Beacon of Japan’s Future, Sparkling With Nostalgia
TOKYO — It was erected in a city still scarred by war, on the grounds of an ancient Buddhist temple, using steel from scrapped American battle tanks. But when finished in 1958, Tokyo Tower gripped Japan’s imagination by pointing the way to a brighter future.
The 1,093-foot structure, which resembles the Eiffel Tower but with orange and white stripes, was the world’s tallest self-supported steel structure, a title it still holds. That, and the fact it was used to broadcast color television, then in its infancy, made the tower an instant symbol of the nation’s peacetime ambitions to excel in technology.
While it never gained the global recognition of its Parisian twin or the Statue of Liberty, the tower remains a landmark in this now affluent, sprawling city. But after a half century, the aging spire is no longer as prominent, or inspiring, as it once was.
Tokyo Tower turned 50 last week amid a wave of nostalgic national media coverage. Television news showed grainy black-and-white film of the tower, describing it as part of a bygone era of heady achievements that also included Japan’s bullet train and the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Indeed, the tower seems to have won a new place in the national imagination, this time as a monument to a sepia-toned past. The change comes at a time when Japan as a whole seems to have lost confidence in its future, or has even resigned itself to slow decline.
The change also underscores a broader point: how the passage of time can shift the meaning of national symbols — even ones as large as Tokyo Tower.
“Tokyo Tower stood for a dream of the future, but that dream is gone,” said Masanori Nakamura, a professor emeritus of history at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University. “Tokyo Tower offers no more dreams, just as Japan has no more dreams.”
In recent years, Tokyo Tower has become harder to spot among the city’s growing number of ever more boldly designed glass skyscrapers. In 2011, it will lose its long-held distinction as the city’s tallest structure to a new television tower, the awkwardly named Tokyo Sky Tree, which will be 2,003 feet, nearly twice as high as Tokyo Tower.
Still, the tower, which has drawn some 157 million tourists since it opened, maintains a grip on the city’s imagination. Last Tuesday, some 20,000 visitors turned up for the 50th birthday, lining up for hours to take elevators to one of the tower’s two observation decks. Its owner, Nippon Television City, gave Tokyo Tower a $6.5 million makeover for the occasion with a new nighttime illumination scheme, the Diamond Veil, featuring 276 lights in seven colors.
Visitors to the tower and nearby residents explained its appeal in affectionate terms, describing it as an old friend who had stood with them through decades of breathtaking social and economic transformation.
“For my father’s generation, Tokyo Tower was the symbol of the new Tokyo that they wanted to build,” said Midori Tajima, 60, who owns a camera shop near the tower. “But for my generation, it has watched over us during 50 years when everything else seemed to be changing.”
Ms. Tajima, who as a fourth grader watched the tower being built, celebrated the anniversary by displaying old photographs in her shop, including one from 1958 that showed the structure rising over a jumble of wooden homes and now-vanished cable cars.
When completed, the tower stood almost 900 feet above the Japanese capital’s next highest structure at the time, the Parliament building. As it was being erected, rumors abounded that Hawaii would be visible from the top, older residents say.
Before his death in 1986, the tower’s creator, Hisakichi Maeda, a former owner of the right-leaning newspaper Sankei Shimbun, called the soaring structure “a triumph of Japanese technology.” The tower cost $8.4 million at the time and used scrapped Korean War tanks, one of the few sources of quality steel at the time.
The recent nostalgia boom has led to a revival in the tower’s popularity. After more than a decade of slowly dwindling visitors, the number has risen by roughly 50 percent in the past three years to some 3.2 million last year, Nippon City said.
This nostalgia boom has partly been fueled by a flurry of recent novels and movies that featured the tower. (One of its first cinematic appearances was in “Mothra,” a 1961 black-and-white monster film in which the tower was toppled by a giant caterpillar.)
In the recent books and films, the tower often appears as a metaphor for what this graying nation feels it has lost in recent decades: the shared sense of purpose and youthful optimism that drove its economic miracle, or even the simpler lifestyles before Japan became an economic superpower.
So keen is interest in the tower’s history that the owner has begun asking the workers who built it to come out of retirement and talk to schools, tour groups and the press. One is Goro Kiryu, 76, who says tightening bolts on the tower’s steel girders felt like just another job at the time, though one that involved unusual heights and fearful winds.
“At the time, everyone was just working hard to improve our lives,” Mr. Kiryu said. “Now I realize that Tokyo Tower was my life’s main work.”
The company is hoping the nostalgia boom will also help keep the tower profitable, after television networks started announcing that they would switch their broadcasting to the Sky Tree. Fearful of also losing tourists to the taller new rival, Nippon City says it will renovate the tower’s outdated attractions to play up the history angle.“Tokyo Tower is a part of Tokyo’s history,” said Tatsuo Matsuzawa, a managing director. “We want it to survive another 50 years.”