When Highways Were Hot: The Expressway As Symbol of Modernity

Expressway Akasaka Mitsuke, from the book "Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Service"
Expressway Akasaka Mitsuke, from the book “Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Service”

“It was my first time in Tokyo. Very nice people. Wonderful experience. We landed in Japan and the bus took us straight to the Olympic Village. When I saw the roads going through all the buildings, an amazing network of some 45 kilometers… I had been in New Zealand and Australia before but had never seen a road way like that. No intersections! No stops!”

Tokyo was pulling out all the stops to give the impression that it was a modern, efficient and clean city. One of the infrastructure improvements were the highways that wove through the cityscape above the ground, which impressed many people, including Indian field hockey Olympian, Gurbux Singh, who recounted his arrival to Japan above.

But not everything was perfect, as Robert Whiting wrote for The Japan Times last year.

Also unfinished were six of the planned expressways. Only two of the eight main expressways approved by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 1959 were fully completed, with two more only partially constructed. The elevated expressway from Roppongi to Shibuya was one of the incomplete projects. It remained unfinished for several more years.

Those highways that were finished were clogged with stop-and-start traffic. As a Chicago Tribune correspondent named Sam Jameson put it, “Building an expressway system based on a mathematical formula of a two-lane expressway merging into another two-lane expressway to create a two-lane expressway was not the smartest thing to do. It guaranteed congestion. The system had to have been designed by someone who had never driven.”

You can see black and white film of the highway construction in this 1963 newsreel from Pathe.