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Tokyo's riskiest neighbourhoods

Tokyo is the world's safest city, based on the opinion of international travellers. It's also the world's most vulnerable city when it comes to natural disasters, according to insurance companies. Safe people; dangerous earth. That's my city.

Tokyo's schizophrenic personality might be a strange topic for a new year's first post, but on the other hand, we might as well remain aware of the nature of the beast.

Not all neighbourhoods are equally unsafe, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has done extensive surveys to determine the riskiest areas. I was surprised by the results: counter to my intuition, not all of them are in the low-lying, prone-to-flooding eastern districts.

Narrow street in Kyojima just off Kira Kira Shōtengai,
with wooden house on the right

Three risks have been identified: fire, building collapse and overall risk (which includes flooding and difficulty of access for emergency vehicles due to narrow roads). The government's report mentions the following areas:

Building collapse will be worst in alluvial lowlands where the soil tends to amplify shakings from earthquakes. This includes parts of Adachi, Arakawa, Taitō, Sumida, Kōtō, Edogawa and Katsushika; in other words, virtually the entire shitamachi.

Fires will be at their fiercest in areas with many wooden houses, including Adachi, Arakawa, Taitō, Sumida, Kōtō, southwestern Shinagawa as well as Ōta.

Communities with high combined risks are found in the shitamachi area along the Arakawa and the Sumidagawa. The southwestern portion of Shinagawa and the area from northern Kita to northern Toshima are also at high risk. When roads are taken into consideration, high-risk communities are also situated in the area from Nakano to Suginami along Ring Road Number 7, which has a high concentration of close-set wooden houses (areas known as 木造 住宅 密集 地域 mokuzō jūtaku misshū chiiki or "wooden house dense area").

Old wooden house in Asakusa

I went on a few walkpeditions. I didn't walk through all these areas, but I covered most of them, including a few listed by property insurance companies as vulnerable. What do they have in common? 
  • They're old.
  • Most are run-down; a few, most notably Wakaba, are undergoing a process of renovation. That makes sense: Wakaba is very central, near sought-after Yotsuya and Shinjuku.
  • Wooden houses abound. Many are extremely dilapidated, many are abandoned.
  • Streets are so narrow that only poetic licence allows them to be called "streets". I expected such narrow alleys in Sumida and Adachi, but I was stopped dead in my tracks by what I saw in Akagishitamachi near Kagurazaka.

They look remarkably similar, although – and this conclusion should be taken for granted, given the identity of the writer – the eastern suburbs have more history, more character and a more vibrant community life.

The rest of my story will focus on Kyojima, which has, at least to me, the most interesting history and current situation. Also … Sky Tree. I have a habit of stalking Sky Tree, and this time I did it from Kyojima, which is situated to the northeast of the tower. Yes, indeed, the world's tallest tower is built in the most vulnerable neighbourhood of the world's biggest city.

Makes perfect sense, in a Japan kind of way.

Sky Tree is very visible everywhere in Kyojima.

Kyojima used to be on the outskirts of Edo, on the other side of the Sumidagawa, but this changed after the 1923 earthquake, which obliterated large parts of downtown Tokyo and resulted in thousands of evacuees who were forced to live outside the destroyed areas. Construction companies saw a gap and built hundreds of cheap nagaya without any support infrastructure in Kyojima. Roads developed organically and followed the shape of small rivers or small paths on agricultural lands.

Interestingly enough, this particular area was not destroyed during the American firebombing of World War II, which led to a second wave of refugees. The population density at its peak was 800 people per hectare.

The next episode in Kyojima's history is the ageing and resulting depopulation of the last few years. Youngsters moved out, leaving behind a graying population and a 15% rate of abandoned homes.

Alley in Kyojima

Old house in Kyojima

Now, however, they might be moving back. Thank you, Abenomics, which is creating more low-salaried part-time workers looking for low rents. Kyojima is cheap, and it also happens to be a great neighbourhood. Study after study has proved that grid-like patterns and culs-de-sac make residents unhappy. Humans love organics shapes and a bit of disorder. I quote from a Japan Times article (link):
To paraphrase architect Arata Isozaki, Tokyo is a city that has never had a plan, never had a center and has never had any visible order. Kyojima epitomizes this view of the city. It is a district that proclaims the social values of inventiveness, density and proximity, values that modern housing in Japan — often built and designed by large construction companies — have failed to hold on to. Kyojima is not exactly the last holdout against modernization, nor does it comfortably fit the mold of an idyllic rural community, but it does say something about space becoming personal and intimate.
Unexpectedly, it’s the physical layout of Kyojima — a legacy of its unplanned beginnings as farmland turned informal residential zone — that makes it so prone to disaster on one hand and such a lively community on the other.
Kyojima is a complex anachronism. A 2004 study in the Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering found that Kyojima is more livable and lively than the areas laid out on a grid because of its haphazard structure, full of winding lanes, densely packed wooden houses and irregular roads. It is the structure that has created the atmosphere of community and "draws livability to the area", according to the article.
I live in Taitō, near the Sumidagawa, near Asakusa, in the heart of the shitamachi. There are wooden houses and narrow alleys in my area, but also plenty of modern apartment buildings and wide roads. This apartment is on the eleventh floor: not so pleasant during a quake, but probably fire-proof and possibly a good idea during a flood.

Am I aware of the risk? Yes. Do I want to trade my beloved shitamachi for the safe, upmarket, modern Tama area with its plethora of hiking trails? Hell, no.



I've included photos from a selection of risky neighbourhoods, starting with Kyojima. These aren't merely gaps between houses; they're streets that provide access to other areas. They're so narrow that two people cannot pass each other.

There are modern houses in Akagishitamachi (Kagurazaka), and I spotted several Minis, but even these tiny cars wouldn't be able to drive in all the streets.


I've included photos of Machiya in Taitō so that we can end on a happy note. The area is famous for its roses next to the Tōden Arakawa Line. Isn't it gorgeous? (If the watermark on the photos confuses you, it comes from an old photo blog that I closed a few years ago.)

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