Participatory place management in the age of shrinkage: The case of Kunitachi within Tokyo’s peripheral areas

Marco Capitanio (School of Science for Open and Environmental Systems, Faculty of Science and Technology, Keio University, Yokohama, Japan)

Journal of Place Management and Development

ISSN: 1753-8335

Publication date: 8 October 2018



This paper aims to focus on citizen participation as a crucial place management factor in Tokyo’s shrinking suburbs as a way to facilitate the goal of retaining and attracting population and improving townscape quality. This research qualitatively examines participatory practices in place management and place branding strategies in one case study.


A historical overview of participatory place management in Japan introduces the case study of Kunitachi City, in the western periphery of Tokyo, chosen because of its peculiar development tied to bottom-up practices, high-quality built environment and strong identity. Analysis was carried out by means of literature review in Japanese and English, interviews and extensive fieldwork between 2015 and 2017.


A certain degree of conflict between progressive and reactionary participatory practices can be beneficial to place management, and local governments should seek ways to actively support and grant legal status to civic involvement. Moreover, high-quality unique built space, achieved through participatory actions, is a prime tool to brand peripheral areas and foster the pride of residents.


In a context where municipalities need to devolve more and more responsibilities to their inhabitants, Kunitachi has emerged as a best practice thanks to a high degree of civic capital. While there is no ready-made recipe to be replicated, other areas should closely examine the efforts by this municipality to sustain bottom-up involvement, yielding the benefits of an attractive city image created by its own residents.



Capitanio, M. (2018), "Participatory place management in the age of shrinkage", Journal of Place Management and Development, Vol. 11 No. 4, pp. 447-462.

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited


The shrinkage of Japanese villages and remote towns has been discussed in academic circles since the 2000s, but it has found resonance in politicians’ and planners’ agendas only since the 2010s. Recently, however, as the effects of an aging society become more and more pronounced, the focus of both academia and policy-makers has been shifting towards the future shrinkage of urban areas (Hattori et al., 2017). As investigated by many scholars (野澤, 2016; Fujii, 2008; Oe, 2005), because of the general population decline of Japan as a whole, even Tokyo is starting to face population loss in its peripheral areas, where the majority of its workforce commutes from. According to Masuda (2015, no page), Tokyo will be the place “that will have to face a more difficult situation than any other municipality.” In this respect, place management becomes of prime importance in the age of shrinkage.

Peripheral areas (i.e. within a 30-60 km radius from central Tokyo) will be particularly vulnerable, even though their conditions are rather diverse, depending on their location, serving train lines, etc. Nonetheless, they will, with varying degrees of intensity, experience the downsides of shrinkage, having to cope with diminished tax revenues and increasing cost of public services. This could lead to the progressive degradation of peripheral areas and their abandonment or to the ghettoization of their elderly population. A further concern is the increasing rate of vacant houses across the country, expected to intensify with the so-called “2025 problem,” when the number of baby boomers (the dankai generation, born in 1947-1949) will start to dwindle (野澤, 2016, p. 7).

Some scholars argue, therefore, that a growth-oriented model should be turned into a “decline paradigm” (Müller and Siedentop, 2004), and that an era of “deurbanization” (Onishi, 2011, p. 27) is about to start, requiring great shifts in planning policies (野澤, 2016, p. 198). Moreover, even though Tokyo is continuing to attract residents, its total growth is expected to halt after hosting the Olympic Games in 2020, and because of the massive inflow of the generation born in the 1930s and 1940s, its aging will be dramatic (野澤, 2016, p. 8; Masuda, 2015; Oe, 2005, p. 10). A demographic issue will therefore trigger multifarious spatial and social implications, calling for an integrated place management approach.

In Japanese cities – most emblematically Tokyo – there is a tension between two main development and urban management trends. On the one hand, national and local governments have been actively promoting development as a means of economic stimulus. This happens often at the expense of local livability by relaxing and deregulating the building code, in line with a global neoliberal agenda. On the other hand, local governments rely more and more on civic engagement as a way to release part of their (financial) burdens, as tax revenues diminish with an aging and shrinking population. Meanwhile, local people are increasingly active in defending and improving quality of life in their own neighborhoods, as seen in bottom-up citizen movements throughout Japan since the 1990s (Sorensen and Funck, 2007). The interaction between these contradictory trends, and the cooperation between top-down state intervention and bottom-up civic organization, will effectively define the degree of livability of Japanese (peripheral) urban areas (Capitanio, 2018a).

Within this context, we make the hypothesis that citizen participation is a crucial place management factor in Japanese peripheral areas. It can contribute to the goal of retaining and attracting population, improving townscape quality and strengthening place identity. From this point of view, we intend to assess how different types of participation contributed to the development of an urban management “best practice” in Tokyo’s suburbs. Far from a call for blunt imitation, this case can be a valuable reference for “those who manage and make places better [to] inform their decisions and/or do their job.” (Parker, 2008, p. 7). In fact, while there is abundant literature proving the positive effects of participation in urban management in general terms (Zenker and Seigis, 2012), qualitative analysis on real cases is still under-researched.

Our second hypothesis is that peripheral areas with the ability to brand themselves – as places offering an alternative lifestyle to that of the city center – will be advantaged in the competition to attract and retain residents. In this respect, we are interested in exploring, in our case study, the interplay of the three types of place brand communication identified by Zenker and Braun (2017, p. 276): physical space, official advertising and public relations and word-of-mouth.

Research aim and methodology

The aim of the research is to expose how civic participation and branding strategies in place management have been positively impacting Kunitachi City (Kunitachi onwards), in the western periphery of Tokyo, so that successful models may be taken into consideration by other municipalities or local interest groups. This city has been selected as a case study for investigation because of its peculiar development of bottom-up practices, high-quality built environment and strong identity. Kunitachi, in fact, gave birth to the very concept of participatory place management in Japan (machizukuri) in the 1950s, and it has been implementing cooperative strategies tying top-down planning with bottom-up engagement ever since.

Data were first gained from literature in both Japanese and English. Second, we have engaged in primary research through field work over a period of two years. Specifically, we have chosen to reside in Kunitachi between 2015 and 2017 as a way to gain extensive first-hand knowledge. This approach had advantages and drawbacks: on the one hand, we were able to engage in a number of formal and informal interviews, attend official and nonofficial participatory activities and see them from the residents’ point of view. On the other hand, our observations may be biased by excessive “subjectivity” (Radović, 2016), as our research had a direct link with our everyday lives.

There are obvious limitations to this study, given the fact that no single case can be representative of the great variety of Tokyo’s peripheral areas. This implies that there are a number of areas – e.g. 1970s’ new towns – with different characteristics deserving a dedicated analysis, as their status quo cannot be easily compared with our case study (Capitanio, 2018b).

The rest of the paper is structured as follows:

  • First, a historical overview of participatory place management in Japan introduces the case study of Kunitachi.

  • Second, a review of the city’s inception and development frames its current machizukuri practices.

  • Third, participatory urban management activities are exposed both from a top-down and bottom-up perspective.

Participatory place management in Japan

The measures of urban planning we have seen so far allow citizen participation, such as opinion hearings […]. However, unfortunately, there are many cases where public relations are bad, or the discussion is too technical for lay audience. As a result, interest does not rise, and there are almost no voices of opposition from the citizens. Even if you raise your voice when some issue occurs, it is often already late. (野澤, 2016, pp. 200-201 author’s translation)

The word machizukuri literally means “town-making,” and it has become almost a buzzword among planning professionals and citizens in Japan since the 1990s. Its origins reach back to the early 1950s in Kunitachi, but it has become a mainstream concept in Japanese planning only 40 years later, further spreading to South Korea and Taiwan. Machizukuri is usually used to characterize the interaction between local governments and relatively small groups of residents, concerned with the (environmental) improvement of their own community.

The word, entering Japanese vocabularies in the 1990s, is usually written in hiragana syllabic alphabet (まちづくり). In fact, for the same pronunciation, there are two writing variations when characters are used instead of hiragana. The writing with the character 街 is used for implying big streets in urban areas lined with offices, shops or trees. Alternatively, the writing with the character 町 denotes an administrative unit in either urban or rural areas. The hiragana writing is a clever tactic to blur the relevant definitions, now ubiquitously used in civilian and administrative vocabularies. Interestingly, when the citizens and the administration achieve a consensus on a cooperative project and sign an agreement, they often use a stiff word, kyōdō (協働), for the agreement title. This usage, suggesting “toil and moil to cooperate,” is also new, with slightly different connotations from traditional, long-established words pronounced kyōdō and meaning “to cooperate.”

Over the years, from a bottom-up, spontaneous process, machizukuri has become an all-encompassing concept describing participatory actions improving local livability. They may be initiated bottom-up or top-down, cooperative or confrontational. Despite its lack of juridical base, machizukuri is seen by many as a major shift in Japanese planning and place management (Watanabe, 2012; Sorensen and Funck, 2007). Hayashi (2010) argues that it was machizukuri which, gaining momentum after the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, pushed the government to grant official status to non-profit organizations (NPOs) in 1998 with the so-called NPO Law, the first of its kind in Japan.

Machizukuri seems to be a two-tiered phenomenon (Sorensen and Funck, 2007, pp. 270-272): on the one hand, it sparks optimism as a potentially productive way of integrating bottom-up, local agendas into a stiff planning practice. On the other hand, its influence and real effectiveness are questionable, as it often stands on a rather low pole of the “ladder of participation” (Arnstein, 1969). Depending on the specific issue, location and people involved, machizukuri practices could be either a progressive attempt to improve and change neighborhoods or represent reactionary interests of powerful local groups resisting any disruptive change. Much depends also on how responsive officers in the local administration are. If officers share citizens’ love of the community and motivations for enhancing quality of life, the two parties will cooperate for the best possible solutions. When the administrative officers are not local residents, instead, their primary concern is often to finish the term of assignment without trouble.

Neighborhood administration from Edo period to the twentieth century

Villages during the Edo period (1603-1868) were relatively autonomous, self-administered entities, as long as they did not question the shogunate’s rule of law and paid their tributes. Rural communities were responsible for the construction and maintenance of their own infrastructure, e.g. roads, canals and woodland. Similarly, urban neighborhoods in Japan had extensive responsibility. They had to take care of the “maintenance of streets, drainage of ditches and canals, wells, garbage disposal, manning of neighborhood watch houses, fire patrol, local relief for the poor, and the organization of local festivals” (Sorensen, 2006, pp. 110-112). As the national state became more organized and complex during the Meiji period (1868-1912), neighborhoods were increasingly seen as a valuable administrative unit to ease the government’s burden in multiple areas, such as “garbage-collection […], sanitation […], street cleaning, installation and maintenance of streetlights, night watches against fire and crime, local information dissemination […], shrine support” (Sorensen, 2006, p. 114). Moreover, festivals were, and still are in many communities, great opportunities to nurture the spirit of mutual help and awaken younger generations to their responsibilities as community members.

In the twentieth century, neighborhood associations were crucial for the well-functioning of Japanese cities and often mirrored the government’s ideology. On the one hand, they represented a reliable local welfare system, e.g. playing an important organizational role during and after the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake. On the other hand, they often acted as conservative bodies representing the political agenda of the elite in power. Their importance kept growing in the 1930s, especially in connection with nationalist views leading to the Second World War, and they tended to become a means of keeping social order and controlling the population. As an example, before and during the Second World War, there even was a PR song to promote communal bonds through the system. After the war, neighborhood organizations were banned, because of their ties to nationalism and the former government. After the American occupation, though, they gradually regained (part of) the influence they had before the war (Brasor and Tsubuku, 2015). Nowadays, having and nurturing good relationships with neighbors is still an important goal of every household, especially in view of inter-neighbors self-help, should a major disaster happen (東京都総務局総合防災部防災菅理慢, 2015).

History of Kunitachi and birth of machizukuri

[T]rough the 1970s […] Kunitachi had consolidated its image as a child-friendly town known for its sophisticated culture and natural beauty. (Molasky, 2014, p. 72)

Kunitachi (国立市) is a city ca. 30 km (45 min by train) west of Tokyo Station with a population of ca. 75,000, lying in the Tama Area, where population is expected to face a 30 per cent reduction by 2050, compared to 2015 (帝京大学文学部社会学科, 2015, p. 47). Despite its peripheral location, the city is considered attractive and convenient to live in, as a 2012 survey confirms (三浦, 2012, p. 70): in fact, while Kunitachi ranks “only” number 28 among Tokyo neighborhoods where people would like to live, it reaches number 7 among best areas where respondents have actually lived.

Kunitachi was founded as a new town, developed by Tsutsumi Yasujirō of Hakone Estate, business tycoon and member of the Diet. He started buying land in the early 1920s with the (speculative) intent of establishing a university town, following the model of Göttingen in Germany. After the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake struck, he proposed to the president of the Tokyo College of Commerce (currently Hitotsubashi University) and of the Tokyo Higher School of Music (currently Kunitachi College of Music) to abandon their damaged properties in central Tokyo and move to the western, leafy suburbs, in a new town akin to E. Howard’s garden cities. Both universities relocated between 1927 and 1930. Next, 1926 marked the opening, on the JR Chūō Line, of Kunitachi Station, which constituted the focal point of three radial, convergent streets cutting through a city grid composed of 250 × 75 m blocks. The central artery, Daigaku Dōri (university street), connecting the train station with Hitotsubashi University, was conceived as a European-style boulevard, featuring broad sidewalks lined with cherry and ginkgo trees (Capitanio, 2016). The trees, foreseen in the original masterplan, were planted in 1934 by the youth association of Yaho village, a historical settlement adjacent to the new development, to be later incorporated in the municipality. This, while not entirely bottom-up, is an early sign of civic involvement in Kunitachi.

The town developed slowly until the end of the Second World War. Since 1945, though, the presence of an American military base in neighboring Tachikawa City had triggered prostitution in Kunitachi, leading to increasing tension between the residents and American authorities. As a result, local citizens (especially housewives), supported by university professors and students, formed an organized group with the aim of improving Kunitachi’s reputation and its quality of life (Watanabe, 2012). Citizens of Kunitachi successfully applied to the Ministry of Construction for the status of “Special Education and Culture District” (bunkyō chiku), granted in 1952, the first of its kind in Japan. After Kunitachi, dozens of neighborhoods around Japan have received this status, as they are areas with a high concentration of schools, museums, libraries, etc. Because of such special status, a stricter building code was enforced, banning certain activities (e.g. prostitution, gambling parlors, hotels and dance clubs) in the vicinity of the station and of the university and limiting building height. This bottom-up campaign is considered to be the origin of Japanese machizukuri practices.

Such a strong sense of community has helped to preserve and improve livability in Kunitachi in the following decades. In fact, residents “made decisions in the process of landscape formation, […] spent a lot of time in discussions and made strenuous efforts to create [a] favorable urban environment” (津川康雄, 2014, p. 136), as exemplified by the so-called Kunitachi Mansion Lawsuit (国立マンション訴訟) (Fujii et al., 2007, pp. 262-264). During this contested trial, unravelling from 2000 to 2017, Kunitachi citizens sued the developer of an apartment building along Daigaku Dōri. The majority of buildings along the boulevard, except for the area adjacent to the station, are in fact low-rise structures. In the absence of a district plan, in 1999, a developer was able to purchase a large plot, which allowed for a higher-than-usual floor area ratio, to build an 18-storey condominium. This plan initiated fierce debate between the developer, residents and the local government represented by mayor Uehara Hiroko, who strongly backed residents’ opposition. As a way to stop construction, citizens petitioned for the enactment of a district plan, limiting building height to 20 m, which was promptly ratified by the government. The developer, nonetheless, upon lowering the building to 14 storeys managed to receive building permission just a few weeks before the enforcement of the new district plan. Kunitachi citizens proceeded by suing the developer for ruining the landscape qualities of Daigaku Dōri. Despite a historic sentence of the Tokyo District Court in 2002 to demolish the parts of the building exceeding 20 m, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that, while landscape quality is a right in itself, the condominium building did not violate any law at the time of its building permit. Meanwhile, the developer sued Kunitachi City for damages, winning the trial and receiving compensation from the city. Nonetheless, the sum was paid back to Kunitachi by the same developer as a sign of good will. Ironically, though, a group of Kunitachi citizens filed a complaint against former mayor Uehara, considering her responsible for the compensation the city had to pay to the developer. The complaint was later revoked by the local government, but the Supreme Court ruled against Uehara, and forced her to financially compensate Kunitachi with 31 million yen (ca. €250,000), paid in 2017.

The Kunitachi Mansion Lawsuit managed to set a meaningful precedent for other machizukuri practices across the country. In fact, this “opposition movement […] was probably the biggest and most sophisticated ever” (Fujii et al., 2007, p. 262) in Japan. These historical premises have shaped a track along which current machizukuri activities in Kunitachi align themselves to, as the following sections highlight.

Machizukuri activities initiated by the municipal government

In 2016, the Government of Kunitachi approved a revised urban code that explicitly calls for bottom-up civic participation to complement top-down regulations, an approach that is more inclusive and transparent than regular urban governance in Japan. This participatory mechanism, called “Kunitachi City Machizukuri Ordinance” (国立市役所都市整備部都市計画課, 2016), provides a framework for the official implementation of citizens’ proposals relating to townscape matters. Concerned topics are:

  • building regulations, e.g. building use, scale and position;

  • landscape regulations, e.g. building color and architectural design; and

  • site and area regulations, e.g. minimum site area, type of fences, greening ratio.

The implementation process comprises seven steps, ensuring that a proponent first discusses with his or her immediate neighbors and then forms a council with a minimum of five district residents. Once this group is registered by the municipal authority, study sessions with city officials can start. Upon determining the feasibility of a proposal, city authorities ensure that the population in the concerned neighborhood is not against the proposed change by conducting surveys and questionnaires. Further steps confirm that local residents correctly understand the plan before the municipal government can enforce it.

A more prosaic participatory activity, initiated by the municipal government in 2017, involved asking its citizens to vote for their favorite bench out of a selection of four, to be newly installed along Daigaku Dōri. Despite being an activity of marginal importance, it was nonetheless well-received by the local population.

As of November 2017, plans to renovate the station square and some of its adjacent buildings are under way. The master plan includes the reconstruction of the old, hip-roofed station building, demolished in 2006 in favor of a new structure, and the creation of a larger pedestrian area featuring an open-air amphitheater, in place of the current fenced-off rotary. The old hip-roof station has become, over the years, a strong symbol of Kunitachi’s identity, featured on all-sorts of advertisements, being the town’s de facto mascot (Plate 2). Both the municipal government and residents have come to realize that its demolition was a hazardous move so that the local government and the Merchants Association are now in the final stages of a fundraising campaign to reconstruct the building in front of the existing station, as a flagship project to boost Kunitachi’s image. The goal amount is 100 million yen, three-fourth of which have been already collected at the point of writing. Charrettes have been organized outdoor, close to the station square, as a way to gather residents’ opinions and inform them on the reconstruction plan. Public officials were available to explain the details of the proposal in front of a physical model (Plate 1) .

Machizukuri activities initiated by local associations

The Kunitachi Tourism Association is an NPO founded in 2006, “for the purpose of re-discovering the charms of Kunitachi and revitalizing its community.” Its activities are regularly updated on a dedicated website. The association has published a walking guide of Kunitachi and produces, with municipal funds, Kunitachi Aruki, a free quarterly leaflet, showcasing seasonal events, new businesses such as restaurant and cafes, historical trivia about the city, etc. The leaflet has, over time, acquired a semi-official status, as it is distributed to every household in Kunitachi (Plate 2) .

The Merchants Association has funded and promoted the publication of at least four books dedicated to the history and features of Kunitachi. These heavy publications collect historical photographs, plans and documents of the city’s inception and historical development, natural features and shopping streets. These books, on the one hand, aim at highlighting the uniqueness of Kunitachi and raise citizen awareness of its history and development. On the other hand, they are a way for the Merchants Association to increase its profile and present itself as a patron of the city’s culture and image. Moreover, in September 2017, a six-month long exhibition, displaying photographs of Kunitachi’s changes within the past 50 years, opened at a gallery owned by a prominent member of the Merchants Association (Plate 3) .

Responding to an open call advertised on the official municipal magazine, citizens disclosed their private archives, turning in historical photographs to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Kunitachi’s status as a city. The exhibition was also a means to promote a petition seeking the reduction of mall-type commercial space currently being planned by the JR Railway Company around the station.

Kunitachi Honten is a group of people in the creative business who organize design-related activities about Kunitachi. The group was founded in 2006 and has, among other things, published two booklets with anecdotes about the city’s shops and businesses, organized walking tours and compiled a map of must-visit spots. In one case, the group campaigned against the demolition of the oldest residential structure in the city, built in 1930. The owner had financial concerns and wanted to sell the lot where the house stood, upon splitting it into four parcels. Kunitachi Honten was not able to find a viable alternative to demolition, but it made a survey of the building and produced a dedicated publication.

A more successful outcome is represented by the renovation of Hato no Yu public bath. Once thriving and present in every neighborhood, public baths are now being demolished all over Japan, given the lack of patrons and the competition with modern spas. The renovation of Kunitachi’s public bath, recognized as a valuable cultural asset, was supported by Kunitachi Honten and by the Alumni Association of Hitotsubashi University. A salient feature of Japanese public baths is a landscape painting of Mount Fuji, as a backdrop to the bathing area. Kunitachi Honten organized a fundraising event, where viewers could witness for a fee a live painting performance. Moreover, beside the ever-present Mount Fuji, the painting features the old hip-roof station, the rows of cherry and ginkgo trees on Daigaku Dōri and the main auditorium of Hitotsubashi University (Plate 4) .

Kunitachi vs Den’en-chofu

To better contextualize the following discussion, it is of interest here to briefly compare the development of Kunitachi with that of another garden city of the 1920s in the Tokyo region: Den’en-Chofu (lit. “garden city”). Despite being founded at the same time by like-minded private developers as garden cities in western fashion – featuring a regular street pattern radiating from a train station – they developed in very different ways. Kunitachi is now, after hardships at the point of inception, an attractive peripheral city with a high-quality (built) environment, strong identity and dedicated residents. Den’en-Chofu, on the other hand, being an exclusive high-class residential area, did not have to face the kind of issues happened in Kunitachi, lacking the chance to develop a pool of active residents cooperating to solve everyday-life problems. As a high-class, secluded neighborhood – known as “Japan’s Beverly Hills” (Tadashi Oshima, 1996, p. 150) – it did not need and produce bottom-up self-organization among residents. The negative externalities of this condition started to be felt when, especially after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, land prices uncontrollably rose in the area – Den’en-Chofu is closer and better connected to the city center than Kunitachi – and the heavy burden of inheritance-tax became unbearable for many residents. Moreover, because of the lack of machizukuri practices, Den’en-Chofu has not been able to diversify its image of an enclave for rich people. It may be a superb place to live for the ones who can afford it (Watanabe, 1980), but, unlike Kunitachi, it does not have anything to offer to visitors or to middle-class families. These characteristics have been slowly turning the area into what many now consider an ailing neighborhood (private conversation with author Sumiko Enbutsu).


Between opportunism and opportunity

Machizukuri movements are very diverse (initiated bottom-up or top-down, cooperative or confrontational) and, therefore, can be interpreted in almost opposite ways. On the one hand, they represent a genuine interest of civil society in improving quality of life of neighborhoods and cities. Well-defined goals, sometimes following disruptive events such as natural disasters, or reacting to specific local issues, ensure a certain degree of success and effectiveness of outcomes. On the other hand, local groups might reactionarily oppose changes which would endanger their status quo, hindering development which might be of benefit to the whole community. This is a negotiation between individuals (groups, family) and society, and individual interests could be sacrificed for the greater good.

In fact, when Kunitachi was granted the status of Special Education and Culture District, numerous businesses relating to entertainment were forced to close, sparking a controversy between business owners and local inhabitants. It can also be argued that by protecting only the area close to the station, unwanted businesses and prostitution simply shifted further south toward Yaho village. As highlighted in the historical overview of neighborhood administration in Japan, local associations have been often seen as ambivalent entities, embodying a certain degree of conflict.

International literature about participatory practices reflects this dual nature. According to Hamdi (UN-Habitat worldwide, 2014), participation is “responsibility with authority in partnership with other stakeholders.” This implies a process of cooperation with other people, having common interests and sharing common risks. Besides being an efficient mechanism, participation is supposed to build social capital and improve livability. Participation helps build what Guiso et al. (2010, p. 3) have defined as civic capital, “i.e. those persistent and shared beliefs and values that help a group overcome the free rider problem in the pursuit of socially valuable activities,” which are passed down to younger generations by parents and educators. “Thus, when a community has more (or stronger) values that foster cooperation, we can say that the community has more civic capital” (ivi, p. 8).

Nonetheless, an unconditionally positive view of participatory practices is a naive standpoint. Miessen (2011) has described participation as a war of sorts, where conflict unfolds, and can result in the “tyranny of the group” (i.e. when, instead of good choices, least bad ones are taken not to displease anyone) or in the “tyranny of the method” (i.e. when participants with no expertise have the same influence as experts) (Ratti, 2014, pp. 42-63). Conflict is, nonetheless, not only inevitable – as different social groups and individuals necessarily bear conflicting interests and desires (Braun et al., 2013) – but also may be desirable, as it is proof of real bottom-up involvement and can lead to more sophisticated and self-regulating urban management practices (Zenker and Erfgen, 2014; Sennett, 2003).

Kunitachi is a hotbed of participatory practices in Japan. Besides being the birthplace of machizukuri, it features a productive cooperation between the municipal government, associations and residents. As an example, the local government relies on civic participation for funding the reconstruction of the former station building, while bottom-up activities are patronized by town hall, generating synergies. From this point of view, the municipal government performs a well-intended, almost paternalistic, role, aware that there will be ever stronger competition with neighboring cities.

The double nature of participatory place management in the city is recognizable, but the tension between opportunism and opportunity seems to produce positive outcomes. The reconstruction of the old station building, as an example, is a conscious branding operation. On the one hand, the government’s intention is opportunistic, as it calls for the financial support of residents and associations to carry out its goal. On the other hand, the local population and businesses are willing to participate in the reconstruction, as this will ultimately strengthen the appeal of their neighborhoods, which is a crucial asset for peripheral areas competing among each other as population dwindles. This is due to the fact that Kunitachi residents cherish their neighborhoods and have a high degree of civic awareness, stemming from the city’s peculiar history. From this point of view, place branding in Kunitachi reflects the challenges exposed by Braun et al. (2013, p. 23) regarding residents’ involvement as citizens, “as they could ‘make or break’ the whole place branding effort.” It remains to be seen, though, how influential the public’s opinion really is.

Moreover, we can argue that machizukuri practices in Kunitachi have been particularly effective because of the high average education of its citizens and because of the presence of a prestigious institution such as Hitotsubashi University. This not only confirms Zenker and Seigis (2012, p. 29) speculation “that people with higher education would be more interested in political processes and citizen participation” but also attests that they have a higher chance of success. As such conditions are a given in Kunitachi, and are not transferable to other areas, forming ad hoc groups of experienced and highly educated residents, to guide bottom-up participation, may be a strategy to be tested in other municipalities.

The future of confrontational machizukuri practices

In June 2017, the national government passed the controversial Anti-Conspiracy Law, which punishes the planning of 277 types of activity by criminal groups. Its vague definition of what a criminal group is and what constitutes planning, and the peculiar choice of targeted actions – e.g. “sit-ins to protest against the construction of apartment buildings” (BBC News, 2017) – prompted a formal letter of concern by UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy. The new law, in fact, could legitimize “the surveillance of NGOs considered to be acting against national interest” (Cannataci, 2017, p. 2).

As the case study showed, the struggle between citizens of Kunitachi and the developer of a residential high-rise, though, marked in the early 2000s a high point of civic engagement to protect townscape qualities. It can be argued that because of such protests, the municipal government has been gradually institutionalizing bottom-up participation. The new national law, thus, threatens to undermine freedom of association and deter opposition against any future development plan. As interests of governments, (corporate) developers and local population are often at odds, this law casts a shadow over the future effectiveness of more confrontational machizukuri practices. It can be also argued, though, that because of the new law, local groups will have to find more subtle ways to express their dissent. This may well lead to strengthened cooperation in top-down and bottom-up activities.


The aim of this paper was twofold: to show qualitative evidence of the positive effects of citizen participation on place management in Japanese peripheral areas and to present ways in which suburban neighborhoods, by branding themselves as places offering an alternative lifestyle to that of the city center, can compete in the race to attract and retain residents within the context of a dwindling population.

Kunitachi has emerged as a popular town with a high degree of civic capital and bottom-up engagement, bearing an exceptional attractiveness within the landscape of Tokyo’s peripheral areas. As fieldwork, interviews and literature review confirmed, participatory practices have been instrumental in shaping the town’s success. Municipalities need to devolve more and more responsibilities to their inhabitants and dedicated and educated residents are an invaluable asset. While there is no ready-made recipe to be replicated, other areas should closely examine the efforts by this municipality to sustain bottom-up involvement for its own benefit and engrave citizen participation in local building regulations.

Following Zenker and Braun’s (2017, p. 276) tripartite classification of place branding communication – physical space, official advertising and public relations and word-of-mouth – we have shown that physical space and word-of-mouth are the most significant and effective tools at play. As the reconstruction of the station building showed, our analysis challenges the generalization by Zenker and Braun (ivi, p. 281) that “city brand perception is usually not a priority” for urban policy-makers, planners or mayors. Kunitachi residents too are highly aware of their town’s appeal and reputation, which has, over the years, sedimented as a cultural asset. Engaged interest groups struggle to maintain and enrich it, while developers, on the other hand, explicitly refer to Kunitachi’s special features when advertising apartments on sale, in an exploratory manner. Bearing in mind that successful branding can be a double-edged sword, if we agree that the “Tama area must build a brand to take steps against […] trends that are driving the population and universities back to the center of Tokyo” (帝京大学文学部社会学科, 2015, p. 96), Kunitachi is a case well-worth studying.

As a solution for the challenges that peripheral areas in Tokyo (and in Japan) will have to face, Doteuchi (2003, p. 9) suggests that they “will have to differentiate themselves through unique local characteristics. They must become a space to support lifestyles that take advantage of the local environment […] and culture.” Not only academics but also professional planners agree that creating urban attractiveness and initiating participatory planning approaches, tailored to each location, are crucial for Japanese urbanization patterns, as there is no ready-made recipe for shrinking communities (Murayama, 2016, p. 79).

In sum, what will happen to peripheral areas will depend on national policy-making, on the one hand, and on their own ingenuity and the capabilities of local machizukuri movements, on the other. The suburban communities that will stand the test of time will be the ones with the ability to create synergies between the public and private sector, NPOs and interest groups. Some stakeholders may well follow opportunistic drivers, and the challenge will be to craft inclusive opportunities out of them. It remains to be seen, though, how local initiatives will merge with national policies in the long run. Will the national government finally pass a machizukuri law, akin to the 1998 NPO Law, granting it official status in the planning system?

Moreover, as a suggestion for further investigation, we would like to highlight the need to, first, analyze more case studies within Tokyo’s periphery and, second, to broaden the scope of enquiry by considering other major conurbations in Japan. A third step might be to compare Japanese cases with international ones, starting from the East Asian region.


Public outdoor consultation between city officials and residents about the proposed redevelopment of the station square

Plate 1.

Public outdoor consultation between city officials and residents about the proposed redevelopment of the station square

Various publications by the Kunitachi Tourism Association, featuring images of the old station building

Plate 2.

Various publications by the Kunitachi Tourism Association, featuring images of the old station building

Photographic exhibition celebrating Kunitachi’s 50th anniversary as a city

Plate 3.

Photographic exhibition celebrating Kunitachi’s 50th anniversary as a city

Fundraising event organized by Kunitachi Honten: live painting at Hato no Yu public bath

Plate 4.

Fundraising event organized by Kunitachi Honten: live painting at Hato no Yu public bath


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Further reading

Sorensen, A. (2004), The Making of Urban Japan: Cities and Planning from Edo to the Twenty First Century, Routledge, London, New York.

Sorensen, A., Okata, J. and Fujii, S. (2010), “Urban renaissance as intensification: building regulation and the rescaling of place governance in Tokyo’s high-rise Manshon boom”, Urban Studies, Vol. 47 No. 3, pp. 556-583.


The author would like to express gratitude to Professor Darko Radović for his continuous support and advice on this research. Sumiko Enbutsu has offered valuable comments and criticism for the improvement of this paper. The author is thankful to fellow doctoral candidates at co+labo and to the reviewers of this paper.

Corresponding author

Marco Capitanio can be contacted at: