The Sky Tree: Upon the Shoulders of Shopping Mall Proprietors

Tokyo_Sky_Tree_2012Way back in 2001, William Gibson wrote that Japan “is still the future.” I haven’t spoken with Mr. Gibson recently, don’t know if he’s changed his mind; but from my battered, cat-hair-covered office chair here in Tokyo, it sure looks like we’ve fallen off the rocket sled at last. Shanghai is the new cyberpornographic mecca for neon ‘n’ chrome fetishists, while the singularity seems to be slouching towards us via the fiberoptic cables of the internet.

At least one corner of Tokyo, though, still leads the global pack. Last summer in Sumida Ward, the world’s tallest freestanding tower opened for business. The Tokyo Sky Tree stands 634 meters (2,080 feet) high; that’s 34 meters taller than China’s Canton Tower, if anyone’s counting (and you bet your sweet derriere they are). I can see it from my home several miles away. It looks like one of those finger trap toys, stretched out—as if God reached a finger down from the sky, like in the da Vinci painting, and instead of touching the hand of man, got His finger stuck in a construction site, and jerked back, stretching the whole mess into the clouds. We’re not letting you get away this time, Old Man.

The thing about the Sky Tree, though. Its base is a shopping mall. I was naively surprised. Guess I should have glanced at the official website: “The facilities are developed with the aim of producing a community brand transmitting new local values to the world by generously introducing facilities and functions that will manifest the charm of the shitamachi spirit and produce a synergy effect.”(1) See? Had I read that, I would have been warned that Shiketa, myself, and Baby in her pushchair would find ourselves struggling through three floors of cakes, souvenirs, fall fashions, and cartoon characters—merely to get to the entrance. The mall was thronged. Malls are always thronged. Back to that official website: most of the pages are available in Japanese and English only. But the mall guide also has Korean and Traditional and Simplified Chinese options. I guess Japanese and English are still languages of the future, while Chinese and Korean are the languages of shopping. But everyone has to go through the mall.

I was so mad about it I refused to go up to the observatory. I wasn’t going to play their game, and anyway, by that time poor little Baby was fretting. I’m still mad about it—can you tell?

Who took away the future and put a shopping mall in its place? Was it You, God?

On reflection, though. You know Tokyo didn’t build the tallest freestanding tower in the world just to one-up the Cantonese. Or even just as a digital terrestrial broadcasting tower. No, there is pride here, there’s a record-breaking accomplishment, there are little pieces of all the dreams that were going to take us to the stars back in the eighties. There’s something here to love.

Thing is, though? Someone’s got to pay for that stuff. Rocket ships, they ain’t cheap. And the NASA kitty’s so empty you can hear it rattle.

So, thank you, Tobu Railway Group, owner-operators of the Sky Tree.(2) Thank you, shopping mall proprietors all over the world. Maybe we’ll have a future after all—one funded by the Dog Dept Café, Cecil McBee, and Starbucks.


1. It is not a policy of this blog to milk Janglish for cheap humor.

2. See this video for further confirmation that the Sky Tree’s designers had space on their minds … or something. That mascot’s got a star-shaped head! And her name is Sorakara-chan, which can be read as “Little Comes-From-the-Stars.”

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