Pocorobba, with an introduction by Donald Richie
Dr. Johnson famously remarked that he who is tired of London is tired of life. Dr.
Seidensticker, who resembles the great Londoner in possessing a superb style and some
fairly immovable opinions, spends half of each year in Tokyo - the city of which he
is the finest historian - and he has never tired of it. In this he resembles another
literary man - the Japanese novelist Nagai Kafu. In "Kafu the Scribbler" (1965)
Seidensticker has not only written one of the greatest books on Tokyo but one of the very
finest books on Japan itself. Kafu records all the changes in the city, has fairly
permanent opinions about them, but in the process remains both engaged and aware -
interested. As does Edward Seidensticker. Donald Richie
Seidensticker's experiences in Japan span over fifty years. He was a newly graduated
English major from the University of Colorado at Boulder when World War II broke out. In
June 1942, the Navy Japanese Language School moved to Boulder. Seidensticker enrolled
immediately, graduating fourteen months later with a burgeoning command of Japanese that -
unbeknownst to him - would become the basis of his academic career as a translator of
Japanese literature, including Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mishima, Kafu and the arduous "The
Tale of Genji." "There it was, right in front of me," says Seidensticker of
the school. "It was a wonderful way to get through the war." He eventually
trained with the Marines and arrived in Kyushu in September 1945, one month after the war
Seidensticker returned to the US for graduate school and the Foreign Service, coming back
to Japan - this time to Tokyo - in 1948. He pursued more studies at Tokyo University in
Japanese literature, and from there became immersed in academic life. In the 1950s, he
taught at Sophia University for four years, but began to grow tired of Japan. An offer
from Stanford in 1962 lured him back to the US. After Stanford, he taught at Michigan and
Columbia, from which he retired in 1985. Although his work has kept him in the US, he has
spent at least part of every year in Japan since his first visit to Tokyo in 1948. Coupled
with his historical expertise, Seidensticker can offer an authoritative insight into the
changes Tokyo has experienced over the past hundred years.
|Books courtesy of Tuttle Publishing
The Tale of Genji
This version of the
universally acknowledged masterpiece has become the definitive translation, described as
"the fullest and most accurate English version of the Japanese classic." It
contains a dozen chapters selected by Seidensticker from early in the original text with
an introduction explaining the selection. "The Tale of Genji," written by a
woman, Murasaki Shikibu, is considered to be the world's first novel and concerns the love
of Prince Genji and life in the imperial court of Kyoto. It is "a lively and
astonishingly nuanced portrait of a refined society where every dalliance is an act of
political consequence, a play of characters whose inner lives are as rich and changeable
as those imagined by Proust. Chief of these is 'the shining Genji,' the son of the emperor
and a man whose passionate impulses create great turmoil in his world and very nearly
destroy him." (The Reader's Catalogue)
Change, of course, has largely meant modernization and modernization has meant
Westernization. From the earliest years after the Meiji Restoration of 1865, foreign
products and ideas have flooded Tokyo. But the Japanese appetite for things Western has
waxed and waned, says Seidensticker. "It goes in cycles. Of course, there were times
when Western things were officially frowned upon and every attempt made to squelch them.
This happened during the 1930s and '40s. It was a huge contradiction at the time because
that meant squelching German things and they were big pals with Germany. So they tried to
squelch English and American things, but it didn't work." Was there a backlash?
"That's not really the word for it. What was underground came up again. It never
stopped, although it tried to. Then in 1945 it all came to the surface again."
Westernization has meant not only the import of goods and services, fashions and styles,
but also individuals. Tokyo has had a varied expatriate community since the city opened
up, although the make - up of that community has changed. "The nature of foreign
community has changed utterly. The original meaning of the word gaijin,
'foreigner,' meant European and American, but the word is changing because the population
has changed. Now, foreigners in Toyko include Filipinos, Bangladeshis, other Southeast
Asians, Africans and, of course, Koreans, who were always a matter apart."
Apart from each individual's contribution to Tokyo's economy, society and culture, more
than a handful of foreigners have made recognizable changes to the physical and
metaphorical cityscape. Foreign residents have been credited, for example, with saving the
Noh theater and invaluably assisting the cause of traditional Japanese music. One
influential gaijin was the Dutchman Dr. E.A.F. Bauduin. "Ueno Park was the work of
Bauduin. [Some] Japanese wanted to turn it into a university and he suggested a park. [The
American architect] Frank Lloyd Wright was another man who made a big difference. Most of
his stuff has been destroyed the only building left is the Jiyugakuen, a private school
near Ikebukuro station. His influence can still be seen in a lot of buildings in Tokyo.
And, of course, General MacArthur and his cohorts made a tremendous difference. Things
have not been the same since."
As with other foreign observers who have lived through the rapid development of the last
fifty years, it is the loss of beauty that Seidensticker most regrets. "Edo - in a
restrained, monochrome fashion - must have been a rather beautiful town, but now it's very
ugly." He most laments the loss of Lloyd Wright's original Imperial Hotel. "It's
one of the tragedies of postwar Tokyo. It never should have happened. There are fragments
here and there, the old bar remains, and the facade is in Nagoya, but it didn't have to be
destroyed. And the reason was greed. They wanted to make more money off the land. A lot
was destroyed in 1923 and 1945 and we can lament that, but they would've gone anyway. The
Japanese don't preserve old things. They preserve traditions and art forms, but not
"The conservation movement is just getting underway here and it's too late for places
like the Imperial Hotel. It might save Tokyo station, though. They are thinking of
restoring it to its prewar form. But if it was early enough to save some of those Queen
Anne brick buildings in Marunouchi, [I'd] be happier. There's nothing left of the old
Marunouchi but a few pieces."
Seidensticker's translation of Kawabata
Yasunari's haunting novel of wasted love has been described as managing to capture the
true voice of the author in the novel which was sighted as "outstanding" when
Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Chronicling the affair between a wealthy
dilettante and the mountain geisha who gives herself to him without illusions or regrets,
the book is dense in implication and exalting in its sadness. The translation conveys
Kawabata's brushstroke suggestiveness and astonishing grasp of motive. At an isolated
mountain hot spring, wealthy sophisticate Shimamura meets the geisha Komako, who gives
herself to him without regrets, knowing that their passion cannot last. Shimamura is a
dilettante of the feelings; Komako has staked her life on them. Their affair can have only
one outcome. Yet, in chronicling its doomed course, one of Japan's greatest modern writers
creates a novel dense in implication and exalting in its sadness.
North and South
As with so much in Japanese society, what you see is only a fraction of the story the real
changes have taken place at a less obvious level. Neighborhoods have changed
geographically, the city has expanded, boundaries have been redrawn.
Tokyo has long been divided roughly into two geographic regions: The "low city,"
or shitamachi, the "plebeian" flatlands east of the Sumida River, and the
"high city," or yamanote, the "aristocratic" hilly areas west of the
Imperial Palace. Today, Seidensticker prefers to run a dividing line from Ginza to
Shinjuku and call each side north and south. "One hundred years ago, the Ginza and
Nihombashi were the center of Tokyo as far as shopping and entertainment went. Nowadays,
the newer satellite cities of Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Shibuya, Shinagawa, and Yokohama
dominate. The Marunouchi still holds as the financial center, but the cultural heart has
shifted from the low city into the hills. Aside from the museums and concert hall in Ueno,
everything else is in the south."
One level lower, street life has changed. "One hundred years ago, the streets were
alive with the calls of vendors. They still exist, but not in the numbers that were here
even fifty years ago, when I came. People were out in the streets. There was more chatter
and talk. The television and the automobile now keep people shut off from each other,
especially in the summertime, which was when the streets were really part of home, when
people spent their evenings in the streets." This is part of a larger shift in the
sense of community, a shift augmented by Westernization. For example, before the war, the
sento, or public bath, was a stable binding force. "Sento were once social and
community centers. Nowadays, people have their own baths, so there are fewer sento and
less need for them." Unfortunately, nothing has taken the place of the sento as a
community center in the neighborhoods of Tokyo. "It's gone. The television set is the
center of life now and, like the bath, each house has its own."
|Low City, High City Tokyo Rising
"Low City, High
City" and "Tokyo Rising" together comprise Seidensticker's definitive
history of Tokyo. The former documents the growth of the city from Edo times and the Meiji
Restoration until the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which left the "low city,"
or shitamachi, raised to the ground by fire. The latter explores the subsequent
resurrection of Tokyo, through the firebombing of World War Two and the bubble years up to
the 1990s. Seidensticker's style is detailed and diverse, recording everything from the
smallest political changes to the broadest social trends. The distinguished Japan travel
writer, Ian Buruma, said of "Tokyo Rising" in the New York Review of Books:
"Seidensticker, to my mind the most distinguished living celebrator of Tokyo in the
English language, is steeped in nostalgia... This elegiac mood is deepened by
Seidensticker's wry commentary on the changes which continue to chip away at his great
affection for the city. But then grouchiness about the present is inevitable in literary
nostalgia... And, if expressed with sufficient wit, there is as much pleasure to be
derived from grouchiness as from its concomitant desire to catch the shadows of the old
before they fade forever..." Publisher's Weekly added: "[This] is much more than
a portrait of Tokyo; in good measure, it is a serendipitous social history of modern
Digging even deeper, to Tokyoites themselves, naturally modernization and globalization
have had effects both on the way people present themselves and the way people perceive
themselves. Seidensticker sees the changes most in the role of women. Often in cultures,
women are more conservative than men and play a greater role in preserving traditions.
"Into the 1920s, women wore Japanese dress while men didn't. Traditional hairdos,
too, were still prevalent. But now they wear wigs for weddings no one wears it naturally
that way. Kimono, too, have been relegated to formal occasions."
These days it would seem that young women are leaders of change and innovation. High
school girls rule the fashion scene and the birth rate is dropping to dangerous levels.
"Today, women aren't more conservative than men. They used to be quieter today the
decibel count is atrocious. Students now talk and use phones in class, both unthinkable 30
and 40 years ago. They would've been quiet - maybe asleep, but quiet."
It is this generation that is usually typified as the changing face of Japan. They are
embracing ideals of independence and individuality more than ever. Seidensticker, though,
is less certain. "Young people certainly look liberated these days, but I don't know.
It might finally be happening. Everyone's always said, 'Japan is changing, look at the
young people.' But I always said, 'Yes, but wait a few years.' When they're 40, they're
what their papas were at 40."
Liberalization has not been smooth or linear, but it has deep roots dating back to the
Meiji Restoration. "The Meiji period was very exciting. There must have been a huge
sense of liberation after the repression of the Tokugawa shogunate. People look
sentimentally at Tokugawa but it was a very harsh time when people were sat upon. Meiji
was liberation an exhilarating, vigorous time. Japan set to work to catch up with the
world and did a very good job of it. At the beginning of Meiji, Japan was an occupied
country with extraterritoriality - where foreigners were tried by foreign courts - and at
end of Meiji, it was a world power. That is a tremendous achievement."
There have been so many radical changes in Toyko over the past one hundred years, and yet
there are many things that remain the same. "The change over the years hasn't been
even. Modes of behavior don't change and they're most important. They're changing now
somewhat - that's inevitable - but the pace of moral and customary change is surprisingly
slow. Surface things change fast, but deeper things like morals, ethics, and manners
don't. For example, the Japanese are a law - abiding, very moral people, and this has
remained unchanged for over 100 years. There has been corruption, of course, but basically
it is a conventional, fundamentally conservative society despite all the tremendous
As we head into the year 2000, some people will invariably look fondly to the past and
hold out for preservation. In the Meiji period, there was the Edokko, a native of Edo who
lamented the changes in Tokyo and longed wistfully for bygone days. Is the Edokko spirit
alive today? Seidensticker laughs. "No. The Edokko was a fictitious figure. Edokko
was the old resin of the flatlands, or low city, of Tokyo. Even Tanizaki Junichiro - a
great admirer of Edo and the Meiji of his upbringing - had great contempt for the
Edokko." The Edokko may have been pining for the past, but was not necessarily poised
to do much about it. "The Edokko weren't up and at it. It was the country people [who
came to Tokyo] that made the new city, not the Edokko."
As Tokyo continues to expand into the next century and beyond, it can only be Tokyoites
who determine the pace of change while preserving the past. Being Tokyoites too, the
foreign community will no doubt continue to thrive while remaining a steady element in the
city's future. Where Tokyo is one hundred years from now will depend on the twists and
turns of history. "Some people see the seeds of 1945 in Meiji. I don't share this
view at all. History is not that determinate. To say that from 1865 there was a string of
events leading to 1945 is foolish. That's not the way history is." There is something
optimistic about Seidensticker's statement. History is slippery and change inevitable.
That the best thing we can hope to do is remain engaged and aware of the changes so that
we can understand where both we and our city are going in the next hundred years.