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Review: Tales of Old Tokyo
April 13, 2016

Tales of Old Tokyo by John D. Van Fleet, is a dizzying jumble of quotes, book and newspaper excerpts, woodblock prints, and grainy, mostly black-and-white photos that creates a mosaic of one of the world’s greatest dizzyingly jumbled cities. By “old” Tokyo, Van Fleet refers to a time period bookended by two events. The first is the arrival of the Black Ships, commanded by American naval officer Commodore Perry in the mid-1850s. Perry had orders to open Japanese ports to foreign fleets. Yes, Tokyo was a city for centuries before then, but it was called Edo until the end of the Tokugawa shogunate era a decade after Perry’s demands were met. The second bookend, when Van Fleet’s “old” ends, is the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Commodore Perry’s landing was observed by a local resident: "There was a crowd of people there, all stirred up and making guesses about the burning ships [they were steam powered] on the horizon. Then those ships came neared and nearer, until the shape of them showed us they were not Japanese ships but foreign ones."

And Julian Street reported in Mysterious Japan (1921) of Viscount Shibusawa’s recollection: "I was a boy of fourteen when your Commodore Perry came to Japan, At that time, and for a considerable period afterwards, I was ‘anti-foreigner’—that is, I was opposed to the abandonment of our old Japanese isolation, and to the opening of relations with foreign powers. The majority of thoughtful men felt as I did."

Despite these reservations, Perry’s mission hastened the end of the shogun’s power, which was already weak, and helped usher in the Meiji Era, a return to the power of the Emperor. Not only was there political upheaval, but Japan, especially Tokyo, quickly moved to modernize. Anything Western became fashionable from government reforms to daily existence of the inhabitants, with writers and artists often leading the way, pointing out pretensions of Westernized Tokyo as well as accepting the new style.

Among the changes were education—universities were established, with some admitting women. Transportation was improved, especially with a rapid construction of rail lines. Art and entertainment styles and technologies moved toward modern painting and photography, movies and radio. Architecture became a mishmash of Western styles, including the Russo-Greek Cathedral still standing. Yet, Tokyo still remained a series of interconnected villages: "These villages and their people all appear identical. So no matter how far you walk you seem to remain where you started, going nowhere at all. And wherever you are in Tokyo you lose you way." (writer and playwright Kobo Abe)

Van Fleet rightly shows that Tokyo has been defined (and redefined) by natural disasters, none greater than the 1923 earthquake. "At two minutes to noon on 1 September 1923, Tokyo was struck by the Great Kanto Earthquake, a 7.9 temblor with its hypocenter about 100 km south of the city. The quake remains in the top ten of the deadliest in known history, claiming something like 140,000 lives. Most died in the subsequent firestorms—many people were cooking lunch at the time, and the cooking fires ignited the collapsed wood-built structures."

He also uses fictional excerpts in his book, for example from Tokyo Year Zero (David Peace): "I came here [Tokyo] the day after the Great Kanto Earthquake; that day the whole city stank, stank of rotten apricots, and the closer I walked to Asakusa and to the winds that blew across from the east of the river, the stronger the stink of apricots became … the stink of rotten apricots that was the stench of the dead …"

But perhaps Tokyo’s paramount defining events were in the realm of political power and militarization, with the belief in the divine being in the form of the Emperor and the principles (bushido) of the unwavering devotion of the extinct samurai class. This culminated in the right-wing, nationalistic fervor that fueled the War of the Pacific, as World War II is called in Japan. Wartime horrors destroyed much of Tokyo especially the firebombing of March 9-10, 1945. From The Broader Way (Mishima Sumie Seo): "In the eastern sky loomed a flight, another flight, and yet another of B-29s. Keeping a 1,000 meter height and trailing white streamers of exhaust gas, they sailed in perfect formation through the blue-gold sky. To a purely aesthetic eye they looked like shawls of pearly fish riding through the seas of the universe."

The firebombing killed as many as the atomic bombs would later kill in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Van Fleet unflinchingly includes photos of the death and destruction of the war years. Immediately after the war, Tokyo began rebuilding with scraps of wood and building materials, getting food and many goods through black markets. In 1947, Donald Richie wrote in his diary: "There is not much else left: the ruins of the burned-out Kabuki-za, the round, red, drum-like Nichigeki, undamaged. At Yurakucho, on the edge of the Ginza, are a few office buildings and the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater, now renamed Ernie Pyle, and the Hibiya and Yurakuza motion picture theaters. Otherwise, block after block of rubble, stretching to the horizon. Wooden buildings did not survive the firestorms of the American bombers. Those that stood are made of stone or brick. Yet already, among these are a yellow sheen of new wood. People are returning to the city."

Even Keene would probably not have predicted that in less than twenty years, Tokyo would be stable and rebuilt enough to host the 1964 Olympics. And along the with rise of Japan Inc. through industrialization and technology, Tokyo quickly became home to world-class art, cinema, and writers, many of which are included in the book. Roughly chronological, roughly by topic, Tales of Old Tokyo is similar to a scrapbook, too scattered to learn anything in depth, yet with enough points to draw a solid outline of, indeed, “one of the world’s most fascinating cities.”


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