Seidensticker’s Tokyo, and ours

Several years ago while writing a column about life in Tokyo I realized how little I really knew about the history of the city I had lived in since 1994 and worked in since 1986. On Amazon I sought Edward Seidensticker‘s two books about Tokyo, Low City, High City, first published in 1984, and Tokyo Rising, which came out in 1990. Though there are other histories of the city, I was more familiar with these two because they were both published while I was still learning about Japan and Seidensticker was a familiar name to me as a translator. I was surprised to see that both books had been out of print for some time, and was discouraged at the lack of books in English that dealt with what Seidensticker provided: A general social history of the city. Then, not long afterwards, the author himself, who it turned out lived Yushima, not far from where I live, died after injuring his head in a fall during one of his walks around Shinobazu Pond, in Ueno. He was in a coma for four months before succumbing to his injury.

When a noted person dies his work is often rediscovered, and in this case Tuttle decided to rerelease both of Seidensticker’s books about Tokyo in one volume, which was finally published last December as Tokyo: From Edo to Showa 1967-1989. The subtitle is “The Emergence of the World’s Greatest City,” something I’m sure Seidensticker never said. According to his Wikipedia page, he did once call Tokyo “the world’s most consistently interesting city,” but after having read the books I doubt if he was the type of person who would call anything “the world’s greatest.”

Nevertheless, the book has received less attention than I would have thought it deserved, especially among Japanophiles. Though the few reviews I have seen have invariably called it the best history of Tokyo in the English language, that would seem to go without saying since there is little competition. These reviews also point out that the two books have always had their detractors. Seidensticker’s histories are not histories in the classic sense. They can be better described as personal observations of a city that the author came to care very much about. Those observations are explored through historical means–Seidensticker obviously carried out a great deal of research using firsthand materials. However, he did not develop a conventional narrative. The long chapters (each volume only contains six) may follow a general chronology, but the book is mostly structured around themes, within which he extemporizes without strict regard for time periods. Moreover, Tuttle’s somewhat overpriced edition (¥3,000, paper) is filled with typos and layout errors; and the preface by Donald Richie is actually an English translation of the obituary that he wrote for a local Japanese language literary magazine. It doesn’t mention these two books. (There is a shorter introduction by Paul Waley that does.)

Nevertheless, Richie’s essay puts the two books and their author in perspective, though I’m not sure it’s a perspective Seidensticker would have appreciated. Richie, who except for Donald Keene is the last of the great immediate postwar American bunjin still alive (though, for health reasons, he no longer writes), was supposed to dine with Seidensticker on the day he took his fatal fall. He comments in the preface that he often met the translator at Shinobazu Pond because Richie lived right across the street from it, and implies that Seidensticker was often drunk. Eventually, he stopped drinking, or perhaps just cut down, but in any case Richie says that in their conversations Seidensticker often talked about how Japan was quickly going to hell in a handbasket. Such sentiments could be credited to the shochu, the crankiness of old age, or both, but in any case they are fully evident in the two books, in particular the second volume, which covers Tokyo during the time that Seidensticker himself lived here.

This aspect makes the book more relevant to residents of Tokyo than it does to history buffs, who will likely find it frustrating. For me personally, it was relevant in two significant ways, one expected and the other not. I currently live in the “low city” (Seidensticker’s translation of shitamachi) that plays a central role in the author’s thesis that Tokyo’s development was dual in nature. That, in fact, is the main reason I purchased the book. But I was about halfway through it when the earthquake of March 11 struck.

The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is the dividing point of the two books, an event that changed everything and yet didn’t. The point that Seidensticker wants to make is that the culture we associate with Tokyo was developed during the Edo period in the low city, where the artisans, courtesans, and hoi polloi lived. The high city was home to samurai and the bureaucracy, constituting a class whose “culture” was for all intents and purposes moribund. Though he doesn’t make the distinction clear (that’s not his m.o., another thing that’s frustrating about the book), a good example of this cultural divide is the difference between noh, enjoyed by the high city, and kabuki, an entertainment so popular in the low city that the shogun attempted to ban it. The point here isn’t that noh wasn’t a vital art form; only that it was not a versatile one. Kabuki represented a living art. Not coincidentally, all the great literary works written before the earthquake were produced in the low city.

But the low city was already becoming less vital before the earthquake, which effectively destroyed what made it unique. From that point, the high city took over as the place where culture happened, though in a much more sporadic, diffuse fashion since, as Seidensticker continually points out, Tokyo has no center. The low city has become simply the part of Tokyo where one can find a more “traditional” style of living, which is sort of a euphemism for: This is where the poor people live. Seidensticker is quick to point out that, given the fragility of the low city–when it wasn’t being toppled by earthquakes it was burning to the ground every couple of years–the kind of permanence we associate with tradition just wasn’t a factor. It’s totally emotional. In fact, it’s an inadvertent leitmotif of the two books. Seidensticker, writing from the vantage point of late Showa, longs for the Taisho “democracy” he never experienced firsthand, while writers he admires, such as Nagai Kafu who published during the Meiji era, waxed nostalgic for Old Edo even though there was virtually nothing of Old Edo that had survived into Kafu’s lifetime. In the preface, Richie even states that Seidensticker, during their Heisei period dinners, would actually get misty-eyed over his Showa days, which he previously dismissed as being crass. Tokyo’s reputation as a city constantly living in the present is based on this ongoing conundrum. The fact that developers and construction companies take advantage of it is just gravy (for them, anyway).

For me, the associations are particularly vivid because I live on the edge of two neighborhoods that Seidensticker repeatedly refers to in his elaboration on how the low city determined the Edo-Tokyo sensibility: Yoshiwara and Asakusa. Neither place resembles that which became famous in the popular imagination. Both were entertainment districts, but Asakusa catered to mass entertainment while Yoshiwara attended to more personal forms of recreation. Nowadays, Asakusa is simply a tourist spot that purports to offer a glimpse of traditional Tokyo, but doesn’t really. Yoshiwara has become the poorer cousin of Kabukicho (characterized in the book as a pioneer of the emerging High City sensibility) in the industry called sex, whereas in the Edo and, to a lesser extent, Meiji eras its prostitutes were available only to a more select clientele. Nowadays, all you need is money, and not very much of it.

I live closer to Sanya, a neighborhood with even richer associations for people who know nothing of the pre-20th century legacy of the low city. Since the war, Sanya has been the de facto tenderloin of Tokyo; a nexus of day laborers, street drunks, and general transients. These days it’s also the mecca for the international backpacking set thanks to its cluster of hostels. Sanya’s distinctiveness is entirely conceptual. With its low, nondescript buildings and grid-like layout, it doesn’t make much of an impression unless you already know something of its history; of how impoverished farmers, mostly from the area that is now devastated, came to Tokyo to get a piece of the action during the postwar building boom and settled in Sanya because that’s where the cheap digs were. Seidensticker devotes quite a few pages to Sanya, but almost everything he talks about, including the famous “riot” of 1960, can be gleaned from any Japanese social history about the postwar era. Seidensticker’s descriptions of the low city in the Meiji and Taisho eras are fitfully nostalgic; whereas his explanation of how Tokyo became a modern metropolis is like a memory he’d prefer to forget. The Tokyo he describes is recognizable but obscured by a haze of bitterness. Occasionally, his misanthropy erupts to colorful effect, as when he describes the pointless politics of the city and its parade of self-serving public servants. It’s clear he isn’t beholden to decorum, so why doesn’t he talk about the burakumin communities of the low city, represented by the leather industry that takes up much of the commercial district along the Sumida River just north of Asakusa? Everyone knows this community exists–there’s even a human rights office in the center of the neighborhood that’s run by a famous burakumin organization. It’s exactly the sort of history I come to this type of book for, but Seidensticker doesn’t mention it at all; not because he was squeamish about an officially taboo subject, but likely because it didn’t occur to him. This is a literary history in that everything he writes about is from books or his own firsthand knowledge. Seidensticker reads but he doesn’t probe.

Consequently, in the book there’s much that I recognize but little that I feel directly on a daily basis, which is why the sense of something lost with the earthquake of March 11 is particularly acute. Of course, Tokyo was not damaged at all, but the possibility that it could vanish in an instant is now actually conceivable. As Seidensticker said, Tokyo “rose” from the devastation of the Great Kanto Earthquake, a greater city than it ever was but a lesser one in terms of things that counted to him, things even he admits are difficult to describe to outsiders. Still, it’s hard to shake the idea that this “change” was all in the author’s head, even if he wasn’t around to witness it. It makes me think: Was the pre-March 11 Tokyo I loved so much a figment of my imagination?

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4 Responses to Seidensticker’s Tokyo, and ours

  1. Hanna says:

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I feel like I should be acquainted with these two books (or one volume reprint), but I’m unfortunately not.

    I’m the kind of gaijin who first spent a few years in Kyoto before making the move to the Kanto region (where I live in Yokohama, commuting almost daily into Tokyo), so until recently I didn’t feel as strong a connection with Tokyo as I did with Kyoto.

    However, in the last few years, I have made some really meaningful connections in Tokyo, and what March 11 made me realize is that I love this city far more than I thought I did. The people here and the communities are what make it feel like home, but what makes this place fascinating and hugely interesting right now is a new surge of a feeling of purpose and urgency post-March 11. Have you seen or felt anything along these lines?

    Speaking from a philosophical standpoint now, I wouldn’t call the Tokyo you loved pre-March 11 a figment of your imagination, although it was one way of looking at the city that you might not be able to regain. There are aspects of the city that you experienced since March 11 that inevitably will affect your judgement from now on, but I like to think of this change as an enrichment, though, instead of a loss. . .

  2. Great piece. Love the depth, structure and writing. 

    Tokyo, I think, was and remains very much a city of the imagination. For me, though, March 11 not only dimmed the lights and emptied the streets, it showed the humanity and fragility that lie beneath the megalopolis, and it made me love this city even more.

  3. Jeffrey says:

    “Nevertheless, the book has received less attention than I would have thought it deserved, especially among Japanophiles.”

    This is curious. The recently retired Donald Keene was still sort of teaching when I was at Columbia sixteen years ago. He, Gerald Curtis, Hugh Patrick and, to a lesser extent, Carol Gluck were/are much better known than Seidensticker. But of these Columbians, Seidensticker’s work is easily the most important.

    • Jeffrey says:

      “Still, it’s hard to shake the idea that this “change” was all in the author’s head, even (especially since?) if he wasn’t around to witness it. ”

      The Tokyo/Japan that all the great American Japan scholars know has existed not since the Kanto Earthquake, but since WWII. Reischauer is the only one who knew the country before the war. Richie, Keene, Seidensticker and everyone who has followed knows the city and country from what could be considered its third or fourth iteration in the last century – post-Black ships, post-Kanto Earthquake and post-WWII.

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