Recherche Carnets de chercheur André Sorensen

André Sorensen

Tokaido Megalopolis: Developmental State Urbanism from Growth to Shrinkage


Debates about large-scale urbanization have seen a recent resurgence, with divergent interpretations of their significance and implications. This paper contributes to these debates from the perspective of the case of Japan, which is surprisingly absent from recent discussions which have focused primarily on the U.S., Europe, and China. When first identified as a ‘megalopolis’ in the 1960s the Japanese Tokaido region from Tokyo to Osaka was already larger and denser in population than the north-east seabord of the US, and was growing much faster. The Japanese case is particularly valuable for current debates as Tokaido’s peak growth was half a century ago during a very different period, and is a region that has already finished its urbanization phase and is now shrinking in population so the compete process of megalopolitan growth can be studied.

Recent decades have seen a renewed focus on issues of large-scale, polycentric metropolitan regions, their economic and social significance, and how to plan them (Hall, 1997; McGee and Robinson, 1995; Scott, 2001; Andre Sorensen and Okata, 2011). An important contribution was inspired by the expansion of the European Union, and its policies of promoting economic competitiveness, territorial social cohesion, and enhanced sustainability (Faludi, 2018; Faludi and Waterhout, 2002; Jensen and Richardson, 2001). European Union efforts to create transnational spatial planning capacities prompted research projects designed to analyse the extent and nature of functional integration in emerging polycentric urban regions (Halbert, Convery, & Thierstein, 2006; Hall and Pain, 2006; Hoyler, Kloosterman, & Sokol, 2008).

In the U.S. the identification of an emerging megaregion scale is linked with advocacy for planning efforts to enhance economic competitiveness and sustainability in a globalizing world, in which the US is seen as falling behind, and envious comparisons with Europe are explicit (Florida, Gulden, & Miellander, 2008; Robert E. Lang and Dhavale, 2005; R. E. Lang and Nelson, 2007; Regional Plan Association, 2006; Ross, 2009). Documents such as the Regional Plan Association 2050 Plan (2006) which identifies 11 US megaregions, are primarily arguments for increased strategic planning capacity and investment particularly in high-speed rail, and can be read as a kind of strategic regional boosterism (Wachsmuth, 2015). Others are skeptical that promoting megaregion growth and integration is likely to contribute to more sustainable futures in the U.S., because of increased private vehicle travel (Wheeler, 2009).

As Harrison and Hoyler argue, there are many different regionalization projects, and global interest in megaregions is highly uneven. They suggest that “we urgently need more systematic examination of who is determining how megaregionalism is constructed politically, why – and specifically, in whose interests – megaregionalism is being mobilized, and how actors seek to defend and enhance their essential interests through megaregionalism” (2015: 19). The Japanese case supports the idea that contests over the political construction of megaregions are important, but with the advantage that these battles are long past, and we can see the outcomes.

The Tokaido Megalopolis

The Tokaido Megalopolis is the core region of Japan, along the Pacific coast of the main island of Honshu, stretching from Tokyo in the east to Osaka in the west. The name ‘Tokaido’ translates literally as ‘east sea road’, and was the name of the feudal era highway running east along the Pacific coast from the old imperial capital of Kyoto to the Shogun’s capital Edo (now Tokyo), which was the actual seat of power. This area has long been the core political and economic area of Japan, but industrialization and modernization in the 20th century saw a dramatic concentration of population and industry here. New modes of transportation and communications, especially railways, telegraph and telephone, were first developed here, and state-led heavy industrial development was also focused in this area before WW2. But it is during the post-war ‘rapid growth’ period that the Tokaido region achieved its current dominant position in the Japanese space economy. A combination of huge investment in industrial plant and infrastructure, and a massive rural to urban migration to Tokaido from all other parts of Japan dramatically reinforced the scale and centrality of this region (Sorensen, 2002).

Jean Gottmann’s (1957, 1961) seminal work Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States was a major turning point in conceptions of large-scale urbanization. Published first as a short paper in Economic Geography (1957), and four years later as a massive tome of 810 pages, Megalopolis (1961) was ground-breaking in its conceptualization of the region between Boston and Washington as a single, integrated, and polynuclear urban region, even though there remained extensive non-urban areas throughout. Until this point the dominant image of giant cities was of metropolitan regions composed of a central city surrounded by suburbs and hinterlands.

Figure 1. Mapping Tokaido Megalopolis, 1968 Source: Doi (1968)

Gottmann’s ideas excited intense interest in Japan, perhaps more, even, than in the US, and a significant literature on the Tokaido megalopolis quickly emerged, (Doi, 1968; J. Gottmann, 1980; Isomura, 1969; Nagashima, 1967, 1968, 1981). The Tokaido megalopolis was similar to its US cousin, but was bigger, denser, and growing faster. By 1965 the core area of Tokaido from Tokyo to Osaka (without hypothesized extensions shown in Figure 1) and was home to 50 millions, half the population of Japan, (Nagashima, 1967: 12). And while the population density of the US Megalopolis was 2.7 per hectare, the average density in Tokaido was 14 per hectare (1,400/square km) in 1965 (Doi, 1968: 97). A significant focus of early research was on descriptions of processes and patterns of growth (Nagashima 1967; 1968, Doi 1968), on attempts to define, measure and map the extent of megalopolis consistently (Doi, 1968; Tonuma, 1970), and on the connectivity offered by emerging transportation and communications networks and technologies: bullet trains, telephones, expressways, etc. (Jean Gottmann, Hauser, Tange, & James, 1968; Nagashima, 1967; Tonuma, 1970). The bullet train, in particular, dramatically reduced travel time from Tokyo to Osaka from eight hours by express train to three hours when it opened for regular service in 1964 as the world’s first high-speed train (Hanes, 1993; Yamamoto, 1993). A key feature identified in Tokaido was the polycentric linking together of specialized urban centres, with government and finance in Tokyo, heavy industry and manufacturing in Nagoya, trading and manufacturing in Osaka, high end cultural production and high-tech ceramics in Kyoto. This project examines the contemporary research published on Tokaido in the 1960s and 1970s, which echoes much current work on China and mega-urbanization, and then compares that perspective with the much different understanding of the developmental state today, 50 years after the period of rapid growth, with a focus on governance, environmental issues, and real estate.


The Tokaido case points to several major issues that are not readily apparent from contemporary cases of Europe, the U.S., and China. First, timing is important in the development and planning of mega-conurbations, particularly in relation to prevailing ideas and norms of planning practice. In the 1960s belief in planning was still strong, the Japanese developmental state was booming, massive social housing projects and new towns were still breaking ground, and neoliberalism was yet unknown. Political battles were not about whether to plan, but about where to invest. Global capital flows, building technologies, and infrastructure finance and governance institutions are different today than they were in the 1960s, so basic characteristics of megaregion growth are different.

Second, even if scale and complexity mean that to an important extent mega-conurbations are self-organizing systems, that does not mean that they cannot be or are not planned both at the large scale with major infrastructure, and at smaller scales through regulations, taxes, and norms. While major infrastructure investments are almost always the subject of visible political battles, the much less visible but equally important struggles are those over the deeper rules of engagement of urbanization: development control rules, building standards, municipal organization and finance, water supply, housing policy and finance. While in the U.S. and Western Europe these tend to be taken for granted, in the rest of the world these institutions are much more ‘in play’ in the political economy of urbanization, and in practice are highly variable, playing a major role in differentiating outcomes between places.

Third, during the 1960s it was expected that rapid growth would continue indefinitely, but not only has Japanese economic growth halted since the early 1990s, population has also started to decline since 2008. It is projected that Japanese population will have declined by 30 million by 2050 to about 98 million. The Tokaido Megalopolis area is already seeing population loss, mass housing vacancy, land abandonment, and de-urbanization. Similar projections of imminent demograhic decline are made for Korea and Taiwan, as well as China, whose total population is projected to peak soon after 2025. Birth rates around the world are dropping fast, and global urbanization is projected to reach 80% before the end of the century. The 21st century will therefore represent the endgame of urbanization, and the current period of rapid urbanization should be understood as a distinct and time-limited phase of human evolution. The emergence of any particular mega-conurbation is likely to have enormous long-term consequences, which suggests the value of careful attention to the particular choices that are made. The Japanese case suggests that in some policy arenas particular choices had enduring impacts, whereas for others where evolution continues undiminished after growth ends.


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