Tokyo’s expansion west, and further

by and

Special To The Japan Times

With the first anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake just passed, an awareness of Japan’s earthquake-prone nature is very much with us. But destructive as earthquakes are, they can also serve as catalysts for social, economic, and cultural change. This seems to be the premise of the exhibition now showing at Tokyo’s Setagaya Literary Museum.

Using a wide variety of cultural paraphernalia, including posters, paintings, woodblock prints, and books, “Expansion of Metropolis around 1930s” explores the spread of Tokyo to the west that occurred after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Although there is no English to guide non-Japanese-speakers, the show is nevertheless an interesting one that will reward patient study.

The museum itself is an intriguing venue: a modern building located on the premises of Oba Daikan Yashiki, the residence of the Oba clan, which once administered the area. You can still see the old house with its moat full of koi carp that stretches around part of the museum. This is an interesting touch as carp are rumored to be able to predict earthquakes, and an earthquake is the starting point of this exhibition.

One of the reasons the Great Kanto Earthquake was so devastating (around 140,000 people are thought to have died) was because Tokyo was such a densely populated city. The rebuilding that occurred after the quake saw the modernization of central Tokyo, while the economic stimulus caused by the rebuilding pulled in new migrants to the city. This created the conditions for the city to greatly expand its area.

“During the 1920s and 30s, Tokyo roughly doubled in size,” Tomoko Koike, the exhibition’s curator points out. “Also, with many people moving to west, Tokyo’s center of gravity moved, with places like Shibuya and Shinjuku developing as centers to compete with Ginza.”

But why exactly did the city shift in this particular direction? Koike mentions the flat, relatively elevated land. Expansion to the north and east was discouraged because of Tokyo’s main rivers, which lie in those directions. The lack of major rivers to the west made it cheaper to build new suburban railway lines, such as the Keio, Tokyu and Odakyu lines, facilitating the growth of new suburbs. Other factors were the excellent views of Mount. Fuji, which lay in that direction and the cleaner air. The prevailing winds blew pollution from Tokyo’s major factories eastwards.

The trail of westward property development had already been blazed before the quake, with the establishment of Den-en-chofu town by the financier Eiichi Shibusawa. Inspired by the English “garden city” movement, the town was designed to be a healthy suburb for Tokyo with large houses, wide roads, and a concentric street plan.

Even though political trends were pushing Japan in an increasingly nationalistic direction, the westward expansion of Tokyo also helped Tokyoites to Westernize. This is apparent from the posters and photographs connected with Shinjuku’s Isetan Department store. The art deco building, which still stands, was constructed to serve the new suburbanites of the west.

One poster advertising the store from 1936 encapsulates the process of Westernization, showing two prospective customers, one dressed in a yellow kimono, while her friend wears the latest foreign fashions. There are also photographs of shop window displays of golf wear, swimwear, and clothes for skating. Interestingly, for a few years, Isetan ran a popular ice skating rink right next to the department store.

With the increase in Western-style leisure and consumption, new housing designs were also imported. The exhibition includes a pair of house models, including a very Western-style house that belonged to the popular novelist Yaeko Nogami. According to Koike, this “des res,” which once stood in Seijogakuenmae, has been removed and rebuilt in Nogami’s birthplace, Usuki in Oita Prefecture.

Nogami was one of many literary names that the new suburbs quickly acquired, as many writers and artists moved there. These included Sunao Tokunaga, the proletarian author of the 1930 novel “Town Without Sun,” which describes dingy urban squalor. Three years after writing the book, he moved out to Miyanosaka in Setagaya to escape such conditions.

The new suburbs created a healthy environment for children, with large families were the norm. The prevalence of large numbers of youngsters was reflected in the literature of the day, including the novels of the popular detective and mystery writer, Edogawa Rampo. Inspired by Western models, especially the Baker Street Irregulars, a group of street children who assist Sherlock Holmes in some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories of the famous detective, Rampo wrote about a similar gang of boy detectives based in the Setagaya area.

Through all these different media, as well as music (you can listen to the popular songs of the day) and movie paraphernalia, the exhibition builds up a picture of a society that seems very much the embryonic version of the much more consumerist and Westernized society that we have today. The pre-war Western suburbs of Tokyo seem to have been its proving grounds.

“Expansion of Metropolis around 1930s” at the Setagaya Literary Museum runs till April 8; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥700. Closed Mon. (Japanese only).