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“What is a True Global Gateway?”
A conversation between Seiichi Saito of Rhizomatiks
ARCHITECTURE × Kei Wakabayashi of blkswn publishers

TokyoYard Project

The development of the Shinagawa area that professes to be a “Global Gateway.” What does “global gateway” really mean when creating a “city that will continue for 100 years”? Seiichi Saito, the director of Rhizomatiks, and Kei Wakabayashi from blkswn publishers will help unpack this.

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Seiichi Saitoprofile

Director of Rhizomatiks, a creative agency that specializes in integrative advertisements and radical media art installations. Using the power of design and art, Saito has contributed to major projects such as “2015 Roppongi Art Night” and the Japan pavilion for Expo 2020 Dubai.

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Kei Wakabayashiprofile

Editor. After many years as the editor-in-chief of WIRED JAPAN, he stepped out to create the contents label blkswn publishers. He is also the author of Sayonara Mirai (“Goodbye Future [literal translation]”).

The Japanese Ideology of “Global” in a Newly Divided World

S: Seiichi Saito W: Kei Wakabayashi

Saito

S

Today I would like to ask you about the meaning of the words “Global” and “Gateway” as well as the kind of functions encompassed in these two concepts. What does a “global gateway” truly mean?

Firstly, up until recently I think that the discussion on “Global” has had a strong emphasis on the West. So my question is, what do you think the concept of “Global” means for present-day Japan?

Wakabayashi

W

Apologies for being so negative right off the bat, but the idea of globalization is going completely opposite of where the world currently is headed.

“Global Villages” started popping up since the emergence of digital technology. Of course, at that time it seemed like a good idea, but it turned out that these platforms were monopolizing the digital world.

There was an idea that began in the 1980’s that global financial capital will shape the economy – but its limitations were seen during the Lehman Shock. I think the current situation is that the times are quickly changing and we now know that there are limitations to the conventional idea of globalization. We need to re-evaluate the entire economic system that created these massive economic gaps...from the environmental standpoint too, the global economy has too many downsides.

Saito

S

That is possibly why we see the world leaning towards a local emphasis as a counteraction. Donald Trump being an obvious localist is an example of this.

Wakabayashi

W

Indeed, Trump is calling for America to let go of connections with the international community and to lock themselves within their own borders, but at the core of his supporters is agitation over why they are using so much money in Afghanistan and Iraq when their own economy is at risk.

China has always kept a wall between itself and Western Globalization, so in a sense they were able to create their own playing field. The world is clearly starting to divide itself up, and will eventually become separated into a few large areas, like the EU, Russia, China, North America, and Asia. The question is, how is the power shift going to play out? Many speculate that much of the power will shift to Asia, where the population is growing rapidly. It seems to be the case that Japan needs to rethink the value of globalization given that she will be affected by such a shift.

Saito

S

True…if the world were to split off into blocs, Asia would be by far the strongest in terms of human resources.

Wakabayashi

W

Within international society Japan has always acted as an ally of the US, so she was able to grow her economy and expand businesses under the promise of protection from the US. But it is not clear how much longer we will be able to do this, or if it is even a good thing? Up until now, Japan has been seeing the world through the lens of the US, but I think it is inevitable that this will need to change. And when change does happen, how Japan maintains its presence in Asia will be key for the country.

Global Cities are Created by Focusing on Local

Saito

S

If local is the opposite of global, we cannot just focus on creating a business hub. Unless it is first established well locally, it cannot truly be global. I feel that the focus cannot just be external, but internal as well.

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Saito

S

The concept of a “global city” is popping up everywhere. Singapore is a great example of this. Precisely because they wanted foreign companies to base their Asia-Pacific branches in their city, their city-building plans were focused on providing good restaurants, child care facilities and more to create an attractive environment for expats.

Many people from Shanghai were moving to Singapore because of all the regulations in mainland China such as being unable to use Google and Facebook. I think this really played a big part for why many foreign companies chose Singapore.

However, the state of being global then and now is not the same, thus the method of creating a global city is also different.

Startups from different countries have said that it is difficult to do business in Japan. I think it’s not just the fault of the tax laws but also that small things in society add up. The “work reform” policy is backfiring – like, say you want to make an international Skype call. Because of the time difference you want to set it at night in Japanese time, but you can’t work at that hour because offices close at 10pm. It’s such a trivial thing, but not being able to do these seemingly basic things can add up to become a big problem.

Wakabayashi

W

For example, these days, very skilled AI engineers have the freedom of choice to work from anywhere they want. The location at which one chooses to work is not just about money, but about education, food, etc…things that create the overall well-being of the city. That element of well-being is becoming increasingly demanded at the local level.

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The Critical Fight amongst Cities over Talent

Wakabayashi

W

It is said that the future economy and society will be very unstable. Why? Well in the 20th Century if one had industrial capital, gathered laborers, and built factories, the system would keep people producing and purchasing, resulting in a stable supply of labor. But since the digital revolution, it’s clear that such a system no longer works. Even though we all know it doesn’t work, nobody can predict what kind of system the future economy will run on. Nobody can envision the full picture.

What we do know is that, at least for the next couple of decades, it is utterly crucial that we create environments that push for constant innovation. Workers will constantly be on the move, and clients will always keep changing as well. Everything will be in flux and the society will constantly have some sense of instability.

In such a state, it is critical for the urban economies to engage as many skillful workers who can come up with new ideas and turn them into reality. A lot of cities in the world are starting to build strategies around the idea that cities themselves will become business incubators. And yet, Tokyo is completely behind in this competition.

I think that this competition applies not only on a global scale but within a city as well. People in Tokyo keep calling for “bringing in innovators to make the area more exciting” without thinking of the character of each district. However, by declaring similar goals the districts end up killing each other. The value and charm of the city is too dispersed, making it much difficult for Tokyo as a whole to compete with other global cities.

Gateway: A “Table of Contents” for the Metropolis

Saito

S

Frankly, it is said that Japan is not very good at city-building. The only thing special about Japanese cities is the skill of construction. She is not good at specializing; there are not many cities here that say “this can only be found here”. That’s how the current megacity of Tokyo came to being.

We’ve copied Paris, London, and New York until there was nothing left to copy. Tokyo is a city where nothing is original. Nothing is worth copying.

Going back to the conversation of where Tokyo stands in the globalized world…it is really important that we think about how to make Tokyo an indispensable city - A platform where people must be at if they want to do global business.

To do that, we need to think about what kind of groups exist domestically and internationally, and what kind of activities they’re engaged in. A “global gateway” needs to function as a kind of table of contents or menu for different types of people to choose where they want to be. Without building these kinds of menus around the city, we cannot possibly compete in the global market.

I think a gateway is like a table of contents. It would be ideal if the moment you arrive at a place, you can easily see what the whole city has to offer.

When it comes to JR East’s new development project…Shinagawa is highly accessible from both Haneda and Narita airports so I think it ought to function as a gateway - a kind of place where, if you go there, you can get a general sense of Japan’s current situation about tourism, economy, industry, etc. Whether it’s for BtoB or BtoC, it should be the quickest reference point for local information.

Wakabayashi

W

I was talking to an Israeli venture capitalist and he was saying that in Israel the local market is quite small, so they mostly rely on the European market. But in terms of geography, they want to expand into the Middle East as well. As a solution, Israeli companies export technology to other Middle Eastern countries through Singapore.

Japan is in a difficult spot being sandwiched between the US and China, but she could also take advantage of this unique position.

I’m not saying we can do much with just one station, but I think the idea of “gateway” is that it’s not just a physical gateway that people need to go through, but a place where people want to stop by because they can benefit from it, and it makes their life easier.

A coworking space in Estonia has a day every week when people who just arrived in Estonia gather together. You can meet diverse people, like for example a Bulgarian guy who wants to update bus systems with digital technology. You could say it’s just a space to meet up, but I think it’s actually very important that people who just arrived know that this is the first place to go.

It could be that the toilets are clean, or that it eases the stress of moving about with a baby, or that there is access to electrical outlets and Wi-Fi. It’s functions like that that make people think, “If I go there, something will work out”. As long as you send out a message to a certain group that you want to help them, and then actually implement functions that are useful, they will come.

Function as Middleware to Curate a Space

Saito

S

This is a super analogue curation idea, but similar to reception at WeWork (community management team) there should be a role that watches over the community to see which combination of users would create an interesting chemical reaction.

Like, for example, someone says to you “remember how you were saying you wanted to do something with drones the other day? There’s a specialist here today so I’ll introduce them to you” and helps broaden your connections. It’s kind of like the mama-san (female managers) at the “snack-bars” in Ginza*1. I think that this kind of community building is truly essential.

*1Snack-bars in Japan are establishments where middle-aged men frequent. Mama-san (female managers) who run these bars are familiar with their clientele and can potentially create new connections for the customers.

Wakabayashi

W

I’m think it’s going to be a norm for cities to have spaces with these kinds of functions. To create value, you can’t just have the equipment – the “hard”. You need middleware to connect both hard and soft.

In terms of city development, neither a fully top-down strategy, nor a bottom-up strategy will work - it’s undeniably a tricky thing. It’s increasingly vital to think about who is going to moderate the government, businesses, and residents...as well as how.

Japan doesn’t have enough awareness about “community managers” who moderate people and places, and I think there aren’t enough people who have the skills to take the role in the first place.

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Saito

S

For the global gateway, the middleware function is as important as constructing buildings.

What I found most curious about the incubator center for strategic zones was that, they made it an open-plan office, and brought in venture capitalists and startups but there was simply no chemistry. No organic human facilitation or involvement to help make it happen.

For the global gateway, I think it is extremely crucial to have a guide-like function, for both the business side (toB) and the user side (toC).

Wakabayashi

W

At a major CD chain in Japan, ever since they started having a central buying system - meaning that the main headquarters makes the choice on what to purchase - the skilled purchasing agents working at the front office all quit.

If you go to record shops overseas, you’ll find staff who are experts in music and it’s an entirely different experience. So if an old lady swings by, she can just tell them what kind of music she wants to listen to. The clerk will ask her more questions about what kind of music she likes, and suggests to her a couple of records. Isn’t this kind of experience the most basic for business? Without that human connection, you would be better off just buying things online.

Questioning the Leasing Method for Contemporary City Development

Wakabayashi

W

But to become a gateway, the resources an area needs is extensive. Without an extensive supply of information and connections etc., there’s no reason for people to use that route.

Saito

S

In that sense, if you include the properties and the Group’s services, etc., the infrastructure that JR East owns as a whole is amazing. For example, IoT: JR East has been using it for a long time now, to operate all the rail businesses and systems. Also, although electronic payments are difficult to popularize, they made Suica accounts and mobile payments possible.

JR East already has various group companies and distribution channels, so it is vital that they utilize these services to their fullest and create value that’s more than just collecting rent.

At the same time, it’s undeniable that it’s difficult to do things that have intangible value within Japanese corporations. Because if it’s unclear what kind of value will be added, people will not invest. Which is why when choosing to lease, they will continue leasing to big names and famous businesses because multiple leases at once will create a large amount of stable profit in a short period of time. An example would be building a big store for a major overseas fast fashion brand. It’s very common for sales to work like this. But the question is, do we still need this?

Instead of only talking in tsubo*2, it’s essential to start talking about things in different scales like 25m2, 100m2, 10,000m2, etc. A common hurdle in city development is leasing large plots of land such that there are a lot of small gaps in between that cannot be filled.

I’m not saying we can make a creative zone here overnight. But if we start leasing land in this area, we can link up with other businesses; these businesses can then get tax advantages from the lease agreements and employment styles, and connect with logistics channels all over the country; startups can receive support from funds…these are all small things but they can allow the businesses involved to grow and create a flexible community. To make this happen the gateway needs to be a functioning entity with all elements - hardware, middleware, and software.

*2A Japanese unit of areal measure, roughly 3.3m2 or 35.5ft2, equivalent to the area of two tatami mats.

Sow Seeds for the Values of 2040

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At JR-EAST meeting room

Saito

S

We all know that investments for the future take a long time to blossom, but it is nonetheless fundamental to sow the seeds. Take for example, the buildings that were working on energy self-sufficient facilities gained attention after the Tohoku Earthquake occurred.

Wakabayashi

W

Berlin and Estonia are known as places that flourished after becoming digital societies, and if you look into their history, you’ll realize that their ground zero was around 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. For Israel, it was 1973 – the fourth Arab–Israeli War. There’s always a moment in history that serves as point zero – an opportunity to start something new. It takes around 20-30 years for seeds sown to blossom into new values.

When I organized a social entrepreneurship event three years ago, I asked people about new businesses and activities in Fukushima, and the entrepreneurs told me that they were just starting to bud. It took a whole 5 years later for the buds to finally appear.

So around 2030 or 2040, completely new values may become mainstream thinking in Japan. We may realize 30 years later that 2011 (the year of the Tohoku earthquake) turned out to be our ground zero.

On the other hand, if Japan doesn’t think about creating cities and societies with the mindset of 30 years in the future, she can never create anything new.

It’s crucial to keep 2011 in mind, and act based on the questions and awareness that everyone had at the time.

In that sense, Japan is a country facing many challenges, and the way we overcome them could serve as models for other countries.

Saito

S

From the aging population to the shrinking workforce, we are forerunners in some major societal challenges, so what we do will become case studies for other city models in the future. Indeed, many countries see Japan as a nation jumping out into the unknown, and are curious as to what we will do.

I think businesses with an outward-looking mindset will thrive in the future and for that it is important that hardware of city-building and software of city-building are kept in tune with each other. If Japan is able to do that, I think the city-building itself will similarly develop with visitors in mind.

Text by Takuya Wada
Photographs by Kaori Nishida