The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Tokyo Tower, built in 1958, is one among a number of icons that make the city a global brand.

Tokyo Tower, built in 1958, is one among a number of icons that make the city a global brand.

Referred to as Tokyo 1964, but officially known as the Games of the XVIII Olympiad, those Games were not held in summer.

They were held from October 10 to 24 to avoid the notoriously hot, sticky season and the accompanying typhoons that plague Japan in August and September.

The world watched a proud nation, 19 years removed from its war-weary knees, become the first country to broadcast the Olympic Games internationally via satellite—a US–Japan joint venture—in color and without tape delay.

A swords-into-ploughshares high-tech wonderland was born. It was a full-circle moment with the lighting of the Olympic Torch by track athlete Yoshinori Sakai, the “Atomic Bomb Boy,” who was born August 6, 1945 outside Hiroshima.

Using the world’s best athletes and global media as its place-branding podium, Japan, the first non-Western host of the Olympics, presented its membership credentials as an economic and cultural superpower.

That same decade, Japan would shock the senses again by rocketing to the rank of second largest economy in the world. There was no stopping the ascent of Japan, Inc. or of Tokyo.

Landmark bookends illustrate this era of modernism in the metropolis: Hotel Okura Tokyo, completed in 1962 with an annex added in 1973, and the Hotel New Otani Tokyo, which opened in 1964 and features a 500-year-old, 10-acre traditional Japanese garden.

A 41-story 550-room glass tower that will open in 2019, just in time for Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, is replacing Hotel Okura’s original main building.

Picture Audrey Hepburn with cigarette holder in hand and the Rat Pack, with whiskey on the rocks, walking through the lobby.

The loss of the Okura’s heart and soul architectural gem sparked an international online petition and a #MyMomentatOkura Twitter campaign.

I participated in both campaigns, but our efforts were futile because we were like beatniks in mourning, standing in the way of economic progress.

In Tokyo’s first Olympic year, the songwriting team of Hal David and Burt Bacharach released a number that offers a warning for Tokyo today: just as “A House is Not a Home,” a city is not a company town, a seat of government, or a commercial sector that champions capitalism.

A city has a heart that makes people want to write songs, tributes, and reviews on TripAdvisor Inc. that say, “better be quick before the main building closes at the end of the month and the history of the original Okura is gone forever!”

A city is more than a place to reside, work, raise children, or study. It is a competitive brand, and if it is a place like Tokyo, it is a global city brand.

Writer Fiona Wilson, of Monocle’s Save the Okura campaign, said that the “demise of the Okura is akin to the loss of a good friend. Tokyo will not be the same without it.”

That is true, and it speaks to Tokyo’s city identity—always changing. If Tokyo had its own tenugui (traditional hand towel), it would be marked “Under construction.” Tokyo, like the future, waits for no one, including a 53-year-old hotel.

The future is to Tokyo as romance is to Rome, as diversity is to New York, as LGBT is to San Francisco. The Hotel Okura’s wrecking ball is an emblem of a city rebranding itself in the yet-to-come.

The Hotel Okura Tokyo holds a special place in people’s hearts.

The Hotel Okura Tokyo holds a special place in people’s hearts.

City branding is a globalization offshoot. In an age when competition for commerce, consumption, and tourism holds no allegiance to one country or region, place branding has emerged locally, citywide, regionally, and at the national level.

Tokyo’s brand pull stretches like the city itself—wide and far, even among those who can only dream and desire a visit.

They may say Japan, but they often mean Tokyo because the metropolis sits among global city memes (Berlin, New York, Beijing, Rio, Johannesburg, Sydney) that require no country modifier.

City branding is a mapping exercise of tangibles and intangibles that encompasses culture, history, appearance, demographics, people’s preconceptions, and their experience while there.

Tokyo’s projected consensus is as a global futurist city, but the reality doesn’t always match.

In 2014, I participated in a Keio University conference that featured many first-time European visitors to Japan, several of whom expressed surprise at their Tokyo experience, a consequence of the perception–experience gap.

They anticipated that such a global city would have hotel staff with a good command of English.

One couple went so far as to say that, while they loved their visit and were impressed by the hospitality and service, their lack of Japanese language ability coupled with the lack of English ability locally would definitely impact their decision-making process if they were to consider a return visit.

What does a Tokyo visitor want? Regional dictates apply: European and American visitors find Tokyo’s hybrid of tradition and modernity alluring.

Regional visitors—from the Korean peninsula or China—come to Tokyo for its quality products, including rice cookers and toilets, which have earned feature stories in their own right.

A visitor to Tokyo wants high energy variety with moments for rest: a ride on the Shinkansen and a visit to a neighborhood temple; an elegant dining experience on the 51st floor overlooking Roppongi Hills; and, slurping ramen on a quiet side street.

To a first-time visitor, Tokyo is one sprawling metropolis à la Blade Runner, the movie.

But to its residents, the city is defined, on the one hand, by government centers, such as those in Chiyoda and Mita wards, which are empty on weekends and, on the other, by the many districts and wards that include the open and pulsing Shibuya, Roppongi, and Akihabara.

Buildings will come down and new ones will go up because Tokyo planners are beholden to economic growth—and the city itself is just too big to be overly sentimental.

The challenge for the Tokyo brand image—and for city planners involved with its management—is to reconcile the intentional promise of the city experience with the actual experience of both those who reside in it and those who visit.

In the 21st century, a viral tweet about a visitor’s personal experience can become a testimonial statement that no city brander can match in credibility.

Singapore’s Economic Development Board revamped the city-state’s image with a brand promise to “become a global leader, making Singapore a great city, a home in Asia for business, innovation, and talent.”

The strategy has been to focus on Singapore in a home context: home for business, home for innovation, and home for talent.

The take home message for global talent includes making it desirable and easy for expats to work there by providing quality international schools for their children and a vibrant arts and sporting scene.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says about this global hub: “to survive, you have to be exceptional.”

Tokyo cannot present a city brand image using the same strategy. Many who work in the metropolis live outside it. Many who visit the city do not stay to work and reside. The real estate mantra (location, location, location) holds.

Since Tokyo is a major hub in East Asia, it should brand itself as Asia’s gateway future city. In that spirit, Tokyo 2020 would be the unveiling of Japan as a global leader, with the city as its beating red heart.

A city is more than a place to reside, work, raise children, or study. It is a competitive brand.