It’s 3:30pm and a dozen Tokyoites are sitting in the middle of the asphalt road, on a street in the famously crowded entertainment district of Shibuya, having a picnic.
They’ve brought snacks, beer and an entire roast beef, as well as a couple of 19th-century picnic sets, one of which is worth roughly £6,000. Passersby pretend not to notice, but you can tell from their sideways glances that they think it’s a bit weird. Eventually a worried neighbour appears, ushering the group into his front yard, where there is a canopy to protect against rain.
Meet the Tokyo Picnic Club. Led by the architect Hiroshi Ota and the professor of urbanism Kaori Ito, they say they have claimed “picnic rights” over the streets of the city. This being Japan, they’ve also made a cartoon flipbook of 15 slightly wry picnic rules: don’t stress if a bird steals your food, do as little work as possible, and always remember to go home afterwards. It’s a social event, to be sure – but also a kind of guerrilla protest against the lack of public space in the world’s largest city (though Ota dislikes the term ‘guerrilla’ for its associations with the radical left).
“Japanese authorities have refused to allow the use of public space,” Ota says. “It’s wrong, totally wrong.”
This month marks 50 years since Tokyo had what you might call its original Occupy moment. In 1969, thousands of young people flooded into Shinjuku station for what became a “sit-in” – part protest at the Vietnam war, part cultural coming of age for the first generation of Tokyo residents to grow up after the war, when their city was burned to the ground by allied firebombers.
They took over the station’s west exit, which had been built as a three-layered plaza for traffic. Young Tokyoites claimed this underground space: they had impromptu debates, handed out leaflets, flirted. The stars were the so-called folk guerrillas, a loose but influential group of musicians who staged performances for the gathered crowds.
It was also exceedingly well-behaved. That didn’t stop the police from cracking down, however. Worried about the previous year’s rioting at the University of Tokyo but struggling for a legal reason to break up the Shinjuku gathering, they hit on a trick: they re-zoned the west exit from “plaza” to “thoroughfare” so loitering was prohibited, and sent in officers to break up the crowds.
Today, it boggles the mind to imagine Shinjuku, the busiest train station in the world, a place choked by roads and malls, as the site of a large gathering. In fact, says Ota, 1969 was a turning point – the moment Japan’s idea of space was twisted into something for shopping, not for social activity. “In my opinion, it was the turn of tendency from the 1950s and 60s idea of a plaza for democracy to the 70s and 80s idea of streets for commerciality.”
Many of Tokyo’s most expensive shopping districts do have pedestrian areas, but just try unfurling a banner or selling some jewellery on a blanket and watch how fast the police descend.
“In Japan, streets and alleys used to be typical open space for public life, while in the western world, squares and plazas are typical and symbolic open space for public life,” says Kaori Ito. But now the streets and alleys are all private space, with nowhere to gather – or even to sit. “Other types of open public space in Japan were the areas at foot of bridges, at wells and in temples and shrines,” she adds. “But modern city planning and motorisation changed those public spaces.”
It’s ironic, considering that when we think of Tokyo street life, we invariably think of street fashion – a phenomenon that derived directly from the city’s boldest experiment in public space. Tokyo was one of the first cities to try what is now a commonplace activity in megacities: closing a main street to cars on Sunday. In the 1970s, many Tokyo neighbourhoods tried it, including Ginza, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro and Asakusa, and by 1980 there were 1,982 of these Sunday experiments around the country, with a total length of 398km.
The most famous hokoten (an abbreviation of hokosha tengoku, meaning weekend pedestrian streets) was in Harajuku in 1977. The neighbourhood south of Yoyogi Park was the site of a huge barracks during the American military occupation, but after the US army decamped to Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, Harajuku became a haunt for young people.
They came to the car-free stretch of Aoyama street to dance, perform, roller-skate, play badminton and preen. Takenoko-zoku dance groups (the name means “bamboo shoot tribes”) of colourfully clad girls dancing to music from portable stereos dominated the early 1980s; by the end of the decade there was an explosion in rock bands.
Again, the police put an end to it. In 1996, ostensibly responding to noise complaints, they outlawed the Harajuku hokoten. The tradition of street performance didn’t die completely – by the footbridge you can still see the odd girl dressed as Bo Peep, and the leather-clad bikers still dance to rockabilly in the park entrance every Sunday – but there’s just no room for elaborate displays. Harajuku remains a capital of fashion, but one that’s strictly about shopping, its narrow alleys dominated by brands.
Parks, too, are contested battlegrounds. Sony made a big deal about creating a new public space in Ginza after it moved its headquarters and demolished the old building, but the result – a split-level postage stamp with some manicured plants and a radio station operating from a tiny van – was less a park than a department store display window. The latest corporation to wade into park-building is Nike, which caused an outcry by building Miyashita Park into an ode to its own brand.
A few parks are trying different models: Minami Ikebukuro Park is now managed by a local residents organisation, and recoups some of its cost from a popular local restaurant. But if it weren’t for Yoyogi Park, one of the bastions of truly free space in Tokyo, the city would simply have nowhere for people to legally gather en masse.
This is what makes an unauthorised picnic such a potentially disruptive act, although Ota is at pains to claim Tokyo Picnic Club never breaks the law. He’s not alone in wanting to shake things up. A new generation of urbanists is forming, such as the writers and researchers who congregate at the Sotonoba media platform. Mizubering, an activist group dedicated to opening up Tokyo’s waterfront, is earning some praise for its tactical urbanist interventions – though these are limited in scope.
“The mindset is not changing,” says Shino Miura, a research associate in Yokohama National University whose PhD thesis focused on the pedestrianisation of Asahikawa.
Last month, they were emboldened by a visit to Tokyo by the woman who pedestrianised Times Square. “I would love to see Shibuya becomes the Times Square of this city,” Janette Sadik-Khan said at a stop in Shibuya, where the mayor of the ward supports pedestrianising Dogenzaka street, leading up from the famous Shibuya scramble crossing. “There is so much possibility hidden in plain sight.”
Ota supports the pedestrianisation plan, but emphasises that it will happen very slowly. In Japan, everyone agrees, consensus is important. In the meantime, he says, leaning back on his inflatable airplane mat, he claims his picnic right.
“We still think public spaces should be the place for social encounters and cultural experimentation,” he said. “Kaori and I believe this viewpoint is shared by people who picnic.”
Guardian Cities is live in Tokyo for a special week of in-depth reporting. Share your experiences of the city in the comments below, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using #GuardianTokyo, or via email to email@example.com