One true love: Tokyo Tower, mon amour

One true love: Tokyo Tower, mon amour

Amid the endless hoopla for Tokyo Skytree, let’s not forget the tower that started it all

Steve TrautleinAccording to a recent Cabinet Office survey, more than two-thirds of Japanese people say they feel “uneasy or troubled” in their daily life. And who can blame them?

With nuclear meltdowns, a dilapidated economy and the unstoppable rise of “pop group” AKB48, the national mood is understandably bleak.

Now, just when it seemed the locals had enough to contend with, along comes a new affliction: Tokyo Skytree fatigue.

Most of us assumed that the hype surrounding the tower’s debut would subside after the grand opening on May 22. Boy, were we wrong.

During the past two weeks, Fuji TV has aired reports on Skytree-inspired nail art and Skytree-shaped sponge cakes.

I’m half expecting to find shelves full of Skytree-themed sex toys the next time I visit Akihabara.

Don’t get me wrong -- the tower itself is lovely. The architects have, to my admittedly untrained eye, achieved their goal of fusing “traditional Japanese beauty and neo-futuristic design.”

And I appreciate how Skytree has revived interest in shitamachi districts along the Sumida River.

As an op-ed in the Asahi Shimbun recently put it: “The spirit of miyabi (elegance) and iki (chicness) embraced by residents of Edo befits the working-class neighborhood where the tower stands.”

Tokyo TowerOut with the old? The capital's original tower still looks stunning.

It’s also been fun watching city fathers fall all over themselves to promote the 634-meter Skytree as the World’s Biggest ... something or other.

Although the tower is dwarfed by the 828-meter Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which holds the coveted title of World’s Tallest Building, Tokyo Governor Ishihara et al can nevertheless boast that their structure is, in fact, the World’s Highest Freestanding Broadcasting Tower.

Whatever the hell that means.

Even the full-on media coverage has had an upside -- it has served as a distraction from the lingering trauma of the March 11 disaster.

As the Asahi points out, the tower reached its full height just a week after the earthquake struck -- news that, at the time, offered a “flicker of hope” to the devastated nation.

Fourteen months later, the frenzy inspired by the grand opening suggests that Japan has begun to heal in earnest.

I think it’s safe to say that if people are able to enjoy TV shows about competitive eaters chomping around the tower’s food court, then the national mood has brightened.

More on CNNGo: Get your camera out for the Tokyo Skytree

Tokyo SkytreeLook -- it's officially the world's most-hyped Really Big Thing.

Yet the more I hear about the magnificence of Tokyo Skytree, the more I find myself thinking about its middle-aged cross-town cousin, Tokyo Tower.

And no matter how much I try to get on board with the grandiose claims made by Skytree enthusiasts -- that it symbolizes a fresh beginning for Japan, that it underscores Tokyo’s continuing relevance as an East Asian business and cultural hub -- I can’t help but feel that, in this case at least, bigger isn’t necessarily better.

It’s often said that the story of Tokyo Tower mirrors the rebirth of postwar Japan. Debuting in 1958 as a relay facility for TV and radio broadcasters, the 333-meter structure quickly gained renown as a sightseeing attraction.

Its design was modeled on the Eiffel Tower’s, but the Japanese brought to the project their typical industry and thrift.

Though slightly taller than its Parisian counterpart, Tokyo Tower weighs barely half as much, and some of the steel used in its construction had been requisitioned from scrapped US Army tanks.

Along with Japan’s nascent Shinkansen network and the hosting of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the tower embodied the expansive hopes of a resurgent nation.

The other tower

And yet, although it’s helped define the capital’s skyline for more than half a century, Tokyo Tower has always been more admired than loved.

Tokyo TowerThanks for the memories. Tokyo Tower, as it looked in 1958.

This is clearly seen in the negligible impact the structure has had on art and popular culture.

Sure, it’s starred as a chew-toy in countless “Godzilla” movies, and it serves as an important backdrop in the “Always” film-cum-mangafranchise.

But in terms of symbolic appeal and cultural resonance, Tokyo Tower is not even in the same conversation as Mount Fuji or Hiroshima’s A-bomb dome.

Strangely enough, this is precisely why I feel so much affection for it. Tokyo Tower’s supporting role in Japan’s renaissance was accompanied by no outsized ambition, no extravagant claims.

Its muscular profile simply loomed, ever present, as the country rebuilt itself into something great.

In this regard, it’s instructive to consider the reason Tokyo Tower has been supplanted by Skytree -- the older tower’s broadcast signals are being blocked by the city’s new cluster of skyscrapers.

In other words, Tokyo Tower has been rendered obsolete by the success of the very energies that shaped its creation.

As post-Bubble Japan struggles to bounce back from last year’s disaster, it seems unlikely that Tokyo Skytree will preside over a similar recovery.

Yes, the new tower deserves applause, and yes, it will endure as a tourist draw and as an object of media fascination.

But no matter what its breathless proponents claim, Skytree will not single-handedly spur an economic miracle or revive the spirits of a depressed nation.

That would be a tall order -- too tall for even the World’s Highest Freestanding Broadcasting Tower.

More on CNNGo: We climb the Tokyo Skytree

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steve Trautlein.

Steve Trautlein is a Japan-based journalist and editor ...

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