PHOTO ESSAY: A Japanese Neighborhood Where Time Stopped
At the end of 2017, Suhee and I moved to Kitakagaya, an old neighborhood in south Osaka. Technically, we still have a home there, although we have not been able to return for over a year now, due to the COVID border restrictions. This revised photo essay [the original is here] brings us back, to explore some alternative values, in a neighborhood that some people say is frozen in time.
Friends in the city center tell me that, sometime around the 1970s, time stopped in this neighborhood. Economic growth stopped. Changing trends stopped. Transportation development stopped.
They call it a “Showa era” town, referring to the period in Japan’s history between 1926-1989, during which Emperor Shōwa reigned. There are days when it feels like we might indeed be in a time warp.
Many who live here are economically poor. As an artist and writer, I fit comfortably among them. If the newspapers and investment journals told the story of this neighborhood, there would no doubt be cause for great concern — Poverty! Economic stagnation! Low technology! Neighborhood cats!
Besides the shameless ‘cat’ plug, the above words about economic poverty mean much more to mainstream economists than they do to the people actually living in Kitakagaya.
In many ways, life here goes against what is learned in university classrooms, at cocktail parties, and on the news. If anything, this old neighborhood has demonstrated to me that poverty and stagnation as we define them, don’t necessarily have to be bad words, and too, that technological advancement doesn’t always make life better.
Most everyone in this neighborhood still gets around on foot or on a bicycle. That’s one small part of this neighborhood’s very low carbon footprint. It is also a key to its health, happiness, and sense of community, for bicycles encourage all of these characteristics.
Small, owner-occupied shops specializing in everything from wrenches to lunch boxes, to ramen are sprinkled around every block. That kind of micro diversity is a sign of a culture—from government and regulatory bodies to land owners and everyday citizens—who truly mean it when they say local business are important for strong, prosperous communities.
Spaces with low economic utility that might be torn down or sold to the highest bidding developers in other places, instead have life as community gardens, art venues, and cooperative workspaces. That’s a sign of people putting emphasis on the value of community, relationships, and individual creative agency, rather than only on mainstream economic values.
These things are not possible in cities that measure their worth only in numbers. These things are possible however, in Kitakagaya.
Things are different for the people twenty minutes up the subway line in Osaka’s city center. Time can’t be allowed to slow down in the economic centers. At least, not in quite the same it it does in Kitakagaya.
Admittedly, I don’t guess this.
A decade ago, the walls of a Silicon Valley cubicle were my environment until late at night most days. I still remember how time wasn’t allowed to stop there — in that cubicle, or anywhere else in the valley. Everything needed to keep rushing ahead at increasing speed; more innovation, more investment, more profit, more talking, more ideas, more advancement, more stuff. Even the yoga studio and the acupuncture clinic, as peaceful as they were in comparison, seemed to have underpinnings that were just as rushed and focused on economic growth as the rest of the Valley.
But quickness and efficiency are typically not valued here in Kitakagaya like they are in Osaka’s city center. Certainly not like they are in Silicon Valley. With few exceptions, slowness and a certain brand of inefficiency are part of life here.
In this way, Kitakagaya and the innumerable old neighborhoods like it in Japan and throughout the world, aren’t so much places as they are ways of being.
Slowness and a notable apathy toward material wealth are part of the way of being here. This way of being allows our tiny urban “pocket farm” and our community cafe to be built and sustained. It also allows well over a hundred tiny local businesses within a few minute’s walk of us to do the same.
To this, a common refrain heard here is:
“If I was aiming at money, this (cafe, farm, workshop, etc…) could not exist.”
This may sound like nonsense, but it makes perfect sense to those who live here, that the meaning of one’s life work carries far more value than the one measured by coin, minute, or asset. It is understood here, that in pursuing a life of efficiency, speed, and monetary profit, one must variously depart from the many other possible forms of wealth.
There was a decision made at some point, that knowing these other forms of wealth is more interesting, beneficial, and important. Once that decision is made in earnest, it becomes somewhat difficult to honestly praise the coin.
The people in the city center say that time stopped in this neighborhood. In reality, time did not stop; it just moves on a different trajectory here, where the value of each moment is revealed in ways that are beyond calculation.
What are the incalculable moments, spaces, and activities of value in your own life? It doesn’t matter how insignificant they might seem, if they are of value to you, they are worth noting and sharing!
Thanks for reading The Possible City. I’m Patrick, and each week I write a short like the one you just read. I’m also an arts editor at The Nature of Cities, and director of City as Nature, where I imagine more equitable, resilient, regenerative cities through art.
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