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Notes on the Geography of Japan: Tokyo: Pre-War

With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Edo was renamed Tokyo, or eastern capital.  For a time, the city's population collapsed, mainly because the new regime no longer required nobles to live in Tokyo half the year.  By 1877, Tokyo's population had declined from 1.4 million to less than 600,000.  Still, the new government also disavowed the shogunate policy of isolation, or sakoku seisaku, and when growth resumed the city grew very rapidly.  It took 20 years to regain its lost population, but by 1910 the city had 1.8 million.  

Japan had now embarked on its course of  Civilization and Enlightenment, or Bummei Kaika.  The change was tantamount to westernization. Basil Chamberlain and W.B. Mason, authors of Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Japan (1907) explained that "since 1869 a great change has taken place in the outward appearance of the city.  Most of the yashiki, or Daimyo's mansions, have been pulled down to make room for buildings in European style, better adapted to modern needs. Railways and electric tramways now occupy large sections of the outer moat, and everywhere overhead is a network of telephone, telegraph, and electric light wires.  The two-sworded men have disappeared, the palanquin has given place to the jinriki, and foreign dress has been very generally adopted by the male population." 

Many Edokko, or natives of Edo, were nostalgic. Seijiro Kokija, for example, wrote, "when those of us who know the good points of the Tokyo in the old days look at it, Tokyo has lost all the good points it had." (From "The River Called Tokyo," quoted in Mildred Friedman, ed., Tokyo Form and Spirit, p. 37)

On the other hand, Edward Seidensticker comments that "nostalgia is the chief ware offered by the professional Edokko" (Low City, High City, p. 14).

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Japan: Tokyo: Pre-War picture 1

South of Nihombashi, the new government commissioned an Englishmen, Thomas Waters, to build a European-style neighborhood.  The result was the Ginza Bricktown of 1872, with a thousand buildings of cement-faced brick.

Japan: Tokyo: Pre-War picture 2

Another view, also from a model in the Edo-Tokyo Museum.  It shows not only the buildings, but rickshaws, apparently invented here just before 1870.  In time, the rickshaw would become a symbol of exploitation, but when introduced it was a labor-saving technology--the first local use of wheels for transport.

Japan: Tokyo: Pre-War picture 3

A reconstruction of a Waters building, in this case the offices of the Choya Shinbun, or Official and Unofficial News.

Japan: Tokyo: Pre-War picture 4

Nearly all of the work done by Waters and another British architect, Josiah Conder, was destroyed either by the earthquake of 1923 or the bombing of 1945.  Here's a quasi-survivor, Tokyo Central Station, built in 1914 to a design by Tatsuno Kingo, one of Conder's students. It was commissioned by Goto Shimpei, the director of national railways, and was intended to be very impressive.  Old photographs show a building that is indeed impressive, with handsome domes instead of the post-war pyramids.  What's less noticeable is that the building faces west, toward the imperial palace, not east, toward the Ginza Bricktown.  Accident?  Unlikely.  Deferential?  Perhaps.   A real-estate hustle? Just maybe, because between the station and the palace is an area once known as Mitsubishi Meadows.  It was considered worthless but is now Tokyo's priciest real estate.

Japan: Tokyo: Pre-War picture 5

Mitsubishi Meadows was once part of the outer moat of the imperial palace, and it was a wasteland when Iwasaki Yanosuke, son of the founder of Mitsubishi, bought it in 1880.  This view, taken from a block west of Tokyo Station, shows the comparatively ancient Marunouchi Yaesu Building, of 1928, wedged behind the Mitsubishi Building of 1973 and, in the distance, the Mitsubishi Shoji Building of 1971.  No architect is credited or blamed for any of these buildings, whose designs are attributed simply to the Mitsubishi Estate Company.

Japan: Tokyo: Pre-War picture 6

Here's the view looking the other way, toward Ginza and past the elevated tracks approaching Tokyo Station.

Japan: Tokyo: Pre-War picture 7

Railways came to Tokyo in 1870--late by European or American standards but in phase with the Meiji Restoration, which might better be seen as a rejuvenation than as a restoration.  The steel here will itself soon need rejuvenation.

Japan: Tokyo: Pre-War picture 8

Nihombashi was rebuilt in 1911.  Old photos show the new bridge sparkling white against a dark background, including a crude railway trestle hardly 50 feet upstream. 

Japan: Tokyo: Pre-War picture 9

Since 1961, Tokyo has built about 100 miles of radial and ring expressways, including this one shading the bridge. It's the very crowded Shuto expressway, and it masterfully obliterates the Nihombashi atmosphere.

Japan: Tokyo: Pre-War picture 10


Japan: Tokyo: Pre-War picture 11

Nihombashi now ranks first on the "list of the loathsome" in Shigeru Ito's Ugly Japan, but this photo almost makes the spot seem sinuously graceful. To get the full effect, though, you have to imagine the traffic overhead and the resulting vibration of the ground underfoot. (See Leo Lewis, "Monuments to Ugliness and the Triumph of Cash over Culture," The [London] Times, 31 December 2005)

Japan: Tokyo: Pre-War picture 12

Meidi-ya, founded in 1885, is a chain of gourmet shops.  This one, in Ginza, illustrates the 32-meter height limit imposed on Tokyo's buildings after the 1923 quake.  The limit held until the Kasumigaseki Building of 1968.

Japan: Tokyo: Pre-War picture 13

Nearby is the premier department store Mitsukoshi (Mitsui until 1904).  It added a second floor in 1905, then showcases.  In 1914, escalators arrived, Japan's first.  Advertising was part of the Mitsukoshi formula, too: a famous slogan was "Today the Imperial [Theater]; tomorrow Mitsukoshi."

Japan: Tokyo: Pre-War picture 14

Competition: the Takeshimaya store opened in 1933.  These stores survived World War II, when most of Tokyo was reduced to ashes; for a time, they were made into U.S. Army stores, which helped revive the neighborhood.

Japan: Tokyo: Pre-War picture 15

What's left that is distinctively Japanese?  One obvious answer is the famous (some would say infamous) Yasakuni Shrine, honoring Japan's war dead.

Japan: Tokyo: Pre-War picture 16

There's Ueno Park, too, once a temple and monastery complex but now a museum center.

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