Learning from here to go back there


For the past few years, Tōkyō, the Japanese capital and currently the largest conurbation in the world, has been my main fascination and inspiration.

It was in 2014, that I visited Japan for the first time and instantly fell in love with the country. When only one year later I was given the opportunity to choose an area for my master’s thesis in urban studies, it seemed obvious that I wanted to focus on Tōkyō and on the construction and mechanics of Japanese cities.

Following an analysis of the neighbourhood Kagurazaka, also called Little France or Little Paris, I became aware of the influence that the Olympic and Paralympic Games had on the urban and social development of Tōkyō, host city in 1964 and 2020.

In order to understand the challenges encountered in the 21st century, I felt the need to firstly look at the recent past. And so, I wrote a final paper entitled Past, present & future: Tōkyō facing the Olympic Games, before commencing my PhD thesis Tōkyō, Paris: two capitals and the Olympic Games, that I am currently working on.

As a matter of fact, the 1940 Summer Games were assigned to Tōkyō, but Japan was forced to cancel them due to World War II. It was finally in 1964 that it became the first host city in Asia. The Japanese population, eager to demonstrate to the rest of the world the country’s post-war recovery and modernisation, placed great importance on the event. The Tōkyō 1964 Games, often called the rebirth of Japan, had a noticeable impact on the capital’s urban development and on people all over the country. The event also allowed Japan to rewrite its national image and show the world a different face. But Japan of the 21st century is no longer that of 1964. As time has passed, Tōkyō has inevitably changed. Despite this, the city’s structure continually reminds us of the 1964 Games and the memories of the event are omnipresent.

When looking at Tōkyō’s Venue Plan for 2020, two main thematic areas can be identified: the Heritage Zone and the Tōkyō Bay Zone. The Heritage Zone, consisting of several refurbished venues of the Tōkyō 1964 Games, connects the legacy of the past with the 2020’s event. The Tōkyō Bay Zone, mainly housing new permanent and ephemeral venues, is considered as a symbol for the city of tomorrow. The Olympic Village, situated in-between the two zones, appears like a bridge relating past, present and future.

Tōkyō and Paris, two capitals and two global cities, are both world economic and political centres which inspire multiple architectural and artistic creations. They share the ambition to reinvent themselves, and to evolve from the richness of their past to ensure their place in the international competition. Particularly Tōkyō, although one of the most equipped and secure cities in the world, is nonetheless aware of the rise of other global cities and emerging economies such as BRICS, and is careful in guarding and preserving its position in the international market. 

With a shrinking and ageing population, Japan faces new challenges. Thus, structural elements such as creating an accessible and inclusive environment were put forth in the 2020 bid.

As for many Olympic and Paralympic cities, it is difficult to define to what extent transformations are due to the Games. Often, they are used as a catalyst to accelerate already existing urban plans and strategies.

With my research, I aim to discern in what way the Olympic and Paralympic Games transform Tōkyō and distinguish through a comparative study what is unique to the Japanese context or what can be applied to other Olympic and Paralympic cities such as Paris, host in 1900, 1924 and 2024.

So far, I have preferred sharing photographs rather than my theoretical expertise. Yet, it is the knowledge acquired through scientific literature which has decidedly influenced my perception as well as my interpretation of places one builds and places where one lives. Likewise, photography, which helps support my research in a visual way, has taught me how to be guided by cities’ rhythms and movements and allows me to transform my theories into pictures. I therefore consider it as my more creative, yet quite abstract research.

Thanks to the Japan Foundation (and to all the people who have supported my project), I have been given the opportunity to closely follow the preparations for Tōkyō 2020, and stay in Japan from about 10 months before the Olympics until around one month after the Paralympics.

Given that this is a very unique occasion, I decided from the beginning of my mission, to share some of my knowledge and experience in form of a weekly report. The idea is to write some scientific as well as some rather anecdotic articles on various different topics.

Little by little, the outcome should help us to understand what it takes for a city to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games, to discover what the main challenges for 2020 are and how the city is facing them.

Last but not least, in a less formal way, it will also reveal what life is like for a young researcher in Japan and the world metropolis of Tōkyō.

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