Book Review – Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective

Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective
Nicolas Fiévé & Paul Waley


The subtitle of the book is Place, Power and Memory in Kyōto, Edo and Tōkyō[i].

Since last year, all of my book reviews have a standard format. You can read a description about it here. This message won’t appear in reviews from 2016 on. I just expect you to go to the reviews page if you don’t know what I’m doing. But I’m pretty sure it’s OK.

Nicolas Fiévé is a scholar of Japanese architecture and pre-modern urbanism. Paul Waley is scholar of human geography[ii]. The two have extensive backgrounds in disciplines that often overlap. This book is a testament to that overlapping. They brought in other big guns to fill in the gaps and the result is a really unique 500ish page collection of historical comparisons and contrasts of urbanism in Kyōto and Edo-Tōkyō[iii].

Quick Review


  What I expected What I got
Overall Impression Nothing. My friend, Rekishi no Tabi[iv], suggested it to me. So, I bought it because I trust his taste in these sorts of books more than most people’s. A really interesting exploration of the development and portrayal of Kyōto and Edo-Tōkyō. This book is now in the permanent collection of books I keep within an arm’s reach while writing JapanThis!.
Type of Book A comparative analysis of the history of Kyōto, Edo, and Tōkyō. Some comparative analysis, but the articles are much more interested in exploring Kyōto and Tōkyō on their own terms and in their respective urban histories – as it should be.
Readability I expected it to be very readable. It is extremely accessible. Many of the chapters about Edo-Tōkyō serve as a good companion to Seidensticker’s book which I reviewed before.
Bias I expected very little bias. I didn’t perceive any bias in the book. There was a little cynicism about some of Tōkyō’s post war and bubble era policies, but they were spot on. Any fan of the Edo-Tōkyō continuum would agree.
Audience Scholars, university students, history nerds. People with in depth and active knowledge of the city. Long time JapanThis! Readers can get a lot out of this book. Yes, the more in depth and active understanding you have of both Kyōto and Edo-Tōkyō helps. But I’m not nearly as familiar with Kyōto as I’d like to be but I had no problem keeping up with the chapters on the imperial capital.
Stars[v] ★★★★☆

Pros & Cons

I’ll start with the cons – because there aren’t many of them.

The first con is no fault of the authors or of the book itself. This is an academic book. It presumes the reader is familiar with the geographies of Kyōto, Edo, and Tōkyō. It also presumes the reader is familiar with the history of both cities. Furthermore, it presumes the reader is familiar with the vocabulary of historical architecture and urban studies – in particular, that of Japan. Depending on your level familiarity with the subject matter, this could be a major or minor hurdle. For example, as I mentioned before, I’m not nearly as familiar with Kyōto as I am with Tōkyō so I found myself spending a lot of time with the Kyōto maps in the book and checking some other books/maps when I was confused.

In the article, Metaphors of the Metropolis, William Coaldrake makes some assertions about Utagawa Hiroshige mocking the shōgunate’s use of architecture as a symbol of authority and power in his 浮世絵 ukiyo-e prints. I’m not an expert on ukiyo-e, but I do love it and consider myself fairly familiar with the greats – such as Hiroshige – and when I look at the prints he cites, I just don’t see the same thing he does. While I disagree with him on this point, the rest of the article is really fascinating as he brings up reference guides for samurai to identify the rank of daimyō by the architecture used in their gates – indicating that there was a literal architectural vocabulary in Edo.

And lastly, while it’s fine to put citations at the end of an article or at the end of the book, I just wish more people would put footnotes at the bottom of the page. It’s so much more reader friendly. Who wants to constantly flip to the end of a chapter or the end of a book just to get some further information about something they just read. It makes no sense for writers to maintain this convention in the age of the internet where we have hyperlinks and instant access to things. Even though I’m reading a physical, printed copy of the book, I shouldn’t be expected to flip back and forth. It seems so archaic. This isn’t a criticism of just this book, though. There’s no reason for any writers or editors to do this.

So Let’s Go Through the Book

There are 13 contributors to this book. It starts off, and rightly so, with a focus on Kyōto from its simple and well planned beginnings (end of the Nara Period) to the chaos of the 応仁の乱 Ōnin no Ran Ōnin War[vi] which literally brought the city to its knees and plunged the country into a century of civil war. The book comes back to Kyōto in the final chapters, mainly discussing how the political climate after the ’64 Tōkyō Olympics left Kyōto to fend for itself. The establishment of standards for the preservation of the city is a fascinating insight into the successes and failures of preserving an active urban space that is second to none – I dare say a city that is on par with Rome in terms of cultural heritage and significance[vii].

The majority of the book, as you can imagine, deals with Edo-Tōkyō. This is out of no ill will towards Kyōto. In fact, many of the articles compare and contrast Edo-Tōkyō with the old capital. However, it’s obvious that the legacy of Tokugawa controlled Edo still resounds throughout the capital, the country, and the world in general. We also just have much better records from the Edo Period.

Here are a few interesting tidbits from the book from my notes.

Japan was one of the first countries to establish laws protecting its ancient architecture. “Modernization” began almost as soon as the foreign powers arrived in 1850’s, but believe it or not, the first laws protecting national architectural and artistic treasures began in 1871 (Meiji 4). This tradition protected Kyōto until the 1964 Olympics[viii]. It protected Tōkyō, too. Unfortunately, Tōkyō was subjected to the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923 which pretty much erased Edo permanently. Thus, Kyōto and Tōkyō have evolved on distinctly different paths both culturally and legally. Kyōto’s geographic location is far less prone to destructive seismic active than Edo-Tōkyō.

Great attention is spent discussing the contrast of the streets near Edo Castle as compared to the intricate, maze-like system of gates leading into the Castle itself. I’ve argued many times, that the castle was a city in and of itself. I love the detail this book goes into about the city’s relationship with the castle.

I was really happy to see rivers, ferries, and bridges get a lot of attention. If you’ve been following JapanThis! over the years, you know about my obsession with rivers and bridges. In fact, my last article on Umayabashi was inspired by a casual reference to the bridge in this book. These places were obviously important to the people of Edo, too. They’re a constant theme in the art of the day.

While this book doesn’t address the connotative evolution of the word 江戸っ子 Edokko “Child of Edo,” the article By Ferry to Factory lends much credence to my pet theory that the current definition of Edokko is a byproduct of authors active in the Meiji Period. Those writers may have pined for Edo and they may have even been born in the final years of Tokugawa Japan. However, they lived most of their lives in Tōkyō. This is the same sentiment that Seidensticker alludes to time and time again in his epic Tōkyō: from Edo to Shōwa. But like this book, Seidensticker doesn’t concern himself directly with the word or concept itself, but there’s much implied about its usage when you combine the 2 books. Just like the terms 山手 yamanote high city and 下町 shitamachi low city, this term has changed with subsequent generations[ix].

There’s so much more to say about this book, but I think I want to wrap things up with Jilly Traganou’s chapter, Representing Mobility in Tokugawa and Meiji Japan because this is a topic of great interest to me. As with many of the other Edo-Tōkyō chapters, it ties in with the work of Constantine Vaporis, who has written extensively about mobility of both commoners and samurai in the Edo Period[x]. Anyways, Jilly introduces train maps into the discussion. Trains were the first great successors of the feudal network of highways linking major cities. Pre-modern highways, check points, post towns, rivers, ferry crossings, bridges, modern urban elevated highways, trains, and subways; these are all connected – particularly in Edo-Tōkyō where we can see remnants of the continuum of mobility.


A lot of people thought my review of Seidensticker’s Tōkyō: from Edo to Shōwa was negative and so if you’re one of those people, let me clarify my feelings about his book. It’s a pretty bad ass book; I just didn’t like his style of prose. It was written in a literary style that no one uses anymore[xi]. The content isn’t bad, though. This book, Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective, actually gave me a new appreciation for Seidensticker’s book. It sort of verified, clarified, and demystified a lot of what Seidensticker said. By adding Kyōto to the conversation it really pushes the discussion to places I didn’t expect it to go. This is a really good thing. I love learning new things and this book taught me a lot and best of all, it has me asking more questions. So, I give this book a solid 4 stars![xii]

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[i] The lack of an Oxford comma pisses me off to no end lol.
[ii] Waley wrote the introduction to the Tuttle Edition of the Seidensticker book that I reviewed last January. It’s a good book and I think these two books make good companions.
[iii] Kyōto is really in a world of its own. It probably warrants a similar book, that shifts things back to the mysterious kingdom of 倭 Wa the oldest recorded name of a political entity in the Japanese islands. Kyōto marked the pinnacle of that burst of Japanese civilization and culture. In this book, Kyōto is very much put in contrast to Edo and the samurai government. It also plays foil to imperial Tōkyō. I wonder what another 500 pages on Nara and Kamakura would have yielded.
[iv] Rekishi no Tabi – the name can be translated as “a trip through history” – is a photographer and Japanese history nerd based in Tōkyō. Check out his photos here. Follow him on Twitter here.
[v] 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.
[vi] What was the Ōnin War? I’m glad you asked.
[vii] At least in my opinion.
[viii] It also provided a tradition and a framework for new laws in the post-Olympic era.
[ix] I had an article about Yamanote vs. Shitamachi, but I deleted it because it sucked ass. There will be a new reference article in 2016. Hopefully in the first few months of the year.
[x] His book, Breaking Barriers: Travel and the State in Early Modern Japan, is required reading for any Japanese history nerd. I’ll be reviewing this book some time next year.
[xi] I was in high school when he died – totally pre-internet. I used to enjoy, and sometimes still do, that “great books” or “classics” approach to writing. But, it just doesn’t hold up today. It’s heavy on a classical style at the sake of straightforwardness.
[xii] When I introduced my new review system, I said that getting a 5 is an almost impossible target because… well, nothing’s perfect. A 4 definitely means you should read it. It’s the highest ranking you can get on JapanThis!.

4 thoughts on “Book Review – Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective

  1. Thanks for this review! I’ve had my eye on this book for a long time, and finally obtained a copy, but I haven’t had any time to read it.

    I agree with you completely about the endnotes. There’s absolutely no good reason for it in this digital age – layouts surely can be anything, without it necessarily being any more difficult, or more expensive. I’m reading Gary Leupp’s book right now on “Interracial Intimacy: Western Men and Japanese Women 1543-1900” or whatever the precise actual title is, and it’s been driving me nuts going back and forth to the end of the book.

    I may have mentioned this previously already, but I think you’d really enjoy Takeshi Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy. It’s more about parades & processions and their role in constructing the Imperial/ national ideology than about city history, strictly speaking. But, there’s also a ton in there about how Tokyo was (re)conceived, and planned, as a modern capital city.

  2. Hi Travis, いつもありがとうな

    >> I’ve had my eye on this book for a long time, and finally obtained a copy, but I haven’t had any time to read it.

    Such a common problem. 積ん読 is the story of my life. I had a 2 week internet connectivity problem and couldn’t research my pet projects so… I was able to plow through this beast of book in 1 week.

    >> I agree with you completely about the endnotes. There’s absolutely no good reason for it in this digital age.

    I have a 3 volume hard bound set of the Decline and Fall that I bought in 1991 that put all the notes at the bottom of the page, sometimes at the expense of the main text’s “screen time.” It was amazing. Shakespeare, Beowulf, Greek and Roman poets, as well, are rarely forced into this strange format. Why is it that Japanese history isn’t made 読みやす・使いやすい?

    >> I may have mentioned this previously already, but I think you’d really enjoy Takeshi Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy. It’s more about parades & processions and their role in constructing the Imperial/ national ideology than about city history, strictly speaking. But, there’s also a ton in there about how Tokyo was (re)conceived, and planned, as a modern capital city.

    I’ve struggled with the Meiji Coup and much of its after effects. But writing this blog has boosted my interest in post 1868 Tokyo. And this book definitely goes into, as you said, how Tokyo was (re)conceived, and planned, as a modern capital city.

    Minus the Kyōto bits, it really does make a less annoying, more expedient better half to Seidensticker’s clunky magnum opus. However the 2 books compliment each other in ways I didn’t expect at all.

    Fujitani’s book is on my list, for sure.

  3. Ah, yes! I’ve been waiting for this review since you mentioned you were reading it back in the early Fall. I’ve been watching this book for a long time, wondering if it would be worth having as part of my library and just never committing due to the slightly elevated price tag (my book budget ain’t what it used to be :/ )

    Your comparison to Seidensticker’s book probably puts it into the “will buy” category alone, as I quite enjoyed it (well, mostly. I agree the second half was the lesser half), largely because of his obvious enthusiasm for the subject matter.

    Since my own specific interests are more toward Kyoto (no trolling… I love Edo/Tokyo too!) I am lightly disappointed to hear that the Kyoto analysis end with the Onin war, do they skip over late Sengoku and early Edo era altogether? A lot of reorganization had gone on prior to 1968 and I’ve been keen to find more information about the local effects of the early Edo power-shift from Kyoto–>Edo. This era in Kyoto history seems like an informational dead-zone, at least in English.

    1. Sorry if I gave that impression. Kyōto’s coverage does not end at the Onin War. It goes well into the present era. Edo-Tōkyō gets the bulk of the attention in the middle of the book, but the imperial capital def gets a fair shake. The history of zoning laws in Kyōto was particularly fascinating.

      Unfortunately, Late Sengoku Kyōto doesn’t get much proverbial screen time, as you can imagine. But the book does make a nice companion to Seidensticker for the Edo lovers out there.

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