Tokyo: Most Livable Global City?

In its July/August issue of 2016, Monocle publication listed Tokyo as the as the most livable city in the world for the second year in a row in their annual ranking. The publication cited its cosmopolitanism, accessibility and conviviality as reasons for making the top of it’s “The Most Liveable City Index.” In particular, Monocle noted the city’s low levels of crime, availability of recreational activities and international outlook for its livability factor. Despite its reputation and commendations, Tokyo has not necessarily been a model city throughout the history of urban design and planning. On a surface level, Tokyo lacks the basic structure of an organized gird city plan that has been the characteristic of high-profile cities located in North America. Instead, it is formed around a concentric-like circles with major transit routes and networks  sprawling in every direction from the core of the city. This lack of traditional urban structuring dates can be attributed to the multiple natural and man-made disasters it has survived since it officially gained the status of the Japan’s capital in 1868. Throughout the 20th century, Tokyo experienced the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and was bombed 102 times during the Second World War. Opportunities for major redesigning arose in 1923 after the earthquake destroyed about 300,00 homes but financials strains meant that the the city had to be hastily rebuilt without proper planning. The world war two decades later saw Tokyo undergoing excessive material and casualty loss where it lost almost half of its population. Despite its shortcomings and disadvantages throughout history, Tokyo has continued to be commended for its urban design and planning, along with the lifestyle it has been able to offer to its residents.

Tokyo’s success as one of the most liveable city has been largely shaped by how the metropolitan government and the residents have been inspired to use their urban spaces. Jared Braiterman, a designed anthropologist at Tokyo University of Agriculture, attributed Tokyo’s livability as a product of new urbanism. Whereas 20th century urbanism relied demolition and displacement to create a more perfect urban environment, new urbanism utilized concepts to include “in fill, participation, liveable streets and a new relationship between the cities and nature.” Despite it limited space and high population density, Tokyo has been able to accommodate the recreational and natural demand of its residents. Examples of this accommodation include runners who utilized the many alleys in between the cities to along with multi-storeyed driving ranges and futsal courts. In addition, it is a commons sights for residents to creatively use the open spaces in parks to conduct static physical exercises. According to Braiterman,  the residents’ dynamic use of the city can be historically credited to the Japanese “cultural respect for nature” – a concept that can be dated to prehistoric Shintoist belief of 8 million spirits where they are believed to live in natural places like animals, stones rivers and even the dead. Understanding that their natural environments are sacred, Japanese people are much more likely to treat their surroundings with care and respect as opposed to ruining it. Furthermore, nature has been an essential element to the lifestyle of the Edo period and has permeated all social classes from the nobles to the common people. Nature, as a result, becomes more important to a wider a range of people, resulting in residents attempting to integrate it into their lives regardless of its imperfections.  

Ample recreational facilities sets Tokyo apart from other major cities who are not able to provide both the convenience of urban life and the calming aura of nature. | Source: Japan Info

Secondly, a criteria for assessing a city’s liveability include its prestige and importance on an international platform. Cities which have a strong influence on an  international level are prized as global cities and Tokyo, along with New York and London, has been able to join this rank of urban prestige. In The Global City: New York, London and Tokyo, author Sakia Sassen explained what constitutes a global city and how Tokyo has qualified itself as a global city. By definition, a global city functions as the financial and commercial capital for its respective region. Its location should be known as the producer of services and financial goods. Tokyo immediately fits the definition of a global city as it is home to Muronochi and Nihombashi (two central business districts), the Bank of Tokyo and the Tokyo Stock Exchange. 75% of foreign companies with businesses or offices in Japan have their national headquarters in Tokyo (Japan External Trade Organization.)  The specific function of global city meant that its economy and workforce are often concentrated into the tertiary sector within the major industries. The major industries in Tokyo are transport, communications, financials and publishing, with a labour force of 6.39 million people contributing to a GDP of 92,387,777 million yen (Japan External Trade Organization.)  The rise of Tokyo as a global hub, although economically advantageous for the city, has meant that it has affected the economy of other cities and their role in the national economy. According to Sassen, the rising concentration of power in a global city has equated to the weakening of “secondary cities” within the nation or the region. In Japan’s case, these secondary cities would be Nagoya and Osaka, former industrial powerhouses whose has been disenfranchised from the economic value and their the national economy becomes more reliant on the global cities for economic profit.

Tokyo Tower
Tokyo’s position as the headquarters for many local and multi-national companies has given her the economic and political monopoly typically found in global cities. | Source: Japan Times

Thirdly, the livability of a city can also be deciphered by its social dynamic. The specific economic structure which gives the global city its power also means that it has shaped the social structure of the city. Although the notion of tertiary industry has been frequently associated with highly-specialised jobs with high compensations, these opportunities are not applicable to everyone in the city. An influx of highly skilled jobs means that there is also a demand for more menial and low-skilled occupations in order to accommodate the needs of the skilled workers. This bifurcation of labour demands leads to an economic polarization of Tokyo’s society. This is particularly evident with the high number of homeless population in the city who had previously been relying on short term day labour to make a living. Known as sanya, they represent the other end of the of the highly polarized socioeconomic spectrum of Tokyo. Apart from shaping the socio economic demography of the city, Tokyo’s status as global city has also impacted its transnational mobility. The availability of both high and low skilled jobs often makes global cities a highly attractive destination for foreign citizens to fill up the labour vacuum. Despite Japan’s stricter immigration laws (compared to that of the United States or the United Kingdom) and her low reproductive rates, Tokyo has been able to escape the nation-wide problem of ageing population and an absent workforce. The city was listed as the administrative division with the second lowest ageing population of 22.9 percent, behind Okinawa with 19.7 percent. This relatively low ageing population has been made partly made possible due to Tokyo being the destination for expatriate and immigrant relocation for their occupation.

Finally, the state of a global city can also be deciphered from the media attention it receives. Representations of Tokyo in mainstream media, both locally and internationally has impacted the way it has perceived on a global stage while also proving less popular insights into the city. Tokyo has been the setting for many popular films, often utilised for its vibrant and energetic sceneries. The locally produced Tokyo Sonata (directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2007) reflected the social issues often faced by the local population which are often missed by foreign media. The father of the Sasaki family, Ryuhei, was forced to work a menial cleaning job after being retrenched from a high-paying executive job. His drastic shift from a corporate executive to a low-wage labourer demonstrated the highly polarized socio-economic demography of a global city  – whereby an abundance of high-paying skilled jobs often equated to an influx of menial jobs. Furthermore, Tokyo Sonata also reflected the less desirable side of Tokyo as it featured the homeless and the low-income population of the city taking advantage of a local soup kitchen for nourishment. Tokyo has also been the backdrop for the works of many filmmakers in the west, including Sofia Coppola’s critically acclaimed Lost in Translation (2003.) Centering around an American actor visit to Tokyo, the movie explores the problems of urbanism and development- such as overpopulation, isolation and culture shock –  from the perspective of foreigner. Thus, Tokyo’s popularity within the media has exposed several unknown problems of the city.

Still from Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (Source: Plugged In)

Tokyo’s top place on the livability index is highly justified considering how the spaces, from a planning perspective, are human-friendly and creatively provides the different needs of its residents. The city’s brutal history of bombing and natural disasters make it more deserving of the accolade. However, it should be noted that Tokyo is also listed as one of the most expensive city in the world and this “livability” is a luxury that not all residents can afford. This has resulted in the marginalization of those socially and economically disadvantaged. Thus, the benefits of being a livable place has both its implicit and explicit cost. Its status of one of the few global cities – an elite geographic label which equates to the advantages of a global and economic power – situated within Asia has made it a highly desirable and envied place among both the east and the west. Despite its prestige and accolades, Tokyo’s reputation as the most livable city should be challenged, and if it is objectively deserving of that title, then it should be questioned to whom it is livable for?


Braiterman, Jared. “Tokyo’s urban design role.’ The Japan Times. November 27, 2009.

Grunow, Tristan. “Japan’s Internal “Others”: Burakamin, Day Laborers and the Homeless.” Lecture at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, March 13, 2017.

Ho, Eric. “And the World’s 10 Most Expensive Cities of 2013 Are …” Time. February 6, 2013.

Monocle. Most Liveable City, 2016: Tokyo. Video. Winkontent Ltd, 2016.

Sassen, Sakia. The Global City: New York, London ,Tokyo. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

“Tokyo: General Business Information.” Japan External Trade Organization. Last modified July 2015.

Yoshida, Reiji. “Japan census report shows surge in elderly population, many living alone.” The Japan Times. June 29, 2016.

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