The Allure of Tokyo Nightscape – Lighting Designer Akari-Lisa Ishii, I.C.O.N. Principal (Part 1) 【TOKYO UPDATES Article】

From left, Tokyo Tower in the summer, “Infinity Diamond Veil,” in the winter.(Minato-ku, Tokyo) Photo: Motoko Ishii Lighting Design

Originally published on “TOKYO UPDATES”, a web media featuring various articles about Tokyo of today and the future.
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I was born and raised in Tokyo, and now living in Paris as a lighting designer. To be honest, the night-time scenery of Tokyo once seemed convoluted and disorganized compared to that of Paris, which looked chic and ordered. But at some point, I began to find the night scenes of Tokyo dynamic and fascinating. I think that the powerful energy and graphic impact of Tokyo’s signboards, with their highly original color and motion, is what has spread these lightboxes worldwide as the defining image of Tokyo. At the same time, as a professional whose mission is urban development through lighting, I started to wonder whether I could do something to improve the nightscape of Tokyo.

Tokyo has no plan for the development of its nightscape, for a number of institutional reasons. The city is geographically vast compared to cities in Europe or downtown areas in North American cities, and jurisdiction over roads spans across the national government, local governments, and other levels. Few regulatory controls over the cityscape are placed on private companies or commercial districts. The fact is that with no master plan, development such as illumination of representative buildings lags other developed countries, and control has never been required. Development is undertaken arbitrarily in terms of both timing and expression. In that sense, the lighting designers’ ethical standards and the sense of responsibility are strongly tested.

The first appearance in Tokyo of what could be called an illumination installation is likely the Tokyo Tower, turned on 1989. This television and radio communications tower, made of steel painted white and a reddish-orange in accordance with Civil Aeronautics Act, was well-known to Tokyo residents and tourists as a structure symbolizing the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but little interest was paid to its night-time appearance. The illumination of the tower coincided with the start of the new Heisei era (1989-2019) and the succession of the Imperial throne, and created a sensation. It goes without saying that Tokyo Tower has increased in popularity since then, but even more so, the “Tokyo Tower phenomenon” has seen inflation in the popularity and prices of condominiums, offices, hotels. Tokyo Tower often serves as a key presence in movies, novels, and so on. The presence of the reddish tower, appearing abruptly amid the uniform Tokyo nightscape that had until then been formed by neon signs and fluorescent light leaking from rooms, shone like a votive candle in the hall of a dimly lit temple, and is said to have touched the hearts of people in Japan as the object of hopes and prayers. The tower’s illumination, given the name “Landmark Light,” was designed in line with the value placed on the changes of the four seasons in Japanese culture, enveloping the structure in a fresh and cool white light in spring and summer and a warm orange tint in autumn and winter. This may be noteworthy as a one-of-a-kind example of a representative city illumination installation that shows different expressions depending on the season.

Through this, the previously unknown term “light up” came to be recognized in Japan. What is taking more time, however, is the general recognition that this is a creative activity born from the balancing of specialized technical knowledge with aesthetic creation by professionals with the particular skills of lighting designers, and that it is a public scenic improvement project responsibly planned from social and environmental standpoints. It could perhaps be said that we lighting designers are destined to not only continue our activities by leveraging our professional capabilities and gaining social recognition, but also to unceasingly hone our abilities to contribute to the improvement of night-time scenery.

Thanks to these efforts, illumination has subsequently progressed at locations such as the Rainbow Bridge of Tokyo Bay, the internationally famous tourist destination Senso-ji Temple, and Kabuki-za, a theater representative of Tokyo as a wellspring of the arts. At the same time, at Tokyo Tower where such illumination originated, design and technology have undergone renewal with the Diamond Veil project commemorating the tower’s 50th anniversary and the Infinity Diamond Veil that marked the 60th. A number of illumination programs have been rolled out for occasions and events throughout the year, and the tower continues to forge ahead at the forefront of illumination while embodying Japan’s technological capabilities.

Rainbow Bridge(Minato-ku, Tokyo) Photo: Motoko Ishii Lighting Design

Senso-ji(Taito-ku, Tokyo) Photo: Motoko Ishii Lighting Design

Kabuki-za (Chuo-ku, Tokyo) Photo: I.C.O.N. Akari-Lisa Ishii


Akari-Lisa Ishii

Lighting Designer, I.C.O.N. Principal.
Born in Tokyo. Studied art and design in Japan, US, and France. After working at a lighting design office, established I.C.O.N. in 2004. Currently based in Paris and Tokyo, she is involved in lighting design projects around the world, as well as producing music, lecturing, and writing. Major works include Japonisme 2018 Eiffel Tower Special Lighting, Pompidou Center Metz, Yves-Saint-Laurent museum in Marrakech, National Stadium, Ginza Kabuki-za, Colosseum Light Messages, Cloister of the Cathedral of Tours « La Palette », Cherbourg Water Tower, Lyon Festival of Lights. Works range from urban space, architecture, interior space, events, exhibition, to stage lighting. Member of French Lighting Designers Association (ACE), and International Lighting Designers Association (IALD). Author of “ICONIC LIGHT” (Kyuryudo) and “the City and the Light” (Suiyosha). Won the Grand Prix for ACE Lighting Awards in 2015, the Trophée Lumiville in 2009, as well as many others from the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America.


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