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STREETS APART:
A TALE OF TWO
URBAN WORLDS,
UK AND JAPAN

Streets Apart: A tale of Two Urban Worlds, UK and Japan: Text

In this article, we hear from Rachel Glover-White, Director at NJL Consulting on her recent experience of a trip to Japan. In this blog, Rachel looks at the differences between UK and Japanese cities and draws some interesting conclusions about what the two countries can learn from one another.  


I’ve just returned from an amazing 2 week trip to Japan. It was filled with temples, tech, noodles, bullet trains and so much more. I spent time in the largest cities in Japan and it got me thinking about some of the similarities, and major differences between this Asian metropolis and our UK cities. Visiting Japan was totally different from anywhere I’ve ever been before. In some senses it was so futuristic, but it still retains and preserves its ancient history and embeds this into the urban fabric. The cities are vast, as we will explore later, though despite the millions of people, everything in Japan seems so considered. There is a calmness to many of the cities which you just don’t get in the UK. 


I wanted to reflect on some of the differences I noted, and this article looks at three in particular; transport, public realm and social care and accessibility.  

Streets Apart: A tale of Two Urban Worlds, UK and Japan: Text
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TRANSPORT

As of 2021, Tokyo had a population of 21.2 million; just under one third of the whole of the U.K. population. So, it’s no wonder that the Japanese need an efficient, reliable and fast way to move all of these people around the City, and the country.  

TIME

The bullet train is an icon of Japan. The trains, known as Shinkansen, are high speed rail networks which move passengers across the country. They run on dedicated tracks and often have separate stations to the main city stations. The separation of the rapid transit system and the slower, localised trains means that on average there is only a minute delay every year on each Shinkansen service. Compare this to Trans Pennine Express (the main line operating between Sheffield and Manchester), who through March 2024 only managed to run 54.64% of their services on time. And even more shocking, the Liverpool- Cleethorpes line, the main line operating over the Pennines only benefitted from 48.5% of services running on time. 

The recent announcements about the HS2 changes put this disparity into even sharper focus. The UK has long been at the forefront of global development, but these figures show just how far others have gone when it comes to transport. Even the newest train network in the UK, Cross Rail only reaches speeds of 60mph and has been plighted with numerous strike actions since operations began.  

COST

Another main difference between the British rail service and the Shinkansen is cost. The average cost of an adult train ticket between Manchester and London is £64 for the 162 mile journey. This works out at just under 40p per mile.  However, a trip between Tokyo to Kyoto, which is 329 miles will set you back on average £70 or 21pence per mile. Nearly a 50% cost : distance difference. Not only is there a huge disparity in terms of cost, the service level between the Shinkansen and British trains is in another league.  

SAFETY 

Another thing I was struck with on the trains in Japan was the presence of women’s only carriages. These do not exist on the UK train network and I’m sure there would be welcomed, should they to be introduced. Earlier this year, the British Transport Police released figures which confirmed that over one third of women travelling on public transport had been subject to sexual harassment on the network.  You don’t have to ask far in a peer group to realise that behind these figures are lived experiences and whilst 1/3 seems a high number, the reality really isn’t that shocking. The presence of the British Transport Police can be a huge comfort to many, potentially more vulnerable travellers, but perhaps a designated carriage for women could help to alleviate harassment and inappropriate behaviour on public transport. 


In order for us to really compete on the global stage, we need to have a reliable, reasonable and efficient transport system and the Shinkansen definitely leaves a lot to be desired. Evidently the British transport system has a long way to go before we can even think of competing with the Japanese efficiency. As I gear myself up for yet another week of rail replacement buses, I will be pining the smooth running of the Shinkansen.  

Streets Apart: A tale of Two Urban Worlds, UK and Japan: Text
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REALM

OPEN SPACE AND SENSE OF COMMUNITY  

The large cities we frequented on our trip were immense. Sky scrapers so tall, billboards so bright and highways so wide. Despite the sprawling urbanisation, and concrete jungles there are pockets of calm and tranquillity. Large parks and quiet courtyards. Hidden gardens and sacred corners. Though what is distinctly absent in many of Japan’s open spaces are places to rest, sit and reflect. A busy day in a British park would be littered with punters, though in Japan, the relaxed randomness of parks doesn’t exist. Instead, much more formal gardens are common as well as cafes and commercial places to enjoy these areas.  


This got me thinking; how, and where do city dwellers of Japan relax and catch up with friends? Going to the park is a ritual for many in the UK and they offer a free and accessible space for people to mingle with their communities. Does an absence of these spaces have detrimental impact on such communities in Japan? Perhaps. A recent study found that as a country, residents experience a significant level of loneliness. A recent study by the Japanese Government found that at leas 40% of people report feelings of loneliness. The issue has become so central that the country has appointed a Loneliness Minister to tackle the problem. Perhaps one way to tackle this is to incorporate areas of public realm within cities and new developments. This is commonplace in the UK and effectively delivers a sense of community in new estates and developments.  


Where this community feeling was present was the bustling food scene in many of the cities. We noticed a huge number of people eating out in Japan, perhaps because it is relatively cheap compared to the average wage and cost of living. However, for those who this may be a financially exclusive activity, the absence of public space for incidental activity could be contributing to the issue of loneliness across the country. Could the lack of public spaces to relax and unwind in, be leading to an absence of community within the big cities in Japan? 

The developments we work on across the country have realm and community feel at their centre. We’re always pushed, quite rightly, by Local Authorities to introduce areas for social interaction, resting, and play within new places that we create. And these spaces work. They offer opportunities for new places to build communities which residents feel proud of and want to protect. Perhaps the Japanese have something to learn from us in how we foster community and put people at the forefront of new developments.  


One place where this differed was Hiroshima. A city devastated by the atomic bomb in 1945. The effects were magnificent; the city centre destroyed, and the long-term effects still reverberate around the city and country.  


This cataclysmic event resulted in the rebuilding of the city. And like a phoenix, Hiroshima has come back glowing. The city honours its past and builds the devastation into the realm. At the epicentre of the bomb now sits The Peace Park and associated Memorials. They are the centre of the city with areas for contemplation and reflection all around. And whilst the catalyst for the place we see today was totally devastating and history defining, the rebirth of Hiroshima has resulted in a peaceful, calm and welcoming space for people, both residents and tourists, to enjoy and acknowledge the history of the place.  

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REFUSE

Another marked difference between public spaces in the UK and Japan is litter. It’s not uncommon to see public bins overflowing with refuse on UK streets or parks. However, in Japan, your litter is your problem. There are very few public bins, and where there are, they are all segregated to encourage recycling. The absence of bins may suggest a proliferation of littering, but the reality is the total opposite. Everyone takes responsibility for their waste, ensuring it is properly disposed of. There is a universal respect for spaces people interact with and a desire to maintain and preserve them. You only need to look at a roadside layby in the UK to realise we, collectively, need to have more consideration for the waste we generate and how we dispose of it responsibly. And how do we go about doing this? In my home city of Sheffield, the Yorkshire slang has been incorporated into comic slogans and signposts to encourage the use of bins. But what is the answer? Humour? Signage? Education? I don’t know, but I hope we can take reference from Japan and try and promote a cleaner environment for us to all enjoy.

Streets Apart: A tale of Two Urban Worlds, UK and Japan: Text
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Streets Apart: A tale of Two Urban Worlds, UK and Japan: Image
Streets Apart: A tale of Two Urban Worlds, UK and Japan: Text

SOCIAL CARE AND ACCESSIBILITY

Japan has the oldest population in the world. Since 2017, the number of people over the age of 90 has stood at over 2 million (this is much lower than the UK which stands at around 500,000) and the median age of Japanese residents is 49 years old (compared to 40 in the UK). With an ageing population, there must obviously be a huge demand and need to provide appropriate housing, care and accessibility for the elderly and disabled.   


So how does it work?  

Well in Japan, everyone over the age of 40 has what’s called a Long Term Care Insurance (LCTI) designed to cover all those over the age of 65. At age 65, people apply to their local government to ascertain their care needs and when assessed they are provided with care in the community. Interestingly, the number of residential care homes is restricted, with a strong focus on community care.  


The number of young people (aged 15-29) caring for an elderly family member in Japan currently stands at 177,600 but this is expected to rise as the population continues to age and shrink.  


What struck me whilst visiting Japan, was the perceived lack of accessibility of many of the main cities. In some ways, Japan demonstrated advances and an inclusivity beyond what we witness in the UK. For example, a range of sounds/signals on pedestrian crossings to indicate when its safe to cross, various types of tactile paving and braille on handrails and lampposts. However, nearly every station we encountered included steps with varying availability of lifts/escalators to overcome these.  


Whilst there was a definite culture of ‘giving up your seat’ to the elderly, the number of physically disabled people we saw using public transport was minimal. I wondered whether this was because the rates of physical disability are lower in Japan. Or whether there are more fundamental barriers to access which limited the usage. I’ve already noted the women’s only carriages, but what if this was taken a  step further and areas for the over 65’s were included on public transport. Would this encourage more universal use if people had certainty that they would be accommodated on the network? 

SUMMARY

This article has looked at a couple of the many differences I noted between Japan and the UK. Its clear to see that the differences are major with significantly different pressures from population to environment acting in each location. I think there is definitely inspiration we can take from the Japanese about how to have a considered, safe and clean transport network. But at the same time, I feel the UK is leading the way in incorporating public realm to foster a sense of community into new developments and public spaces.

Streets Apart: A tale of Two Urban Worlds, UK and Japan: Text
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