of urban life.

To date, urban planning and architectural design have been the tools of our city-centric era. Architects and planners alike have served only urban needs. The responsibility lies not just with politicians and business leaders, but can also be assigned to the architects and planners who designed our landscape. We have “obliviously” pushed the light, translucent elements of popular urban design on to local regions and their citizens.

The glib, and even facile transparency of Tokyo design, has become embedded in every area of Japan. People who are convinced this style of design is “cool” have continuously imitated Tokyo. So local regions have become physically – and culturally – weakened. In the past, Japan’s regions were recognised for their unique cultural strengths, but in the 20th century eyes have turned to Tokyo and local regions have been weakened.

Now we must rethink how we design buildings for particular locations. Each place has its own history, culture – and potential risk. Each place must adopt a design that is adapted to the specific risks of an area.

The appeal of small towns with a particular character was not recognised in the 20th century when industry was the economy’s main focus. However, as service industries become the focus in this century, we have to devote more attention to regional towns that can add vitality to the national economy.

Architects, too, must re-evaluate the maps that guide our planning. Looking at Tokyo, Paris or New York is no use. We must study the maps, and assess the risks and potential of each region. Only by evaluating such factors can we create a truly powerful design of buildings and towns but also of our nation. The earthquake has jolted us out of a complacency: for too long we in the cities have looked down on the provinces.

The writer, an award-winning architect, is principal of Kengo Kuma & Associates

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