Tokyo: A Cultural History

Tokyo: A Cultural History

Tokyo: A Cultural History

Tokyo: A Cultural History


Tokyo seems like an ultra modern--even postmodern--city, with its inventive skyscrapers and digitized surfaces. But it is also a city where past, present, and future coexist--where backstreets both inspire science fiction and host wooden temples, fox shrines, and Buddhist statues that evoke past ages. In this addition to Oxford's Cityscapes series, Stephen Mansfield explores a city rich in diversity, tracing its evolution from the founding of its massive stone citadel, when it was known as Edo, through the rise of a merchant class who transformed the town into a center for art, to the emergence of modern Tokyo. Mansfield traces a city of print masters, Kabuki theater, novelists and great architecture, which has overcome many disasters, from the 1923 earthquake through the fire-bombings of World War II to the 1995 subway gas attacks.


Paul Waley

Of all the clichés that help to define life in the world’s largest city none is more persistent than that of the city of constant destruction and rebirth, the destruction inflicted both by natural forces and by the human desire to wring as much money as possible out of urban land. The Tokyo we see today has changed radically from the city of the 1970s, which in turn bears no resemblance at all to the city of the 1920s, and even less to Edo, the capital city of the Tokugawa shoguns. But what does it mean to live in a city where the landscape changes with such frequency and such totality? What is the effect on its residents of living in a city that is so plastic and pliable, where so often it is impossible to find the buildings one remembers from one’s youth?

Tokyo has none of the monuments of the national capitals of Europe, nor of its Asian neighbours. None of its buildings conveys the sense of pride and pomposity of the Invalides in Paris or the monument to Vittorio Emanuele in Rome. You will not find in Tokyo a great open space like Tiananmen or a national monument like the one in Jakarta. There are no palaces—apart from the Imperial Palace, which is, famously, invisible— and the temples and shrines are a far cry from the Sacré-Coeur or Westminster Abbey. Japan’s modern history has involved an uncomfortable relationship with the past. Much of the period has been spent trying to forget the past and to ensure that as few reminders as possible are retained in the urban landscape. No wonder perhaps that the one significant exception is the most controversial site in the city, the Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of the Japanese war-dead are commemorated.

Lacking this visible aura of a capital city, Tokyo appears to many who visit it as missing a sense of unity and coherence. There is no sense of where the city starts or ends, no centre and no edge. There is no gravitas to the city, and no civitas. Lacking this authoritative script of its own history and without a commemorative urban landscape, Tokyo has no generally accepted aesthetic standards. A landscape law was passed a few years ago, but it has made little difference. Controls on building heights exist, but these are complex and have been vastly relaxed. This is a city where you can build more or less what you like wherever you want to build it.

Tokyo is, in other words, a city that allows you strange freedoms. And . . .

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