Japan’s Capital Unveiled

By Jeff KingstonJanuary 15, 2014

Japan’s Capital Unveiled

Tokyo Vernacular by Jordan Sand

TOKYO IS HOT these days, and not only because it has cutting-edge design, fashion, and more Michelin stars than anywhere else on the planet. In 2020 it will join the small club of cities that has hosted more than one Summer Games, and it is already busily preparing for the coming extravaganza. Best-selling author (and recent Nobel candidate) Haruki Murakami makes the city an eerie but alluring backdrop for his dreamy, nihilistic novels, while it is also the global mecca for pop-culture cool, drawing throngs of tourists to the Akihabara district in search of manga, anime, games, and cosplay cafés. Alas, it is also about 160 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant where there were three meltdowns in March 2011. There are still 100,000 nuclear refugees who have fled the adjacent hot zones, and it appears that many will never be able to return to their ancestral homes.

In his excellent new book, Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects, Jordan Sand, a Georgetown University professor of Japanese history and culture, draws our attention away from the headline hype to reveal what Tokyo and some of its denizens are really up to and what they care about. Drawing on extensive fieldwork, Sand slips us under the skin of this megalopolis and helps us understand how it has been evolving, focusing on the battles and passions that have animated neighborhoods, activists, and artists.

Tokyo’s current Olympic renewal plan is far less ambitious than the one that preceded Japan’s hosting of the 1964 Summer Games. Then, the entire city seemed like a construction site, as it prepared for a spectacle that served as a coming-out party for a nation eager to put the war behind it, show the world that it had recovered, and convey a sense that it was destined to achieve great things. Less than two decades after the end of Japan’s long rampage through Asia (1931-’45), it reassumed its position in the international community. In a symbolic gesture underscoring the horrors of war and Japan’s commitment to peace, the Olympic torchbearer who lit the cauldron to open the 1964 games was born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day that an atomic bomb devastated the city. Ironically, the grandfather of current Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe, Class A war crimes suspect Nobusuke Kishi, was premier in 1958 when Tokyo was tapped for the 1964 Olympics. (Tokyo also won the games in 1940, but these were canceled due to Japan’s ongoing war in China.)

Controversy has clouded the euphoria that followed the winning bid for the 2020 games, as about 90 percent of Japanese don’t believe Abe’s reassurances to the International Olympic Committee that the problems at Fukushima are under control. Indeed, then Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose pointedly said it was untrue. Due to the proximity of the stricken nuclear plant to Tokyo, reports about radioactive water spewing into the ocean have raised concerns. Ambivalence about hosting the games is also due to the slow recovery in Tohoku, the northeast region of Japan’s main island of Honshu that was hammered by a monster tsunami on March 11, 2011.

Tokyo’s Olympic slogan is “Discover Tomorrow,” a motto meant to convey an upbeat message about recovery from the 3/11 disasters and signaling that the story of Japan’s decline has been exaggerated, given bright prospects for its cutting-edge technologies and industries. But when Tokyo got the nod, NHK television showed images of what the snazzy Olympic athlete’s village will look like, then jumped to an interview with some displaced Fukushima residents forced to live in shabby temporary housing due to the reactor meltdowns. Unsurprisingly, they expressed envy and resentment while raising concerns about the diversion of resources and construction crews to Tokyo.

The extensive 1964 Olympic demolition and rebuilding was the third ravaging of the city during the 20th century, following the 1923 earthquake and the March 1945 firebombing that leveled vast swathes of eastern Tokyo. A fourth maelstrom hit with fin de siècle urban renewal, as the erection of shiny high-rises and tony shopping complexes transformed large areas of the formerly distinctive cityscape, making parts of Tokyo look like any city anywhere. The demolished low-rise, low-density neighborhoods of single-family homes and mom-and-pop shops might have been a bit dilapidated, but they exuded a coziness and sense of community that has been erased. Sand helps us understand what has been lost, as intimate exchanges of neighbors have given way to impersonal market exchanges. He traces different movements aimed at stemming the tide, but considering the four major renovations of Tokyo in the 20th century, one can be forgiven for wondering what exactly people have been trying to preserve and invest with meaning over the past few decades.

Since so many people lost friends and family in the 1945 firebombing by the United States, it is one of the most retold stories in oral histories, with accounts of spectacular flames and the apocalyptic aftermath of a city reduced to ashes and panoramic vistas over smoldering ruins. But outside of Japan this is one of the forgotten horrors of WWII. Sand writes, “This traumatic irruption in the everyday world of Shitamachi residents […] took roughly one hundred thousand lives in the course of two hours.” Incendiaries dropped on Tokyo’s tinderbox housing combined with powerful spring winds to whip up a deadly conflagration. Oddly enough, there is no state memorial to this tragedy, and, in 1964, Emperor Showa actually bestowed an award on General Curtis LeMay, the man who was in charge of firebombing 66 of Japan’s cities, including Tokyo. He ordered a delay in the Tokyo firebombing and timed the raid to coincide with strong winds to maximize the devastation.

The firebombing of Tokyo has been swept under the national tatami mat, possibly, Sand points out, because many residents held the Emperor responsible. The Tokyo metropolitan government actually established a planning committee in 1990 for a memorial, “but this was ultimately derailed by politicians on the right and national bureaucrats.” Undeterred, in 2002 a private citizen raised funds to establish the Tokyo Firebombing Museum, but it is not listed in the guidebooks or even on Wikipedia’s extensive list of Tokyo museums.

New large-scale developments abound, and a city that had few skyscrapers in the early 1980s has suddenly spurted upward. Raffish neighborhoods of nomiya (bars), izakaya (Japanese bistros), and outdoor ramen stands where one could carouse on a limited budget have been bulldozed away and replaced by chic cafés and shops. More dramatically, mega-shopping malls and high-rise commercial office and residential space have taken over once-seedy but enticing places like Roppongi and Shiodome while transforming Marunouchi, the business district between Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace. To be sure, warrens of backstreet joints and quiet neighborhoods still exist in the megalopolis, but can what is left of Tokyo’s distinctive style resist the further dictates of market forces and their impersonal and homogenizing consequences?

Sand addresses this question by scrutinizing cultural ripples of backlash, showing that many people are not conceding despite the odds. In the late 1980s, Japan experienced an unprecedented asset bubble, with stock and land prices soaring, especially in central Tokyo, generating powerful forces of disruptive change. The Bubble was a time when Mammon overshadowed Zen, and glitzy excess was an aspirational lifestyle in a nation previously known for restraint and quiet dignity. Feverish speculation drove the asset spiral and fundamentally changed the political economy of Tokyo. Developers called the shots, and the government actively supported the “shift away from old shopkeeping households to corporate tenants and condominium owners.”

In post-bubble Tokyo, the state allied with real estate companies, abandoning the former goal of promoting stable residence in favor of encouraging high-rise construction for maximum revenues. […] [T]he politics of land use in Tokyo had come to be determined not simply by state welfare or economic development objectives, but by pressures in the international system.

Market forces overwhelmed any lifestyles not driven by return on equity, and the yakuza played a key role in this remaking of the cityscape. These thugs, in cahoots with real estate magnates, strong-armed elderly residents and forced them to sell their small plots of land so developers could secure large enough sites for their dream projects.

Sand also guides us to one of Tokyo’s most charming areas, one of the few where vestiges of the past linger on. This is the area that encompasses the districts of Yanaka-Nezu-Sendagi (Yanesen) near Ueno Station. The Yanesen newsletter, founded by young housewives, folded in 2009 after a quarter of a century, but not before it helped create a sense of community, and save a neighborhood where one can still stroll through environs and alleys that evoke yesteryear. While lovely wooden houses were being razed through much of Tokyo to make way for charmless mansions (as Japanese call apartments), this area avoided the worst of the onslaught. It has also avoided gentrification, although local entrepreneurs have responded to growing tourist fascination through a boutique-ification, cashing in on a past suddenly valued due to a wave of media-induced nostalgia. The “authentic past” has become a top tourist attraction, paradoxically incentivizing both preservation and commodification.

The Yanesen newsletter carried lengthy interviews with local residents, and as such is a goldmine of vernacular history. Sand acknowledges that:

Its success was measured less in preservation of buildings […] than in the creation of a virtual community in print. True to the way in which local community had itself become a media product, through the recording and distribution in print of local residents’ memories, the media space of Yanesen engendered the physical space of “Yanesen” and its many social possibilities.

Yanesen may not have won any outright victories for preservation, but it managed to invent a community.

The politics of urban space in Tokyo makes for a riveting story. Sand takes us back to the tumultuous 1960s when mass protests spread around the world, and citizens defied and challenged authorities by occupying certain spaces. In Tokyo, Shinjuku Station’s West Underground Plaza in 1969 was one such site of contestation. Mass protests and violent clashes don’t really fit with prevailing stereotypes of law abiding, subservient Japanese citizens. But in those heady days student radicals were drawing on a rich tradition of protest in Japan. This happened against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, an unpopular security treaty with the United States, a worldwide wave of anticapitalist leftism, a stifling culture of conformity, and Japan’s heavy-handed police. The state prevailed, evacuating and reclaiming the plaza. Sand writes:

If the failure of the 1960 Anpo protests to stop renewal of the security treaty with the United States revealed that the postwar state would not accommodate direct citizen democracy, the evacuation of Shinjuku West Exit Underground Plaza revealed that the corporate-dominated mass society Japan had become in the intervening decade would not accommodate an uncircumscribed right of commons in central Tokyo.

This is the same area that was reoccupied in the early 1990s by a sizeable cardboard village of homeless, who camped out there amid the throngs of commuters rushing by in Tokyo’s busiest station. It was an odd juxtaposition and unwelcome to city authorities. Eventually they evicted the homeless, justifying the intervention by installing a moving walkway aptly called the People Mover.

The battles over public spaces continue into the 21st century, especially in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. During Tokyo’s summer of discontent, an estimated one million demonstrators took to the streets in 2012 calling for an end to nuclear energy. First dozens and then hundreds and then thousands turned up at the weekly Friday rallies outside the prime minister’s office, at the heart of political power in Nagatacho district. Major rallies attracting crowds of over 100,000 were held in city parks, while one evening a human chain surrounded the Diet Building where parliament conducts its business. In Hibiya Park, facing the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (a forceful advocate of nuclear power), antinuclear demonstrators have erected a tent and occupied this central space for over a year. They recently hoisted a banner aloft that asks enigmatically, “What Would the Crown Prince Say?”

Indeed, what would he say about the ongoing fiasco at Fukushima? We can’t know because on matters of policy and politics the Imperial household is supposed to remain silent. An antinuclear Diet member who ignored rigid protocol by handing the Emperor a letter about the need to pull the plug on nuclear energy was savaged in the press and banned from future Imperial gatherings.

As a 25-year resident of Tokyo who first visited this constantly changing city in 1980, I want to salute Sand for his superbly crafted urban history. Tokyo has evolved immeasurably in this time, but when one is caught up in the everyday life of commuting, shopping, working, and weekend escapes from the throngs, sometimes it is hard to keep up with the ongoing reinvention. Sand’s reflections on the changes since the 1960s and his analysis of various movements, acts of preservation, and the commodification of the past helps commemorate much that is being forgotten. He also explores the role of museums in reinforcing particular narratives and manifestations of historical consciousness among residents and how they are navigating these transformations. The physical space he traverses is familiar ground for us residents, but his understanding of the urban vernacular makes him an indispensable guide to the rhythm and pulse of the neighborhood communities and activists he covers. Although much of this narrative dwells on loss and retreat, Sand closes on a rousing note:

Yet time plows forward, burying histories and throwing up new ruins in its wake. New groups of people will gather around surviving places and things, making them tell new stories of loss and redemption, and creating new societies of friends.


Jeff Kingston is Professor of History at Temple University Japan and the author of Contemporary Japan.

LARB Contributor

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian studies at Temple University in Japan.


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