The Post-War Rebirth of Yokohama

Yokohama today

Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan with a population of 3.7 million spanning 437 square kilometres. It is a port city that was first opened to foreign trade in 1854 at the end of the feudal Samurai era. Since then, Yokohama has developed as a modern industrial and residential city, adjoining Japan’s largest city, Tokyo.

This article explains the special character of Yokohama today and how innovative planning in the post-World War II period enabled Yokohama to retain its unique history and landscapes while at the same time accommodating the rapid growth of industry and population. The Yokohama Municipal Government was the first in post-war Japan to seriously consult with communities and effectively negotiate on their behalf for high-quality urban design.

The Impact of World War II

Japan experienced its first democratic government, free from interference from army generals, following its defeat in 1945. However, as time passed, conservative politicians and bureaucrats of the pre-war era gradually returned to the forefront and started to promote economic growth by establishing a highly centralised governmental system. Local government was relegated to a subordinate role under direction from national ministries and agencies.

Aerial photo of Yokohama with its port and Mt. Fuji, symbol of Japan, in the background

Yokohama remained in part control of the Americans after 1945, including a rundown airfield that occupied part of the central city in a dilapidated state until the 1960s.

Key figures in Yokohama’s planning rebirth

Ichio Asukata, a member of the National Parliament of the Japanese Socialist Party, won the 1963 election against his conservative counterparts to become the Mayor of Yokohama for a term that extended to 1978. He came up with the idea of direct democracy by citizens and created a citizen-centred local administration, which was later named the ‘Liberal Local Governmental Movement’. Asukata was determined to reduce the central government’s influence over many areas of action and policy that had an impact on local communities.

The challenges initiated by Yokohama were followed by other liberal local governments and would ultimately lead to the reform of the centralised system of government in Japan.

The first term of the Asukata administration was an era of sprawl in greater Tokyo as a result of rapid economic and population growth. The air was polluted by exhaust fumes from factories and cars, and the water was contaminated by factory effluent and domestic sewage. The previous city administrations had been unable to respond effectively. Participation of citizens and the active involvement of local governments were essential to ensure better outcomes in Yokohama and throughout Japan.

Akira Tamura is the second key figure in Yokohama’s revival. He studied architecture, law and politics at the University of Tokyo before working in the government followed by a period with the Metabolism Group, a visionary Japanese planning consultancy led by Takashi Asaka. While with this group, Tamura devised a new planning and administration system to enable Japan’s vertically divided government to function as a unified organisation.

Asukata and Tamura got to work quickly and in 1964 proposed a number of visionary longterm projects to strengthen the overall structure of the city later named ‘The Six Spine Project’. This plan was adopted by the city government but it was not equipped to implement it in the face of central government policies, limited resources and residents who were not used to being consulted by the government.

In 1968 Tamura, then 41 years old, was invited to join the new Yokohama City Administration as chief planner. He started by setting up a new Planning and Coordination Department of 20 young multi-discipline professionals working as a collaborative team to take on the task of negotiating the facilitation of the plan with all concerned including federal departments, the private sector and local communities.

The Six Spine Projects

1. Revitalisation of the central business district

This involved reallocation of industrial land uses, the re-establishment of existing Central Business District (CBD) buildings and uses, together with the integration of new road and rail infrastructure. The expanded new CBD is a rich mix of old and new precincts that are directly connected to a new attractive landscaped public foreshore that includes a new centrepiece of the Osanbashi Yokohama International Ferry Terminal

2. Kanazawa land reclamation project

This was a land reclamation project that accommodated industrial uses relocated from the CBD together with new residential uses.


3. Kohhoko new town project

A new residential area to the north of central Yokohama that broke new ground in community building and preserved significant traditional farming areas.

4. Re-imagining the planned urban motorway network

This was a major battle for Yokohama City because the powerful national road building authority was planning an elevated freeway through the entire length of Yokohama CBD severely compromising its future. They were persuaded, against all odds, to build the road link below ground at significant extra cost.

5. Municipal subway networks

The post-war era saw the development of a new subway network that required careful integration with the developing new city centre.

6. Bay Bridge project

An additional urban infrastructure project symbolising the port city of Yokohama that required careful integration through negotiation with national levels of government and land  stakeholders.


Conceptual map of the role of the Minato Mirai Project integrating two existing central business districts

The Redevelopment of the Minato Mirai Area

The Minato Mirai Project is a redevelopment of Yokohama’s central waterfront area, which aimed to create an integrated CBD spanning a total area of 186 hectares (110 hectares of existing land and 76 hectares of reclaimed land). This new CBD was designed to connect two existing CBDs: the old Kannai district and the new Yokohama station district.

Large parts of this site were occupied by a 20 ha. shipyard owned by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Negotiating the relocation of this use to the Kanazawa Land Reclaimation Site was very ambitious for a local authority to negotiate without significant funds and powers. The site was also occupied by freight yards managed by the national rail authority. The process of negotiation and relocation uses from this site took two decades of persistent effort and was continued faithfully by Tamura’s planning and co-ordination team well beyond his tenure at Yokohama

Implementation of this project started in 1983 and at this point the plan is over 90% complete. It now includes:

  • Landmark tower: A 300-metre, high-rise commercial, business and hotel complex was built and is operated by Mitsubishi Estate.
  • Global headquarters of Nissan Motors.
  • A waterfront convention centre and hotel.
  • Cultural facilities including galleries, technology museums and a children’s centre.
  • Office, retail, food and high-density residential uses.
  • Open space throughout the precinct and on the foreshore.
  • Ground level and elevated walkways connecting to the subway system and adjoining areas.

Minato Mirai replaced relocated industrial uses and, together with further land reclamation, has created an attractive setting for residents and workers. It has also become a popular tourist destination within the greater Tokyo metropolitan region. It is well integrated with the extended CBD and additional recovered public foreshore. It is, in many ways, a mature embodiment of Le Corbusier’s vision of Ville Radiese. It stands in contrast with older areas of Yokoham.a CBD and adds to the richness of the city.

The legacy of Akira Tamura (1926-2010)

The contribution of Akira Tamura to postwar Japan is quite well understood by Japanese professional planners and policy makers, but less well known outside Japan. He was awarded the Japanese Institute of Architecture’s Grand Prize in 2000 for ‘Formulation of theories and methods of innovative urban planning and their practice’. His legacy and work are actively being studied and promoted by a not-for-profit organisation called the Akira Tamura Memorial Organisation. They aim to promote his work and legacy and have recently translated Tamura’s book, Yokohama: The Making Of A City, which expands on this story and can be downloaded without cost at