Tokyo city: living in constant flux

John Milton was of the opinion that “towered cities please us then, and the busy hum of men.” Tokyo would have delighted him. Largest city in the world, it has long busily hummed. Home of the first tower (dungeon-keep of the earliest Edo castle) it now has enough towering skyscrapers for everyone.

TOKYO: A Cultural and Literary History, by Stephen Mansfield, foreword by Paul Waley. Oxford: Signal Books, 2009, 268 pp., with photographs, £12 (paper).

Since almost a quarter of Japan’s population, over 30 million people, live in and around the city, the busy humming continues and, as Stephen Mansfield observes in this splendid new history of the city, “Tokyo’s remodeled surfaces always seem youthful, to have somehow escaped the rigor mortis of older capitals.”

As the author later notes, “a case might be made for calling Tokyo a Taoist city” in that it so conforms to the doctrine of submission to constant flux and transformation. Indeed, as suggested in Yoshida Kenko’s beautiful 1330 “Tsurezuregusa” paradigm, the water in this flowing civic torrent is never the same.

It consequently rarely becomes stagnant. This is not true of some other cities. Kyoto, for example, is a city whose past is certainly as important as its present. Such a city demands a different kind of book. The best on Kyoto is Gouverneur Mosher’s (shortly, finally, to be brought back into print by Tuttle; to be joined by John Dougill’s fine account of the city, also published by Signal Books, Diane Durston’s sterling presentation of old Kyoto, and, eventually, Alex Kerr’s upcoming take on the ancient capital).

It is telling that Mosher called his extraordinary work “Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide.” I cannot imagine Tokyo ever being regarded as contemplative.

Although a few historical shards are left, Tokyo is all new, or at least mostly recent. Over half of its buildings today date from the 1980s, and in the bloated bubble years it would have been possible to buy the whole of the United States by selling off metropolitan Tokyo, or all of Canada by offering the grounds of the Imperial Palace.

Tokyo has always lived in the present tense even during that deep freeze — 200 years of seclusion. Back then “as in all totalitarian states, fear and suspicions dictated policy.” Yet, at the same time, “beneath the heavy machinery of Tokugawa polity could be heard the insistent sound of a restive, demographically ascendant subsociety” — that busy hum indicating constant change.

A result was that, “with the Tokugawa government struggling to understand the complexities of a new economy rising from beneath, the merchant class emerged as a moneyed elite,” and we see the results in towering Tokyo — a fabled emporium where shopping is considered a fine art and consumption has morphed into necessity.

Particularly fascinating in this always interesting account of the evolution of Tokyo is Mansfield’s re-creation of the Genroku Era (1688-1704) when the ascendant subsociety first broke the surface. There was an explosion of publishing (even though one mere romance novel cost the equivalent of one month’s food expenses) and a like tsunami of information including subjects not heretofore addressed, such as the line between fine art and pornography, one that prompted Henry Miller’s helpful distinction between the obscene and the erotic — “you can buy the latter.”

Such liberty (or license) collapsed, to be sure — “another example of the easy translation of Victorian propriety into Meiji prudery” and one leading to that dark slope down that an enthusiastic Japan was led.

Tokugawa virtues returned, and on Halloween Night, 1940, the government closed down all Tokyo dance halls and banned jazz performances. This quieted the busy humming, but it was obliterated only by the nearly complete destruction of the city.

In March of 1945 the most devastating strike occurred when 334 B-29s, each loaded with up to six tons of napalm, jellied gasoline and phosphorous, released around 2,000 tons of incendiaries over Asakusa, a quarter of Tokyo that had a population density of over 100,000 people per square mile (2.6 square kilometers).

The result was called an “overriding success,” and its perpetrator, the late Maj. Gen. Curtis E. Le May, could record that some 100,000 people that night were “scorched and boiled and baked to death,” adding that “there are no innocent civilians, so it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing innocent bystanders.” The damage was deep, the deaths permanent, but Tokyo itself, like the immortal phoenix, rose from its own ashes to turn into the towering capital we know today.

Its cultural history, which is what Mansfield so splendidly serves us, is a template of its times, and in offering it, this book joins the best (Edward Seidensticker’s two volumes on Tokyo, Paul Waley’s “Tokyo: City of Stories” and Nicolas Bouvier’s “Chronique Japonaise”). Scholarly but packed, pungent and personal, it gives us the new key to the city.

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