Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4 Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
More and more people are bemoaning the so-called alienation of citizens in urban society: the city is evil, a catalyst for crimes, terrorism and the breakdown of trustworthy and wholesome human association. Some people now pine for the days when we knew our neighbors and did not have to lock our doors. But, truth be told, the old times were hardly good times.
How can the detractors of the modern urban life so blithely deny, disregard and misrepresent the virtues of the city? The city is a great source of liberty - greater than rural or small town life anyway. The anonymity that the teeming masses of urban populations offer gives us the freedom of not having to rely on our neighbors. This really is a good thing if you remember that it was the suffocating, forced dependence on neighbors that was one factor in driving people off the land and into towns and cities in the first place.
I do not know my neighbors, and they do not know me. I like it that way. Human life requires a liberally demarcated zone of privacy, and an overly public life is a barely human life at all. For that reason, I pity some famous people - royalty and others - whose existence is more like a freak show of entertainment than authentic humanity.
Published on Wednesday, October 31, 2001 as “Freedom in urban anonymity.”
This is an important point in the history of urbanization, and I believe it. The anonymity of town and city is a liberating thing. In pre-urban, agrarian times, and even still in agrarian societies and rural areas - dependence on our neighbors is more necessary. But in towns and cities we are free of that dependence. We are freer to be more independent. So I do not look favorably on eulogies to the old days of closer communal ties - even in Japanese towns, cities and neighborhoods - when everyone knew everyone else, everyone knew details of each others’ lives, and people depended on each other more than they do now. None of those things are good things, and the old days were not better than today.