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Commentary: Wars, earthquakes and typhoons — Tokyo’s resilient comebacks from setbacks offer lessons for Singapore

Tokyo is a popular tourist destination, attracting more than 15 million travellers in 2019 before the pandemic, and one of Singapore's favourite cities to visit. 

For a megacity of its size, Tokyo is also extremely liveable, and rated highly for its safety, cleanliness, infrastructure, and quality of life. The city is also a model of extraordinary resilience and innovation. 
For a megacity of its size, Tokyo is also extremely liveable, and rated highly for its safety, cleanliness, infrastructure, and quality of life. The city is also a model of extraordinary resilience and innovation. 
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Tokyo is a popular tourist destination, attracting more than 15 million travellers in 2019 before the pandemic, and one of Singapore's favourite cities to visit. 

Travellers are drawn to the megacity’s iconic landmarks, top-rated restaurants, futuristic atmosphere, which perfectly coexist with its rich cultural heritage and diverse neighbourhoods. 

Another important part of Tokyo’s appeal lies in its resilience, which is the ability to recover quickly from shocks. 

More than half of the world’s populations now reside in urban areas and this percentage will continue to rise. 

Globally, cities, including Singapore, are facing uncertainty and increasingly complex challenges, and resilience has become crucial to their stability and survival. 

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, Tokyo offers useful lessons as one of the most resilient and future-ready places in the world.

TOKYO'S RISE AND MULTIPLE RECOVERIES 

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake. On Sept 1, 1923, the earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 struck and inflicted devastating damage to the Tokyo metropolitan area. 

An estimated 128,000 buildings and homes were destroyed, and the subsequent widespread firestorm incinerated most of Tokyo and Yokohama.

The tragedy resulted in the deaths of more than 110,000 people and left almost 1.5 million homeless. 

Tokyo has come a long way since 1923. The greater Tokyo area is the most populous, and one of the most technologically-advanced cities in the world — with 37 million residents in its greater metropolitan area, including 14 million in the city proper. 

For a megacity of its size, Tokyo is also extremely liveable, and rated highly for its safety, cleanliness, infrastructure and quality of life. The city is also a model of extraordinary resilience and innovation. 

Over the last century, Tokyo not only had to rebuild itself from ruin twice, but it also thrived and continues to reinvent itself. 

As the political and economic heart of Japan, the prominence of Tokyo can be traced back to the landmark battle of Sekigahara in 1600. 

Tokugawa Ieyasu and his army emerged victorious, leading to the country’s political unification and the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate which lasted more than 260 years.  

Under Tokugawa rule, Edo (former name of Tokyo) served as Japan’s new political and military centre. Edo was later renamed Tokyo in 1868, becoming the new capital of Japan after the Meiji Restoration ended the shogunate and restored imperial rule. 

Less than 30 years after the Great Kanto Earthquake, Tokyo was heavily firebombed by the allied powers at the end of the World War II. 

On March 10, 1945 alone, approximately 100,000 civilians were killed and another million injured, exceeding the human toll of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. By the time of Japan’s surrender in August 1945, much of Tokyo was incinerated and flattened. 

For a second time, Tokyo rose to the challenge of rebuilding itself, and even gained global city status given Japan’s remarkable “economic miracle” after the war. 

In the post-war era, the Tokyo metropolitan area remains one of the most disaster-prone places in the world due to its topography, and has weathered multiple shocks, including earthquakes, typhoons, terrorist attacks, and collapse of the “bubble economy” in the early 1990s. 

It is also vulnerable to threats such as climate change and more frequent extreme events, in addition to the economic problems of a rapidly ageing demography. 

INVESTING IN PHYSICAL RESILIENCE 

Tokyo is known for its disaster-ready infrastructure and engineering feats, by continuously maintaining, improving, and updating its infrastructure, on top of investing long-term on new technologies and innovative solutions. 

Street widening and the use of fire-resistant construction materials have helped to limit fire spreading.

Buildings in Japan are designed to withstand earthquakes, and the country has led the way in developing seismic resistant technologies. 

After years of planning and research efforts, a “floodwater cathedral”, the world’s largest underground flood water-diversion facility, now protects Tokyo from heavy rainfall.

The city also faces the “urban heat island” problem, when a metropolitan area experiences significantly warmer temperatures than the surrounding rural areas, posing a serious risk to human health. 

In response, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has pursued many counter measures, including applying solar blocking paint to surfaces susceptible to sunlight, which may reduce temperatures at road level by up to 8°C.

The new National Stadium, which was the centrepiece of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, was “designed with giant eaves to encourage as much airflow as possible from outside” and was claimed to be 10°C lower in temperature than on the outside. 

FOSTERING COMMUNITY RESILIENCE 

Beyond its physical form, a city’s intangible web of social and cultural forces is equally important. 

During the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami tragedy, many commuters in Tokyo were stranded and forced to walk home or to evacuation centres after public transportation went out of service. 

But the civilians remained mostly calm and orderly, and mass lootings did not occur.   

Neighbourhood associations (chоnaikai) and residents’ associations (jichikai) play an important role in crisis management response and foster resilience at the local community level, establishing norms of etiquette, building community solidarity, as well as promoting public awareness.

Policymakers have also made proactive efforts to create a disaster-prepared and resilient society through education programmes. 

For example, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government published a manual, Tokyo Bousai, to explain how households can prepare themselves for various disasters.

The manual even includes a short manga “Tokyo ‘X’ Day”, illustrating a salaryman navigating scenes of destruction. 

FUTURE-PROOFING TOKYO 

Decades of disasters and shocks have fostered strong physical and community resilience in the city of Tokyo. 

Another key aspect of its resilience lies in the willingness to embrace new technologies and adopt a forward-looking approach. 

In addition to dealing with climate change and the current Covid-19 pandemic, Tokyo is also becoming a super-ageing society with the lowest fertility rate in Japan. 

A key challenge ahead lies in whether Tokyo can practically and successfully implement Japan’s vision for a Society 5.0, which aims to address such socio-economic challenges and environmental issues by developing a super-smart society powered by artificial intelligence, internet-of-things and big data. 

Tokyo has recently announced a key project to develop a mini futuristic city on reclaimed land in its bay area by 2050. 

The Tokyo Bay eSG Project is intended to be a blueprint of what future global cities should look like — a  high-tech, sustainable, carbon-neutral and economically-viable city that is able to withstand future climate and health crises.

The project seeks to realise net zero emissions through the use of the latest green technologies and green finance. 

Proactively preparing for new challenges, the resilient city of Tokyo continues to adapt and evolve by looking far into the future. 

ENHANCING SINGAPORE'S RESILIENCE 

Since independence, Singapore has gone through a transformational journey to become the modern, resilient and liveable city that it is today. 

Singapore has similarly adopted a forward-looking approach in its city planning, and its resilience is especially seen in its innovative water management policy. 

There is a lot of scope for Singapore and Tokyo to expand cooperation and joint research projects, and to learn from each other’s resilient strategies.

Like Japan, Singapore is also ageing rapidly and is harnessing new technologies to create innovative caregiving and health solutions. 

Other areas of collaboration include digitalisation, sustainability and the transition to green technologies.  

Climate change also poses an existential threat to Singapore, as a low-lying island, and extreme weather events may become more frequent and unpredictable.

The government has taken steps to study the serious effects of climate change, develop contingency measures, and invest in climate-resilient infrastructure. 

At the same time, more can be done to foster community resilience and preparedness at the individual level. 

There is already a strong network of local grassroots organisations and neighbourhood committees in Singapore, and these groups will play an essential, co-creating role in promoting community engagement and awareness. 

Importantly, individuals should feel empowered to handle shocks and emergencies calmly and effectively, as well as take ownership of their individual resilience.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Tan Ming Hui is an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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