Shigeru AoiRepresentative Director of A-TOM Co. Ltd.

Can a fake capitalism create a city that lasts for a century?

Let’s put an end to the thought of thinking that as long as we invite foreign coffee shops and large-scale shopping malls to our country, people would naturally gather.

Before working in my current company, I worked in a business revitalization company. This was when I was around my late 20s. Most of the business companies that required revitalization were located in regional areas, so, inevitably, I spent two-thirds of the year outside Tokyo. I can now confess, but, I honestly was not that enthusiastic in working in the countryside where I had no one that I actually knew. Though the exciting “bubble era” had already finished in Japan, in Tokyo, one could still feel the reminiscence of the gorgeous era. Right in middle of Roppongi appeared a great new town (Midtown), and on the reclaimed land of Odaiba, a beautiful seaside and a new television station (Fuji TV) appeared. It was truly not my wish to be away from such places. Every weekend, I remember feeling so relieved to be returning to Tokyo when I saw the neon-lit city through the windows of the bullet train or the plane.

However, strange to say, I felt a sense of awkwardness of Tokyo as the end of the regional project was coming to an end, and as I was preparing to return to Tokyo. The lines of tall buildings and the unlimited expansion of the city somewhat felt awkward. Such immeasurable awkwardness made me feel very strange, and this was me after being in some kind of distance from Tokyo. Since the completion of the project, my base for everyday living and work has been Tokyo. Strangely, I have not been able to do away with this sense of awkwardness ever since. I know the reason why. This is because we are living in a “fake capitalism” in Japan, centering Tokyo, and though we all feel the sense of limitation or, rather, stagnation, we are constantly too occupied with clearing the work that are loaded before us.

Japan is a country of capitalism. But, I think, is this truly so? The capitalism in Japan is that imported by the US. Those that have power produce great numbers, and those who cannot, become the status of being exploited by those in power. The extreme way of putting it is that, capitalism, in this sense, is that a person is categorized as being either on the side of “exploiting” or “being exploited”. Such structure is a natural outcome of a country of capitalism, but this does not seem to fit the nature of the Japanese in that it is too severe. Especially in small villages, the Japanese have always prioritized the value of harmony before competition. However, they have, indeed, in the past experienced the severe relationship of the ones “exploiting”, and those that “are exploited”under the Edo feudal system. Following such period, when Japan opened up the country in the Meiji Period, and after the WWII, “capitalism” from the West flowed into the country, but such concepts as “business” or “capitalism” would not fit naturally with the Japanese DNA. In the root of the Japanese heart, there has been a constant dilemma between economy and morality, profit and contribution, and the fundamental balance between the two has been sought for. The prominent agricultural leader, philosopher, moralist, and economist, Mr. Sontoku Ninomiya in the19th century expressed a deep insight stating, ”Economic activities without philosophy or morality is a crime. On the other hand, moral deeds without economic outcomes is just a nonsense like a person’s dream (since a company will become bankrupt if the activity did not produce any profit.)

The Japanese nowadays seem to be struggling between the severe capitalism that is laid in front of them, and the humane parts that they would like to retain, leaving them in a dilemma between reality and ideal. However, it is interesting to know that the concept of “business” originated from the word“care”. If one was to define “business” as “to work by caring for others”, I would interpret this as including “not only how much you earn, but also, with whom you earn the money”. If one thinks in this way, there should be a value and meaning of existence for a company that is not merely expressed on its balance-sheet. These few years, our company, A-TOM, has not started a new business in Tokyo. The reason is because there seems no space in Tokyo to squeeze in new projects. Instead, such exciting spaces seem available in the regional areas outside of Tokyo. So, currently, we find pleasure in thinking of new businesses in the regional areas, and are trying to find new partners to work with, and are laying the rails for turning our ideas and dreams into reality. However, sad to say, the “fake capitalism” has also spread in these regional areas as well, and many people believe that as long as they build foreign coffee shops or outlet malls, they would be popular among the people living there. I do not believe in such easy solutions for revitalizing the regional areas.

We cannot build towns that would last for over a century with such easy solutions. If huge shopping malls take over the traditional local shopping arcades, the original town sites would completely be changed, and there probably be disputes between the new and the old shopping areas, which probably would result with the new shopping malls’ withdrawal from the area. Preying on each other for a market place is not a productive way to make an attractive town. In this sense, the way the towns in Europe are created would be a new model for Japan. The local people go into the local café where they know the owner, instead of stopping by at a chain coffee store. The local people buy their groceries at the marchés where they can “see” who produced what, instead of purchasing products from supermarkets where they cannot “see” the producers. This is the way it works in a town that has continued its local way of living for more than a century, and how the money has been circulating. If one wants to make profit as quickly as possible, inviting the huge-scale chain stores would be the way. However, this would not become an asset or the pride of the town. What succeeds in cities does not necessarily apply to the success of the local regions.

It is said that the plan for building the Meiji Shrine situated in the middle of Tokyo was drawn on the plain rough land with the image of a hundred years into the future. What the administrators in those days thought was to make a forest that would last forever without having to be taken care of by the people. They had much discussions on creating this “forever-lasting forest”, and made detailed plans to do so. I think making towns is similar to this process. It takes time for a tree to mature to the phase where its leaves are in full bloom. However, it is indeed, a fruitful phase to plant the seeds on the plain land as one imagines that in the same place, people would be gathering, laughing, talking with each other in a few decades. Our plans become clear as soon as we realize that we are planning to make the forest or the town for the sake of the people living there, and that in the future, these would become an asset to be left for the future generation. I wonder if it is from my grandfather’s genes, but, I like the Toyama Prefecture where he was born. I want to do new businesses there and make the place shine even more, or, even to live there. I want to take in fresh air and drink fresh water, and end my life in such an environment. Furthermore, I would like to pass on the baton of such happy life to the future generation. Such reasoning may seem naïve, but, is sufficient to love the regional area, and to start businesses there, and to actually live with the local people.