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Book Review – Photography in Japan

In Japan Book Reviews on March 14, 2016 at 2:42 pm

Photography in Japan: 1853-1912
Terry Bennet

Although it was published in 2006, I first spotted this book randomly at Kinokuniya in Shinjuku last month and was drawn to the beautiful cover. I’m a sucker for so-called 古写真 koshashin old photos from the Bakumatsu and Meiji Period and I have quite a few coffee table books put out by Japanese publishers. Something about the layout of this book grabbed my attention and I knew I had to own it. It’s rich in color and pays attention to important design elements that photographers pay attention to. That is to say, each page is well composed. My Japanese books tend to be a single black and white photo laid out on a plain white page. This book on the other hand, was made to be a visual delight from start to finish. Even if you’re not interested in the text, it’s still a pleasure to browse.

Quick Review


What I expected

What I got

Overall Impression

A history of photography in Japan up to the Taishō Period with lots of pretty pictures.

A well-researched history of photography in Japan that focused a lot on the photographer’s themselves as well as the techniques and political climate of the time.

Type of Book

An accessible photo-historical account of Japan.

Totally accessible, but the photos definitely supersede the text – I’m sure this is by design. The research is really interesting too.


Easy to read, more pictures than text.

Careful attention is paid to the composition of each page. While the text is meaningful and relevant, the photos steal the show.


I have no idea what sort of bias could be in an art history book for casual readers. They tend to just be descriptive, so I don’t expect any bias.

As expected, there wasn’t any bias in the book that I noticed. It’s honest and objective.


Non-specialists, hobbyists, and fans of art history.

Art fans, Japanophiles, photo-historians, people who like seeing beautiful things and learning about them.



I wasn’t familiar with the author, but looking into his background a bit, I found that he is a pretty legit researcher of 19th century photography – especially that of Japan, Korea, and China. In fact, there is a companion version of this book specifically for research purposes called Old Japanese Photographs: Collectors’ Data Guide[i] which serves as a comprehensive index of data related to photographs and photographers of 19th century Japan. However, for all you research and footnote junkies, the edition we’re looking at today does include an appendix of commercial and amateur photographers, extensive endnotes, a glossary of photography terminology[ii], a timeline of photography in Japan, and a few other appendices.


The progression of the narrative is essentially: the first photographic images of Japan, the early dominance of western photographers, the rise of the Japanese photographers, and the eventual incorporation of photography into Japanese culture in much the same way it had become incorporated into the western cultures. Superficially, this may seem like nothing. But keep in mind that Japan was more or less closed off to foreign technology until the 1853. The innovation of this newfangled photography thing coincided with the opening of Japan. It could be said that the history of photography and the history of Bakumatsu and Modern Japan go hand in hand.

As art history books go, this is a pretty fun one. Each page focuses on the art, but backs everything up with substantial history in the text. The book is beautifully laid out so there is a nice balance between text and art. To be honest, I’m more interested in drooling over the pretty pictures than the histories and biographies, but I’m so glad that they’re included. There will definitely be times when I’ll need to refer back to this book because of the text included at the expense of the pretty pictures[iii].

What I keep thinking is that this is actually 2 books in one – something I’ll talk about again later. On the one hand, it’s a picture book, a coffee table book. Anyone can just pick it up and look through it whimsically. On the other hand, there is substantial text that tells the stories of the artists and the photohistory. While the beautiful photos distract from the text, the text does not distract from the photos. That is my favorite thing about this book’s design; they found a sweet spot that balances visual beauty with good history and biography.

My Nitpicking

While I’m familiar with Bakumatsu photography, my knowledge is mainly related to the subject matter of the photos. In particular, I’m interested in the photos of places in Edo-Tōkyō. As for the history of photography in Japan, I can’t make any criticism and I won’t because I don’t know much about the history of photography in Japan. However, there were four things I noticed that rubbed me the wrong way. One is a factual error, the others are editorial decisions. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fantastic book and I love it. So the fact that there are only 4 things that bugged me, is pretty good! lol

First was a comment that said Zempukuji[iv] was the “largest temple” in Edo. To the best of my knowledge, this is a common misconception held by people in Tōkyō’s Minato Ward who conflate Zenpuku-ji in Azabu with another temple, Zenpuku-ji, in Suginami Ward[v]. Any look at a map of the period would show you that other temples were much larger, in particular, the Tokugawa Funerary Temples at Kan’ei-ji and Zōjō-ji. Zenpuku-ji had massive landholdings and was extremely influential – it claims to be the 2nd oldest temple in Tōkyō – but there’s no way to call it the largest temple in Edo at the time.

The second was the editorial decision to render the place name 出島 as Deshima, rather than Dejima. While Deshima is a possible reading of those kanji, the foreign settlement in Nagasaki is regularly rendered in Modern Japanese as でじま Dejima[vi]. Even in English, I usually see Dejima.

My third complaint is also editorial – and I’ve complained about this before with other writers. Bennet renders the Japanese word 酒 sake alcohol as saké. In English, the character é is generally used for words imported from French and it usually means “yo, put the stress accent here.” In this case, Bennett[vii] uses this diacritic mark to tell the readers that this e isn’t silent. However, instead it looks like a French word; rather than SAH-ke, it looks like sah-KEI[viii]. That weird French-looking spelling is misleading to non-Japanese readers and annoying to people who can actually read Japanese and understand the conventions for Romanization. I’ve complained about this in other books I’ve reviewed. Seems like a problem that could easily be remedied with italics and/or a footnote.

Which brings me to my last complaint: endnotes. I’m happy they’re there, don’t get me wrong. I want that sweet, sweet extra explanation, but I’m just a much bigger fan of footnotes. This is just my person preference, but I think it’s easier to glance down at the bottoms of the page to quickly get additional information – if I want it – than to slip in a bookmark and search around the back of the book for a single note among pages of unrelated notes.

Things the Book got Right

Well, pretty much everything. This book has a great balance of properly researched history and jaw dropping eye candy. Because the book is in color, it’s seems like colorized versions of the photos are given preference over black and white. This is what drew my attention to the book in the first place. The book is a large coffee table book with real emphasis on being visually appealing. There is a good balance between text and images. Most Japanese photography books are just black and white photos printed on a white background – maybe a small blurb and attribution. This book is laid out with loving detail and the pictures correspond with the biographies of the respective artists. The chronology is easy to follow, both visually and textually.

Earlier, I complained about some editorial decisions, but there’s one really important thing they got right – something every book, website, TV show, etc. must get right in my opinion: the order of Japanese names. This book does it correctly: family name first, given name[ix] second. It seems like a little thing, but it’s really, really important to use a person’s name correctly and I was happy there was no pandering to western convention on this matter.

The book does present some pretty legit history. There are a lot of details about things that were considered common knowledge for years, but have been overturned by recent discoveries and scholarship. For example, some photos from the Bakumatsu and early Meiji Period have been commonly attributed incorrectly because prior to the introduction of photographic copyright, photos from individuals were sold to studios that reprinted and sold them under their own names. Another interesting thing I learned was that author Jack London[x] went to Japan in 1904 as a war correspondent covering the Russo-Japanese War and was actually arrested for taking pix of sensitive military locations. I had no idea.

Fave Photos

In conclusion, I’d like to mention a few of my favorite photos in the book. The first is a shot of the shōgunate officials and translator taken after the signing of the first treaty with the Americans.  From a historical perspective, this is truly a priceless photograph. I’m pretty sure no one present at the signing of that first of the so-called “unequal treaties” had any idea of the insane Pandora’s Box they had just opened. Just looking at their faces begs so many questions. It was just a casual photo to mark a diplomatically momentous occasion, but the ramifications of that day sent shockwaves throughout the country and the culture.

There were about 3 photos of Zenpuku-ji, the home of the American Legation – essentially the first American Embassy in present day Tōkyō. One is a widely reprinted shot; the other 2 were first timers for me. Granted all three shots are of the 中門 nakamon middle gate which leads to the 本殿 honden main hall, but each give little unique details of the buildings that sat in front of the gate. I’ve spent a lot of time pouring over those pictures trying to pick out little differences. It’s a lot of fun for me cuz… that’s the kind of nerd I am.

Lastly, one photo that immediately grabbed my attention was a picture by an Austrian photographer casually labeled “Shiba.” Instantly, I recognized it as one of the destroyed Tokugawa mausolea at Zōjō-ji. The photo is taken from an odd angle, outside of the shrine and clearly shows the wall that marks the perimeter. I’d never seen the photo before so long time readers will know why I was so excited to see this particular pic[xi]. I will probably try to contact the author in the near future to get a little more info about the picture because I think there’s a good chance it may be Daitoku-in, the funerary temple of the 2nd shōgun, Hidetada.

My Closing Thoughts

In conclusion, this book is awesome because of its dual nature. On one level, you can just appreciate it as a beautifully designed picture book with stunning photographs of a Japan lost to time. On the other hand, the biographies of the photographers and all the research presented in each chapter are easy to read and filled with interesting anecdotes to keep the reader entertained. I want to emphasize that the book really does seem dual purposed and the design reflects that. You can peruse the beautiful photographs – and honestly, that’s probably what you’ll do first. But you’ll be glad all that non-distracting text is there when you get more and more curious about the provenance of the photographs, the stories behind them and the artists, and advances in technology that came along the way.

I came away from this book with a real sense of respect for the difficulties early photographers faced – especially in a place as remote as 19th century Japan. As an amateur photographer myself – emphasis on amateur – I’ve found myself inspired to take more photos. If any of these photographers could imagine the ease with which we can just point and click with our digital cameras today – hell, most of our phones take better throw away pix than they could – I think they’d be mind-blown and humbled. But it really should be the other way around. They were the pioneers lugging huge amounts of gear, portable darkroom tents, and glass plates for exposures. They didn’t really get any “do overs.” They had to get the shot right the first time. The notion of “editing a photo” didn’t even exist. They had to fix things in the chemical printing process or the hand colorization process. I got a sense of awe about the art of photography that I didn’t really have before. And any book that leaves me humbled, awestruck, and inspired is a good book in my mind. This book achieved all that for me.

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[i] I haven’t seen or read the book. I’m just going by the description in this edition. But apparently that data was going to be included in Photography in Japan, but increased in scope and warranted being a book of its own, rather than an expansive appendix at the end of this book.
[ii] In the age of point and click digital cameras with no chemical processes, this is really useful for anyone born after the death of pure analog photography.
[iii] And then I’ll probably get distracted for another 20-20 minutes by the pretty pictures. This always happens.
[iv] I would have written Zenpuku-ji, but that’s not my complaint because both are legitimate romanizations.
[v] The story I’ve heard passed around is that both temples named Zenpuku-ji were connected at one time and because they were so powerful, they had to be split. If that were actually true, that would have be a stretch of land from Edo Bay to present day Suginami Ward, a swath of real estate even larger than the shōgun’s capital. I’m highly suspicious of this claim and I can’t find info one either temples’ websites to back it up. Furthermore, there is most likely no connection between the two temples.
[vi] The Deshima rendering is probably result of dialects, non-locals, or non-native speakers who were only conversant in pidgin Japanese. Another possibility is that the local dialect did, in fact, call the area Deshima, but when Tōkyō became the capital of the Japanese Empire and Standard Japanese became the norm nationwide, that Dejima became the new standard reading. I don’t know. All I know is that current Japanese sources overwhelmingly use Dejima.
[vii] And I don’t know if this was Bennett’s decision or his editor’s decision…
[viii] I forwent all the IPA conventions because this is a book review.
[ix] Yes, yes, yes, I know. Japanese people changed their names all the time, so “given name” isn’t an accurate term. Sue me.
[x] Yes, the same Jack London who wrote The Call of the Wild.
[xi] As you should all know by now, I’m obsessed with the Tokugawa Funerary Temples.

Book Review – Hiroshige: 100 Famous Views of Edo

In Japan Book Reviews on February 26, 2016 at 6:57 am

Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo
Edited by Melanie Trede & Lorenz Bichler


I have to confess something. I’m going into this review with a serious bias. I want to be honest about that. On the other hand, a book review is someone’s opinion about a book so… I guess it’s not really my job to be unbiased, is it?

As everyone who reads JapanThis! knows, I love Edo. I love the good parts of it. I’m fascinated by the bad parts of it. However, most of all, I’m in love with the mystery of it – very little of the shōgun’s capital actually still remains. Long gone is the shōgunate’s prohibition against buildings over 2 stories high[i]. Long gone are the palatial mansions of the daimyō. Long gone is the sprawling castle of the shōguns. Long gone are the samurai, the geisha, the merchants, the row houses, the canals, the rivers, and the moats. Modern Tōkyō is an urban jungle that grew out of the world’s preeminent, pre-industrial metropolis. And in many ways, they really are 2 different cities.

It can be said that Edo died 3 deaths: once in the Meiji Period when the city got a slight western makeover, again in the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake which brought the city to her knees, and finally in the 1945 firebombing raids[ii]. I’ve always said, there’s a little Edo alive in Tōkyō, you just have to know where to look for it – though usually you have to look really hard.

One of the greatest records we have of Edo is a collection of 浮世絵 ukiyo-e woodblock prints of daily life (literally “pictures of the floating world[iii]”) by歌川広重Utagawa Hiroshige called the 名所江戸百景 Meisho Edo Hyakkei 100 Famous Views of Edo[iv]. While literary and historical texts definitely give us a lot of information about the city, ukiyo-e prints speak volumes about the neighborhoods of the city and communicate profound details about how the average Edoite viewed the city that they lived in. Hiroshige used the popular ukiyo-e style to document the capital and its vibrancy, its place in nature, and its relationship with humanity. Almost all of the views of Edo he depicted no longer exist. Sure, the geographical locations are still there. But the 景色 keshiki scenery is gone.

In my articles on JapanThis!, I do my best to bring the city of Edo back to life. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to track down a photo of an area. Sometimes I get super lucky because there’s a beautiful print by Utagawa Hiroshige.

One final note about Hiroshige and his perspective on the city: he lived from 1797-1858. This makes him a contemporary of 葛飾北斎 Katsushika Hokusai[v] (1760ish-1849). ペリー君 Perī-kun[vi] Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Japan in July 1853 and demanded the Tokugawa Shōgunate open up the country. To the best of my knowledge – I’m no expert – this didn’t influence Hiroshige’s art. But it puts his life into an interesting perspective if you look at the timeline of Japanese History. He died 10 years before the 明治維新 Meiji Ishin Meiji Coup that saw the fall of the Tokugawa Shōgunate. As a result, Hiroshige is considered one last great masters of the pure ukiyo-e tradition of the Edo Period[vii]. The style didn’t die overnight, but it changed and evolved. The prints of Hiroshige had a particularly unexpected impact on European artists who, despite not understanding what they were looking at, were struck by the beauty of his art and Japanese art[viii] in general. It should be noted that Vincent van Gogh[ix] even copied some of Hiroshige’s originals before he decided that Impressionism[x] is where all the cool kids hung out[xi]. He sucked at it, but he did manage to broaden his own artistic “vocabulary” and turn on other people in Europe to some aspects of the visual esthetic of the Edo Period.

Quick Review


What I expected

What I got

Overall Impression

A beautiful compilation of one of the most important collections of ukiyo-e dedicated entirely to the city of Edo. A beautiful compilation of one of the most important collections of ukiyo-e dedicated entirely to the city of Edo with extremely well written descriptions of each print and a fabulous introduction to the artist and the series.

Type of Book

An art history book An art history book that is itself a lovingly crafted work of art.


Didn’t even give it a thought. I just wanted the pictures. Extremely readable. The only problem is I keep getting distracted by the gorgeous prints.


It’s an art book, not sure if bias was an issue other than I hoped the editors were fans of Hiroshige. It’s an art book and turns out the editors are fans of Hiroshige who are totally biased towards Hiroshige. Just as it should be.


Fans of traditional Japanese art, particularly those fascinated by the Edo Period and ukiyo-e. Fans of art. This book is really accessible. Even if you don’t know anything about the Edo Period, this book is simply delightful to peruse. It’s not just for history nerds. Anyone can fall in love with this book.



This book gets a solid 5 stars from me.

When I set up my somewhat standardized book review system, I told everyone that I’d never give a book a 5 star rating out of principal. There’s no perfect book. But when I made this system I was thinking about academic history books, not art books. I set a standard that doesn’t really deal with this kind of book.

The prints are reproduced beautifully. This isn’t a book you read and then throw on the bookshelf. This is a book you come back to every day[xii]. This is a book that you leave on the coffee table forever. This is a book that you will literally drool over certain pages taking in Hiroshige’s unconventional use of perspective, his unique guile in painting aspects of the yamanote that got him past the shōgunate censors, and his – I believe – profound affection for his hometown.

This book is wrapped in a wooden cover that protects the contents. It’s sturdy and heavy. The binding itself commands a sense of respect for the contents. The entire viewing experience is very Japanese. You will instinctively find yourself revering the physicality of the book and this enhances the viewing experience.

The book begins with a few chapters about Hiroshige, ukiyo-e, the nature of the genre, and a little bit of history. All of this is accompanied by details of various prints. The text is good and solid and I don’t want to take anything away from that, but the authors/editors chose to focus on the visual element and let Hiroshige’s prints speak for themselves. As a result, you may find yourself distracted from the text and drawn to the pictures. And I think that’s OK. This is an art book, not a history book. The text, which is rock solid in my opinion, is there to answer your questions about the subject – should you have questions. This edition clearly focuses on the eye candy. The authors stay back in the shadows and only speak when you want them to.

This is an art book through and through. I love it. I cherish it. It’s big enough to hug.

If you’re interested, here’s an unboxing video made by some dude on the internet:

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[i] Not counting the watch towers, etc…
[ii] Which also brought the city to her knees, but this time it wasn’t an act of nature.
[iii] “The floating world” just means “transient moments” or “passing moments.” Today we have photography which can literally capture a moment in time that will never repeat, previous to photography if you wanted a “snapshot” of life, you had to paint it. Ukiyo-e was often about that “snapshot,” capturing a “fleeting moment.”
[iv] Ironically, the series proved so popular that Hiroshige actually made 119 prints, but 119 Famous Views of Edo doesn’t roll off the tongue, I suppose.
[v] Yes, that Hokusai – the guy who did the boring painting of a big ass wave in Kanagawa and also invented tentacle porn.
[vi] Yes, that is the official Japanese rendering of his name. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
[vii] Sure, people continued making ukiyo-e prints in the Meiji Period. It wasn’t like New Year’s Day 1868, everything changed completely lol. But many Japanese art historians, especially those who specialize in ukiyo-e think there is a drastic drop in quality after Hiroshige’s death. That said, I’ve seen some great Meiji Era prints. The style changed, that’s all. Also, ukiyo-e has continued to influence Japanese artists to this very day when they want to emphasize a connection to their “Japaneseness.”
[viii] Or in the parlance of their time, “Oriental Art” – a term that has for some reason has gained a racist connotation for the past 15-20 years or so. I don’t use that term, but never really understood how it got the excess baggage. At any rate, the term Oriental is passé. I guess it was seen as lacking nuance between various Asian cultures – very much the way Van Gogh lacked any nuance in pretty much all of his crap art.
[ix] Who was pretty much a hack anyways, let’s be honest.
[x] Impression lolololol.
[xi] Impressionism… god, if there’s any other overrated genre, I’d like to know. Oh yeah. There is. 80’s hair metal!
[xii] Well, you come back to it every day if you’re obsessed with Edo and write a blog about the history of city. Or if you’re an art nerd. Or if you’re both.

Book Review – Tokyo: From Edo to Showa

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

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!


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.





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.


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.


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



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

Book Review – Samurai Revolution

In Japan Book Reviews, Japanese History on November 4, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Samurai Revolution
Romulus Hillsborough




Before we go back to some place names, I’ve been asked to review a book. The book is called Samurai Revolution[i] and is written by Romulus Hillsborough. I’ve read most of Romulus’ books in the past[ii], which are all of an easily digestible size. Except for his book on Sakamoto Ryōma, you could read most of them before bed over the course of 2-3 nights. So when I got my copy of Samurai Revolution, I was shocked. I actually had no idea that this book is – to date – his magnum opus clocking in at 593 pages, but if you count the appendix, glossary, index, bibliography and other resources it actually has nearly 610 pages of text. Needless to say, it’s taken me a long time to read the book, so apologies for the being late with this article.



My New Way to Review Books

In the past, I’ve recommended Japanese history books. Those books haven’t been anywhere near 600 pages.  I tossed them out there as books accessible to a broad range of readers. Except for one book[iii], to date I don’t think I’ve recommended any scholarly or overly demanding books.  But over the years, JapanThis! has evolved and changed and so… here were are. I’m going to try a new type of article where I review (not recommend) a book about Japan or Japanese History. So bear with me as I figure this out how I want to do this. The 593 page load was really time-consuming, so this first in-depth review might be a mess. If that’s the case, I apologize in advance, and that is no fault of the book of itself.

That said, I’ve created this new system for reviewing books as opposed to recommending. I’ve laid out my system here. The link will always be at the top of the page in web view (as opposed to mobile view).


Quick Review

  What I expected What I got
Overall Impression A breezy stroll through Katsu Kaishū’s version of the Bakumatsu[iv] supported by accounts of the major players of the Meiji Coup. In English, this is the best diachronic breakdown of the Bakumatsu I’ve read[v]. It’s accessible. There is unprecedented access to quotes and translations of Japanese source material that has never been available (or easily accessible) in English.
Type of Book A collection of anecdotes from Katsu Kaishū’s memoirs, most likely in chronological order. A comprehensive narrative of the Bakumatsu with citations. While Katsu Kaishū’s memoirs, interviews, and biographies take center stage, they are by no means the whole of the book.
Readability I expected a good narrative. Say what you will about him, but Hillsborough is a good storyteller. Quite readable, actually! Hillsborough can tell a story. Even in such a confusing time, the man has an eye for detail and has come into his own as a writer, in my opinion.
Bias I expected the Tokugawa to be the bad guys, Katsu Kaishū and Sakamoto Ryōma to be the only people who understand anything, and Satsuma, Chōshū, and Tosa to be the superstars of the greatest thing in the world, the Meiji Coup. The book is fairly free of bias. From time to time there is some pro-Meiji rhetoric and a venture or two into historical fictionland, but in the grand scheme of things, it ain’t bad at all. (that’s OK, my stupid blog is all about pro-shōgunate rhetoric, lol).
Audience Fans of the Bakumatsu looking for Katsu Kaishū’s point of view (generally not available in English), Sakamoto Ryōma lovers, and Saigō Takamori lovers. Hard to say. The book presents a lot of general information as if the reader has no idea about these events and concepts, yet plows forward in a style which is nearly academic. I’m not sure who this book was written for… perhaps for people who have dissed his books in the past.




Overall Review

In short, I’m pleased with this book. I would recommend this to every reader of JapanThis! who is interested in the Bakumatsu. I never get tired of going over the events of this period, but this book presents a lot of information that hasn’t been available in English (or hasn’t been easily accessible in English). As such, Hillsborough has put together something special. He can tell a story. He went to great primary and secondary sources. I’m assuming this book is aimed at intermediate lovers of the Bakumatsu, but the language is often confused between beginners and advanced[vii].
As the main focal point of this book, Romulus has chosen Katsu Kaishū. Fans of Japanese history are lucky to have Kaishū as source. Not only was he a major player during the transition from the so-called Pre-Modern Era to the Modern Era, he survived a social, economic, political, and cultural revolution and was on intimate terms with key players on both sides. Many involved were killed along the way.

He was born into a poor hatamoto[viii] family whose reputation was besmirched by his own father, Katsu Kokichi. Katsu Kaishū’s first exposure to the reality of his liege lords was when he was allowed to play in the inner sanctum of Edo Castle during the reign of the 11th shōgun, Tokugawa Ienari[ix]. He had a good head on his shoulders and when his inept, but hilarious father retired from family headship, Kaishū continued to apply himself diligently to get a post in the shōgunate. He applied himself much more than the previous 2 heads of the family but obviously learned how to be a bit of a rebel from them. But he eventually found himself at the center of the greatest cultural shift Japan had ever seen up to that point. He built up Japan’s first modern navy. He negotiated the surrender of Edo Castle (sparing the country’s most populous and beautiful city unnecessary destruction). He lived well into the Meiji Period with a wife, some children, and a culturally appropriate network of side pussy suitable to a man of his rank[x].



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[i] Subtitle: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen through the Eyes of Shōgun’s Last Samurai. I presume this title is intentionally vague. Most Japanese nouns don’t differentiate between singular and plural. Many foreign loanwords in English retain the source language’s grammar. As such we could be talking about one samurai (in this case, Katsu Kaishū) or many samurai (all the other samurai who crop up in the book). At any rate, this is a savvy subtitle and it’s part of what piqued my curiosity in the book in the first place.
[ii] Possibly all of them, I just don’t have a list in front of me.
[iii] Tour of Duty: Samurai, Military Service in Edo, and the Culture of Early Modern Japan by Dr. Constantine Vaporis, which even as an academic text is accessible and enjoyable by anyone interested in the police of alternate attendance. Most people don’t want to go that deep, but if you really want to understand the evolution of Edo-Tōkyō and you really want to understand how this policy helped unify and boosted local economies while creating a truly national economy – all of which is alive and well today to a certain degree – this book is something you need. Clearly not for everyone, but I’m a big fan.
[iv] By the way, I’m a big fan of Katsu Kaishū, he was my gateway to the Bakumatsu. The dynamism of some people of this era, and the stubbornness of others, all united by the patriotism, often tainted by selfishness, is probably typical of every regime change we’ve seen. Except that Japan was literally dragged kicking and screaming into a so-called Modern Era that they didn’t choose. From the get go, few people recognized this as quickly as Katsu Kaishū.
[v] To be honest, in book form, this may be the only diachronic account of the Bakumatsu that I’ve read. I know there are other “definitive” books on the subject but I don’t think I’ve ever read them, to be honest.
[vi] 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.
[vii] I’m guessing this is a by-product of the writing process. A lot of research has been put into this; different eras seem to have been written about at different times.
[viii] Hatamoto were direct retainers of the shōgun family in Edo. This doesn’t mean hatamoto were particularly rich because the status was inherited, but it did mean they had social rank. In theory, they might even be permitted to attend an audience with the shōgun.
[ix] #TeamIenari
[x] This is a holdover from the Edo Period. Many social changes occurred, but c’mon, it’s hard to give up your fuck buddies. Would you give up yours? And no, “side pussy” isn’t the official term. The official term is 側室 sokushitsu literally, “side room.” Until very recently, marriage in Japan was not a monogamous affair. While the concept of a bastard child existed in Europe and America, in Japan the need to sustain the direct male line demanded that you get as many sons as necessary to ensure smooth succession of the family leadership. It wasn’t cheating; it was a way to avoid familial extinction.

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