Travels in a Vanished City: On Timon Screech’s “Tokyo Before Tokyo” and Amy Stanley’s “Stranger in the Shogun’s City”

Paul Kreitman reviews Timon Screech’s “Tokyo Before Tokyo” and Amy Stanley’s “Stranger in the Shogun’s City.”

Travels in a Vanished City: On Timon Screech’s “Tokyo Before Tokyo” and Amy Stanley’s “Stranger in the Shogun’s City”

Stranger in the Shogun’s City by Amy Stanley. Scribner. 352 pages.Tokyo Before Tokyo by Timon Screech. Reaktion Books. 272 pages.

EDO IS NOT an easy city to find. In the early 18th century it was, by one estimate, the biggest city on earth. It was the cradle of what is today thought of as “traditional” Japanese culture, from sushi to geisha, kabuki, and woodblock prints. Later it would be renamed Tokyo, and in the 20th century it would grow to become the world’s first megacity — a powerhouse of industrial and cultural production sprawling along Japan’s Pacific seaboard.

Yet for all this, few traces of the old city remain. Edo’s urban fabric was built almost entirely of wood, and it was thus periodically ravaged by fires, even before the 1923 earthquake and World War II aerial bombing wreaked destruction on what was left. Much else was pulled down to make way for the brick, glass, and concrete structures that now dominate Tokyo, and today only a few scattered relics survive: a wooden gate here, a castle watchtower there. Nihonbashi, the wooden bridge that was once the beating commercial heart of the city, was replaced by a stone structure in the late 19th century, itself now overshadowed by a tangle of express ways. You have to get down even further, to water level, to make out an earlier layer of the city’s history. Paddle a kayak through the city’s canals and here and there you can just about make out, etched into the stonework, the crests of the feudal lords whose corvée laborers lugged the boulders into place 400 years ago.

Edo is hard to find in other ways, too. Cities are not only made from bricks and mortar, they are built out of institutions, and the governing structures that formed Edo were from the outset intimately tied to the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate, which was toppled in the mid-19th century during Japan’s Meiji Restoration. In 1862, the heavily armed samurai compounds were abandoned, and by 1870 the networks of beggar-spies who once policed the city had been replaced by gendarmes in crisp serge uniforms. It is not just Edo’s urban fabric that has disappeared but also a whole social order, and with it an entire mentality.

Luckily, there are other ways to visit this vanished city. Possibly no other country in the world possesses as rich an archive of early modern sources as Japan, nor as rich a tradition of writing fine-grained urban history. The vast bulk of this is published in Japanese, and most English-language writing is aimed at professional historians. But two recent works, Timon Screech’s Tokyo Before Tokyo and Amy Stanley’s Stranger in the Shogun’s City, do a fine job of introducing this wealth of historical material to the general reader, serving as guidebooks orientating even the first-time traveler to one of the great cities of the early modern world.

In some respects, both books cover similar ground. Both explain how, in the early 17th century, the Tokugawa Shogunate achieved suzerainty over the Japanese archipelago, and established a new capital in the east of the country from which to administer it. Doing this created an alternative power base, far away from the old capital at Kyoto with its weakened but still inviolate imperial house. Wary of insurrection, the shogun ordered the fractious coalition of feudal lords who had pledged their fealty to spend at least half their time residing in the new capital, effectively imprisoning them within a Versailles-like gilded cage.

The effect of this was twofold. On the one hand, it created a city that mimicked the formation of a coalition army on campaign, consisting of a series of fortified compounds perched on hilltops, strategically arrayed around the general’s castle at the center. But it also created a vibrant commercial economy that, though initially geared around servicing the lords and their retinues of retainers, quickly took on a life of its own. Edo became an economic and cultural hub for the whole of Japan, and the city sprawled far beyond the warrior compounds. A new merchant class began to accumulate wealth and power. Marshes were dredged to make room for shops, warehouses, and canals. New, densely packed tenement neighborhoods sprung up to accommodate the rural migrants who flocked to the booming city. Within a century, Edo had grown from a fishing village to a city of some one million souls.

Edo was far from the only city to grow spectacularly during the early modern period, and both authors compare it to other major urban centers at the time: the old imperial capital of Kyoto of course, but also European cities such as London, Paris, and St. Petersburg. They also convincingly demolish that hoary trope of Edo-era Japan (1603–1868) as hermetically sealed from the outside world. Although the Shogunate did place restrictions on travel from and into Japan, the country remained connected to the wider world by constant flows of knowledge, commodities, people, and pathogens. The striped patterns that became fashionable on women’s kimonos, Stanley shows, were inspired by Madras textiles imported via the Dutch East India Company’s trading post at Nagasaki. And Screech reveals that the perspectival techniques used by woodblock printers to depict Edo’s cityscapes were partly cribbed from Canaletto’s etchings of Venice, pirated copies of which circulated globally throughout the 18th-century world.

In other ways, though, Screech and Stanley approach Edo from very different angles. Screech is primarily known as a historian of early modern Japanese art, and at the core of his book lie a series of beautifully reproduced graphic images of Edo. These images span a variety of media, from woodblock prints to etchings to oil paintings to folding screens to gold-leafed hand scrolls. They are complemented by photos from the present-day, schematized maps, and CGI reconstructions of lost monuments.

In this sense the book resembles, at the most superficial level, a particularly beautiful Fodor’s Guide to a vanished city. Many of the images that it reproduced were themselves initially designed to market the city to travelers — the prints of Edo's famous landmarks, for instance, or the elaborate folding screens showing major temples. Screech adds incisive commentary and illuminating vignettes to these images. There are moments when he sounds like a seasoned local tour guide, who can recommend a great little restaurant tucked beside the Mokubo Temple, point you toward the best erotic bookseller in the red-light district. He is particularly deft at dissecting the numerous jokes, puns, and satirical jibes that Edoites were so fond of. In the 19th century, for instance, it was popular to mock Kyotoites as “capital fools” — playing on the word kyōjin’s dual meaning of “person from the [old imperial] capital” and “madman.”

Secondly, as is suggested in his book’s subtitle, “Power and Magic in the Shogun’s City of Edo,” Screech takes seriously the fact that Edo’s urban fabric was saturated with rituals and cosmologies that are, to contemporary readers, utterly foreign. The Shogunate peppered the cityscape with shrines, temples, and Buddhist relics, and recreated entire religious edifices that had once stood in Kyoto in order to tether the new city to the Buddhist cosmological terrain of the imperial capital. The city’s planners were deeply invested in theories of Taoist geomancy. Fundamental principles of feng shui and yin-yang influenced the layout of Edo’s single arterial avenue. The Sumida, Edo’s main riverine thoroughfare, was similarly repurposed as a vehicle allowing qi to flow through the city. Screech acknowledges that sound secular reasoning also lay behind these planning decisions, but he does at least show that the city authorities took these geomantic principles seriously.

In the hands of some writers, discussions of esoteric East Asian philosophy can seem abstract and dull. But Screech has a gift for blurring the line between the metaphysical and the aesthetic in such a way as to make a radically alien worldview come alive to modern readers. In the final chapter of the book, he recreates the experience of traveling across the Sumida to the pleasure district that lay just beyond the boundary of the city. The Yoshiwara (or red-light district) is well-trodden scholarly ground indeed, but to my knowledge no one has hitherto devoted much attention to the “spatio-cognitive transition” involved in traveling to and from it. Screech argues that the journey across the Sumida, from the ritual proprieties of the Shogun’s city to the profane, self-consciously hedonistic realm of the “floating world,” produced an almost meditative effect on would-be revelers:

The boats were of a special type, thin, with raised prows for quickness. Some people said poetically that they looked like leaves floating in the water. […] Their maximum load was three people, plus the waterman, but for increased speed most men rode alone. The passenger faced forwards, with the waterman invisibly behind, giving one of the most solitary experiences a man ever knew. […] Darkness increased the sense of waterborne isolation and initiated a mood of dislocation that would gain emphasis as the journey progressed.

The narrow boats were unstable, so it was necessary to keep quite still. The man adopted the agura, a relaxed version of the lotus position seen on Buddhist images. It was a common pose, but men remarked how Yoshiwara visitors began the trip in the Buddha’s bodily hexis. Transit was meditational.

How many men actually traveled this way to the Yoshiwara? Certainly some, as Screech’s written accounts attest. But many more traveled there in their imagination. Indeed, the trope of the pleasure-seeker adopting the Buddha pose was deliberately promoted by Yoshiwara businesses to help their customers rationalize their behavior. Yes, to pay for a night with a courtesan was a fleeting pleasure … but doesn’t the Buddha teach that all pleasure is fleeting anyway? Screech’s deeper point is that Edo existed in the imagination as well as in the flesh, and that this imagined Edo was the product of a lavish textual and visual culture that spread far beyond the city to the furthest corners of the realm.

Finally — and the author himself is quite candid about this — Screech’s Edo is a city seen through male eyes. According to the rules drawn up by the Shogun, only men were allowed to visit the Yoshiwara. The women who worked there, by contrast, were indentured laborers, forbidden from leaving the district. “As sites of sexual exploitation,” Screech is careful to acknowledge, “there is much to condemn in these red-light districts.” But his main focus is on “the astonishing array of cultural expressions” they gave rise to, and these expressions were all male ones.

This places Screech’s book in sharp contrast to Amy Stanley’s biography of Tsuneno, a commoner woman who ran away to Edo at the end of the 18th century. Stanley successfully uses Tsuneno’s unusually eventful life as a window onto a joltingly unfamiliar view of the city.

Tsuneno was born in 1804 into a well-to-do priestly family who ran the temple of a village in what is now Niigata, deep in Japan’s mountainous “snow country.” For the first two-thirds of her life, she endured three arranged marriages that all eventually ended in failure. Then at the age of 35, Tsuneno made the remarkable decision to abscond from rural life entirely, running away to Edo in the company of a scoundrel named Chikan. After she arrived, she ricocheted around a vast and unfamiliar city, like so many other rural migrants in the early modern world. She job-hopped for a number of years, toiling as a maidservant in wealthier Edo households. Eventually she secured a modicum of respectability by marrying a man with borderline samurai status. She died in the city that she had made her home in 1853, as Commodore Perry’s steamed toward Japan to “open the country.”

Two relationships live at the heart of Stanley’s book. The first is between Tsuneno and her older brother Giyū. The correspondence between the two serves as the archive through which Stanley excavates Tsuneno’s life. Theirs was a querulous relationship. As family head, Giyū was scandalized by his sister’s behavior. He constantly chastised her as unfilial, but also sent her packages in her times of need. She in turn was haughty, chilly, and airily dismissive of his concerns — but quick to defend him against the jibes of others.

Tsuneno’s personality shines through these letters with remarkable clarity: her stubbornness, her wiliness, her determination to reinvent herself and her own story to fit her circumstances. In many ways, she was a unique individual. Few women in early modern Japan (or men for that matter) made such radical decisions in their lifetime. Most married the men their parents chose for them and spent the bulk of their lives raising children of their own. But the twists and turns of Tsuneno’s life nevertheless offer a window onto the experience of early modern women more generally, who chafed against the constraints of a patriarchy that in some ways was particular to early modern Japan and, in other ways, is all too familiar.

These darker realities are only hinted at in Screech’s work. Screech discusses how travelers along the Tōkaido, the great trunk road linking Edo with Kyoto, could enjoy side trips to the many temples and shrines that were strategically positioned along its route. And this is perfectly correct. Early modern Japan had a thriving tourism industry, with confraternities saving up for years to embark on elaborate “pilgrimages” that included scenic spots and hot spring baths on the itinerary. Both men and women took part in these expeditions.

But Tsuneno’s experience of travel in early modern Japan was quite different. As she later wrote to her uncle:

“On the way, Chikan started saying, ‘You know, I have relatives in Edo […] why don’t you marry me?’ And I tried to refuse, but we were on the road. And he talked about all the things that might happen to a woman alone; but it wasn’t a real warning, he was making fun of me. The others who had been traveling with us had left by that point, so I had no other choice: I did what he wanted.”

Experiences like this help to explain why women seldom traveled alone in the Edo period. Stanley is too meticulous a scholar to label what happened to Tsuneno during her journey a sexual assault. That would be anachronous. Instead she ties the incident to the broader political economy that underpinned early modern Japanese families, and arguably many within our own society as well.

It might not have been rape according to the legal definition: the shogun’s laws equated rape with physical force, and Chikan’s weapons were words. His was a familiar, acceptable kind of violence, the same kind of presumption and entitlement that lay at the heart of every arranged marriage.

Stanley never mentions the recent sexual harassment scandals that have reverberated through academia in general, and the field of Japanology in particular. But she doesn’t need to. The political urgency of #MeToo-era feminism thrums through the text like a theremin. The book is an implicit riposte, not so much to Screech’s work in particular, as to decades (centuries?) of historiography that has overwhelmingly privileged male perspectives.

Similarly, her emphasis on the gendered economy of child-raising feels particularly necessary at this current moment. Tsuneno’s life would likely have been radically different had she borne children in any of her marriages. And COVID-19-induced school closures have sharpened existing structural inequalities within academia, with female scholars shouldering a greater portion of the extra childcare responsibilities. In this sense, perhaps early modern Japan is not so distant a place after all.

Stanley’s stance also informs a number of key authorial decisions. Reading Screech’s book, one gets the sense that he knows the modern city of Tokyo very well indeed, but he is careful not to interpolate himself into his text. But Stanley begins her book by describing the experience of conducting archival research in Japan while pregnant with her first child, and she concludes by recounting her return four years later with the same child in tow. While she removes herself from the body chapters almost entirely, she makes her empathy for Tsuneno clear throughout. Neither does she shy away from recreating Tsuneno’s interior life, extracting oceans of meaning from her subject’s often terse exchanges with her brother.

Stanley also makes a point of imagining how other women would have experienced life in Edo, even those who left behind no record. After all, there are structural, political reasons why early modern women did not generate the same kind of extensive archive as their male contemporaries. Where Screech can draw on a rich corpus of texts authored by male brothel customers, Stanley must rely on her imagination (and ours) to tell us how “[a]t Itabashi Station, prostitutes painted over their bruises and stabbed pins through their stiff, lacquered hair. […] If they were really lucky, their guests would get so drunk they’d pass out.”

This brings me to the second thread of Stanley’s book: Tsuneno’s relationship with Edo itself. The core of the text jumps between Tsuneno’s individual life story and a broader portrait of the city as she would have experienced it, and the most engrossing section reconstructs Tsuneno’s arrival and early struggles to establish herself. Life for rural migrants in the big city comes across as harrowing, with the vast majority living cheek-by-jowl in filthy back-alley tenements. The first room Tsuneno rented, in the working-class district of Minagawa-chō, was only six feet wide and nine feet long. And though she eventually managed to find better accommodation, life as a maidservant still entailed long hours of drudgery — lighting fires, filling water jugs, sweeping floors — that would have come as a shock to a woman used to managing servants of her own.

Still, Tsuneno chose to make Edo her home. Even after her initial decision to abscond, she consistently rejected her older brother’s entreaties to return to her village. She even took on a new name for herself, as if to slough off her own family ties and affirm her new status as an Edoite. Stanley frames this as an essentially emancipatory decision. The daughter of an affluent rural family was willing to scrub floors for a living if it enabled her to escape the strictures of life in a tiny northern village. Precipitous downward social mobility was a worthwhile trade for anonymity, the freedom to choose one’s own spouse (even if he was a scoundrel), and the other myriad pleasures of urban living.

One of these pleasures, as Stanley tells it, involved shopping. The first thing Tsuneno did when she got enough money together was dispatch souvenirs to her family back home: hair oil, a handkerchief, some toasted seaweed. Elsewhere in the city, a new breed of proto-department stores had begun to sell “kimonos and obis [sashes] in all the latest styles and fabrics: silk, hemp, cotton, and even imported calico and velvet.” Such shops “relied on the quick thrill of impulse shopping. The main floor was always stocked with new things, and it was wide open to the street, welcoming passers-by, always trying to tempt them with new things.” Passages like these made Tsuneno seem almost like a distant cousin of Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, imbibing a metropolitan cocktail of anonymity, sexual liberation, and consumer fashion.

In case this sounds glib, let me be clear that as an immigrant New Yorker myself I too appreciate the manifold diversions offered by big-city living. And there is nothing in the least bit frivolous about clothing. For Tsuneno and her contemporaries, kimonos were many things at once. They were protection against the elements, as any native of the snow country would know all too well. They were also reified female labor, and a good part of Tsuneno’s early life as a wife and daughter would have been spent sewing. They were markers of social status, signaling the wealth and rank of the wearer to the outside world. And they were also capital with high resale value, as well as objects of beauty in their own right. Tsuneno would have found it heart-breaking to pawn her wardrobe in order to finance her flight to the capital. Her clothes, Stanley points out, made her who she was.

Still, it is ultimately hard to know the degree to which the urban glamour of Edo shaped people’s decisions to live there. As Stanley acknowledges, poverty and famine drove many rural folk from the countryside to the towns and cities of the early modern world. A Marxist historian might argue that they were not so much aspiring flâneurs as proletarian refugees, alienated from their land by the forces of capitalist accumulation. Few migrants left behind any written record about how they themselves felt about their move, but one can imagine they had mixed feelings. As I watch my own adopted city being ravaged by plague, police brutality, riots, and looting, I know I certainly do.

Reading Stanley’s book in tandem with Screech’s raises another question about how Tsuneno viewed her adopted city. Tsuneno, as Stanley recreates her, was primarily concerned with practical matters like scraping a livelihood and managing her various marriages. Her outlook was broadly secular. But she also had a religious background, as she had been raised in a temple and spent 15 years married to the head priest of another. Even if her flight to Edo was a rejection of that life, when her brother (and fellow Edoite) Gisen died she was pious enough to fret that his funerary rituals had been left enough to strangers. To the extent that Tsuneno had an interior spiritual life, how did she respond to the ritual, magic, and mysticism that pulsed through the streets of the shogun’s capital? The answer may partly lie in Screech’s book. Reading the two books in tandem reminds us that there are many possible ways to travel through a vanished city. And even if the Edoite mentality may never be entirely knowable, these two authors get us remarkably close.


Paul Kreitman is assistant professor of 20th-century Japanese History at Columbia University. His first book, Japan’s Ocean’s Borderlands: Nature and Sovereignty, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press, and his writing has also appeared in The Japan Times, the Toyo Keizai Online, and The New Statesman.

LARB Contributor

Paul Kreitman is assistant professor of 20th-century Japanese History at Columbia University. His first book, Japan’s Ocean’s Borderlands: Nature and Sovereignty, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press, and his writing has also appeared in The Japan Times, the Toyo Keizai Online, and The New Statesman.


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