Apparently, there are ‘no Supertall Skyscrapers’ in Tokyo?

Posted on 04.12.2015

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A post for Rebecca.

A while ago, a friend came to visit me in Tokyo. One of the first things she mentioned was a lack of skyscrapers in the city.

Of course, my first thought was ‘what in the hell are you talking about, didn’t your train take you through Shinjuku?’, and this thought stuck with me for the rest of the times that it came up in conversation, even when I pointed out the skyscrapers to her.

It turns out, both of our opinions were ‘half right’. Well, ‘half right’ when your city for comparison happens to be an American one, like NYC or Chicago. The height of skyscrapers in Tokyo is actually less than those in US cities, and it turns out there’s a very specific reason for it.

I had a student in for a lesson a while after that, and in the ‘hobbies’ information, it said he ‘likes tall buildings’. So I asked him about this idea that there are ‘no skyscrapers in Tokyo’, and he told me all about it.

This is one of the things I thoroughly enjoy about my job. Although I have to have conversations with an average of 10 people each day, I can use them to get a general consensus from Japanese people on anything by asking everyone I see the same question for a week, and I can also find out really random, interesting bits of information, like why Tokyo’s skyscrapers aren’t as tall as the Sears Tower.

Most of the skyscrapers in Tokyo didn’t even show up until after the 1950’s. It was already a city wracked by large, terrifying earthquakes, so it didn’t really stand to reason that the buildings should be really tall. That being said, they started to go up. But in this case, it was AFTER the airports were situated on the outskirts of the city, so a building ordinance was passed to say that no building could be taller than 300 meters, since the planes have to fly over in order to get to the landing strips.

According to Wikipedia (and my student), a skyscraper is technically any building over 150 meters in height. According to another Wikipedia page, Tokyo has 153 of those, all under 300m for flight clearance. If you compare this to over 300 skyscrapers in NYC (with 4 over 400m tall) and about 150 in Chicago (with 2 over 400m tall), it’s easy to see why my friend made that comment.

For buildings above a height of 300 m (984 ft), the term Supertall can be used, while skyscrapers reaching beyond 600 m (1,969 ft) are classified as Megatall. So there are no Supertal or Megatall skyscrapers in Tokyo.

I hadn’t noticed the tall buildings here in Tokyo were shorter than the ones I was used to seeing in the states, but I’m attributing that to the fact that I spent 5 years living in Germany, where everything is generally under 5 floors (except for churches, or cities like Berlin or Frankfurt, which I rarely visited). I work in the financial district of Tokyo, so I see skyscrapers any time I walk outside. I just didn’t notice they were shorter in general.

It’s also important to note, as well, that Tokyo is #4 in the world for number of skyscrapers (buildings over 150m): there are 476 of these buildings in the city. So when you’re walking around in Tokyo, you don’t really notice, since it’s like they’re ALL tall buildings. And when they’re all tall and nothing really stands out, it’s a bit ‘out of sight, out of mind’, I guess?