1 2017 AUTUMN

Shigeru AoiRepresentative Director of A-TOM Co. Ltd.

Isn't the approach to city development
as if creating good children with
straight “A”s in school,
destroying the culture of Tokyo?

Maybe it's because my job is related to real estate that I have always loved walking around cities. I also travel abroad for work quite a lot. I would not be able to speak the language, would not be able to read the signs and would not be able to know where to go. Yet, despite these inconveniences, the most enjoyable thing about traveling has been to see the true face of the city. If you enter a side street right off a big avenue, there will always be lively everyday scenes spreading in front of you as if you were in a theater. There is not even a little bit of economic rationality of what is efficient and what is not in such spaces. However, even a traveler who just briefly visits the place will be fascinated by its uniqueness and colorfulness.

In comparison, nowadays, Tokyo has become a boring city. For instance, no matter which station you get off at on the Yamanote line, which takes one hour to go all the way round, there almost certainly will be the same kind of skyscrapers and condominiums standing everywhere. Every day, old buildings are torn down and new ones, built- building and tearing down, then again, building and tearing down. What significance is there for Japan's real estate model to repeat this scrapping and building in a 30-year cycle? It is the economic rationality created from our capitalism- the old inefficient buildings go, and the new efficient ones enter. Buildings made with such rationale will steadily fill up the city, obviously making the landscape monotonous, land prices to rise and residents there to come and go. Small shops on side streets will not be able to remain, and will end up leaving the place, leaving the “culture” that had been originally there to erode and gradually disappear.

I think there is a “spirit of playing” as the base of a “culture”. It will not be exaggerating to say that a “culture” is born from this “spirit of playing”. But while Japan has been rapidly growing economically, this “spirit of playing” has been disappearing from Tokyo. That is why there is no room in people's hearts and the capacity to accept diversity has been lost. In such situation, if suddenly in a large orderly city something extraordinary or with strange features were placed, would not that be stimulating? In fact, I somehow become happy every time I find a house on the edge of a backsteet of Roppongi which looks as if though the Sazae-san Family (from a long loved family oriented Japanese manga, where three-generations of family happily live together) live in. It is just perfect, if right beside such place, there is a Japanese style one-penny candy shop (dagashiya). After all, “inefficeincy” and the “spirit of playing” are two different things. The city of Tokyo, which has been built by the “scrap and build” method, has meant to eliminate “inefficiencies”, but has actually taken away the original “spirit of playing” there as well. That is why “culture” has disappeared from Tokyo. Tokyo, with its perfect groups of buildings standing in the city with landscapes overdone to perfection has lost its diversity - they seem to be like ideal rows of straight “A” students. Certainly, considering profitability, it is the best that one can hope for. However, it does not remain in people's hearts and minds.
The courtyard HIROO made by our company A-TOM is by no means a straight A honors student. Originally, this building was built in 1968 as a multi-unit complex apartment building and had been used as a lodging house and a parking lot for civil servants working for the former Ministry of Health and Welfare. Then it became abandoned for a while as a vacant building and that was when our company acquired it. I had a dream from the very beginning. I wanted to use this place to challenge doing something that no one had ever tried before in Tokyo. This was to redefine an existing building as a new complex facility without tearing down the original structure. We wanted to reconstruct the historical appearance of the building and the balance of the land to fit the needs of contemporary lifestyle, recovering richness to the urban life. For this, we came up with an idea of refurbishing the building as a courtyard. Of course, if considering only the speed of return on investments, it would have been much simpler and easier to completely tear down the old building and build a huge luxury condominium. Our expenses would have been quickly paid off if we had sold it with brand names such as A-TOM Hills or A-TOM Residence. But that was something anyone could do, not just us. As A-TOM, we wanted to stimulate the modern real estate industry and there was surely something that only we could do. We wanted to propose a unique, sustainable model that would stand for a period of one or two hundred years into the future. Frankly speaking, there was also an idea at A-TOM to stop seeking to be “the straight “A” student” in the real estate industry as we had been until then. Personally, too, I sought to be a straight “A” student during my childhood. I always tried to be a “good child”. Yet, deep inside me, I always wished that I could be those ‘hero’ types that exceed others way beyond excellence for physical education, though these types may not necessarily be as outstanding in other academic areas such as math and Japanese. As I recalled such childhood memories, in the age of 40, I wished to break out of my very own shell as well.
It has been 3 years now since Courtyard HIROO was created. Initially, we had the idea of a project that would influence 3% of 3% of Tokyo's population. 3% of the population of Tokyo is 360,000 people, and we can leave the super major companies to take care of such big numbers. 3% of 3% is approximately 10,000 people. If we could successfully inspire these people, could we not create a new culture? There should be a chance to create a culture rooted firmly in Tokyo, which would not be just like a transient boom that ends fast. For the time being, we aimed for this point. Currently, the number of people visiting Courtyard HIROO is about 20,000 every year. This includes the number of people exercising in studios, people working in their workspaces, people eating at the restaurant, people coming to events. Every day, lots of encounters take place here and diverse values intercross. It is the greatest happiness for us to hear our visitors say, “it's a comfortable place to be” and to see people deepening their communication with each other.

When looking up at the square-cut Tokyo sky, I always contemplate- a job in the real estate industry is not just about dealing with land and buildings. It is also about bearing responsibility for spreading cultures created from flowing values on these immovable land and buildings. If a job in the real estate industry is also to shape lifestyles of people who will gather at the place in the future, the principle of competition does not come into play. Rather, such place would create an environment in which many companies and organizations of different industries share the same values of genuinely enriching people's lives. If there are people with “A”s for the physical education class, there would also be those with “A”s in math. I think that the collection and merge of such wisdom and ideas will transform Tokyo into a more attractive and creative city.