IF YOU could climb into a time machine placed atop Tokyo Central Station and travel back a thousand years, almost all the familiar landmarks of Japan's modern capital would vanish. You would be in Musashi, a province far from the seat of government at Heian-kyo (Kyoto), and Edo ("estuary")--as Tokyo was then called--was a mere fishing hamlet. To your east, you would see a vast marshland along the Sumida River which was much wider than it is today; to the southwest, beyond the plains and rolling hills, the majestic Mount Fuji; to the south, past the Hibiya inlet, the bay of Edo. Travel forward to the year 1456 and immediately west of you will loom Ota Dokan's castle and around it the beginnings of a town. Leap forward to 1603, the year Tokugawa Ieyasu was appointed shogun (three years after the decisive victory at Sekigahara, where he defeated the combined forces of his rivals, and thus became undisputed ruler of Japan), and you would see Ota Dokan's castle being transformed into a grandiose complex of multi-layered moats and palaces. Edo has by then become the de facto capital of Japan. That was the year Nihonbashi ("Japan bridge"), immediately to your east, was built, from which all distances were measured. Across it at Anjin-cho lived the English navigator Will Adams, Ieyasu's interpreter and vassal (now better known as the model for John Blackthorne in James Clavell's novel, Shogun).
By the early 17th century, the population of Edo was about 150,000. According to Rodrigo de Vivero y Velasco, who, like Will Adams, was shipwrecked off the coast of Japan (and, incidentally, returned to Mexico on a boat built by Adams), the streets of Edo were "far broader, longer and straighter than the streets of Spain. They are kept so clean that you might well think that nobody ever walks along them. . . The people live in particular streets according to their trade and station; one street, for example, is reserved for carpenters, and men of another trade will not live there. . . silver brokers live in one neighborhood, gold brokers in another. . . The nobles and people of quality live in streets and districts quite different from the rest of the town and no commoner or person of the lower classes mixes with them."
Now let us rapidly advance two-and-a-half centuries, past all the years of peace and isolation from the rest of the world under Tokugawa rule, past the arrival of American commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1853 whose black ships and demands for ending Japan's isolation shook the ruling clan to the point of collapse, past the rebellion that ensued and the proclamation of the new era of Meiji in 1868 (when Edo became Tokyo--"eastern capital"). Let us quickly note the installation of the young emperor from Kyoto in Tokugawa's old castle, pass over the bewildering pace of modernization, the military victories over China in 1895 and Russia in 1905 and World War I (by then the population of Tokyo had mushroomed to almost 2 million), and finally stop the time machine at precisely one minute and fifteen and four-tenths seconds before noon on September 1, 1923, the 12th year of Emperor Taisho's reign.
This is where Edward Seidensticker's book begins, when the great Kanto earthquake struck with "shocks so violent that the seismographs at the Central Weather Bureau went out of commission," shifted the enormous bronze statue of the Buddha at Kamakura a full meter, toppled the famous 12-story "cloud scraper" at Asakusa, and created an inferno that burned 64 percent of the city's buildings and dwellings, killing over 140,000 people in the entire Kanto area (including Tokyo).
Low City, High City is Seidensticker's impressionistic portrayal of what Tokyo looked and felt like before the Great Kanto earthquake. Using photographs, woodblock prints, quotations from contemporary authors, both Western and Japanese, Seidensticker takes the reader on a tour of old Tokyo from the "hilly Yamanote or High City, describing a semicircle generally to the west of the shogun's castle," to the "flat Low City, the Shitamachi, completing the circle on the east."
"Plebian enclaves could be found in the High City, but mostly it was a place of temples and shrines and aristocratic dwellings. The Low City had its aristocratic dwellings, and there were a great many temples, but it was very much the plebian half of the city. And though the aristocracy was very cultivated indeed, its tastes--or the tastes thought proper to the establishment--were antiquarian and academic." According to Seidensticker, "the vigor of Edo was in its Low City," where the Kabuki theaters, sumo wrestling, the art of woodblock printing and elaborate fireworks, the courtesans with their colorful kimonos, songs and dances, flourished over the years.
The pleasure quarter of Yoshiwara, up the Sumida, north of Asakusa, and west of the river, was "among the few places where the townsman of affluence could feel that he had things his way, without censorious magistrates telling him to stay down there at the bottom of an unchanging social order. . . . The elegance of the Yoshiwara was beyond the means of the poorer shopkeeper or artisan, but he shared the Edo passion for things theatrical. The city was dotted with Yose, variety or vaudeville halls. . . . There he found serious and comic monologues, imitations of great actors, juggling and balancing acts, and mere oddities. . . . A horror play on a summer night was held to have a pleasantly chilling effect; and indeed summer, most oppressive season for the salaried middle class of the new day, was for the Edo townsman the best of seasons. He could wander around half naked on a warm evening, taking in the sights."
On the other side of town in Hibiya, the Rokumeikan, which later became the Peer's Club, was the center of the High City set from 1884 to 1888. Here East met West and East attempted to become Western. Josiah Conder, an English architect, built this Italianate-style building for a government which was then trying to demonstrate to the world "that the Japanese were as civilized and enlightened as anyone else." Extravagant masked balls were held. "The dance floor at some of the more celebrated events was dominated by foreigners . . . and the Japanese ladies, when coaxed out upon the floor, were correct but wooden," according to Seidensticker's sources. There was a billiard room, reading room, suites, and "a bathtub such as had never before been seen in the land: alabaster, six feet long and three feet wide. Water thundered most marvelously . . . from the faucets."
The Meiji era (1868-1912) was a time of dizzying transformation. Women who once blackened their teeth and shaved their eyebrows would, within a few years, shed their kimonos, put on a western dress and walk down the Ginza, their smiles revealing sparklingly white teeth; and men who wore their hair in tightly tied buns, samurai style, and carried swords on the sashes of their kimonos would look sedate in coat and trousers some years later. When the transformation was incomplete, some odd combinations might result: men in Edwardian suits sporting swords and sandals, women wearing kimonos and shoes.
Seidensticker hopscotches across old Tokyo, uncovering a foreign settlement here, a Kabuki theater there, stopping to inform us when the Meiji emperor took his first carriage ride (in 1871), how delightful it was to wander about town on a boat along the many canals, when mixed bathing was banned (in 1869), where former president Ulysses S. Grant visited, who the most famous murderesses were, that Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel wasn't the only building to withstand quake and fire. Readers unfamiliar with the geography of Tokyo may be lost at times--regrettably, the book provides inadequade and inaccurate maps (Akasaka and Asakusa have been inadvertently transposed on one).
Seidensticker chooses not to include an account of the transformation of the political and military structures, of how Japan's economy adapted to the West, of the political views of that handful of former samurai who were responsible for Japan's unification under the emperor and how they met the Western imperialist challenge with their own. Those are, of course, affairs of the High City, and Seidensticker's narrative and his heart are clearly with the Low. Like Kafu Nagai's stories (the Japanese novelist to whom Seidensticker implicity dedicates his book) Low City, High City is, at the core, an elegy to the old Tokyo, irretrievably lost.
But is it entirely lost? Reading this book, one can roam once again along quaint streets, visit the old Kabuki theater with Junichiro Tanizaki (whose books Seidensticker has translated so masterfully), listen to the verse of forgotten songs, see a woodblock print of old Nihonbashi. Indeed, it is appropriate to compare the works of Seidensticker to that important bridge from which all distances were measured, for like no one else, he has built, through his many translations and such works as Low City, High City, a lasting bridge across time and culture, from Japan to the West.