Tokyo’s Borderless Urbanism

Transit-Oriented Development leading the cultivation of urban fabric

Hiroki Kawashima (MAUD ‘19)


Meik Design []

Tokyo has been cultivating its borderless urbanism with one of the most intensive railway networks in the world. I believe that Tokyo’s model of transit-oriented development (TOD) associated with this railway network will remain essential in the future not only as the role model for developing countries, but also as Tokyo’s leading force in competition with other international cities.

In 1920, Tokyo’s railway infrastructure expanded rapidly in response to motorization. It is now composed of 158 railway lines and 882 stations owned by 48 public and private companies1, which enables 85% of commuters to use the public transit system.2 Putting this in a global context, three stations in Tokyo dominate the top 3 rankings of the world’s busiest stations.3 This clearly shows that Tokyo's train stations accommodate and are an essential part of its urban activities.

Several backgrounds must be covered first to understand this situation. Railway networks in Japan didn't historically possess state power until the 1920s post World War I, where railway developments began to strengthen their industrial and military transportation capacity . At that moment, railways represented the accomplishment of Japanese modernization and the power associated with the new government. However, after the devastation of World War II, GHQ / SCAP (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers), which controlled the allied occupation of Japan, transformed the national railway company into a semi‐governmental corporation that weakened the power of the Japanese government.4 This new power arrangement, which removed embodied state power, enabled the train stations to become urban spaces. As a result, great train stations, which can sometimes become too monumental in the urban fabric, have become hubs for vibrant civic activities.

In addition, although they possess public character, TODs (railway + real estate development) have been one of the most prominent business models for profit-seeking capitalists.5 In the 1910s to 1930s, Ichizo Kobayashi funded a railway and real estate developer company in the western part of Japan where, in this business model, the developer purchased more land than they needed just for railroads, and constructed retail centers and housing around the stations.6 When this rail was connected to the retail center, the stations worked as hubs to stimulate more substantial housing development around these sites, while simultaneously producing long-term profits for the railway company. The success of this business model drove other players to enter this field thereby enabling public-private partnerships that allowed a building of comprehensive plans to distribute a network of supported urban growth.

Lastly, the train stations, especially Japan Railway East after the 2000s, expanded their business into more diverse industries, such as commercial, hotel, museums and nursery rooms, to make people stay longer within their parcel or even within the ticket gated area.7 For example, at Tokyo station, Japan Railway East incrementally expanded the ticket-gated area to accommodate restaurants and retail to serve the need of its transit passengers. This scheme has been criticized because it has weakened the surrounding retail clusters; however, this business model undoubtedly attracts considerable patronage and provides urban amenity hubs.

Within its historic & capitalistic context, TODs in Japan works as a hub or a network to stitch urban sprawl together, rather than a boundary that segregates it. This railway "boundary" serves as an urban amenity that support Tokyo’s borderless urbanism while simultaneously improving its quality of life in greater metropolitan area. As preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games are undertaken, the railway companies are now improving the language barrier-free environment for incoming international audiences. These continued improvements on its historic legacy will further strengthen Tokyo’s competitive ability in contemporary Asia’s urban century.


  1. “Tokyo Metropolitan Railway System”, CHIRI Geographic Information Service Co., Ltd.

    Accessed October 24, 2017.


  2. Rakesh Mohan, “Asia’s Urban Century – Emerging Trends,” keynote address at the

    Conference on Land Policies and Urban Development, organized by the Lincoln Institute of

    Land Policy, Cambridge, MA, pp.1‐14

  3. “Top 5 Busiest Train Stations in the World”, All About Japan, Accessed October 24, 2017.


  4. “Japanese Train History” Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism,

    Accessed October 24, 2017.

  5. “Japanese City Development supported by Trains” keynote by Takashi Yajima, December 26,

    2008, Accessed October 24, 2017.

  6. Yoshimura, Masayuki. "“Tokyo Review Special Edition 001: History of TOD (1)” TOD ― an Ordinal Method in Big Cities in Japan." Japanese. Accessed November 08, 2018.

  7. “Multilateralization of Train Station Business by Japan Railway East,” Nijie Kuboki, Accessed

    October 24, 2017. https://jp.ub‐

UD IDComment