The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Photos: Mori Building Digital Art Museum: Epson teamLab borderless, 2018, Tokyo, Japan ©teamlab

We live in the era of global cities. More than ever before, people, goods, capital, and information are concentrated in metropolitan centers—a trend that will only grow in the coming decades. According to the 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects by the United Nations (UN), 55 percent of the world’s population resides in urban areas, and this is expected to rise to 68 percent by 2050. In 1950, the number was just 30 percent. In Japan, 92 percent of the population lives in urban areas compared with 78 percent in 2000.

This shift generates new business, values, and lifestyles that lead to further accumulation of power, and the planning and execution of infrastructure projects today is critical for prime positioning tomorrow. In their quest for greater influence, cities are focusing on development of their magnetism not only in terms of economic and financial strengths but also art and culture. In today’s world, comprehensive power is king and Tokyo is taking bold steps.

Each year, The Mori Memorial Foundation’s Institute for Urban Strategies undertakes an exhaustive assessment of the world’s major cities and ranks them according to six main functions:

  • Economy
  • Research and development
  • Cultural interaction
  • Livability
  • Environment
  • Accessibility

Together with five actors—manager, researcher, artist, visitor, and resident—these six functions allow researchers to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each city. The results are published as The Global Power City Index (GPCI) and help those charged with strategy and policy to hone in on problems that must be overcome and more effectively craft an action plan.

Tokyo, which the UN cites as the world’s largest city with 37 million people, ranks third in the most recent GPCI, published in October 2017, trailing second-place New York City and top-ranked London. It’s the second year in a row that Tokyo has held the third spot, stepping up in 2016 from fourth, a position it had occupied every year since the study was conceived in 2008.

The Cultural Interaction function is an area in which Tokyo has steadily improved year after year and has helped close the gap on New York City. Ou Sugiyama of Mori Building Co., Ltd. told The ACCJ Journal that it “has become the key to enhancing Tokyo’s comprehensive power.”

The Cultural Interaction function comprises five indicator groups:

  • Trendsetting Potential
  • Cultural Resources
  • Facilities for Visitors
  • Attractiveness for Visitors
  • International Interaction

Within these groups are 16 specific indicators that include Environment of Creative Activities and Number of Museums.

Although Tokyo ranks fourth globally in Cultural Interaction, there remains much ground to gain to reach the top. The city’s 2017 GPCI score of 186.3 in this function is far behind third-place Paris (217.3), second-place New York City (233.1), and first-place London (333.1). Compare this with much smaller gaps between Tokyo and New York City in Economy (294.3 and 323.2), research and development (162.9 and 183.7), and Accessibility (206.1 and 221.1). In an overall tight race, a surge in Cultural Interaction could push the Big Mikan ahead of the Big Apple.

Mori Building aims to further boost Tokyo’s standing in the Cultural Interaction function through collaboration with teamLab, an art collective that describes itself as an interdisci­plinary group of ultratechnologists. Founded in 2001 by a group of University of Tokyo postgraduates, teamLab brings together artists, programmers, engineers, CG animators, mathematicians, architects, and other specialists to navigate the confluence of art, science, technology, design, and the natural world.

“Both Mori Building and teamLab have a common desire to increase the presence of Tokyo as a global city, and recognize Tokyo’s status in the world and the possibilities offered by arts and technology,” Sugiyama said. “Mori Building is a company that creates and nurtures cities, and teamLab is a creative representative of Japan that continues to disseminate incredible artwork to the world. We found common ground, sharing the same goal to increase Tokyo’s magnetic power through art and culture towards 2020 and beyond.”

The digital installations created by teamLab have amazed guests around the world at exhibitions in Australia, China, Finland, France, Italy, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Although teamLab has some permanent installations in China, Italy, Singapore, Taiwan, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, these have more often been limited-time experiences. The 10,000-square-meter (107,000-square-foot) Mori Building Digital Art Museum: Epson teamLab Borderless will provide a permanent home for some of the most popular installations seen abroad as well as for new works and interactive experiences.

“We hope that this groundbreaking museum will inspire people to create enlightened new values and innovative new social frameworks and attract people from all over the world ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games as a one-and-only destination,” said Sugiyama.

As the Mori Building Digital Art Museum: Epson teamLab Borderless demonstrates, teamLab aims to explore a new relation­ship between humans and nature through art.

Entering the museum truly is an immersive experience, as The ACCJ Journal learned while touring the still-under-construction facility in April. The world within the walls of this enormous space at Odaiba’s palette town entertainment and shopping complex is powered by 520 computers and 470 projectors.

According to teamLab, digital technology has allowed creators to liberate art from the con­fine­ments of traditional, physical mediums and transcend boundaries. As they see it, every­thing exists in a long, fragile yet mira­­culous continuity of life.

“The word ‘borderless’ expresses the museum’s aim to tear down the borders between one work of art and another, art and viewers, and oneself and others by allowing visitors to melt into the art and become part of it,” explained Sugiyama.

This is well demonstrated in the installation Black Waves, a 360-degree simulation of water reminiscent of ukiyo-e in what teamLab calls ultra-subjective space.

A guide from teamLab explained how, in pre-modern Japan, people saw the world from a different perspective. In their paintings, oceans and rivers were expressed as a series of lines. This is connected with how they saw themselves as part of nature rather than separate from it as we often do today.

“When you look at Japanese picture scrolls and paper screen paintings, you realize that there is no fixed perspective—you just keep scrolling. The same thing happens here. You are always at the center of the artwork,” she said, surrounded by everchanging waves. No matter where one stands, the art can be seen freely.

Boundless may also describe life in a city, where millions of people coexist and cross paths daily yet often remain strangers.

As we walked through terraced rice fields—a sprawling installation of flat screens on stems upon which changing environments are projected—our teamLab guide explained: “If you come to this room and you become a trigger that causes a transformation, and if someone else occupying the same space finds that transformation beautiful, suddenly your presence becomes a positive experience for a stranger.”

Another installation, Forest of Resonating Lamps—One Stroke, is a room filled with hundreds of lamps made of Venetian glass that seem to go on forever due to mirrored walls. It can be seen as a reflection of life in a metropolis such as Tokyo.

“When you stand close to one of the lamps, it will react to your presence and shine brightly,” teamLab explained. “That light will be transmitted to the surrounding lamps and then throughout the room. It will go all the way around those hundreds of lamps in one stroke and eventually will come back to you.”

If a light comes to you from the other side of the room, it means there is someone else there. In this way, people become aware of the presence of others. “This goes back to the concept of teamLab—trying to find a new relationship between people occupying the same space.”

According to teamLab, the arrangement of the lamps and the dynamic way in which they are activated by other people demonstrates how a space can be designed freely, change itself through digital technology, and adapt and change due to the movement of the people in it.

Much like a city.

The primary GPCI function being addressed by the Mori Building Digital Art Museum is Cultural Interaction, and it’s a term teamLab has taken to heart.

The popular Sketch Aquarium, an interactive digital installation that has been part of teamLab Future Park around the world since 2013—permanent in some locations and temporary in others—will be part of the Mori Building Digital Art Museum.

The attraction won the Grand Award for Technology at the DFA Design for Asia Awards in 2015.

Children bring Sketch Aquarium to life by drawing their favorite fish or sea creature, which is then scanned and becomes part of the digital aquarium that covers one entire side of the room. The young artists can interact with their creations by touching the fish as they swim by. The fish react to the touch.

The teamLab Athletics Forest will take this a step farther. This new creative space makes interaction more physical with Light Three-Dimensional Bouldering and Pyon Pyon Universe, both interactive digital installations that are new in 2018 and require full participation.

In Light Three-Dimensional Bouldering, LED-powered gemstones light a path for the climber as they make their way through a three-dimensional space. The color of the path is determined by a badge worn by the climber, which interacts with the surrounding boulders to reveal a course. The result is artwork formed by the light pattern that is never repeated. Because the installation is constructed in real time by a computer program, the visitor—through the act of climbing—becomes an artist who creates a one-of-a-kind work.

Pyon Pyon Universe is a flexible surface developed by teamLab, similar to a trampoline, on which stardust is projected. By sinking and jumping, visitors bring together dust to form stars and planets, climaxing in the creation of a black hole.

Just as those who leap into the digital stardust or climb through the LED footholds create spontaneous artwork through their presence and interaction, Mori Building and teamLab hope that this unique museum will create new incentive for travelers to visit Tokyo.

Mori Building’s first major urban cultural development was the Suntory Hall in ARK Hills, which opened in 1986. This was followed by many others, including the Mori Art Museum at Roppongi Hills (2003) and the Kanze Noh Theater at Ginza Six (2017), a collaboration that brought the Kanze School back to the district it called home from 1633 to 1869.

“We are very active in all aspects of urban development, in particular incorporating elements of art and culture in our projects and making art something everyone can enjoy in their daily lives,” said Sugiyama. “We wish to make Tokyo a magnetic city which attracts people from all over the world. To achieve this, elements that encourage people to experience art and culture are indispensable.”

In 2017, New York City welcomed 12.6 million global visitors, Paris received 12 million, and London saw 30.1 million—all of which are annual records. Japan also set a record in 2017 with 28.7 inbound tourists, and the Japanese government has set a target of 40 million annually by 2020.

There is much talk about what 2020 means for Tokyo. This includes the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Rugby World Cup 2019. Preparations for these events have seen improvements to infrastructure get underway, such as Tokyo Metro’s plans to have elevators and accessible toilets at all of its stations, plus multiple elevators at those nearest Paralympic venues. It’s the push the city needed to go barrier free, which will help not only athletes and visitors during the Games but also Tokyo’s aging population in the years following.

Pairing such practical transformations with improved experiences for the mind is how the city can build the compre­hensive power needed to rise in the GPCI.

“With global attention increasingly focused on Tokyo, creating this one and only destination in this great city and attracting people from all over the world by disseminating the most advanced art, culture, and technology from Tokyo will enhance our strengths in Cultural Interaction,” said Sugiyama.

“As artists representing Japan, teamLab has attracted a large number of people by offering works of art that far exceed common expectations. By collaborating with them and creating an unprecedented new destination for the world, we believe it will increase the magnetic power of Tokyo as a whole.”

Mori Building Digital Art Museum: Epson teamLab Borderless
Odaiba palette town, 1-3-8 Aomi, Koto-ku, Tokyo |

Christopher Bryan Jones is Editor-in-Chief of The ACCJ Journal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Japan since 1997.