Tokyo Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake

Why did Japanese women start wearing panties after a re at the Shirokiya department store in Tokyo on December 16, 1932? At the time shopgirls still wore traditional dress — kimono and layers of underskirts, but no underpants. When a re spread through the building, several women, trying to slide down ropes while using one hand to keep their skirts modestly in place, fell to their deaths. Newspapers and advertisers responded with a successful campaign for underpants, and so another fascinating Japanese tradition succumbed to westernization.

The episode illustrates a pattern that emerges from Tokyo Rising: disaster followed by determined modernization. The Great Earthquake of 1923 and the American incendiary bombings of 1944-45 accelerated the demise of the old ”city of villages” with its heart and soul in the temples, teahouses, Kabuki theaters, and artful brothels of the Asakusa neighborhood. This well- illustrated history by Edward Seidensticker, a distinguished translator of Japanese fiction, is suffused with his nostalgia for the subtle, shadowy old Asakusa immortalized by writers like Kawabata and Tanazaki. It is thus a sequel — in mood as well as chronology — to his Low City, High City, about the abrupt transformation of the city after 1868 from the sleepy Edo of the shoguns into imperial Tokyo, running headlong toward the future while staring wistfully over its shoulder at the past.

Like the earlier book, this one is full of engaging ironies: the ineffectual efforts of fanatic nationalists in the 1930s to replace American- derived baseball terms with native ones; the shock of the rst kisses on Japanese stage and screen in 1946; the genius of Tokyo whorehouses for assuming new identities after each attempt to abolish them; the collective peculiarities of Japanese criminals and suicides. It’s good to have a book about the Japanese that, instead of sternly ordering us to imitate them or be alarmed by them, simply evokes and entertains. A word of warning, however: While telling its story, the book meanders, like the mysterious and twisting streets of the city itself, from Asakusa to Akasaka, from Shinjuku to Shibuya, and the reader who hasn’t wandered in these neighborhoods before is likely to get pleasantly lost. B+

Tokyo Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake
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