The Tokyo SkyTree

Behind the scenes, another invisible technological transformation would spell disaster for a Tokyo landmark. With tourist attendance already dropping, Tokyo Tower was found to be no longer fit for its main purpose as a TV broadcast antenna. The new requirements of all-digital broadcasting, and the obstructions caused by multiple skyscrapers all over the city, now demanded an even larger broadcast tower.

The Tobu Railway company jumped at the chance to meet that need. Its managers had found themselves lumbered with a tempting piece of real estate – a derelict cargo yard, left over from the pre-highway days when Tokyo’s construction boom required the movement of building materials by rail. Now, with lorries fulfilling such functions, and passenger traffic lured away by more convenient stations nearby, Tobu needed something to fill the 60,000-square-metre space. A combined subway station, shopping mall and landmark TV tower would do the trick, with the project getting underway in 2005.

In Japan’s stagnating economy, there were few excuses for such boondoggles – but the new digital broadcast tower would prove to be an exception. Opened to the public in 2012, the new 634-metre building was named by a public vote. Rejected names included the Edo Tower, evocative of the samurai past, and the Rising East Tower, alluding to the ‘Pacific Century’ – a term denoting the idea that the twenty-first century will be economically dominated by states of the Asia-Pacific region. One suspects that the architect was rather hoping for the chosen name to be Musashi, which is simultaneously an old word for the Tokyo area, the name of a famous samurai and a pun based on the tower’s height: 634 metres = mu-sa-shi. Inexplicably, the winning name was the meaningless Tokyo SkyTree; we should count ourselves lucky that nobody suggested Buildy McBuilding.

As with Tokyo Tower in earlier generations, the structure itself was merely a beacon on top of a more traditional property, in this case the Solamachi (‘Sky Town’) shopping centre, which also hosts the Sumida Aquarium, a planetarium and the Postal Museum, along with offices and restaurants. In the usual shuffling of place names and associations associated with Tokyo, the nearby Narihirabashi metro station was renamed Tokyo SkyTree – its fourth name in only a century of operation.

From An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo, by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and the US.

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