Television arrived in Japan in 1953. The technology would transform the city’s skyline. The original transmitter of NHK, Japan’s national public broadcaster, was inadequate to cover the entire Kantō region, and rival firms soon popped up with their own broadcast requirements. In order to avoid peppering the entire city with antennae, a consortium of channels and developers pooled their resources to create one massive broadcasting tower with a footprint that would reach all the way to the mountains. Modelled at least superficially on the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Tokyo Tower was originally intended to be taller than New York’s Empire State Building, although resources and requirements eventually dictated a slightly shorter height of 332.9 metres.
Work began on the tower in 1957 – the 2005–12 film series Always: Sunset on Third Street would later use the sight of the tower under construction as a background evocation of life in the post-Occupation period. Tokyo Tower became a symbol of Japan’s reconstruction, rising from the ashes of the war-torn city, asserting Japan’s greatness in the post-war world, and doing so by quite literally repurposing the trash of the old world order – a full third of the steel used in its construction came from hundreds of scrapped US tanks from the Korean War. It was completed in 1958, proclaimed as the tallest freestanding tower in the world, at least for a while, and painted in a bold orange-and-white colour scheme for safety purposes.
“The fact that the Tokyo Tower is a cultural landmark building,’ writes the author Patrick Macias, ‘speaks volumes about the lack of cultural landmark buildings in Tokyo.” It was always intended to have a dual function as a tourist site, although the prospect of having an observation deck a bit higher than the surrounding buildings would diminish in appeal as the years passed. Today, it seems faintly ludicrous to be excited about the prospect of being a few floors up when you’ve arrived in Tokyo in a jumbo jet. The Foot Town shopping complex beneath lures visitors to stay longer with restaurants and several museums, but, to be brutally frank, the Tower never quite achieved the status abroad that its investors had hoped for. Tourist brochures heralding Japan abroad tended to plump for stereotypical scenes depicting natural beauty or evoking the samurai. If they wanted to go modern, they would go for Mount Fuji, foregrounded by a rushing bullet train. The only place that Tokyo Tower achieved significant recognition was among the legions of movie fans who would see it regularly trashed, bent and stomped on by the likes of Godzilla, Mothra and Mechani-Kong. This is particularly ironic, since at least part of the will to destroy the tower on the part of 1960s film-makers surely stemmed from its role serving the competition, broadcasting the TV programmes that were luring audiences away from cinemas.
From An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo, by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and the US.