Tokyo is the capital and also the largest city in Japan. It is by far the most populous city worldwide, with nearly 14 million people and a population density of 6158 people/km2. Formerly known as Edo, it started as a fishing village, and by the end of the 19th century, the population had exceeded 1 million. Tokyo comprises two mountainous islands. It is near three tectonic plates making it prone to earthquakes. It is a cultural, historical, economic, and educational center. Despite not being planned as a high-rise city, more than 80% of buildings in Tokyo are high rise. Tokyo architecture is mostly modernist and contemporary, with a few structures dotting the traditional Japanese pagoda style.

Tokyo being in a seismic zone has developed earthquake-resistant infrastructure, which revolutionized architecture rapidly between 1985 to date. Hosting the Olympics and Paralympics twice gave Tokyo an incentive to develop its architecture and transport.


Tokyo, like most cities, has its architecture shaped by its history. Tokyo has rebuilt itself twice in the last century. Major events that have shaped Tokyo’s architecture are:

The Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923:

The tremors and the widespread fires that followed the earthquakes devastated about 45%of the urban area. A six-year reconstruction period that followed successfully modernized the central part of Tokyo. A rational street design with sidewalks was set up. Public housing, modern bridges, small town squares, and fireproof schools were also put in place. The urban planners learned the importance of large urban green spaces as they served as necessary firebreaks and provided temporary shelter for the afflicted. Three prominent public parks were designed as a result.

World War II bombing of American B-29 bombers in 1945:

The United States air force dropped a series of firebombs in Tokyo during the Pacific campaigns of World War 2 in 1945. Over 10,000 acres were destroyed, leaving 100,000 people dead and over one million homeless. A military occupation followed soon after that dwindled Japanese efforts to rebuild Tokyo.

The city was destroyed, with virtually nothing left except a few ferroconcrete structures. When the war ended, the municipal government was bankrupt and in crisis mode, without the ability to undertake a citywide reconstruction project. The citizens had to rebuild the city. The government provided the infrastructure for the people to build what they needed on the footprint of the city.

Between 1950 and 1960, the population swelled to nearly 8.4 million inhabitants. The construction of large buildings made of steel and concrete rose by 770% as the use of wood was put on hold. The bigger buildings that were more profitable steadily replaced smaller buildings.

The 1964 Olympics:

In May 1959, Tokyo won the bid to host the 1964 summer Olympics and Paralympics. Around the clock a frenzy of construction began. In the pre-Olympics, Tokyo was polluted and messy. In just a few years, the world witnessed what observers called the greatest urban transformation in history.

Tokyo boasted of 10000 new buildings that included several five-star hotels. They also built two new subway lines, eight overhead expressways, and a monorail linking the airport to the city center. The Tōkaidō New Main Line – Shinkansen – was inaugurated just ten days before the opening of the Olympic Games connecting Tokyo to Osaka in just 4 hours.

New sports centers include the Yoyogi national gymnasium designed by Kenzo Range and the Nippon Budokan indoor arena by Mamoru Yamada.  


Modernist architecture in Japan borrows heavily from traditional architecture, unlike western modernist architecture, which is heavily abstract. Concepts of simplicity, purity, and honesty guide architecture in Tokyo.

The buildings in Tokyo remained relatively low rise until the late 1980s when the first skyscraper -the 156-meter-high Kasumigaseki – came up. The central government relaxed buildings regulation in the 1990s to boost an ailing economy which contributed to the current high-rise boom. Tokyo has over 500 high-rise buildings, 70% built after 2000. Tokyo became a concrete jungle during this period. 89% of buildings in Tokyo are over 150m tall. During the early Meiji period, Tokyo underwent rapid modernization and specific planning techniques that were distinctive and tied to specific histories and structures. While it is hard to replicate this elsewhere, it created a model for syncretism on how to adapt, combine and invent techniques specific to their contexts.

During the reconstruction of Tokyo after the calamities, it was overrun with concrete. This architecture is disconnected from the environment and culture.

Most architects’ focus today lies in injecting pre-existing structures with creative ideas—in the words of Momoyo Kaijima, “a concrete frame with a Japanese infill”.

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Shinkansen, a high speed train, 1964_©Kyodo News via AP
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Nippon Budokan indoor arena_©
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Nakagin Capsule Tower_©

Contemporary architecture in Tokyo

Contemporary Japanese architecture is well known for being simple, having a contemplative atmosphere, emphasis on material lightness and attention to detail. Ihyou (the element of surprise) is common in architecture across Tokyo and Japan in general. The aim of Ihyou is to strike a conscious connection that creates a lasting memory. The primary strategies for achieving this are impossibility, incongruity and totality. Japanese architects draw admiration for their perseverance to realize their conceptual goals.

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Cocoon Tower_©wikimedia
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Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building_©IQRemix

Kenzo Tange:

He designed the Yoyogi National Gymnasium for the 1964 Olympic Games. The design combined modern techniques and Japanese tradition. It is the design of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building that established his reputation in Japan and internationally. 

In 1960 he developed a Plan for Tokyo that received worldwide attention as it presented new concepts of extending the growth of the city out over the bay, using bridges, man-made islands, floating parking, and megastructures. His highly influential published works include A Plan for Tokyo (1960) and Toward a Structural Reorganization (1960). He received the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1987.

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Mikimoto Ginza 2_©blaine brownell
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Asakuka Culture Tourist Information Center_©TAKESHI YAMAGESHI
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Yoyogi National Gymnasium_©

Kengo Kuma:

He is known for his innate ability to intertwine architecture with nature and social responsibility. He is often described as warm, inviting, light, and friendly.  

His notable projects in Tokyo include;

Takanawa Gateway Station

The station opened in 2020 on Tokyo’s most important train line, the Yamanote, which makes stops at all of Tokyo’s biggest hubs. The exterior is highlighted by an expansive white roof that glows a warm amber at night, whereas the interior is filled with pleasant light and laminated wood beams, unlike most stations that use steel and concrete. The techniques of using laminated wood, traditional Japanese influence, soft light, and openness are all very representative of Kuma’s work.    

Japan National Stadium for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

The stadium was used for the opening and closing ceremonies and also hosted track and field events for both Olympic Games and Paralympics. The stadium was completed in 2019, with the main structure made from reinforced concrete and steel and the roof structure made of steel with laminated larch and cedar trusses. The design was inspired by traditional Japanese architecture. The timber used was sourced from all the 47 prefectures of Japan as a way to unite the entire country. Timber enhances natural airflow for cooling, a deliberate effort to transition to more sustainable designs and materials.  

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Yoyogi National Gymnasium_©
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Takanawa Gateway Station_©
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Takanawa Gateway Station_©
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Japan National Stadium_©japan sport council


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