The Toyko skyline is one of the most impressive, breathtaking and unique city skylines that you can find on the planet. With structures such as temples from the 1700s, a tower inspired by the infamous Eiffel Tower, a building replicated to look exactly like a glass of beer and so much more; nobody can accuse Tokyo’s architecture of being ‘plain and boring’.
However, what you can say about the city’s skyline, is that it is extremely small in height, even more so when comparing it to other major cities in the world. But, what is the real reason for this?
There are a few reasons why Tokyo doesn’t have tall buildings. The main one being earthquakes, and how they make having taller buildings a serious hazard to the city and residents. Due to this, buildings in the city have a maximum height limit of 255m. Other reasons include the little need for accommodation and also the increased engineering costs.
Although sounding simple at first, the reasons for buildings in Tokyo being small are slightly complicated, but definitely justified. To create the best possible article, I reached out to a professional architect who lives in Japan and asked him a few questions. In this article, I include all of the possible reasons for the reduced building height limit, and why it is extremely important for the city’s economy and health.
Why Are Buildings In Tokyo So Small In Height?
Tokyo is home to many skyscrapers and buildings, some being extremely iconic and some being slightly strange. With around 160 skyscrapers, Tokyo ranks 6th in the world for the city with the most buildings taller than 150m.
Despite the large number of skyscrapers that the city posses’, the buildings are actually quite small. Although it may not seem it at first, if you have ever travelled to any other major city around the world, then you will be able to tell that Tokyo’s architecture is undoubtedly on the smaller side…
Obviously, I’m not saying that the buildings are miniature.
But, I was definitely curious as to why they were so much smaller than other skyscrapers located around the world.
In response to my curiosity, I decided to try and get some answers, or at least some kind of idea on the reasoning for this unique approach to modern architecture. A very helpful architect who works and lives in Japan, very kindly made himself available to answer my question in great detail. He works for a company named Front Office Tokyo, which is an architecture firm located in Tokyo with fluent English speaking employees.
After speaking with this professional architect, it became very clear why Tokyo has a chosen height limit of 150m. As mentioned before, there are a few reasons for this, so let’s jump into them now.
Japan is known for the horrific and terrifying earthquakes that have taken place for many years now. However, what you probably didn’t know is that Japan itself has around 5000 earthquakes per year. Crazy right?
Don’t worry though…Despite the large number of quakes, only a small percentage of them are actually felt. Also, it is actually a rare occasion for the earthquakes to be as devastating as they have been shown on the news before. Japan, and Tokyo especially, has done amazing work to do everything they possibly can to prevent the earthquakes from causing serious damage.
But, how do earthquakes affect the height of buildings and skyscrapers in Japan’s capital? Well, to put it simply, the taller the building, the more risk of it tipping over or being destroyed. This obviously doesn’t mean that any building or structure over the 150m height limit will collapse at a slight earthquake. In fact, there are structures such as the Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree that are way over this limit, and they are perfectly safe. I also went into more detail on this at the end of this article, so keep reading for that!
So, this is why earthquakes are pretty much the main reason for Tokyo’s skyline being so much smaller in height compared to other famous cities. Due to the multiple disasters in the country’s past being caused by the quakes, it just doesn’t make sense to build higher than what is actually needed.
Not only this, but there are other factors that come into play, which leads us to our next reason for Tokyo’s small skyscrapers…
Increased Engineering Costs
So, you may be wondering how some structures are allowed to be taller than others, despite the whole earthquake issue, right?
To answer this simply, having a skyscraper, tower or structure above 150m requires some serious anti-earthquake architectural technology. This might sound like some random jargon that I’ve just spat out, but I promise you it is a thing.
In order for the structures to remain safe and stable during an earthquake, they need to be developed in a special kind of way. Now, the way they are built is not simple, and architects from all over the world have spent decades trying to find the best way to cancel out earthquakes in order to make their buildings safe, no matter what the situation is.
Not only is it extremely complicated, but it is also very expensive.
For example, the Tokyo Skytree cost a staggering amount of ¥65 billion ($592 million). As you can already tell, repeating this process for other buildings or structures around the city would be terrible for the economy of the city, and it just simply doesn’t make sense to do so.
Little To No Need For Extra Accommodation
When speaking to the professional at Front Office Tokyo, he expressed that Tokyo is very different compared to other cities around the world. At first, I was confused by what he meant, but then it became clear. He told me that Tokyo has been creating a surplus of housing stock for the past 50 years.
So, therefore, this means that the need for housing and accommodation is little to none; even despite the large population of the city itself. This immaculate planning and future-proofing from the architects and government of Tokyo, has put the city in a state where it simply just does not need to expand. This means that having taller buildings just isn’t worth doing anyway, because they don’t need to.
If we take New York City for example… NYC is estimated to have 1 homeless person in every 106 people living in New York. Not only is this fact extremely upsetting, but it is also shocking. With an estimated number of 80,000 homeless people in New York, the American city has so many more homeless people than Tokyo’s estimated 4,000 homeless people. Just to make it even more surprising, NYC’s population is only at around 8 million, while Tokyo’s stands at a much larger 13 million people.
I guess the Japanese have really excelled when it comes to housing and accommodation and we have to praise them for that!
So, what does this all actually mean when asking the question “why are building in Tokyo so small?”
Well, it means that there is no need to make the buildings as tall as they are in other cities. So why waste money, time and resources on doing so?
How Tokyo Skytree And Tokyo Tower Got Away With Being Over The Maximum Building Height
I included this part of the article because I understand that some of you reading may be slightly curious. If the engineering costs are too high, the need for accommodation is tiny and the risk of disastrous earthquakes taking place is fairly likely; then why was the Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower built way over the height limit?
To answer that question, I have two words.
‘Tourism’ and ‘Profit’.
Despite the huge engineering and building costs making these structures extremely expensive to build, they still bring in profit. And a lot of it.
Having huge and unique structures like this is simply what a large majority of tourists want to see when visiting a city in another country. It allows for them to really get a taste of the city’s skyline and how large the area actually is!
Another key point to mention is that these structures are classed as ‘towers’, so this also helped in the development to allow them to be other the building height limit.