Episode 82 – Dr. Jordan Sand (Georgetown)

Originally published on December 11, 2018
[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. Today, I’m talking with Dr. Jordan Sand, Professor of Japanese History at Georgetown University. Dr. Sand is the author, most recently, of Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects, published by the University of California Press in 2013. Dr. Sand, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Jordan Sand: Thank you for having me on.

TG: I understand you’re writing this new chapter for this new edition of The Cambridge History of Japan entitled “The Modern Metropolis,” so could you walk us through how is it that the Japanese city is changing following the Meiji Restoration?

JS: Well, it’s a very large question, and of course, it’s a big topic too. I’ve decided not to start right at the Restoration (although there may be some occasions to talk about it), but to start around the 1880s: the point at which we see the population of the capital recovered to its Edo period level, and as you know also, the year in which we see the beginnings of modern formal planning for the capital, and then later in other cities. And to try and sketch out a century beginning in the 1880s, of course, it’s a century in which cities changed in many different ways.

I’m trying to look, as much as possible, into material and spatial changes; we could be talking about various aspects of the social history of the city, but so for that reason, I start also with the beginnings of modern city planning. In answer to your “how,” if we go back and think about the nature of the Tokugawa city, it’s clear from quite early after the Meiji Restoration that the new government (the new national government) had a powerful investment in viewing the city as a display to other nations, and in seeing the city as a whole become some kind of managed space under national control. Those kinds of investments in the urban space are, to my eye, not present in Tokugawa Japan although of course, the Tokugawa capital of Edo was under a variety of forms of quite intense social control and surveillance. And so, I look, for example, at a subject I’ve written a little bit about in the past: the issue of firefighting and fire suppression as one of these measures of a modern state and a municipal government engaged in a new attempt that we don’t see previously to manage the entire lived space of the city.

TG: Talking about firefighting and thinking of the city as a showcase brings to mind Ginza Bricktown of course. I’ve noticed you’ve dated your coverage of Tokyo from 1880, which would post-date the Ginza Bricktown of 1872, so do you see that as a development that is not connected to this later planning of the city?

JS: No, I think it’s terribly important. 1880 is perhaps a mark of convenience. Ginza Bricktown is a fascinating early moment in which we see, precisely, that combination of the attempt to create a permanent and relatively fireproof urban streetscape that is very much directed outwards, that is it’s a display (even a bit of a Potemkin village) for an international audience or foreign visitors, and at the same time, toward that goal to regulate people’s behaviour and their choices of building materials and their land rights and their land investments in a more comprehensive way that the Tokugawa government had not attempted.

It is therefore perfectly reasonable to picture it starting with that case, and I do plan to touch on it. I suppose that we can talk about a kind of century from the 1880s to the early 1970s. First, as I mentioned, for demographic reasons: Ginza Bricktown is an early moment in government intervention, but it’s also, really, an early moment in which Tokyo had established itself as the kind of economic centre it would prove to be in the modern period. There was talk early on that the capital might remain in Kyoto. Some say the capital never officially moved to Tokyo, and of course, Ginza Bricktown… well before, we see industrial growth in Tokyo, so modern industrial growth. So, I think that the better part of the modern story gets told from the 1880s, but in an important sense of course, we have early precedence.

TG: And the date 1880 in particular brings to mind this Matsuda Plan, which is often said to be the first citywide urban plan.

JS: Yes.

TG: Was that the reason you started in 1880? Is that the beginning of this planning movement for the city?

JS: I suppose so, and I mean because then, it ties forward to shiku kaisei, and I think it’s interesting (this relates to your own work too) that these first formal plans for the city as a whole, which of course are in part very much about showcasing, and there are multiple plans, as you know… They have long lives as ideas, but they have very shaky existence on the ground, and shiku kaisei for a long period would represent tension: landed interest and city councillors uninterested in raising taxes, and economic downturns and so forth as you know, would stand in the way of the realization of grand master plans repeatedly in Tokyo’s instance. I think that one of things that started in the 1880s, and extending forward and even through the reconstruction after the Kantō Earthquake and the reconstruction after 1945… That is a persistent theme is this gap between visions of the city and the actual sort of planning that gets accomplished.

TG: Shiku kaisei in particular, with its emphasis on railways and street widening, is often criticized for being mainly an infrastructure plan — I’m thinking particularly of the critiques of people like Ishizuka Hiromichi who would say that they’re completely setting aside concern about the social welfare of the people in the city. Is that how you’re seeing it as well?

JS: Yes. You know, I don’t have revolutionary opinions about it, but it seems to me that is a valuable critique. It’s also an old critique, and I think we take it for what it is, that indeed, shiku kaisei was ultimately infrastructure driven and about economic modernization. It stands first intention with the sort of baroque master planning, also envisioned beginning in 1880 and championed by figures like Ende and Beckmann, all of that stillborn in Tokyo’s instance or almost all of it.

There are glimpses of it after the Kantō Earthquake, but again, each time, the focus is overwhelmingly on infrastructure. People like Ishizuka and Ishida Yorifusa were equally critical of shiku kaisei and subsequent plans for failing to, I mean as you said, consider welfare, which is to say to include public housing, to have a grander vision of what should be done for the lower classes and being, in that sense, capitalist technocratic, which is probably fair enough. All of this starts to look very different by the 1970s and ‘80s, at least to architects in Japan, who start to say: “Well actually, this lack of master planning has been our great virtue, the distinguishing feature that now makes our city unique.” It suddenly gets turned on its head, and ever since then, really, we’ve had a whole strain of international discourse about Japanese urbanism that has celebrated its chaotic and seemingly, at first glance, illegible character. And so, I think there isn’t a single correct take on it all in my eyes, but what we see are repeated debates, you might say, around what planning is supposed to be for, and the single greatest continuity is that the things that have been generally accomplished (with rare exceptions) have been infrastructural.

TG: I think there might be some listeners who are hearing us describe urban plans of Tokyo and thinking: “Wow, in Tokyo, you don’t see the kind of grid network that you see in Manhattan.”  So, they might be saying: “Well, are Japanese cities really that planned? Is Tokyo really that planned of a city?”

JS: That’s precisely what I’m saying. It became a point of fascination and even of celebration from the 1970s and ‘80s at least among architects; the idea that it was unplanned and successful… I think that’s a willful distortion. It’s an interesting idea, but of course planning goes on at many levels, and infrastructure (at least since the 1960s), quite detailed and effective zoning laws with regard to building height and volume and so on and so forth are integral to a very sophisticated planning tradition in Japan (the sort of planning that André Sorenson and others have written about). We shouldn’t bypass it, but the fact is that there’s planning and the fact that in the days of Ende and Beckmann, there was a vision of planning for monuments and vistas, and our conception of urban legibility and broad boulevards as integral to a civilized bourgeois city. Very little of that sort of planning was accomplished, and so, you know, we may need to make distinctions. It was celebrated as unplanned at one point, and I think it’s worth remembering that very celebration within the history of discourses of the city.

TG: As urban theorists from Henri Lefebvre to Michel de Certeau would point out, you can have the planning of the state, but really, it’s the grassroots bottom up energies of the people that give life to the city. So, you’re also writing about places like Asakusa, Ginza; these spaces of mass consumerism. Are those developing separate from these planning exercises, or is it in some kind of negotiation?

JS: Interesting question. Okay, Ginza, of course, starts with a bricktown, and I don’t think we would have the Ginza of 1920s plannerism (ginbura) and consumer spectacle that develops there if we have not had Ginza Bricktown, so in a certain sense, something gets imprinted and it will, then, have after-effects, after a certain district of the city has received its imprint. On the other hand, there’s a tremendous amount that’s spontaneous and unplanned in the ways “the walkers of the city” (to use de Certeau’s term) or the Ginza consumers or the Asakusa Review and their audiences use and reinvent urban space. The kinds of cultural meanings that become attached to these places, of course, are very far from what planners had for them.

Contrary to that, there is a form of planned urban spectacle which plays a very large role in Tokyo’s history. It doesn’t cover the space of the entire city, but that’s the long trajectory of expositions and I think I would say three Olympics plans for the city because two have been in Olympics in 1940, there was one in ‘64, we will see one again soon in 2020. These kinds of celebratory events are also civilizing processes from the perspective of the authorities for the public, and that was equally true back in the days of the early domestic expositions, of which there were five or more in the Meiji period, as it was true in 1964 (something that Yoshikuni Igarashi wrote so effectively about). So, there’s that feat spectacle, as a piece of the long-term cultural history of the city that, in interesting ways, interweaves with, and at the same time seeks to discipline more unruly cultural spectacles in places like Asakusa.

TG: Speaking of these major moments of transformation that really reshape the city… Of course when we look at this big, long history of Tokyo, two really striking moments occur in 1923 and 1945 when much of the city is burnt down first by an earthquake and then firebombing at the end of World War II. So, what impact did these two events have on the city?

JS: You know, that’s an issue that I’ve gone back and forth on over the years. Now, when I was primarily a historian of dwelling space, I came to the slightly unorthodox conclusion that the impact was minor for both 1923 and 1945, and that’s a rather contrarian position to take in light of the fact that both of them were devastating in human terms, devastating economically, and that in the memories of people and from the perspective of municipal authorities, they were starting from zero after September 1923 and August 1945.

But I came to think that they were rather minor in the long history of houses and the way people lived in ordinary houses in Tokyo because after each of them, within a few years, most people are living in the same sort of neighbourhoods, the same sort of houses. There is a considerable amount of replatting the streets and replanning that happens after each of them, and lots of people found themselves in new environments subsequently.

But the houses themselves? Not so changed, and there really are tremendous continuities, housing being perhaps the most striking down to the 1970s when we start to see the shift from wood to reinforced concrete, and to steel and concrete. People lived in one or two storey wooden structures straight across most of the century. That said, obviously, there’s a major impact on the social geography as has been documented. In the case of 1923, it created an enormous expansion into suburban former farmland of the urban hilltop area, and so, lots of people were living in new suburbs and often suburban industrial districts, not just the middle-class suburbs I once wrote about.

That kind of change was very significant, of course. 1945 also comes with a major political change, and the new political situation was the inspiration, also, for a lot of mega planning or grand planning, but again, I think that the impact was nowhere near as great as some of the idealist planners of the late ‘40s had hoped. ‘64 perhaps makes a greater impact in terms of transformation of the urban fabric than 1945 does because by 1964 (by the end of the 1950s) Japan is in a position to invest in totally new kinds of technologies, and it becomes the city of highways and rapid rail and so forth that had not quite been possible previously.

TG: The time that I’ve spent in Tokyo, in fact, the time that I’ve lived there, I’ve always been in the southwestern area of the city in what we might call the Yamanote. And so, living there then travelling to other parts of Tokyo, especially on the eastern side in the Shitamachi, you really do feel the differences in the culture of the city. In your chapter, you’re talking about how it migrates around. Could you talk a bit about this Shitamachi area of the city?

JS: Yes. This is something that I think Ted Bester said at one time; the Shitamachi has existed always as both a place and an idea, and the migration of course is because this is an informal designation; there’s no administrative district called the Shitamachi. Like downtown or Cockney London or one of these things, it’s a cultural ensemble. And yet, it is distinctive; it’s distinctive to Edo having been a castle town with two populations: ruling elite who lived in estates which were granted to them by the authorities, and of course, a provisioning working and commercial class. As you know, that lives on in the social geography of the city to this day, but what has happened is that as the city expands, the working class or commercial area of the city has also expanded, and the conception of what Shitamachi is has followed those social and economic changes, so that Shitamachi’s true heart was from Edo into the middle/late Meiji period around Nihonbashi. That was really a commercial district, but people came to think of places on the far side of the Sumida River (where industry developed and where dense working class neighbourhoods clustered around new mills and cement factories and so forth) as the true working class city and therefore, as Shitamachi. With time, Shitamachi moves even further out until it’s at the borders of the Edo River in what is truly suburban, and a new kind of nostalgia starts to develop around working class life, exemplified in the Tora-san movies (that you have to go farther from the centre of the city to find a venue that appears to embody those values) and so, Shitamachi kept gravitating.

TG: We often hear that Tokyo is a humongous city that’s a collection of villages, and certainly there are certain parts of the city that do seem to have the unique culture. I’m thinking of Shimokitazawa, Daikanyama, Hiroo, Roppongi. And I’m curious, when you go to Tokyo, what are your favourite parts of the city and where are the parts that you feel, say, the most at home or you feel the most unique culture there?

JS: I spent a lot of time in the Yanesen neighbourhood, which I wrote about in Tokyo Vernacular. It was really formative for me, living in that neighbourhood back when I was a student, and I’ve watched it change since, and it’s still a wonderful place. The curious thing about it is that Yanesen is an invented name because it conjoins the names of three different municipal districts or machi: Yanaka, Nezu and Sendaki. And from the ‘80s (when I was first living there), that was precisely the new locus of this image of village Tokyo that you’re talking about. Of course, that whole idea of the city as a cluster of villages has its own interesting intellectual history, but in any case, at this moment, when nostalgia was becoming quite intense for an earlier – and what was seen as a simpler – urban life style, Yanesen was a focal point for that. I’ve always had a healthy skepticism about those things and yet, there was a strong sense of community actually being formed at that time in the Yanesen area around a sense of the true traditions of Tokyo life being at the neighbourhood level and being in small alleyways, and intimate relations among neighbours in those places.

That really did take a hold, and I think in a positive way; it made people more aware of their own surroundings and the virtues of them. That’s been a great thing in that part of town, and in some other parts of town too you can see it. Many of the districts along the Chūō line and elsewhere… there’s a reawakening or appreciation for backstreet Tokyo and its livability. At the same time, the unfortunate result right now for the Yanesen district is that it’s become so iconic of that, that it’s a tourist site. The two don’t go very well together. The appreciation of intimacy and mass tourism are a difficult mix, and it’s struggling with that right now. It’s still a neighbourhood that I feel a strong personal attachment to, though.

TG: On that same topic of this conflict between tourism and the culture of the neighbourhood, Shimokitazawa in particular is one that has this very unique culture, but now there’s a lot of concern that it’s going to lose that as the Odakyū line is going to be buried, and they’re talking about maybe even putting a major highway over the top of it, which would completely change the fabric of that neighbourhood.

JS: It’s interesting because Shimokitazawa really developed more of a consciousness partly as a counterculture site, and so now you’re seeing since the ‘90s a lot of young people mobilizing around a sense of neighbourhood in Shimokita, and fighting against development. You know, it has different iterations in different places. In Yanesen, it really was the preponderance of old shops and elderly people with stories to tell of their neighbourhood that had drove the movement of machizukuri or local town place-making. In Shimokitazawa, I think it’s been very much more by counterculture and yet, the issues are very similar. Tokyo’s old neighbourhood fabric is fragile and of course, lots of interesting, new urban forms are emerging as well. I’m quite a fan of the whole scene out in the landfill islands of the bay. I think Odaiba is an amazing and strange place, and it has its own layers of history, but the fact is that these strong neighbourhood identities have become a mobilizing force because people realize that they’re losing something.

TG: Speaking of those landfill islands out in the bay like Odaiba, that part of what we call Waterfront Tokyo (places like Toyosu) are looking to see a lot of development surrounding the 2020 Olympics.

JS: Well of course it’s different in different places, and I’m still hoping that it will have a relatively light impact on the city. I think there are too many cases where the impact of Olympics rush development is basically negative. I think that the rush to put in a massive new stadium design by Zaha Hadid was a mistake for example; they have drawn back from that, but they probably could have lived with their own stadium. It’s a bit unfortunate, but they felt determined that they had to have another showpiece which of course is always part of these international mega events.

Out in the bay, well there’s plenty of room. There’s been a lot of dispute about particular venues, but I’m not too concerned about historical fabric on the bay per se. Around Ueno, there is presently planning for a manifold increase in tourism, and that bleeds again into the Yanesen district and over to other adjacent Shitamachi areas. I’m not entirely sanguine that will be good for those areas. I don’t know if they can really carry it. So, there are places of concern, and there are places where I think we’ll see fun, new “play spots” (as they call them in Japan). Probably both will result. As I expect, both resulted in 1964. I mean certainly, there are triumphs of architecture and of planning that we can thank the 1964 Olympics and the re-development in its planning stages for having given us Tange Stadium, the Shinkansen. I think that’s (the Shinkansen) an extraordinary piece of national land planning, of technology (of course), and it was also a massive rush effort for the Olympics, wasn’t it?

TG: One impact might be that Tokyo starts to recognize that it’s on the waterfront, right? Remember, Tokyo has a waterfront, and it seems like for so long, Tokyo has turned its back on the water. I mean, you have Odaiba for sure, but with all these islands stretching further and further out into Tokyo Bay, it doesn’t have the same kind of identifiable waterfront cityscape as a city like New York or Hong Kong for that matter.

JS: The idea of seeing as an amenity the fact that bay is right there (the Tokyo that is on the Sumida and of course on the bay) is something that dates to the early 1980s. It’s been around for a while. We hear a lot of it whenever the talk is about the landfill, and I don’t think they’re doing a bad job, per se with that waterfront as a sort of the visual enhancement of the landscape.

I think where the real frontier lies (and I hope and pray that it will be something that is pursued in the generation to come with real earnestness) is in the natural potential (as a natural environment) to be recovered of the river and the bay. What we’re talking about when we talk about wōtāfuronto is mostly cosmetic, plus a few waterborne leisure activities, but Tokyo Bay actually, was all mud flats with an incredibly rich natural environment for all kinds of marine animals and plants. There’s actually no reason not to recover a lot of that, and I’d like to think that of course, it’s a long haul, but I’d like to think that with time, a steady process of removal of concrete and recovery of natural interface between the land and the water will be the real waterfront project for Tokyo. There’s interest: there are local groups in Chiba, Yokohama and Kanagawa who are looking for ways, piecemeal, to recover what they call the real waterfront, and I think we’ll see Tokyo getting on board eventually.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode: 

Jordan Sand, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, December 11, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-82-dr-jordan-sand-georgetown/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.