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Book Review – Tokyo: From Edo to Showa

In Japan Book Reviews on January 9, 2015 at 8:37 am

Tōkyō:
From Edo to Shōwa (1867-1989)[i]
Edward Seidensticker

Click the link to order this book

Click the link to order this book

So a quick word about this book before I begin. This is actually a compilation of 2 works. It’s more than 600 pages in its entirety. The first volume was a book called Low City, High City published in 1983. The second volume was published in 1990 and was called Tōkyō Rising. Even though this is a compilation, the author’s intention is very clear. He argues that post-Tokugawa Edo grew into a new modernized city of sorts from 1868-1923. He further posits that after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, the city began a second blossoming and became the sprawling metropolis that it is today. I can’t argue with him on these points. No one can. General consensus laments the end of Edo by:

The introduction of foreign architecture into the city
in what were literally the final days of the Tokugawa Shōgunate

The importance put on the importation of foreign architecture and customs during the Meiji Period

Destruction by fires & earthquakes
and the subsequent rebuilding leading up to the Great Kantō Earthquake

The almost total devastation of the city in the Great Kantō Earthquake
and the tendency to reject traditional architecture afterwards

The adoption of radically Western urban planning
and an almost obstinate refusal to look backwards after the Firebombing of 1945[ii]

Anyways, I’d like to open this review with a lovely quote from the forward by Paul Waley. “There can be few cities in the world that live, pulsate, and breathe through their geography as Tokyo does, few cities with a history that shifts through the creases of space as does that of Tokyo.” This line struck a chord in my heart because everywhere I walk in this city of hills, plateaux, plains, valleys, rivers, and constant change I can’t help but feel that even when you can’t see Edo right in front of you, there are shadows and whispers of the shōgun’s capital all around me. You just need to know where to look for them.

The subtitle of the book is “The Emergence of the Greatest City in the World.”  Right out of the gate, we know that this is a book written by a lover of Tōkyō for other lovers of Tōkyō. Anyone who’s even taken at glimpse at my blog knows that I proudly include myself in the list of Tōkyō Lovers. Let’s get it on, baby. Awwwwwwwwww yeah!

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Quick Review[iii]

What I Expected What I Got
Overall Impression I expected a light, narrative history of Tōkyō on the change from the Edo Period (including the establishment of the city) to the Shōwa Period (I had no idea whether this meant ending at the beginning of Shōwa or ending of Shōwa). I definitely expected a “timeline-based” narrative. 2 books: one covering the post script of the Edo Period, then covering Meiji to the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake; the other covering the recovery from the earthquake to the building of TDL[iv]. Well over 630 pages of prosaic descriptions, many from the personal recollections of famous writers who lived and loved the city.
Type of Book A well-researched but lightly-written academic history of the city, backed up by nice photos. A history – clearly well-researched – but it’s unique angle is it cites personal recollections of literary greats who lived in the city during its transitions[v].
Readability A light descriptive narrative style, accessible to anyone who wants to understand the evolution of Edo into Tōkyō. Written in a prosaic “Great Books” style. It’s never dry and the author clearly loves Tōkyō. But at times the “classical prose style” is horribly distracting from the content[vi]. The organization of the book is awkward and so the author tends to repeat himself but I think this may be helpful to newbies.
Bias Wasn’t sure what to expect, but I had high hopes. Politically, completely unbiased[vii].
Audience Anyone with a passing interest of any city, be it Cairo, Rome, London, Tōkyō, or Santa’s Village.
Light reading.
IMO, this book requires in depth and active understanding of and familiarity with both Edo and modern Tōkyō. If I wasn’t writing this blog, I might only really understand 30-40% of it.

It’s written in a light style, but I think it presupposes a very high familiarity with the city.

Stars

★★★★☆[viii]

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Author

Edward  Seidensticker was a guy who looooooved Tōkyō. 2 pages into this book and you understand that he loved the city profoundly[ix]. He’s best known as a translator of Japanese literature, in particular, Japanese classics[x]. As a translator, he had the opportunity to meet many of the authors he translated. He became close with quite a few of them. Be they friends or acquaintances, Edward had many opportunities to talk with many Japanese writers who lived during the biggest changes of the city. They often talked about their impressions of the city over the years. Of course he talks about the evolution of the city from Edo to Tōkyō historically, but he often refers to quotes from and memories of the authors he translated and befriended over the years.

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Bad Points

Here’s a quote from Wikipedia: Seidensticker has been sometimes described as “the best translator of Japanese that has ever lived”[xi]. But I’ve catalogued a list of ridiculous translations that he used throughout the book (link below), most of which he never quoted the original Japanese which left me at times unable to do further research because the source material is only in Japanese and all we have is his useless “prosaic English translations.” Daily terms that a person would have used in the 80s’s and 90’s are also rendered into obscure literary terms, rather than plain English. This isn’t the sign of a good translator. It’s the sign of an old man who’s clearly out of touch with his native language[xii], or more accurately, Seidensticker presumes his reader is a lover of Western Classics with a little hankering for a spankering of Japan. This book is pre-Internet so that cultural divide is bound to be expected. Unfortunately, it severely dates the prose of this book.  In this, Seidensticker proves himself to be a stepping stone towards multiculturalism and to a modern person with internet and daily and hourly access to various cultures, he fails in a grand way. Maybe he was born 30 years too late[xiii].

I have a free download on my Patreon page that describes some of Seidenlicker’s most egregious translation failures in part one of this book. You can download it for free here.

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Good Points

In English, there is very little literature available about the year by year changes of Edo to Tōkyō. This book pretty much is the only one that everyone can access easily. Seidensticker obviously has a passion for the city. He lived in Tōkyō on and off for about 50 years. His passion shines through in this book.

While reading this, I asked myself “How would I write a history of Edo-Tōkyō?” It’s such a gargantuan task. One approach would be to methodically go through the evolution of the city in a timeline. That would be a convenient reference book. However, that would miss all the nuances of what makes Tōkyō so special – all the unique nooks and crannies. Each neighborhood has its own stories to tell. My blog uses the etymology of place names as an excuse to explore a certain area of the city. Seidensticker’s methodology isn’t so different. Instead of place names, he chooses to explore some of the original 15 wards of Tōkyō City. Furthermore, he compares and contrasts the 下町 shitamachi low city and 山手 yamanote high city. To my delight, he covers how the lines blurred (and at times swapped completely) over the years.

When he quotes writers’ memories of the old city, there is often a bitter sweet tone. People often pine for the past. Seidensticker’s choice of quotes isn’t a mere pulling at the heartstrings. He deliberately chooses descriptive quotes that bring Tōkyō’s various neighborhoods to life. Regardless of what I think of some of his prosaical proclivities, he does a fantastic job of bringing the old city to life.

In a weird way this book is a like a veritable “Who’s Who of JapanThis!.” No joke. On almost every page, I was like, “Yo! I wrote about that, too!” In some places I’ve given more information. In other places, Seidensticker filled in some gaps that I was wondering about.

This is what my version looks like. I feel like a university student again! lol

This is what my version looks like. I feel like a university student again! lol

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Conclusion

This is a freaking great book and I highly recommend it. However, the person who will get the most out of it is someone intimately familiar with Tōkyō’s geography and history. If you don’t have a good understanding of Tōkyō’s geography, you should probably invest in a few maps of early Edo, late Edo, Meiji Period Tōkyō, Taishō Period Tōkyō, and Shōwa Period Tōkyō and keep them on hand at all times. But seriously, if you are passionate about the history of “the world’s greatest city,” this book is something you must have in your personal collection. I’ll be referring back to my copy for almost every future article.

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[i] I love the subtitle: The Emergence of the World’s Greatest City.
[ii] Granted these are all architectural and urban planning aspects, but this book digs deep into the loss of cultural traditions. In particular, the loss of geisha in Tōkyō and the loss of the 遊郭 yūkaku (the so-called “pleasure districts”). But this refusal goes deeper. “Officially speaking” (a vague phrase, at best), a lot of Japan hasn’t wanted to look back at post-Earthquake Tōkyō because the next big step on the history ladder is WWII. The author doesn’t argue this, but I think this is symptomatic of the same refusal of going back to Meiji and Taishō architecture – all the same longing for Edo while just wanting to put everything behind.
[iii] More about my book review system here. Keep in mind, this “system” is still under development.
[iv] Tōkyō Disneyland. The book claims to end at 1989, the last year of the Shōwa Period. The theme park opened in 1983, but to my memory TDL is the latest date mentioned in the book.
[v] It may rely on some writers a little too heavily, but it also makes ample use of diaries/letters of foreign dignitaries, guests to the city, and (importantly, I think) early travel guides.
[vi] It’s replete with out of date phraseology and vocabulary that is downright clownish in this decade. Believe me. I’m coming back to this later.
[vii] Some of his sources were artists who famously suffered from serious depression. I think the author fairly reports their impressions of the city, but the reader should take some of these melancholy recollections with a grain of salt.
[viii] About my “star system,” 4/5 is probably as good as it will get. I’m reserving 5/5 for something really mind-blowing. I dunno… a picture book of Hijikata Toshizō’s girlfriends or something. Every book, every movie, every song has some room for criticism. Also, I have no half-stars because they don’t display correctly across platforms.
[ix] In fact, he lived in Tōkyō until his death in 2007.
[x] Not necessarily Classical Japanese works, but classics of Japanese literature – think Meiji, Taishō, and Shōwa periods. But that said, his translation of the Tale of Genji is considered one of the greatest English translations. I have no interest in that book so… whatever.
[xi] Not to be totally out of context, the rest of the sentence was: “and yet, he admitted that sometimes translation is a nearly impossible task.”
[xii] In Japanese, he would be called a クソジジイ kuso jijii fucking old man (or as he might have rendered it “a cantankerous old codger”). Tell me whose translation is closer to the point?
[xiii] And maybe my use of the word “grand” makes me guilty of the same “crime.” Because who the fuck uses the word “grand” anymore? lol

  1. Great review of a great book. I haven’t finished it yet but I’m really enjoying it. Thanks to your blog and my (too short) visits and wanderings through the Low City, I didn’t find it too difficult to keep on top of the geography although I did find myself often referring to simple maps.
    Your thoughts on the “shadows and whispers” of the shogun’s capital really ring true for me. I first stayed in Nihonbashi, by ‘mistake’ because I didn’t know anything about Tokyo and it seemed central enough. I was really nicely surprised how, on my wanders, the reality of the old city, somehow still seeped through. I noticed this particularly at night, and it was this ‘seepage’ that initially provoked my interest and led me to your blog as well as several books.
    I found it amusing that the title states unamiguously that Tokyo is the world’s greatest city. For me it’s a fact, but I’m sure that some folk, casually browsing in the bookshop, will be rankled. I can’t wait to get back now that I’m armed with more information and more fodder for investigation. Thanks for the review.

    • The “shadows and whispers” thing was no exaggeration. Sometimes i feel like i view this city through a kind of Edo Goggles.

      Nihonbashi is a great place. It might be restored to its former status before the Olympics. I hope so.

  2. Reblogged this on 使番 – az üzenetvivő.

  3. I have both of these books on my shelf, but have never gotten around to reading them. Thanks for this thorough review!

    Somehow I’m not surprised to hear that Seidensticker’s language is kind of dated
    … that’s quite unfortunate.

    • Have you read Carol Gluck’s essay on “The Invention of Edo”? I think you might find it quite interesting, as some thoughts on how people in Meiji, and prewar and postwar Japan imagined and reimagined Edo. How nostalgia for Edo waxed and waned, and so forth.

      It’s in the book Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan, edited by Stephen Vlastos, University of California Press, 1998, if you can get your hands on it. Or, just email me if you’re interested…

      • The prose really is the only downside to the book. The rest is really interesting. I lost interest on he got to the Taishō Period but thats just because my interest in Japanese history is Pre-Meiji and the farther we get away from Edo my eyes start glazing over lol.

        I havent read that essay but I’m very interested. I’ll send you a DM via twitter because i can’t access the backend of WordPress on my mobile.

  4. Great review. I’ve seen this book on Amazon and always considered getting it. I had no idea how long it actually was. Sounds like Seidenlicker did a thorough job.

    Not looking forward to his awkward prose, though.

  5. Thanks for the thorough review. Will check this one out. I liked your epic review of “Samurai Revorlution too.

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