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‘Tokyo: A Biography’: Tracing the life of a city

by

Special To The Japan Times

Cities are intrinsically inviting subjects for a writer. Part human, part natural; arena of history and mantelpiece of memory — cities provide the setting for the archetypal encounter of the individual with the masses.

Tokyo: A Biography, by Stephen Mansfield.
208 pages
TUTTLE, Nonfiction.

With its conjunction of vast and intimate scales, its turbulent history and ever-shifting landscapes, Tokyo offers an inviting subject for the urban portraitist. In “Tokyo: A Biography,” Stephen Mansfield, a prolific author, photojournalist and longtime British resident of Tokyo, is the latest author to take on this challenge. With it, he joins a long line of illustrious interpreters whose readings of the city are available in English, including Edward Seidensticker, Donald Ritchie, Paul Waley, Ai Maeda and Hidenobu Jinnai.

The range of approaches to writing the city is as varied as the city itself, including social history, natural and human geography, social ethnography, and studies in visual and material culture. The term “biography” in the title, explicitly borrowed from Peter Ackroyd’s book on London, is a clue to Mansfield’s approach. The guiding premise is the city as a person, with its own background, narrative trajectory and psychology, whose story develops out of the interaction of internal propensities and environmental factors. The interpreter’s aim is to marshal the materials to deliver an understanding of a collective persona, to imbue the urban machine with its animating ghost: a human soul.

Evoking Edward Gibbon’s classic account of Rome, Mansfield presents his purpose as “Recounting the human footprint on time … to write a history that would include everything of significance and interesting insignificance,” an account that aims to be a “riposte to the perception of Tokyoites as involuntary cells or charged particles streaming through the body of the city.”

The book is structured as a conventional history, with chapters covering distinct periods arranged chronologically, noting that for Tokyo, “So great is the intensity of change that the city seems completely severed from its own history.” A bibliography and, usefully, a filmography are supplied.

Mansfield’s account is securely grounded in historical scholarship, but he wears his learning lightly. Techniques used in Japanese historical research, such as giving attention to place names in the stead of more enduring material evidence are seamlessly incorporated. Unfortunately, despite having incorporated several pages of color illustrations, there are no maps to help identify places or orient the discussion, nor reproductions of artworks discussed in the text. Luckily, Google can generally supply the supporting resources.

One of the pleasures of the book is Mansfield’s prose, which draws on his considerable poetic skill to deliver memorable formulations. Tokyo is “a massive jellyfish of cement and light,” while Edo, the old name for Tokyo, was a “bodacious, pullulating city.” Mansfield’s imagination is particularly tuned for the senses. The acoustic landscape of Edo is evoked with “the lap of the ferryman’s oars … and the stirring of air under the wings of riverside cranes.” Snippets of poetry and historical quotes judiciously selected from contemporary writers add color and insight to the historical sketches.

Trying to compress 400 years of urban history into 200 pages means that descriptions must be brief and analysis schematic. At times the account can feel like Arnold J. Toynbee’s apocryphal “one damned thing after another.” Nonetheless, the text generally balances illustrative description, telling anecdote and broader discussion of social and cultural change.

Interesting characters and details abound. Fascinating personas emerge from the shadowy back streets, such as Henry Black, the improbable Australian “blue-eyed rakugo” performer of Meiji-era Tokyo. A landscape of lost objects and occupations emerges with lovingly compiled inventories of the sakariba (flourishing places) and hirokoji (open spaces) of Edo.

This is a history experienced at street level, through the eyes and ears of Tokyo’s inhabitants.

Also refreshing is the sympathetic attention given to the experiences of the poor, the dispossessed and the disenfranchised, in counterpoint to the stories of the powerful and the famous. The situation of women figures as a prominent thread. We learn of the lower-class Edo women of the Fukagawa pleasure-quarters, whose fate was to be dumped over the walls of the temples wrapped in reed mats for burial in unmarked graves. We also encounter the impassioned energies of feminist reformers such as Raicho Hiratsuka in late-Meiji Tokyo who, with her literary magazine Seito (Blue Stocking), sharply questioned the roles traditionally assigned to women.

The inevitability of disaster, whether natural or man-made, is the basso ostinato in any history of Tokyo. The accounts here of quakes, floods, fires and war dutifully recount the litany of death and destruction that is numbingly familiar to any student of this city’s history. Yet after each terrible erasure, the city springs back anew with a primal vigor, often transformed in physical form with architectures that evolve with each successive wave from wood to brick to concrete and glass.

The Tokyo that emerges from this portrait is an urban society of tremendous resilience and, in spite of its orgies of destruction and frenzies of construction, an almost perversely irrepressible sustainability. An optimistic conclusion perhaps, at a time in which the city’s future prospects, under broader conditions of economic and demographic decline, are uncertain. Ultimately what this book shows is that we’ve been here before, again and again.