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Tokyo Tower celebrates 5 decades

Tokyo Tower
Tokyo Tower at night

TOKYO (TR) – Lit up after dark, it has captivated and inspired millions — a slender beacon of diffused orange rising 333 meters from the center of the metropolis. With couples coming up close to gaze and pilots steering clear of its tapering steel frame, Tokyo Tower indeed rules the night.

To celebrate its 50th birthday this month, the tower will be dressed in a unique luminary gown. “People often say that Tokyo Tower looks like a classy lady in a skirt,” explains Motoko Ishii, president of Motoko Ishii Lighting Design, the company behind the lighting spectacle. “So I wanted to give her a 50th birthday present.”

On display on multiple evenings between December 1 and 25, this “Diamond Veil” design will be produced by 228 special lights inserted within the tower’s structure. Floodlights mounted along the top and bottom will provide a contrast to the beaded garment, rendering it afloat in the Tokyo night. The tower’s regular orange illumination, which was switched on for the first time in 1989, was also designed by Ishii.

Crushed by Godzilla and featured in numerous forms of Japanese pop culture, the iconic radio and television transmitter — once a symbol of Japan’s postwar recovery — will celebrate its golden anniversary at a time when its future appears uncertain. Currently transmitting the signals of nine television stations, including the national public broadcaster, NHK, as well as radio signals and digital TV broadcasts, the tower faces competition from a new, taller player to the north.

A year ago, six broadcast companies concluded a contract in principle to use the Tower Sky Tree, now under construction in Sumida Ward. The 610-meter-tall tower, costing an estimated 50 billion yen to build, could render the landmark near Shiba Park obsolete.

For now, the tower continues to attract thousands of visitors each year. Boarding elevators in the four-story Foot Town building, hemmed in between the tower’s four massive legs, tourists are whisked up to the two observatories, one at 120 meters above the ground, the other at 220 meters. From these two platforms Tokyo’s urban sprawl opens up in all directions. The ritzy shopping district of Ginza is two kilometers to the east, with Tokyo Bay just beyond. In the opposite direction, Mount Fuji is visible on clear days.

“Tokyo Tower has two faces,” says Kunio Ishii of Nippon Television City (NTC), the tower’s owner. “As well as accommodating tourists, it is our job to broadcast television signals to 13 million households without a problem.”

While Fukuoka, Osaka, Nagoya and Kobe all boast towers, none has been celebrated quite like Tokyo’s. Featured in tourism campaigns and used as a backdrop for the evening news on NHK, Tokyo Tower has become synonymous with Japan’s capital. On the big screen, it has been demolished multiple times, including most recently in the 2004 flick “Godzilla: Final Wars,” and used as a symbol of romance for a married Hitomi Kuroki and her much younger lover in the 2005 film Tokyo Tower. The popular “Doraemon” animation series featured the tower in many of its sequences, too.

To keep it looking its best, the tower is painted every five years with 28,000 liters of white and orange paint, as dictated by Japan’s aviation code. The color scheme was put to the test in 2004 when a Thai Airways airliner bound for Haneda Airport flew within 200 meters of the tower.

When NHK started regular broadcasting in 1953, it became necessary to build a transmitter. The architectural firm Nikken Sekkei Komu, under the direction of Waseda University’s Tachu Naito, designed a steel truss structure that rises up 250 meters from the two-meter-diameter concrete foundations for each of the tower’s legs to the base of the analog antenna, which makes up the final 83 meters.

The design took into account both extreme earthquake and wind forces. The 1962 paper “Construction and Vibrational Characteristics of Tokyo Tower,” coauthored by Naito, notes that the tower was built to withstand a wind speed of 90 meters per second at its top—a velocity well in excess of the maximum speeds on record at the Japan Meteorological Agency at the time.

Starting in 1957, hundreds of workers (one of whom was killed when a strong gust of wind blew him off the structure six months before its completion), using around 1.2 million rivets and 3,600 tons of steel, toiled at the tower site. Costing a then lofty three billion yen, Tokyo Tower gave a nation hope 13 years after it had been decimated. “When it was completed,” says NTC’s Ishii, “the structure’s shape, rising up to the sky, was symbolic of Japan’s recovery following the conclusion of World War II.”

Gado Sasaki, the chief priest of Senkoji Temple in nearby Kamiyacho, recalls eagerly attending the tower’s opening on December 23, 1958. “I went with two friends from this neighborhood,” says the 74-year-old, whose temple sits on a quiet backstreet in the tower’s shadow. “We took the stairs up to the observation deck. It was so crowded outside — the line for the elevator was probably three hours.”

Destroyed in an American air raid in March 1945, Senkoji was rebuilt after the war and completed three months before Tokyo Tower. A photo album of Sasaki’s includes a black-and-white snap of his temple nearing completion, with Tokyo Tower rising up in the background. “Japanese people want the best,” Sasaki says. “Even though there was a steel shortage, we wanted our tower to be taller than the Eiffel Tower.”

Although Tokyo Tower is taller than the Eiffel Tower by 10 meters, it weighs much less than the Paris landmark. This is largely due to the difference in construction materials. While the Eiffel is made of wrought iron, Tokyo Tower was built using lighter mild steel, a portion of which was sourced from 90 US Army tanks that had been damaged during the Korean War and sold for scrap.

Aside from the addition of the second, higher observatory in 1967, the tower’s most dramatic modification was in 2003 when the inner structure was reinforced to make way for a digital transmission antenna and control room. Since the additional substantial weight could lead to unpredictable movement during a large earthquake, a suitable remedy had to be found. “The beauty of the tower is its shape,” says Hiroki Kunitsu, a structural engineer at Nikken Sekkei. “We were asked to maintain that shape.”

Subsequently, overlapping steel plates were added around key supports, while dampers, which dissipate the effects of a quake, were installed at the base of the antenna. “Television broadcasts are going out 24 hours a day,” explains Kunitsu. “Therefore, we could not add structural reinforcements to the antenna during its operation.”

More than 150 million visitors have graced the tower’s observation decks, the uppermost of which requires an outlay of 1,420 yen. But in recent years tall buildings have sprouted up throughout Tokyo to take a bit of the sheen off of Tokyo Tower’s glow. Just up the road, the business, residential and shopping complexes of Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown are both more than 230 meters tall. Other skyscrapers, some of which do not charge for entry to their viewing decks, also fill out the skyline in Shinjuku and nearby Shiodome.

To compensate, NTC has been billing the tower as Tokyo’s “best landmark” and promoting it through its various illuminations and slew of young female celebrities. Revenue is obviously of serious concern for the tower’s owner, especially after it was forced to mortgage the tower and its land in 2000 to partially cover debts of 12.3 billion yen accrued from a failed golf course investment during the economic bubble of the 1980s.

For the anniversary, the tower’s souvenir shops are peddling everything from Tokyo Tower pork sandwiches to honey in predictably shaped bottles. But even if such campaigns prove effective in Tokyo’s skyline battle, the tower might be running out of time as a practical transmitter. Japan’s broadcasters will switch from analog to entirely digital signals in July 2011.

Planners feel that the Tokyo Sky Tree’s greater height will be able to substantially boost the broadcasting range over that of Tokyo Tower. NHK is one of the broadcasters set to move to the new tower, which will stand on land owned by Tobu Railway.

“In recent years, skyscrapers in the 200-meter class have been built one after another in central Tokyo,” explains an NHK official, “and this trend appears to be one that will continue. Because the height of the transmitting antenna is around 250 meters at Tokyo Tower, an increase in shielding of the signal in the future is a concern.” NHK also feels that the Sky Tree’s wider broadcasting range will help in the expansion of One Seg, the mobile digital broadcasting technology.

In spite of this looming redundancy, it is unlikely that Tokyo Tower will be dismantled anytime soon. After December 23, it will be eligible to be designated as a cultural property, much like the towers of Nagoya and Osaka.

The common perception is that the tower will persevere as a result of its intangible significance. Lighting designer Ishii uses Lily Franky’s bestselling autobiography, “Tokyo Tower,” to encapsulate the tower’s importance. The novel tells the story of a young man who comes to Tokyo from Kyushu. Realizing that the city is not the dreamland he thought it was, he finds comfort in the lights of Tokyo Tower as he reminisces about his hometown and mother.

“The tower is a symbol of Tokyo,” says Ishii. “But it also has a bit of nostalgia attached to it. There are so many different kinds of people in Tokyo, and each one of them will look up at the lights and find a different meaning.”

Note: This article originally appeared in the December issue of iNTOUCH, the magazine of the Tokyo American Club.