History of Tokyo 1867 – 1989 From EDO to SHOWA: The Emergence of the World’s Greatest City

Tokyo is part of my past, my present and my future. I lived in Mejiro from 2002 – 2004 and attended Waseda university just a few stations south near the fun to say Takadanobaba. My family returns to Japan for the summers and I spend a few days on my own in Tokyo drinking beer, relaxing in an onsen, visiting remaining friends and remembering the past. Through marriage, I am tied to Japan and one day I imagine we’ll move back and I’ll be roaming through Tokyo much more hoping its magical spell will keep me young.

My relationship with Tokyo spans three chapters in my life: I was a university student, I am currently a middle aged summer tourist, and I imagine I’ll be a gaijin ojisan (foreign old man) wandering the streets looking for a place to fit in and lamenting the quick passage of time.

It is an understatement to say that Tokyo is immense. Looking out from my usual perch at the Sky Bar in the Asahi beer headquarters the skyline of skyscrapers never ends. I wonder what the lives are like of the individuals within the millions of people that live and work there. Each window in this small slice of the city contains people going through life with all the emotions, joys, struggles and experiences that come with it.

Asahi Sky Bar

Within this concrete landscape I am only somewhat familiar with limited areas around the train stations on the northwest end of the Yamanote. Ikebukuro is my base with neighboring Mejiro being a comfortable suburb that holds flickering memories of my past. But even in these areas I am only familiar with a fraction of all they contain.

I still remember when I first arrived in Tokyo. My first job out of college was as an English teacher at a company called Nova. We were picked up at Narita and took the train to Tokyo. My clearest memory of this time was arriving in Ikebukuro station and how immense it was. I saw another foreigner walking by and he gave us a quick look with a subtle smile as he knew we were freshly arrived English teachers. At that moment I wanted to be like him: I wanted to be able to survive by myself in this strange, intimidating place. It was a place where I was on that day completely dependent on our company representative to do absolutely everything for me or I would be totally lost.

From that moment I have been fascinated by Tokyo. It is so big that it would be like an astronaut exploring the Milky Way. Yes, we humans know a lot about Earth, are familiar with our solar system but only have a very limited map created by NASA for the rest. I have very little idea what is OUT THERE in its vastness. Yet, I am drawn to it and feel the need to explore.

I am fascinated by the passage of time. I keep a record of my life and thus I can more easily remember the past better than others as I simply need to read entries from those years in my life. So when I walk through Tokyo I can easily feel those vibrations of the past, I can see the shadows and a measurable amount of sadness wells up inside me. I become acutely aware 20 years have passed and I can no longer pull out my Docomo flip phone and call up my old classmates for beers, they are no longer there. They have families, children, responsibilities and in most cases are thousands of miles away. I can no longer go to my Mejiro apartment for a rest, shower or nap. My student card (I didn’t return it as instructed) no longer works. My favorite bar in Mejiro that holds so many memories has been torn down.

In my youth, Tokyo was unchanging and immortal. Now that I am 44 I have seen the changes with my own eyes as 20 years have past. The changes come gradually and quickly. A few years ago I was saddened that I could no longer find my favorite izakaya Watami. Where did it go? I was slightly confused by the new colors and names for my train card SUICA. Did my card still work, did I need a new one?

I haven’t been able to visit Tokyo since COVID and I’m hearing about more changes and am devastated. My favorite onsen – Odaiba Ōedo-Onsen Monogatari has permanently closed. Just like a few years ago when I saw the building for my favorite bar had been torn down and I couldn’t find a Watami, I’m very afraid of what else I’ll be unable to find the next time I return.

This fascination for the past isn’t limited to my own life experience. I am equally as fascinated by all of history. History is always there, lying just beneath the surface of not only the physical but also our culture and our very minds. All we do and all we are is due to history, the past is always coursing through us whether we realize it or not. Only by understanding the past can we know why things are the way they are today. Oftentimes that history is grim.

It is from this fascination that I have a need to understand and read my history books. I like to watch old videos on YouTube that simply show daily life and give a glimpse into the past. Just as I can conjure images of my own past with this blog, I want to do the same with my surroundings. I want to see old Edo lurking in the shadows of those tall concrete skyscrapers of today. Like my Mejiro bar I want to know where Edo went. Like my comfortable bar Watami with young, genki waitresses I want to know where the tea houses and geisha have gone.

Here are my notes on the book some with comments:

At first, upon the opening of the ports, foreigners seem to have been greeted with friendliness and eager curiosity. Presently this changed. A Dutch observer dated the change as 1862, subsequent to which there were many instances of violence, including the stoning of an American consul. The Dutchman put the blame upon the foreigners themselves, an unruly lot whom the port cities attracted. The Edo townsman seems to have had little to do with the violence; his feelings were not that strong. Yet he seems to have agreed with the rustic soldiers responsible for most of the violence that the barbarian should be put back in his place, on the other side of the water.

We as humans remain tribal, even now in 2021. The Republican party in its current form is currently stoking this very same fear of foreigners. They use the term “Legacy American,” which means a white person whose family has been here for generations. Quite different from the situation in Japan where foreigners really would have seemed like aliens. I can understand this reaction from Japan, but I cannot understand nor forgive it when it occurs in 2021. Back then this type of thing was due to ignorance and very limited interaction with the rest of the world. These days it is plain idiocy.

The main business of the Yoshiwara and the other quarters was, of course, prostitution, but the pre liminaries were theatrical. Great refinement in song and dance was as important to the Yoshiwara as to the theater. There were many grades of courtesan, the lowest of them an unadorned prostitute with her crib and her brisk way of doing business, but letters and paintings by the great Yoshiwara ladies turn up from time to time in exhibitions and sales, to show how accomplished they were.

I knew that Yoshiwara was known for prostitution but did not realize that its origins go quite far back historically, nor how prominent it used to be.

Destroyed, my city, by the rustic warrior. No shadow left of Edo as it was.

Tanizaki Junichirō

This is Tanizaki Junichirō, speaking, much later, for the son of Edo. It is an exaggeration, of course, but many an Edo townsman would have echoed him.

I’m fascinated by Edo. In other quotes the author speaks of Edo being a dark place where it might not be safe to venture out at night. It was a place where the palace still had massive fortifications and women still blackened their teeth. Ancient, mysterious, earthy are words I would use to describe Edo from what I have learned.

Among the populace the railway does not seem to have aroused as much opposition as the telegraph, about which the wildest rumors spread, associating it with the black magic of the Christians and human sacrifice.

Kind of like vaccines in 2021. Advances in technology always come with a certain amount of fear.

Freed from the black Edo night, people gathered where the lights were brightest, and so at nightfall the crowds commenced heading south to Ginza from a still dark Nihombashi.

The darkness was rather intimidating. I would return after dark from my uncle’s house a few blocks away, scampering past certain ominous places. They were lonely places of darkness, where young men in student dress would be lurking in wait for pretty boys.” Tanizaki himself was abducted by an army officer who had the “Satsuma preference,” as it was called, and taken to the Mitsubishi Meadow, where he made a perilous escape.

Shinjuku, on the western edge of the city, was known as the anus of Tokyo. Every evening there would be a rush hour when great lines of sewage carts formed a traffic jam.

I am not a fan of Shinjuku. To me it seems very unapproachable. I come out of the station and never really knew what to do or where to go. In contrast Shibuya seemed much easier and more comfortable to just wander around and get lost.

The women of Edo shaved their eyebrows and blackened their teeth.

I have never seen a picture of an Edo woman and imagine they would look rather exotic.

The relationship between tradition and change in Japan has always been complicated by the fact that change itself is a tradition.

I am very familiar with this as I only return for two weeks every year. From small things like the ubiquitous advertisements I have never seen before to entire buildings that have disappeared Tokyo is ever changing.

The flying carp of Boys’ Day must unfortunately be associated with militarism. They came into great vogue from about the time of the Sino-Japanese War. Boys’ Day, May 5, is now Children’s Day, and the first day of summer by the old reckoning. Girls’ Day, March 3, is not a holiday.

There is always a story behind every tradition. My family flies the carp (Koinobori) in our backyard every year and I had always just associated it with being good luck in raising strong boys. Apparently there is more to the story.

Perhaps the best holds that the son of Kyoto ruined himself over dress, the son of Osaka ruined himself over food, and the son of Edo ruined himself looking at things.

A storm in the night.
Dawn comes, nothing remains.
A flower’s dream.

Harada Kinu

I wish to be no longer in this hapless world.
Make haste to take me over,
O ford of the River of Death.

Takahashi O-den

Her grave may be visited in the Yanaka Cemetery, where the poem is cut upon the stone. The little plot of earth is a sad one, beside a public lavatory, clinging precariously to the edge of the cemetery, given only cursory notice in guides that account for all the famous graves, such as that of Kafū’s grandfather.

Corpses made the strongest impression on me in stories I heard of old Honjo, corpses of those who had fallen by the wayside, or hanged themselves, or otherwise disposed of themselves. A corpse would be discovered and put in a cask, and the cask wrapped in straw matting, and set out upon the moors with a white lantern to watch over it. The thought of the white lantern out there among the grasses has in it a certain weird, ominous beauty. In the middle of the night, it was said, the cask would roll over, quite of its own accord. The Honjo of Meiji may have been short on grassy moors, but it still had about it something of the “regions beyond the red line.” And how is it now? A mass of utility poles and shacks, all jammed in together….

My father still thinks he saw an apparition, that night in Fukagawa. It looked like a young warrior, but he insists that it was in fact a fox spirit. Presently it ran off, frightened by the glint of his sword. I do not care whether it was fox or warrior. Each time I hear the story I think what a lonely place the old Fukagawa was.

Japan has a fantastic ghost culture. Everywhere you look there is some sort of object having to do with spirits. There are so many buildings and objects having to do with spirits I’m only familiar with a fraction of them. I see the shrines big, small and on the side of the road. I see guardian phrases in kanji stuck to house windows. I know what an O-Jizu-san statue is. I know the Fox is a mischievous spirit causing trouble. I realize how deep the spirit world permeates Japanese culture living in parallel to their amazing technology and neon signs. I get most of the spirit references in all the Miyazaki films.

But it is this image in dark Edo of an unknown body sitting out in a field illuminated by a lamp that one’s probability of actually seeing an actual specter make the hair stand on end.

After the earthquake came the simple solution: Let the customer keep his shoes on. Simple and obvious it may seem today, but it must have taken getting used to. Never before through all the centuries had shod feet ventured beyond the entranceway, or perhaps an earth-floored kitchen.

I understand what this feeling would have been like. I now cringe when I see someone stand on new carpet with their shoes on. It seems absolutely barbaric to me now. Why would anyone do this? And in that same vein the bidet is also extremely civilized. I’m amazed it is only now just catching on somewhat in the USA.

It is not easy to say just what a geisha is. The expression is a vague and complex one covering a broad range of prostitutes and performing artists. Geisha of the more accomplished sort, and the literal significance of the word is something like “accomplished sort,” were the ones the affluent merchants of Edo and Meiji looked to for elegant and expensive entertainment. Their accomplishments were in traditional music and dance, at their best in the pleasure quarters, whether licensed or “private,” and in the theater. There came Western incursions. Opinions will differ as to whether the nightclub entertainer and the bar girl of our day are as accomplished as was the geisha of old, but the geisha has gradually yielded to them.

I don’t have much experience with the bar girls of today. But from that limited experience I find them to be just pretty girls who are somewhat able to make conversation and that’s it. From what I’ve read the geisha is a refined artist and should command a high price for her entertainment. The bar girls of today just know how to drink and be “genki” for the most part.

Kawabata reminisces upon his student days, just after the Russian revolution, when little Russian girls no more than twelve or thirteen were walking the streets and selling themselves at no high price.

This is very sad. The world can be a terrible place.

The military persons who were the chief agents of the reaction might in the jargon of a later day have been thought “concerned.” They saw injustices and contradictions, and thought they saw easy solutions in a return to the virtues, chiefly loyalty and sincerity, of an earlier and purer day.

It seems societies go in cycles with this type of thought. There is change, then “conservatives” long for the past, a time when they felt on top or more in control of things. This sets up the stage for a fight between progressives and conservatives. Progressives embrace the change while conservatives want things to remain the same. We’re going through this same thing in 2021 America. It has already lead to violence and we will see how far it will spread.

Whether or not the reaction of the thirties would have come had the depression not come, we will never know. Perhaps it was merely time for another seizure of puritan righteousness. Perhaps it was another of those mysterious cycles that seem to operate everywhere and in everything.

Here the author mentions the word “cycle.” Again, it really does seem that the past repeats itself.

So the kamishibai, the “paper show,” came to be. Kamishibai persons, mostly men, went the rounds of the city with their cards and boxes of sweets on bicycles. In vacant lots and the like they would summon together very young audiences, whom they would hold with illustrated stories and sell the sweets to. Their best days were in the thirties. They fell in nicely with the nationalism of the time, and those who were very young when they were flourishing tell us that their representations of Anglo-American.

I highlighted this entry because I learned of kamishibai not more than three weeks ago while watching NHK. Comcast holds NHK hostage requiring a $100 package to view it but I learned it could be obtained with a T.V. antenna and have enjoyed watching it. They have very good, informative shows.

American beasts were very vivid indeed. These disappeared after 1945, though the appeal to manly little fellows who went around beating one another with bamboo swords continued. Kamishibai seemed an indispensable part of the city and its street life, but it quickly surrendered before television, its career having lasted a generation or so.

As with so many warming stories, there is another side to this one, having to do with Hachikō’s motives, of which we will never know the whole truth. Such observers of his behavior as the novelist Ooka Shōhei have held that he did not go to the station in the evening at all, but hung around it the whole day through, waiting to be fed. The station attendants were kinder to him than the people at home—and it may be that they recognized a good story when they saw one. If so, they were very successful. They gave Shibuya its most famous landmark.

This seems almost blasphemous. Hachikō is revered in Japan as he is a symbol of loyalty which is extremely important in Japanese culture. To mention he might have gone just to be fed is devastating.

Between seventy and eighty thousand people are believed to have died that night. This is some three-quarters of the death count from all raids on the city.

They don’t mention this in the American history books do they. Every nation likes to portray themselves as the good guy, the righteous one. Yet, we continually have wars where humans butcher each other. We always want the easy answer, with my son aptly demonstrating this by asking, “Who is the good guy and who is the bad guy.” In war the delineation isn’t always so clear is it.

The days just after the surrender were very hard ones. When a middle-aged or aging Japanese remarks upon the terrible time, one must listen carefully to know which time is meant. One may instinctively suppose it to be the last months of the war, the time of the bombings, but for many the really terrible time was the first winter after the war, a time of cold, disease, and hunger. Typhus was the worst plague. There were almost ten thousand cases of it in Tokyo Prefecture during the winter of 1945 and 1946, and almost a thousand deaths. Smallpox and cholera may not have reached such epidemic proportions, but in a more settled day they would scarcely have been present at all. Typhus bespeaks lice and unclean bodies, very distressful to the well-washed Japanese. In those days not even a good hot bath was easy to come by. The city has always had fleas and chinches in ample numbers, but lice are a different matter.

It is difficult to imagine this took place scarcely more than 70 years ago in the Tokyo of today. Tokyo is a concrete wonderland where one is mesmerized by the spell of consumerism. I say this quite literally and for the uninitiated just step into a BIC CAMERA where you’ll be bombarded with loud music, bright lights and continually yelling from staff for some sort of sale. Go drown in the endless trinkets in Donki. Go realize how poor you are by the untouchable beauty of anywhere in Ginza. All the women are slim and fashionable, all the men in nicely pressed suits. The Tokyo of 70 years ago belongs to a parallel universe, its shadows were long washed away by neon signs and endless noise.

Yet there remained something furtive about love hotels. A night at the Yoshiwara, in another age, had an open, rather companionable quality about it. A night in a love hotel does not. The Edo wife had no right to complain if her husband went off occasionally to the Yoshiwara. The wife of our day and days recently past thinks herself much put upon if she or a gossipy friend sees her husband emerging from a love hotel. A good part of the furtiveness has to do with arrangements for making as sure as possible that he is not detected. Family life has changed.

This is unique in Japan. Japan has hostess bars where you can go to converse and drink with pretty girls. The West does not have these types of establishments and for any non-spousal interaction it is pretty much an escort and sex and is much frowned upon by society. Japan has the tradition of geisha and tea houses from which spring the modern hostess bar. The Westerner would be quick to label these hostess girls prostitutes but that isn’t it exactly. Most of the time it is just conversation, getting drunk and a big bill. If a patron gets to know a girl, spends a lot of money and the girl is OK with it it would be more of a business transaction without the messy “feelings.” In the west any dalliance would be immediate grounds for divorce. It seems to me that keeping harmony in the family is most important and I’ve learned that some wives would prefer their husbands go to a hostess bar from time to time so as not to pester them. It is definitely a different way of thinking.

It was not so with Ikebukuro, which was boggy, as the name, Lake Hollow, suggests. No significant road led through it, though a very important one, the inland road to Kyoto, along which many a noble procession made its way during the Tokugawa years, passed through Sugamo, just to the east, and the Itabashi way station, where travelers could rest and indulge themselves.

“Lake Hollow” sounds much more pleasant than the literal “Pond Bag.” I remember the first time I translated it and was shocked. Why would they name Ikebukuro such a terrible name? It makes sense to learn it was “boggy” back in the Edo period.

Among the new words of 1964, the Olympic year, was kagikko, “key child.” It gives concise statement to the new realities of life in the High City (the Low City, as in most things, lagged behind): the nuclear family, the apartment, and, her numbers increasing, the automated wife. A key child is one who, the expectation being that no one will be at home when he or she returns, carries a key.

Ah, a fellow Gen X’er I see! I much preferred being able to find a key than spend any more time in day care.

People may fly up from Osaka to participate in a Sunday afternoon in Harajuku and Yoyogi. They do not pour out upon the streets of their neighborhoods as they once did on fine, warm summer evenings. This sort of street life was more important in the Low City than in the High. The salarymen and professors of the High City have always kept to themselves as the shopkeepers and craftsmen of the Low City have not. Then too there are class differences in the High City, with the fishmonger and the magnate living in close juxtaposition. Despite claims, perhaps in some respects justified, about the communal, consensual nature of Japanese working practices, classes do not mix any better in Japan than they do in most places. In Edo and Meiji Tokyo, the Low City amused itself in the places that lay readiest, its streets. Especially on summer evenings, they became as much assembly places as corridors for passage. The poorer classes of the city did not have much money to spend and seldom went far from home, and the street in front of home was more interesting than home itself. So the streets of the city teemed far more evenly than they do now. These tendencies still remained strong in the years just after the war, especially on clement evenings when there was a street fair, perhaps a garden fair or a shrine fair. With television and its nightly baseball game all through the summer, home (or, for the privileged myriads, the baseball stadium) became more interesting than the street, and the street began to lose its life. Now the ordinary and undistinguished street tends to be hushed in the evening and on Sunday, which has become an almost universal holiday. The big summer garden fairs by Shinobazu Pond in Ueno and behind the Kannon Temple in Asakusa attract fewer stalls and strollers each year. They may never quite dwindle to nothing, but they are ever more attenuated. It may be argued that the people of Meiji and earlier poured forth into the streets because their lives contained so little by way of diversion. For most of them there were only the Yose house and the bathhouse in the cold months, and the street was an addition beyond pricing in the warm months. These things have been crowded out by more interesting things. A life that offered so little was a deprived one, and now life is richer. So it may be argued. Yet variety is lost, uniformity prevails, and for some this is a development to be lamented. Certainly a stroll through the Low City of a summer evening is not the fun it once was.

I am envious of the communal nature of times like these. I used to roam my neighborhood in the 80s but people weren’t exactly out in the streets speaking with each other. We confined ourselves to our houses and magic screens to give us entertainment. I do not know the names of my neighbors outside of those right next to or in front of my house. I’m not even sure where I would go outside of a bar should I want to meet random people from my neighborhood. We live in the same place but are mostly strangers. The authors description inspires nostalgia for human connection in a way I’ve never known.

The Harajuku phenomenon has been likened to the spasms of dancing that have swept the country in times of crisis (see page 320). Since there has been no discernible crisis in recent years, it is more likely rebellion against the boredom of peace, prosperity, and the life of the office worker and spouse. One senses something like a longing for insecurity. The mass media, active in such things as never before, have also played a big part in keeping Harajuku noisy.

Harajuku was recognized by Gwen Stefani in her track Harajuku Girl back in the 90s. Other than that I don’t think any Americans would know what it is even though anime has gotten quite popular.

The popularity of golf among politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen may have something to do with the decline of yet another national accomplishment, that of the geisha, the “accomplished person.” That there has been a very sad decline is undeniable. Tastes and ways of life are changing. The traditional music and dance which were the geisha’s accomplishments do not interest the ruling classes as they once did, or provide the incentives they once did for a young girl to endure the severities of geisha training. The “geisha house,” which is to say the expensive restaurant where the geisha holds forth, was once the place for concluding big deals, political and entrepreneurial. Increasingly, the golf course is. It has the advantage that electronic snooping is less of a problem. When a businessman or politician is playing golf, he is probably doing more than playing golf. He is making awesome arrangements which he might have made in a restaurant in another day. The decline of the geisha may be dated from the second postwar decade, when rapid economic growth was beginning. So it would not seem to be true, as is often averred, that the geisha was simply too expensive. It takes dozens of evenings at an expensive geisha restaurant to dissipate a sum equal to the membership fee in one of the golf clubs important people belong to; and the expense-account crowd started turning away from the geisha just at the time when it was beginning to have more than ample money.

By Mateo de Colón

Global Citizen! こんにちは!僕の名前はマットです. Es decir soy Mateo. Aussi, je m'appelle Mathieu. Likes: Languages, Cultures, Computers, History, being Alive! \(^.^)/