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The Emergence of the World’s Greatest City

Book Review

Tokyo

from Edo to Showa 1867-1989

The Emergence of the World’s Greatest City

TWO VOLUMES IN ONE

Low City, High City and Tokyo Rising

By Edward Seidensticker

Do the years 1868, 1923 and 1964 have any significance for you? How about the years 1776, 2001 and 1984? For Japanese, the first group of dates is as significant as the second group is for Americans. Just to make things perfectly clear, America declared its independence in 1776, suffered a traumatic disaster on September 11, 2001 and hosted the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984.

In Japan, the Meiji Restoration occurred in 1868 (whereby Japan embarked on the modernization of the country), on September 1, 1923 the Great Kantō Earthquake struck, devastating Tōkyō, and Japan hosted the Olympic Games in Tōkyō in 1964 (which marks in Japanese minds the reemergence of Japan on the international stage).

The big difference between those two sets of important events is that the American events occurred in Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles, while all of the Japanese events occurred in Tōkyō. That shows the contrast between the focus of the two countries. If one wants to understand Japan, the best place to start with is Tōkyō.

Edward Seidensticker (1921-2007) was a translator and scholar who knew Japan well after living there for years. He wrote a column for the Yomiuri Newspaper (the one with the highest circulation in Japan) that was collected and published in English as “This Country, Japan” and translated many classical Japanese works such as “The Tale of Genji.” There could hardly be a better guide to introduce one to Tōkyō.

Seidensticker’s two works about Tōkyō, “Low City, High City” and “Tokyo Rising” have been combined in one volume by Tuttle Publishing (www.tuttlepublishing.com, where one may also find many other books related to Japan). This is fortunate, since they compliment each other and offer a complete history of Tōkyō from its opening to the West through its achieving its status today as the equal of any major city in the world.

The first of these works was originally published in 1982 and begins with the terrible earthquake of 1923. The name of the city had been changed from Edo to Tōkyō at the time of the Meiji restoration, but still retained much of its old character. However, a great deal of that was lost in the tragedy. Those circumstances as well as the title are explained in the text:

Not all the things of Edo were destroyed. The most popular temple in the city, the great Asakusa Kannon, survived. An explanation for its close escape was that a statue of the Meiji Kabuki actor Danjūrō, costumed as the hero of Shibaraku (meaning “One Moment, Please”), held back flames advancing from the north. But fire did destroy the Yoshiwara, most venerable of the licensed quarters that had been centers of Edo culture.

Several fine symbols of Meiji Tokyo were also destroyed. The old Shimbashi Station, northern terminus of the earliest railroad in the land, was among the modern buildings that did not survive. The Ryōunkaku (literally “Cloud Scraper”), a twelve story brick tower in Asakusa, had survived the earthquake of 1894, when many a brick chimney collapsed and brick architecture in general was brought into disrepute. It had been thought earthquake-proof, but in 1923 it broke off at the eighth story. The top storys [sic] fell into a lake nearby, and the rest were destroyed the following year by army engineers.

The great loss was the Low City, home of the merchant and the artisan, heart of Edo culture. From the beginnings of its existence as the shogun’s capital, Edo was divided into two broad regions, the hilly Yamanote or High City , describing a semicircle generally to the west of the shogun’s castle, now the emperor’s palace, and the flat Low City, the Shitamachi, completing the circle on the east. Plebian enclaves could be found in the High City, but mostly it was a place of temples and shrines and aristocratic dwellings. The Low City had its aristocratic dwellings, and there were a great many temples, but it was very much the plebian half of the city. And though the aristocracy was very cultivated indeed, its tastes―or the tastes thought proper to the establishment―were antiquarian and academic. The vigor of Edo was in its Low City.

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The earthquake was traumatic for both Tōkyō and Japan, and the first chapter of the book explains all of its ramifications, civically, economically, culturally, politically, etc. Seidensticker takes pains to cover as many aspects of the city as possible. The book is also well illustrated with photographs (such as the one above, of the Nihonbashi district in central Tōkyō, which was originally the political and financial center of the city, and later the site of the Bank of Japan), sketches, prints, paintings and maps.

The text also skips back and forth to explain how cultural institutions, such as the Kabuki theater, arose or how they were affected by events in the future, such as World War II. But the most profound change was the Meiji Restoration, covered in the second chapter.

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Here is the Meiji emperor, photographed in 1872.

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And here he is as depicted in a 1902 print. He is shown in a horse-drawn carriage passing by the government buildings in Kasumigaseki (where the Japanese bureaucracy still presides over the country).

Emperor Meiji assumed control of the Japanese nation in 1868, moving his residence from Kyōto to Tōkyō and displacing the shōgun from Edo Castle, which became the emperor’s palace. Scarcely a decade later, he was well-enough ensconced in that position that he was comfortable receiving all of the leaders of the world, including Ulysses S. Grant in 1879, just after he had left the presidency. Grant travelled by way of a US cruiser and landed in Nagasaki in June of that year before meeting the emperor in Tōkyō on July 3. They watched commemorative fireworks together the next day.

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And Grant visited the famous Kegon Falls, just west of Nikkō.

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For comparison sake, here is a photograph of those falls, which are quite beautiful. The photograph is taken from a brochure of sights to see when visiting Tōkyō published by the Japan National Tourist Organization.

The above just scratches the surface of this fine work. It also covers the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, the festivals and fairs, leaders, taste-makers, notorious criminals and artist, song and dance and poetry of the time. All this and much more.

And yet, that is just half of this work! “Tokyo Rising” is the second half, and that begins with the reconstruction after the earthquake of 1923. The “Roaring Twenties” as experienced in Tōkyō is described, followed by the Depression, then the war and its aftermath:

Students sat and shivered in their overcoats in unheated classroom, professors stood and shivered. An office in one of the best buildings left to the Japanese, such as the Marunouchi Building or the Bank of Japan, might be heated only by a charcoal brazier or a scattering of them, to which typists would turn from time to time to thaw their stiffened fingers. The bravery of dancers in unheated theaters, such as the Rokkuza, the Sixth District Theater, in Asakusa, was something to arouse admiration. Everything was rationed. One had to have coupons to eat in a restaurant. The cod and the sweet potato were the staples. Many a Japanese of a certain age cannot look at either without shuddering.

The suffering of the average Japanese after the war is heartbreaking, especially the stories of the katsugiya (defined as “bearers” in the text, although it is also noted that a Japanese-English dictionary gives the meaning as “runners”) who smuggled rice into Tōkyō from the countryside in order to sell it on the black market. “Your baby is wetting its pants,” said a policeman to one woman who had a sack of rice wrapped in a blanket and strapped to her back as if it was her child. A hole had opened up and grains were trickling out.

However, there is a happy ending. The final two chapters of “Tokyo Rising” are entitled “Olympian Days” and “Balmy Days of Late Shōwa.” Ironically, if it was war that devastated Japan, it was also war that enabled it to rebuild itself. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, America needed a base of operations in Asia along with local suppliers for the military. In 1950, that amounted to $180 million and before the war was over it amounted to $2.3 billion. It sparked a building boom and tremendous economic stimulus. By the beginning of the 1960s Japan had rebuilt itself and recovered, and in October 1964 it staged the Olympic Games to show the world what a success it had made of the job.

“Tokyo Rising” ends with Japan a full-fledged member of modern international society. It had achieved wealth and recognition as an industrial power. But that was a mixed blessing: there was also inflation and in 1973 it experienced the “oil shock” that the rest of the industrialized world did.

So the age of rapid economic growth, which had lasted from the years when the Korean War was being put to such good use, was at an end. The years immediately following were ones of hesitation and uncertainty. Bankruptcies occurred with greater frequency than at any other time since the war. It came to seem possible that rapid growth would be replaced by no growth at all, or even a diminution. The effect on the life of Tokyo was immediately noticeable. Most prominent among the lights to go out was the Morinaga globe in Ginza. Elevators were put on furlough, lights in hallways were dimmed. Broadcasting hours and movie hours were shortened. Filling stations took holidays. Another sacred institution, the expense account, seemed threatened.

Of course, Japan managed to muddle through as always, and by the time Emperor Shōwa died in 1989, it was again enjoying great economic success. That did not last long either, with terrible reversals in the 1990s, but that is another story, as is the current situation in Japan following the tsunami in the northeast of 2011. But that is far in the future in relation to “Tokyo Rising.”

One could hardly imagine a better introduction to Tōkyō, and in fact to Japan itself, than these two works by Edward Seidensticker. The only other choice is to live in the city oneself and research it in real life!

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