Thursday, January 30, 2014

Will Miss #533 - the liberal zoning laws

A restaurant (with vending machine in front), temple, hotel and apartment complexes all in close proximity. I don't know if this is usual for cities in the U.S., but it's the common crazy quilt in Tokyo.

I grew up in a rural area, so things like zoning laws never really meant much to me. There was so much land between homes and businesses that it never occurred to me in my youth that people shouldn't or wouldn't be allowed to build anything anywhere they wanted to. My husband, on the other hand, grew up in the suburbs and was aware of the way in which small cities and large towns drew lines between where business and homes could be located.

I have a relic from my past which is a jewel in my collection of Japan memories and that is the very first cassette tape that my husband made for me when he started his one-year contract in Japan. That tape is full of initial impressions made by someone who just got off the boat. When you live in a foreign country long enough, you become blind to things which you could see very clearly at first. One of the things that he noticed was the apparent lack of zoning laws which resulted in a mixture of businesses and residences.

Since I have never lived in a major city in the U.S., I didn't think twice about how much more interesting and colorful Tokyo was as a city as a result of the way in which shops and homes freely intermingled. In fact, they not only were up in each others businesses, but they shared buildings. It was very common for the first floor of an apartment building to contain a convenience store, a tea shop, or some other "mom and pop" establishment. I loved this when I was in Japan because it not only made things more convenient, but also you were never too far from a useful shop. I miss the way the liberal zoning laws allowed residences and businesses to mix.


  1. One of the first things I noticed as well. Coming from the car culture that is America whereby parking is probably the biggest consideration of many would-be businesses, it was shocking to see commercial developments (especially restaurants) nestled quietly into neighborhoods. I really thought that this was one of my biggest culture shocks of all things! Obviously, the language, the writing, the incredibly homogenous population (my first experience was in a town of less than 200K and it was mid-1990s) were bigger culture shocks. However, I was just agog at the fact that my then girlfriend (now wife) could walk 3 doors down and sit down to a small restaurant whose neighbors were....neighbors/houses.

    My wife often comments about how she misses that aspect of her neighborhood here in America. I just can't see America really ever adopting that kind of zoning laws. The only place that was remotely like it was - of all places - Monterey, CA where walking was the name of the game and there were many small little shops that doubled as residences (that may not be the case anymore since I was in Monterey in 1997).

    1. I'm right there with your wife. I find it boring to walk around in the U.S. because it can be huge swathes of nothing but homes and then large, bland patches of businesses (usually just the same old, same old chains). That mix was really appealing and I think it actually created an atmosphere that made you feel that there was more integration in daily lives. The people and the money weren't separate. They were symbiotic.

      Thanks for your comment!

    2. One other thing that I really think contributes to the lack of such zoning in America is that so many businesses are open 24 hours a day in America. Having a place open 24 hours a day probably makes things a bit difficult in closed quarters. Since I've only visited Tokyo a couple of times, I can tell you that the only businesses that are open 24/7 in my wife's smaller town was (not surprisingly) Konbini (convenience) stores.

    3. That's a good point. I think (but am not sure) that some fast food places or coffee shots (certainly internet cafes) are open around the clock. It does make sense that it would be far too distracting/problematic in the U.S. with places open all day and night.


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