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Charter Cities Podcast Episode 53: Emergent Tokyo

A lively conversation with Joe McReynolds, co-author of Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City about the characteristics of Tokyo urbanism, the role of policy in the city, lessons that may be applied to charter cities, and also some of Joe's thoughts on China's current military capabilities.


We are joined on the show today by Joe McReynolds, co-author of Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City, and we have an extensive conversation about the characteristics of Tokyo urbanism, the role of policy in the city, lessons that may be applied to charter cities, and also some of Joe’s thoughts on China’s current military capabilities. Joe makes a strong argument for avoiding culturally essentialist understandings of Tokyo, and also plots how the history of Tokyo eschews western understandings of urban planning strategies. We touch on the nature of Tokyo neighborhoods, rental and ownership, greenery and beautification, and much more. To finish off this fascinating chat, we turn to Joe’s interest and involvement in Chinese affairs and reflect on the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on China’s ambitions. So to catch all this and more in this lively and eye-opening chat with Joe, press play!

Key Points From This Episode:

  • A look at Joe’s two areas of expertise; urbanism in Tokyo and Chinese National security.
  • Joe unpacks the different forms of relevant urbanism.
  • The complexity of Tokyo’s urbanism and how it stretches typical western paradigms.
  • The influence of policy and design on Tokyo and its neighborhoods.
  • Norms around housing, upkeep, and building standards in Tokyo.
  • Ownership and renting; Joe talks about the importance of landlords in Tokyo.
  • Shinto practices and the traditions that subtly bind neighborhood communities.
  • Tokyo residents’ attitudes towards the external impacts on individual lifestyles.
  • Joe’s thoughts on greenery in Tokyo.
  • Lessons from Tokyo for charter cities and Joe’s passion for these projects.
  • The impact of international restrictions on semiconductor exports to China.
  • Exploring the example that Russia’s war with Ukraine is setting for China.
  • Joe talks a little bit about Ephemerisle and its representation of competitive governance.


Kurtis: Welcome to the Charter Cities Podcast. I’m Kurtis Lockhart. On each episode, we invite a leading expert to discuss key trends in global development in the world of cities, including the role of charter cities and innovative governance will play in humanity’s new urban age.

For more information, please follow us on social media, or visit

Jeffrey: I’m Jeffrey Mason, research manager at the Charter Cities Institute. Joining me on the podcast today is Joe McReynolds. He’s an affiliated urban scholar with Keio University’s Almazan Architecture and Urban Studies Laboratory in Japan. He’s also the chief for Global Information Operations and Cyber at the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, the China Security Studies Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, and as a co-founder of the China Cyber Intelligence Studies Institute.

He is the research editor and coauthor of our main topic of conversation today, Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City. He is also the lead editor and coauthor of China’s Evolving Military Strategy, and the forthcoming book, China’s Information Warfare. We have a wide-ranging conversation on the emergent nature of Tokyo urbanism and urbanism more generally, as well as on China’s military capabilities and the potential for conflict over Taiwan. I hope you enjoy this episode. Thank you for listening.

Jeffrey: Thanks for coming on the show, Joe.

Joe: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Jeffrey: So, before we get into our discussion of Emergent Tokyo, and some of your other work, you have this really interesting sort of dual-track background where you have done a lot of research and published both on urbanism. So, obviously this book on Tokyo, that’s our main focus today, but also on Chinese national security issues. How did you come to arrive at this situation where you’re a scholar of these two very different fields?

Joe: Well, my day job is still in national security, foreign policy. I’m kind of an urban studies academic on nights and weekends. Really, how I came to it was working in national security and foreign policy, I spent my 20s traveling the world and I’ve always been fascinated by cities. One of the things I realized as I traveled around the world was it was different cities working differently enabled very different modes of living, almost – the way I like to say is that they paint with different emotional color palettes, and that there were concrete reasons for why that played out differently in different places, not just sort of an airy cultural well.

Japan is like this and Lebanon is like that. And also, I studied Japanese in high school and college. I studied abroad in Japan. So, I had a background in being able to engage with Japan and Japanese academic literature. Over time, I started to realize, that just Tokyo was also the city in the world where the most different possibilities were being explored at once. Different possibilities of how to live, how to form community, how to come together. I found that really fascinating, especially the ways that subcultures play out in Tokyo more robustly than other cities in the world. There are all these subcultures that exist all over the world, but most of the world, it’s on the internet, or maybe they meet up at the convention twice a year, that sort of thing. But in Tokyo, the subcultures can take over real physical space in the city, and why is that?

So, I always just assumed that I would never get the chance to actually formally study this. I thought it was just my personal, growing passion over time. But then, I started collecting primary source materials and just start exploring what might be possible. After a few years, came an opportunity to become a visiting fellow with the Japanese Ministry of Defense. So, I used that visa to then become an urban studies scholar with Keio University in Tokyo, and I had one year to kind of attempt jumpstarting a whole second side of my life.

Jeffrey: An easy task.

Joe: It was one of the most difficult and terrifying things I’ve ever done and it came with huge costs in my life also, but ultimately, it didn’t work out. Somehow I’m able to be useful as an urban studies scholar and hopefully, useful in my day job and in foreign policy, national security. So, it seems to be working out crazily enough, but it was an obsession of personal passion, that then eventually became a side career. So, it doesn’t exactly pay money or anything, but it’s definitely what gets me up in the morning looking at the cityscape around me and thinking from the lessons I’ve learned from Tokyo, what could we change? How could our cities grow and become more dynamic and inclusive?

Jeffrey: That’s awesome. I think it is very cool that you’re able to arrive at that point without, okay, yeah, you spent years as an urban planner or something, and then moved into that. But it was this sort of – like you talk about in the book, this idea of sort of an emergent urbanism in Tokyo, emergent expertise, almost, if you will.

Joe: Yeah.

Jeffrey: One additional note on this for our listeners, something I thought of, where Joe talked about, there’s sort of this color palette, if you will, of different sort of types of communities and urban forms, and all of these things, listeners might find interesting. A good ongoing case study in this, Scott Beyer from the Market Urbanism Report, is in the middle of a world tour, world cities tour. He’s hitting sort of every continent and cities in how many countries, but a lot of them principally in the global south.

Joe: Okay. Is he going to go to Tokyo? Do we know that?

Jeffrey: I’m not sure if that’s on his list, it might be. He’s working, I believe, through Latin America at the moment. But lots of really interesting stuff so far out of Central and South America, both his writing and also pictures of city scenes and places, and people that he’s met so far. So that’s something listeners that enjoy this conversation might enjoy checking out.

That being said, let’s go ahead and jump in a little bit to Tokyo urbanism. And part of the framing you set up in the book here is that there’s sort of this middle ground between what you might call chaotic urbanism, and corporate urbanism. And that there’s this middle piece, which is played out through a lot of Tokyo, but is maybe under attack, in some ways, something that we might think of as emergent urbanism.

So, can you explain what you mean by these different forms? What the current dynamics of these competing urban isms, if you will, how that’s playing out?

Joe: Sure. So, chaotic urbanism isn’t necessarily our term. But there are a lot of people that have analyzed Tokyo and other cities as being these like sites of chaos, and then, you have large scale corporate mega developers come in, and that’s kind of its own ordered development out of chaos, or in the past, you had major municipal urban planners, the modernists coming in saying we are going to, from the public sector, redesign the city from whole cloth. It’s really a question of top down versus bottom up that a lot of the parts of Tokyo that are what everyone loves, when they come to visit, that everyone’s blown away by, are not top down design. The top down designed parts of Tokyo either feel like a luxury mall or just a kind of a series of bland concrete mall scapes.

The parts of Tokyo that feel the most Tokyo-esque and beloved are not the parts of the city that were designed from the top down for the most part, to be that way. Whether that’s designed from the top down by government, or by private, large scale developers. That said, some of them came bottom up from private development, some of them came bottom up from the government saying, hey, in the post-World War II black markets that were all over Tokyo, those little black marketeers, stalls selling stuff, rather than throwing you in jail for being a black marketeer, we’re going to build a cheap, quick series of market stalls, and they’re all identical, and we’ll assign them by lottery. And then, just over the court, and we’ll give you the property rights to your little stall. These are near major train stations and some of the most valuable land on the planet as it happens.

But out of those over time, in organic evolution, some of them have become the most beloved districts of the city. Golden Gai, the micro bar district is one that’s world famous, and that a lot of listeners of this podcast may have at least heard of. That’s kind of what we’re focused on is understanding that paradox of Tokyo being in many ways, one of the most livable cities in the world, however, you wanted to find that in most beloved cities in the world. But by and large, the parts of it where the government said we’re going to design this space anew or a mega developer even said, we are going to design this space anew. We’re going to design a district of the city from our plan have ended up not carrying any of that charm.

Jeffrey: Yeah, I think this is interesting, right? Obviously, the use of the phrase emergent sort of invokes sort of Hayekian and notions of sort of discovery. I think there’s, on your elaboration there, I think also evokes kind of an Ostromian polycentric order as well.

Joe: The nice thing about being a fake academic who got into this, from a very concrete angle is that I still don’t know what Hayekian or Ostromian truly implies. As the meme goes at this point, I’m too afraid to ask. I got feedback on a monograph I did on Tokyo micro spaces that said, “Can you insert a little bit more Ostromian analysis in here?” I’m like, someone who understands what that means can take my concrete data on Tokyo micro spaces and how they function and tell me what the Ostromian lens on that is.

Jeffrey: We’ll have to hook you up with a coauthor from the George Mason sphere.

Joe: My unfortunate habit in this is that Tokyo has aspects that work wonderfully because they’re pretty libertarian. Aspects that work wonderfully because they’re pretty socialist. Aspects that work terribly, because they’re pretty libertarian. Aspects that work terribly because they’re pretty socialist. It doesn’t fit neatly into the kind of the battle lines, or same thing with like NIMBY/YIMBY. It just doesn’t fit neatly into the battle lines that are drawn in America, and especially, American urbanist or housing Twitter. When possible, I like to work with organizations on the lessons from Tokyo that are kind of in tension or in friction with the dominant ideology of their organization, because I think that kind of underlying creative tension helps break new ground.

Jeffrey: Yeah, it produces the most intellectually interesting results.

Joe: Yeah. Why is the libertarian approach or the doctrinaire libertarian answer to this urban problem? Why is it working poorly in this respect in Tokyo? You can also talk about the other areas in which it’s working quite well. You have mega corps, dividing the transit and suburban development between them, and in ways that actually, overall work pretty effectively, for example. But that’s one thing that I’ve found can be a positive in the book, is I found – I’ve done talks before audiences that were a mix of like leftist and libertarians, but all very invested in good faith in livable cities beyond just their own personal profit incentive as safe as a developer or something like that. And really, talking about a city outside of our daily experience here in America, that has lessons for both sides, I think really enables a lot of good faith interactions between spheres of research and academia and activism that don’t always interact with each other.

Jeffrey: I agree. Absolutely. I think that’s what makes these urban discussions are one of the most s interesting spaces to participate in. Let’s talk about sort of one of these tensions, maybe, with a concrete example. One of those sort of policy tools that you mentioned, that could maybe have some use in sort of helping to preserve, maybe preserve isn’t the right word. Maybe that can be a charged word in urbanists circles. How is emergent urbanism sustained in Tokyo from sort of a policy perspective? One of the examples that I’m thinking of that I think, sort of brings out these factions or this tension, if you will.

All right. So, floor area ratio limits are sort of a tool that you can say, okay, you set a particular far, and that functionally prohibits maybe some big skyscraper from being developed. And instead, only something smaller scale gets built. So, that’s a policy tool. Oftentimes, you’ll hear people say in some places, this kind of been used to potentially disastrous effects. I think Mumbai is often kind of the poster child for when restrictions go too far. So, how does Tokyo retain from a policy perspective, retain its emergent urbanism without putting the brakes on San Francisco style where you can’t do anything?

Joe: Yeah, that’s the one key thing, I think, is that a lot of these questions like far and neighborhood preservation, and things like that, redevelopment, they take on such a different tenor, when we’re talking in an environment of scarcity, especially housing scarcity. It doesn’t feel like there are enough places for people to live, and so housing costs are spiraling, and everyone is trying to claw their way to an acceptable life and seeing other groups in the city as in conflict with their ability to do that.

The flip side of that, also, is that for I think the average American who’s a homeowner, their home is basically their primary retirement savings account. Their main store of value. So, you get just an incredible sense of threatening their home appreciation, you’re threatening their plan for how they sustain themselves for the rest of their life oftentimes. So, it’s this environment that lends itself to zero sum thinking and thinking from a place of scarcity or deprivation, which is not always a terrible place. And just the fact that Tokyo and this is the great thing about a rail city because Tokyo is hyper suburban. A lot of people don’t realize this. Tokyo’s daytime population is a fraction of its nighttime population. Tokyo is very suburban, but they’re railway suburbs, rather than automobile suburbs and that makes all the difference in the world. In terms of computer development patterns, you name it.

You get patterns in Tokyo, on things like  that work quite well in Tokyo’s spatial structure, with Tokyo’s housing politics. A big example of that is what I like to call pocket neighborhoods. Pocket neighborhood is usually you take kind of an old-school square neighborhood, surrounded by major highway style, arterial roads, like, six lanes in total in roads. And that neighborhood, that old-school neighborhood, you might have kind of a labyrinth of narrow streets inside, that are tricky to navigate if you don’t know where you’re going. And those are often a century ago, they may have been agricultural paths or things like that. A very old-school, low-rise neighborhood with a more intimate character.

So then, you build these more modern buildings, much taller and modern buildings around the outside. Some of those are commercial. Some of those are apartment buildings, just kind of forming a perimeter like a square box around that neighborhood. That ends up actually working really wonderfully because the old-school neighborhood kind of keeps its classic, charming character, but you still get a density of office and residential and commercial space on the outside. But then also, it helps shield the neighborhood within from traffic, for example, because if you’re trying to get across town, you don’t cut through the labyrinth, you don’t know, you just take the main arterial roads. So, it shows different traffic from just kind of the intrusions of the of the outside. But also, most of them foremost from disasters, fire, earthquakes and fire, big risk in Japan.

So, having these wide arterial roads with modern fireproof buildings means that the older often more wooden construction within those pocket neighborhoods is more disaster protected. And then the old mom and pop businesses inside that neighborhood, they are getting daytime traffic from all the office workers who work in the modern towers on the outside and the apartment residents. So, they are getting more appreciated and more valued. And then, also, a key difference with America that’s just like – to me, the single biggest night and day difference, the zoning in the most residentially zoned parts of Japan because it’s national zoning. The most residential level of zoning, you can put in the bottom floor of your row house by right, a small bar, restaurant, workshop, boutique, classroom, medical practice, you name it.

Walking through these neighborhoods, it’s not just a series of houses that have no relation to you. It’s all these old little mom and pop businesses, and some of them are owned by the old folks living upstairs. Some of them are young people coming in who just want to try a little project with cheap rent. And the old guy who owns the house upstairs, he’s just happy to have some nice young kids around trying things, versus being old and bored.

So, you get this vibrant, intimate, walkable urbanism that’s attractive to everyone. That to me, is a model that in America, everyone would say, “Of course, what about the parking?” But if you can set aside the parking part for a second, that’s your thing. Parking is – there’s no free parking basically, in all of Tokyo. You’re either paying an absurd amount of money to park somewhere, or if you have a parking space on your property, which is rare. You have to prove to a car dealership that you have a place to park your car before you are allowed to buy that car. So, it’s just not designed with cars in mind.

Though, the interesting thing is it’s also not designed with crosstown biking in mind either. Because that’s, a lot of times, is the alternative in western cities, like Amsterdam, places like that, is a bike city, where everyone bikes across town. It’s designed with walking and public transit in mind and local biking. The idea that you have like your little one speed, two-speed bike, with a basket on the front, just for little popping around the neighborhood errands, that sort of thing. Sure. But if you’re going across town, you take the train for the most part. So, it’s a different model, but I think a really powerful one that leads to great neighborhoods,

Jeffrey: That answer hit on so many things that I wanted to talk about in this conversation. I’ll drop another little notion here for our George Mason friends, when you were talking about how Tokyo doesn’t have this sort of scarcity mindset, with regard to housing and that sort of thing. In a sense, Tokyo may have sort of solved Gordon Tullock’s Transitional Gains Trap about sort of compensating the losers from new things and change. So, I think that’s particularly interesting.

Joe: Well, that’s one possibility. Another possibility is – ads so a big part of the reason why – first off with Tokyo housing construction numbers, and how much they build housing, you got to be careful with those numbers. Because a lot of times, you’re tearing down an old house to build a new one and not necessarily with more units or anything like that. The idea of do you want to buy a used house is more of an uncommon or unusual thing, though it’s becoming more common in Japan, compared to that being the normal thing for the most part in most of the United States.

One big, big reason for that was that earthquake standards, safety standards, building processes, and things like that have historically been like leaps and bounds in each generation. And so, an old house is considered an unsafe house, in a place where everything is, not everything. But a lot of things are heavily defined by preparation for the next disaster in memory of previous disasters. Japan gets a lot of natural disasters. That’s starting to change, though, as at this point, Japanese building standards are among really the very highest in the world. I should also mention that also, if your expectation is that whoever buys your house is going to tear it down and build a new one, then you’re not going to invest a ton in costly maintenance and remodeling and things like that, for the most part. Then, you get into, it’s not just an old house, it’s an old, and likely, poorly maintained house.

Jeffrey: Becomes a necessity, anyway.

Joe: Yeah, it’s a lemon economy, I think is the term. But these days, Tokyo, or Japanese building standards, I should say, have gotten so high, and there are these government incentives for what they call 100-year homes, homes built to last 100 years, that it may no longer be the case going forward, that it’s just the bulk of the value is in either land and not the house and your house is a depreciating asset. And so, what if modern construction in Tokyo, what if it starts to be an appreciating asset, like so much American housing has been in cities and things. And if the economics start to look more like housing in the rest of the world, and this is something where, for a long time, a lot of kind of more orientalist writers about Japan, they would talk about how it’s – well, in Japan, you buy a used house, you’re inhabiting the sins and the tragedies of the previous owner.

And it’s like, yeah, a lot of apartment buildings in New York don’t have a 13th floor either, yeah. exist. It’s super thin to exist. But money matters. Regulations matter, like incentives matter. Don’t leap towards a cultural essentialist explanation if you can all help it. It’s both lazy, sometimes it’s racist. It’s just not a great way to actually understand what’s going on, or predict the future. Because if you’re looking at it as a cultural essentialist thing, you might be missing these changing –

Jeffrey: Right. You’re stuck in time.

Joe: Yeah, incentives. That’s the other – that was part of why Jorge and I really want to do this book also, is because a lot of the airy Tokyo, a land of contrasts kind of writing, it could have been written 20 years ago, or basically any time post bubble era really, after the bubble burst in the ‘80s, because it’s so little of it actually relates to anything on the ground. It’s all pitched in this kind of, well, Tokyo is an outgrowth of the immutable Japanese character, but you go back a century and all the like, racist stereotypes about Japan were the opposite stereotypes. Like, “Oh, chaos, noisiness laziness, blah, blah, blah.” Either Japanese culture careened from one extreme to the other, or what’s much more obviously the case, the material factors changed, and culture is always a relevant point of discussion. But it’s not the main point here.

That’s kind of a digression. But I think it’s important to note, and this is something where my weird experience with Japan really helps, because I think a lot of people, they come to Japan, and their only impression of engaging with Japanese people, if they don’t speak Japanese, their only impression of engaging Japanese people is the very sort of English speaking, globalist well to do Tokyo cohort, whether in customer service or in business, or things like that. That’s like, if you have no experience of America, and your entire understanding of what Americans are like, is you stayed with John Kerry’s extended family, and it’s all like Boston Brahmins or something like that.

There’s a whole other Japan out there. There’s a whole other America out there. And when I first lived in Japan, I was living next to a truck stop on Japan’s version of Route 66, with a retired cop and his wife, an elderly host family. And my first introduction to Japan, even before I lived in Tokyo was basically the opposite of every study, you see about like Japanese culture is like, blah, blah, blah. So, that’s something I really want to emphasize is for all this stuff, don’t default to a cultural explanation, because you don’t have the granular information, search out the granular information, the policies, the economic factors, all of that actually explains what’s going on.

Jeffrey: Yeah, I agree. And I think, sort of this what you’ve explained here, really, I think, shines through in your work on this topic. One additional quick note on your earlier point, it didn’t hit me when I was reading. But as you were talking about these, what you call the types of pocket neighborhoods, actually, obviously, there’s differences, but it actually reminds me quite a bit of Shenzhen’s urban villages, where you have these historic villages that were sort of given these protected spaces, all at the same time, just outside. Shenzhen was sort of springing up overnight and how these communities were able to benefit from that and use their property to benefit from that as things changed around them.

Joe: Interesting. That’s an interesting intersection between my day job and my nights and weekends job, and that I haven’t done so much reading on urbanism in China, simply because I can’t go to China anymore. My day job means that I cannot go back to mainland China. So, I’ve been interested in Taiwanese urbanism, that sort of thing. But I haven’t followed developments across China over the last decade that closely.

Jeffrey: Okay, if you’re okay with just books of CCI, we can recommend you some good books.

Joe: I love that. Yeah.

Jeffrey: One additional question on some of these earlier points. You mentioned how in some of these residential areas and sort of these classic alleyway neighborhoods, the little shops and commercial spaces. Do you have an idea of, is most of that owner occupied or rented? Did you have a sense of what that split looks like?

Joe: It’s something I found fascinating more broadly, in Tokyo is, it matters so much what type of landlord you have. I find this true in Tokyo, in New York. Are you your own landlord? Or are you renting from a random individual or a small local landlord operation? Or are you a line on a spreadsheet to a large corporate landlord operation? It just makes all the difference in the world, because if you’re lying on a spreadsheet, there’s always going to be that pressure in corporations tend to maximize profit. So, there’s always going to be that pressure to maximize the numbers on that spreadsheet and to push spaces towards their most economically efficient usage.

The question I like to ask more or less, whether it’s in America or the equivalent question in Japan, is why when I find an interesting small business, in an area that’s pretty developed, it’s like, why is this not become a Chipotle or a Starbucks, essentially? Why is this interesting thing still here and not replaced with a profitable, predictable chain or something along those lines? Or something aimed at a very upscale audience that’s marketing artisanal locavore, blah, blah, blah, at incredible prices? It just overwhelmingly seems to come down to what type of landlord do you have.

So, I find it’s a pretty – you get a huge mix, between it’s the guy living up above his shop, versus renting it out to younger folks. But it’s definitely skewing more towards the renting out over time for elderly homeowners. Simply because a lot of them are not necessarily wanting to run a small niche business with no profit in their golden years. I mean, some do, of course, all the mom and pop ramen places. Grandma making her bento boxes and selling them out front for office workers and stuff like that. And I love that. But their kids don’t necessarily want to take it over.

In some ways, a lot of these niche businesses it’s really a passionate young person’s game. I know a guy, his name is Su Casa and he’s like trilingual. I think, English, Spanish, Japanese and so he always goes, “Mi casa es su casa.” But he’s a fantastic Scandinavian style baker. And he got scouted through his baking on Instagram to open a small spot and he had traveled instead of doing, the salaryman life or that kind of corporate world stuff, he traveled and apprenticed in Scandinavia, in bread-making. And then when they came back, and that energy of I want to do something that really excites me, it doesn’t make a ton of money. But it’s where my passion is, and I want to pour in the hours in the little space. That’s young passion, in a country where and this goes back to kind of the socialism angle, and a country where you don’t have to worry about where your health insurance is coming from, your employer or not, where you aren’t crushed by student loans or saving for your kid’s college education in the same way that you necessarily are in America.

In a country where there’s tons and tons of supports financially set up that benefit unprofitable small businesses. You can keep the sales tax you collect up to a certain amount, that’s nothing to Chipotle, but means a massive difference to a guy running for seat cartography, themed bar for cartography enthusiast, that sort of thing. That’s actually a real bar. The cartography bar is amazing. Any map nerds seek me out on Twitter, and I can steer you to the hidden cartography bar. You get what I’m saying, right?

There’s actually, a lot of neighborhoods are in an interesting transition between the old artisans who had a lot of times were kind of working or lower middle class, essentially, in just ending up in these situations, because that was how they eked out a living. And then the young kind of DIY, artsy kids who are really taking up this legacy and not wanting to just take on boring corporate jobs and work themselves too hard. They’re coming to appreciate each other.

The young whippersnappers are coming to appreciate the old guys’ craftsmanship and heritage and everything. And the old guys are appreciating, like, “Well, maybe they’ve got tattoos or weird fashions, and they don’t necessarily look like my kind of people at first glance, but they got heart. My kid didn’t take over the family business. He’s working an office job somewhere and doesn’t come home as much as I’d like.” The unexpected inheritors of a legacy is kind of the intergenerational story in a lot of these old-school neighborhoods, and I find that fascinating and wonderful.

Jeffrey: Yeah, that is really interesting, especially since I think we’ve seen like a just insane decline in intergenerational interactions across the board, at least in the United States. I think it’s cool, how the sort of built environment and sort of keeps those kinds of interactions alive.

Joe: Yeah. Well, let me tell you another one for Tokyo that really makes a huge difference is Shintoism, not necessarily as a religion, but as a practice, I’m a non-theistic Jew, shall we say. I’m Jewish, but like I’m more cultural Jewish. I’m not on my knees praying to God. Shintoism is pretty relatable to me and how it’s often practiced in Tokyo because the Shinto, the little shrines, especially the portable shrines in different neighborhoods of Tokyo, there are all sorts of festivals where the portable shrine you got to get for usually men, not always, but usually in men with decent, semi decent muscle to them to lift this portable shrine on there four shoulders and kind of carry it around to represent the neighborhood in the local festival or things like that.

The young folks moving into a neighborhood, their initial thing might be like, “Well, getting involved with the local neighborhood council and that stuff, that’s kind of the old people thing. Yeah, I’m living here, but I got my whole city boy life across the city and stuff. I’m not mister neighborhood.” But the old guys, “Well, we need some young folks to carry the shrine for the festival.” And then there the young folks will be like, “Okay, yeah, yeah, sure. I’ll carry the shrine for the festival. That’s fun.” And the old folks are like, “Ah, gotcha. That’s how I started when I was in my 20s, 30s. I thought I’m too cool for this.” And next thing you know, they’re like, “Oh, yeah, could you volunteer for this one thing?” And, “Yeah, sure.”

These practices that make a neighborhood into a place where people know each other, and this is also huge for disaster resilience, like the ways that communities came to each other in the aftermath of the 3/11 tsunami and earthquake in Japan, this is something that’s a real concern with the move to mass high rise apartments out in a lot of suburbs and things like that. In those environments, nobody knows their neighbor. Like when I lived in a very big, sleek, modern building in New York for a year and a half, I didn’t know any of my neighbors. Maybe wave hi to someone you’ve seen a few times. But that’s it.

Those kinds of things, they make a difference. Not only the spatial environment, and the zoning that allows interesting little small businesses that don’t necessarily have to be super profit driven, they just have to not be so profoundly unprofitable, that it’s unsustainable. That combined with traditions and things like that, that kind of get people involved in the spatial dynamics, and the fact that you do feel like you’re in kind of a secluded world, when you’re inside one of these pocket neighborhoods, like you’re a part of something and not just walking through an endless suburbia, say, or Levittown or something like that. All of that matters.

Jeffrey: Yeah, absolutely. So, something that I think is kind of come out of our conversation, and one of the examples that makes me think when you talked about the proof of parking policies and the restrictions on the street parking and all of these kinds of things. It doesn’t seem like there’s an expectation among the residents of Tokyo that you kind of get to live your life externality free, in the sense that in American cities, there’s seems to be kind of a, I’m going to have my cake and eat it too attitude, where any sort of policies that would sort of force you to sort of internalize the social costs of your actions is extremely opposed. There’s no great way – as far as I can tell, right? There’s no great wave of opposition to say the proof of parking policies, maybe not.

Joe: One thing with that is these zoning policies, with great effort, you can find ways to slightly modify or tweak the national zoning policies at your local level, in some cases. But for the most part, with the zoning policies set at the national level, it makes it so you can’t fight city hall. Whereas in the States, you really can fight city hall and zoning and YIMBYs, especially in an incredibly powerful political force in many cities that YIMBYs are only now starting to catch up to a bit.

So, the movement to try and get zoning rules, especially housing and things like that, pushed up to higher levels, were the loudest people at your local city council meeting who are there every meeting and it’s like, do they have a job? Who knows. They’re always here. Those people not being able to just exert their will without – the people who have their opinions, but are just casually living their lives and not showing up hardcore to fight for YIMBY policies, them not getting drowned out. That’s really a function of moving it to the highest level up that you can, I think. That’s something that, realistically in America, will probably not ever be able to do at the federal level just based on how the Constitution works and everything. But definitely, the more we can kick it up to the state level, I think, the better the outcomes are likely to be, especially when you have a history in the states that’s it’s kind of a different history than you do in Japan, of white flight suburbanism, of people fleeing cities, often for reasons of racism, and classism and things like that, and to try and take their tax dollars with them to different school districts and different municipalities.

The more you can short circuit stuff like that, for example, at the state level, mandating more equitable distribution of school resources versus rich school districts get all the money, poor school districts don’t, that kind of thing. That really can help to defuse some of those politics, especially in an American context.

Jeffrey: Yep. I think that’s a great point. I want to change gears a little bit. So, we’ve sort of been talking about things more so maybe on, maybe call it a planning level, but we haven’t really touched on elements maybe of what you might call placemaking.

Joe: When we’re talking about placemaking, it’s also talking about charter cities, because that’s a form of placemaking, ultimately, among other things.

Jeffrey: Yes, that’s a good point. I found that your discussion of greenery in the book really fascinating, especially since that most of the urban greenery in Tokyo is informal in nature. It’s a person or a business, putting some plants out on the curb or whatever. Tokyo seems to have successfully resisted the kind of useless, really, wide-open green space brain worms that have colonized planning in the US and elsewhere. Culture probably plays a role here, with people sort of maintaining gardens historically, and that kind of thing. But is this also sort of a function of the pervasiveness of small lot sizes? What else is maybe going on here that keeps greenery this way?

Joe: Lots that go, basically, right up to the street or the alleyway or the pathway without a whole lot. No one’s got a lawn that they’re attending for the most part. I mean –

Jeffrey: Right. There are no front .

Joe: I shouldn’t speak in absolute terms. It’s not no one, but it’s not the default, the way that it is. Having a lawn is the default in American suburbia, for example. Yeah, so it’s putting out potted plants and things like that, just kind of casually beautifying the space is a thing going back to the Edo period, 1800s. It’s got a long tradition, and it’s not considered a great art of Japan or anything like that. It’s just a thing people do. There’s actually like a street horticulture society that loves cataloging them. Yeah, shout out to . But they’re just lovable weirdos.

It’s not like widely recognized as an integral part of Japanese culture, though it is something that you notice visually so much when you walk around. There are some huge parks in Tokyo, and there are some Greenbelt walking kind of strip parks and things like that. These things do exist in Tokyo too, to an extent. But it’s less the idea of the default. And public spaces, where a bunch of people go and hang out. I mean, you can take the train there, if you want. Like, for example, picnicking in the park during cherry blossom season is a near universal part of life in Tokyo. The picnics in the park is, people go picnic blankets and stuff like that, hop on the train, you all meet there.

So, parks are still there when you want them. But the idea that a park is this dominant form of public space is not the thing there. I think part of that is also, when you have this maze of local alleyways and things like that, filled with little interesting little mom and pop businesses, that becomes a kind of public or semipublic space. It’s not just you walk outside your front door, and there’s other houses, you can’t enter and there’s streets for cars. But if I want to walk out my front door from the house that I grew up in, in Southern California, I got to walk through the local park, local green space, because otherwise, where am I walking? Just walking down streets for cars. It’s just a very different urban environment.

So, that’s something where I think it’s if we can think kind of as a more about the cohesive whole, how we’re creating an urban environment that allows for community and serendipity, and discovery and the feelings of belonging, and that emotional color palette, especially for people unlike ourselves, or who are in different social strata, or different communities, you name it. That can allow for a more organic design than simply saying, we have determined scientifically that parks are good, and therefore you need these many parks per square miles or per thousand people. That kind of algorithmic formula. Different contexts can produce very different kinds of equilibriums. I’m not an econ person, but I if I vaguely recall correctly, the idea of like Nash equilibria. The idea that there can be multiple stable equilibria, rather than a single best equilibrium point. I’m probably completely butchering that concept, but that’s kind of where I’m going with this.

Jeffrey: I think you’re close.

Joe: Okay. Sure.

Jeffrey: Each chapter of the book covers a different style of Tokyo neighborhood and offers lessons which can be learned by observing those different types of neighborhoods, and these lessons range from, like we were talking about, before placemaking issues, like usage of greenery, or how signage is done to sort of bigger, more abstract matters. Like, thinking about generating agglomeration economies. And these lessons that are put forward, they’re from particular types of neighborhoods, but they’re sort of presented in a sort of general way where you could broadly apply those lessons to relatively similar types of neighborhoods or places elsewhere.

But zooming out, maybe to a little bit more of a macro view, and sort of thinking about the work. We’re doing with Charter Cities, let’s say one of our partners comes to you and says, “I’m building a city and it’s in Nigeria, or Zambia, or Honduras or somewhere else.” I understand that these places are not the same for a variety of reasons with economics, politics, and everything else as Tokyo. But what should I know from the experience of Tokyo?

Joe: First off, you should know to call me. Like any charter cities project, I’m always someone – I describe myself as a little bit pessimistic, on charter cities to you offline, I think, but I’m still interested. And also, I’m someone who wants to be involved and my motive is not particularly financial. I have a lot of thoughts on relatively low-cost ways to make cities of the future, whether they be charter cities, or just evolutions of current cities, more dynamic and livable from what I’ve learned studying Tokyo.

So, anyone listening to this, who has a charter cities project, you can find me on Twitter, through my website, you name it. I would love to sign whatever NDA you want me to sign and give you thoughts, feedback, you name it. Yeah, day job at national security. I’m used to signing NDAs. Just saying that flat out. But one of the key questions is a lot of charter cities projects, they are thinking primarily in terms of economic deregulation, and the ways in which that lends itself to a streamlined city that has a natural economic engine to it, and kind of the building the Singapore of Nigeria, or the Singapore of Honduras, or you name it. That certainly can be a part of a picture.

But at that point, as a starting point, that’s more of a special economic zone than a city. What makes a city, what makes the city this living, breathing, ecosystem or organism, which I like that way of thinking about on multiple levels, because if you design your city right or if your city turns out right, it will be like a resilient organism.

You look at maps of Tokyo pre and post great Kantō earthquake of 1923, or the firebombing of World War II. These events that just demolished huge swaths of the city. You look at the street maps pre and post and the sections of the city that regroup pretty organically, it’s almost like a lost limb. The maps and usage and pathways and stuff so similar, that’s much more resilient than like, a top down project, like what the Saudis are trying right now, where it’s just we have declared that we will invest to have the best of everything, and it will be a great investment economy. That’s not a city. It could be layered on top of a city concept.

But my starting question is, how are interesting people who are going to build their personal serendipitous dream that is not particularly profitable, going to build that in your city? Walk me through that spatially, economically? Who are they? What were they like before they came here? Were they a middle-income collar worker who takes their savings to buy a house in your new charter city? And then, they decided they want to telework part time and then try their hand at something interesting in the bottom floor. Are you considering building cubes of buildings with a ton of little micro space stalls inside that can be rented out very cheaply and with lacks restrictions on what sort of thing you’re doing, but with some sort of Arts Council or you name it, pushing to make sure that these aren’t just going to sleek chain profit maximizing businesses.

What is your street layout going to be that both serves the needs of industry and creates feelings of intimacy as you walk through a neighborhood, intimacy, but also openness to people coming in? All of these questions have possible answers and I could give you a half dozen possible answers to each of those questions, and some of them would probably mutually contradict each other. There are multiple ways to skin this cat. But it has to be part of the thinking early on, or then it’s just a total roll of the dice. And given how – basically, given the how much we know about how to be economically efficient, and designing special economic zones and things like that. How many case studies we have of SEZs and everything.

The econ efficiency piece is – in a roll of the dice scenario, the econ efficiency piece is probably going to win out, for the long term that needs to be balanced with other concerns. And in Tokyo, even some mega developers know. Some of the mega developers who redeveloped whole swaths of the city, you’ll find the same mom and pop ramen place that was there before, is still there after and still serving the ramen for $4 a bowl, which makes utterly no sense under the new redevelopment rate rents and everything.

The developers decided, yeah, it wouldn’t feel like the neighborhood anymore if the Mama Takada’s Ramen wasn’t there. So, we’re going to give them a sweetheart deal for that little space to make sure it’s still there. Because that in the long term, our value comes not just from the here and now, what can we rent out? What is our market research say? It comes from building a place that is a place, and not just somewhere that simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.

That’s something that I want to be putting my ideas into practice. I’m actually been engaging a little bit with – there’s a camp at Burning Man, that does kind of a Burning Man version of the micro bar district in Tokyo, Golden Gai.

Jeffrey: That’s cool.

Joe: Yeah. They call it the Golden Guy. Like the man, the Burning Man. I’ve started talking with them about the next time I go back to Burning Man, what we can do to make – what we can do to infuse some of the social dynamics of the real Golden Gai in Tokyo urbanism, into their micro spaces.

Yeah, I think the things I’m talking about are not incompatible with macro level profit seeking. Obviously, charter cities groups are for the most part, looking to spin up economic engines. And that’s entirely fair. But they require recognizing that at the micro level, you need a process for reaching decisions that are not primarily driven by profit. Sometimes in some parts of the project, in order to create an ecosystem that is self-sustaining, and where the parts reinforce, are engaged organically with each other.

Jeffrey: Yeah, I think this is great advice, and I think we may have found a new little addendum project to the urban planning guidelines that we published last year for charter city developers, that tries to get at this kind of emergence phenomenon, that tries to operationalize that. So, I think I just found some more work for Heba, our resident urban researcher.

Joe: If Heba would like a coauthor, I am always, always, always happy to collaborate.

Jeffrey: We’ll definitely arrange that. Before we wrap up, I did want to hit some questions on China and some national security questions. You’re up for it?

Joe: Sure. Though, depending on the questions, I may tell you, I can’t speak about X, Y and Z, because of my day job. But sure.

Jeffrey: Sure. Feel free to veto. I saw on your Twitter bio, that you’re working on a book about China’s information, sort of, warfare strategy and capabilities. How does the recent international restrictions on semiconductor exports to China impact that area?

Joe: I mean, that is absolutely huge. It’s more huge than a lot of people realize, because some of the advancements in China’s semiconductors where you see headlines, for example, saying, “Oh, they’re catching up on this metric, or that metric.” A lot of them are essentially, not totally, but ways of gaming the metric to an extent that are not economical, or scalable in the same ways that reaching those benchmarks from the Western and Taiwan based semiconductor industries are achieving.

So definitely, I mean, semiconductors are an unsung linchpin of the modern military strategic balance between any two major powers. Also, as the son of – my mother is a was in the semiconductor industry. So, I find it cool now that I get to talk about work with my mom, with her past work, a little bit in ways that I didn’t get to before. I think it’s very, very important and it’s also critically, it’s a bipartisan understanding and this goes back to even 2016. I was involved in a volunteer advisory capacity I see with the Hillary Clinton campaign back in 2016. And I can say that if Hillary had won, that a lot of folks were talking about focusing more intensely on this stuff. And just as you saw in different ways under both the Trump and Biden administrations, there’s a strong bipartisan consensus on treating the semiconductor industry as an absolute critical area of national security, and I think that’ll endure.

Jeffrey: Yeah. I think it’ll be curious to see how that sort of continues to play out and what the sort of Chinese response will be.

There’s been a lot in the past year, I think, written about sort of what Taiwan can learn from Ukraine’s experience and their ongoing war with Russia, sort of, given the David and Goliath dynamics. What, if anything, is China learning from Russia’s experience in that war? How much really relevant learning for China? Is there a given sort of the different geography, economics, politics, objectives, and so on?

Joe: Yeah, so funny, you should ask that since actually, I’m working with a think tank on a major research project on what China is and is not learning from the Ukraine conflict. And that’ll hopefully be out sometime later this year, especially once we can see how the conflict ultimately plays out. So, see what China’s taking away.

But I think one of the – I think if they are honest with themselves in the PLA, in the People’s Liberation Army, they should be taking away a lot of skepticism about how an invasion of Taiwan would go. It’s a lot of things that Russia botched in the invasion of Ukraine. Yes, China is better prepared militarily than Russia in some aspects, maybe. But Russia had only had to mount a land invasion, order of magnitude less complex, and then amphibious invasion. Russia had a presence inside Ukraine with like territory under control through proxies, going back to 2014. Russia has had serious operational experience all around the world. In Syria, you name it, Wagner group, things like that, that China just has no modern operational experience on that scale, with that degree of complexity. I mean, they’re trying to evolve their training practices, but they’re nowhere on that level.

I mean, the last war China fought was against Vietnam. It’s, at this point, nearly half a century ago, just an utterly different era of warfare. There is a real fear in the Chinese Communist Party that a failed invasion of Taiwan would not only look and be embarrassing, or things like that, that it could lead to the, potentially the fall of the CCP. So, that’s just an incredible risk to take and as we’re seeing with Ukraine, it’s very, very difficult to predict what the outcome will be, and especially in a system centered around a paramount leader, like the way that both China and Russia are centered, largely around Paramount leaders, there can be a real incentive to give an extra rosy picture up the chain, because that’s how you get promoted. That’s how you look good. Which then can make it hard for top level leadership to get an accurate picture of what actually their chances are.

In the realm of information, let’s say, for example, that information warfare. Let’s say that you’re the guy in the Chinese military, just to be hyper simplistic here, whose job it is to be targeting USTRANSCOM and other logistics capabilities, basically, to make it hard for Americans to move forces into the theater in a conflict scenario. So, you’re targeting our networks, our C4ISR networks, our command and control networks, went through network warfare, electronic warfare, things like that, information warfare. Do you take down those systems or not? Does it work or not? If you take them down, will they be back up and running or backups up and running within a minute? An hour? A day? A week? To what extent will any of that actually accomplish your objective?

Let’s say your information warfare initial strikes succeed beyond anything your wildest hopes, and then the weather shifts in the Taiwan Strait, which tends to have really finicky weather, and suddenly it’s no longer good weather to launch an amphibious invasion. And everyone now realizes that’s what you’re planning. You’ve lost the element of surprise. Now, play that out across a ton of different systems across systems impacting air superiority systems, impacting civilian mobilization in Taiwan, hundred different things. How do you predict any of that, to predict an outcome? If you’re sitting there in the Chinese military, you’re getting so much of what you want in the world just by forever growing your forces, and demanding to be taken seriously as a saber-rattling big power.

At the end of the day, especially when you look at the vulnerabilities. I did a study in grad school on China, looking at how like a huge chunk of their energy imports comes through the Strait of Malacca, and how do you even try and become resilient to that in the event of a conflict or possible blockade. There are just so many ways, if you’re China that things can go horribly wrong, and you got a pretty good thing going right now. Ongoing development, ongoing growth of strength. All of these things to me weigh heavily against it being smart for China, to initiate a conflict with over Taiwan.

And I think Ukraine, so far at least, would reinforce that. Because we as a country have much deeper strategic interests in Taiwan than we do in Ukraine is my assessment. I think we have a deep strategic interest in Ukraine. But I think we have an even deeper strategic interest in Taiwan. Japan, for that matter, retired head of the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces. I think, the way he once to put it to me was that a Taiwan under mainland Chinese control would be a dagger aimed at the heart of Japan. What other countries in the region would do in response? We’ve been pretty muted overall to avoid conflict with Russia, obviously, in terms of how we deal with the Ukraine conflict. This is not America doing our utmost. This is America, doing a bit. To me, all of this says, if you’re China, looking at Ukraine, the lesson is, stick with the good thing. Don’t poke the bear. You just got to kick the can down the road for lack of other good options.

Jeffrey: Yeah, I guess we shall see. Hopefully not.

Joe: Yeah, who’s hoping?

Jeffrey: So, to wrap up, you mentioned that your regular participants in Ephemerisle and that was one of your connections, maybe before you even knew it, to sort of charter cities world. So, first, what is Ephemerisle and what’s been your experience with it?

Joe: Ephemerisle is a temporary, floating city/festival, that about a thousand of us build every summer outside of the Bay Area, out in the waters in the Delta, and it grew out of the seasteading movement initially, but is no longer just or primarily about that. I think it’s more just sort of a motley crew of artists, technologists, boat nomads, radical sea setter and charter cities types, you name it, all just coming together to explore life on the water and just have a good time.

I’ve always been fascinated by subcultures and the way that subcultures work differently in different cities and parts of the world. So, Ephemerisle is great for that. But another interesting thing about Ephemerisle is the different islands of Ephemerisle set different rules for themselves. That’s actually led to a very soft micro form of competitive governance where people with boats or floating platforms or things like that will join the island that most closely mirrors the rules that they want to live under for that week or two weeks or however long they’re out there.

For example, an island I worked with, we had a fully – we had a lot of people coming in to visit from a lot of places and party and stuff like that. So, we had a fully written out enthusiastic consent policy that people had to read and understand and get a little wristband, that proof that they read and understood it, before coming aboard our island. Whereas another island, it might be that during the rest of the year, they all know each other, they’re all in community with each other. So, they have strong community norms. They don’t see the purpose of that sort of thing. And so, they’re more casual about it, and people can decide where they want to link up with. That competitive governance aspect of seasteading and charter cities, it’s like yours different, but it’s also the closest thing I can think of in my immediate vicinity of people experimenting with that.

Jeffrey: It’s kind of cool to all the people who are sort of connected to that competitive governance, professionally in some way, find a way to make it play out even if just for fun.

Joe: Yeah. It’s summer camp for weird Silicon Valley nerds. And as a weird DC/ New York/Tokyo nerd, I like flying in for it and having a weird nerd summit with the other weird nerds.

Jeffrey: Well, I think we can – for this conversation, I think we’ll leave it at a weird nerd summit. Thank you so much for coming on the show, Joe. This has been really an enjoyable conversation.

Joe: Hey, thanks so much. I had an absolutely wonderful time. Hit me up for anything you’re interested in doing collaboration wise, whether that’s real world, charter cities projects, or talking about more on urbanist guidelines with Heba. All of that is totally up my alley. I would love to be a part of it.

Jeffrey: We definitely will. And again, I want listeners to remember, the book is Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City, and you can find Joe on Twitter. Thanks for joining us.

Joe: Thanks for joining.

Kurtis: Thanks so much for listening. We love engaging with our listeners, so please always feel free to reach out. Contact information is listed in the show notes. To find out more about the work of the Charter Cities Institute, please follow us on social media, or visit



“I’ve always been fascinated by cities. One of the things I realized as I traveled around the world was that different cities working differently enabled very different modes of living.” — @McReynoldsJoe [0:02:11]

“Over time, I started to realize, that Tokyo was the city in the world where the most different possibilities were being explored at once.” — @McReynoldsJoe [0:02:58]

“The parts of Tokyo that feel the most Tokyo-esque and beloved are not the parts of the city that were designed from the top down, for the most part, to be that way.” — @McReynoldsJoe [0:07:54]


Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:

Joe McReynolds

Joe McReynolds on Twitter

Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City

China’s Evolving Military Strategy

Keio University

The Jamestown Foundation


Jeffrey Mason

Kurtis Lockhart

Charter Cities Institute

Charter Cities Institute on Facebook

Charter Cities Institute on Twitter

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