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Tokyo Boogie-Woogie

Tokyo Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake

by Edward Seidensticker
Knopf, 362 pp., $24.95

Of all the emotions one might associate with Tokyo, that most modern of cities, nostalgia would not rank high in the minds of most people. Yet that is precisely what many lovers and literary worshipers of Tokyo feel: a poignant sense of what has been lost. The aficionado, wandering through the Tokyo streets, finds his memory jolted with reminders, like pleasant little electric shocks, of what once was and is no more. One such aficionado, the Tokyo correspondent of Le Monde, put it rather well in his distinguished book D’Edo à Tokyo:

Walking through Shinjuku in the company of a friend and initiator, who picks up fragments of his memory, collected in the course of his own wanderings, is to walk in the traces from which emerges a kind of archeology of illusion.1

It is of course the city’s very modernity, the unhinging pace of change that elicits nostalgia; for it is only memories that lend a sense of continuity, of meaning to a place which, without them, would be little more than a kaleidoscopic bazaar of senseless gimmicks, spurring its denizens to buy and sell and live faster, ever faster.

Edward Seidensticker, to my mind the most distinguished living celebrator of Tokyo in the English language, is steeped in nostalgia. His latest account, continuing where the first book, Low City, High City, left off, from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, when much of the city burnt to a crisp, is suffused with the melancholy remembrance of things past. 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, which necessarily precludes enthusiasm for the new. 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.

In his Tokyo elegy Seidensticker follows, sometimes literally, in the footsteps of an author he much admires, and about whom he has written a classic book: Nagai Kafu.2 Kafu (he is always known by his first name) lived from 1879 to 1959, and saw his native city almost completely destroyed twice: during the earthquake in 1923 and again during the firebombings in 1945. He wrote novels, short stories, and discursive essays of varying quality, but he was a master at evoking the changing moods of his city—change wrought by the seasons, but also by the hands of man. The prevailing mood of everything Kafu wrote is nostalgia.

Like all romantics Kafu was an escapist. His entire life can be seen as an escape from the stern, stuffy, eminently respectable world of his father, a businessman and a bureaucrat who embodied the mixture, so typical of his time, of social conservatism and an unshakable faith in Western-style progress. He was the kind of Meiji patriarch who agreed with a famous Kabuki actor of that era that “the theater of recent years has drunk up filth and smelled of the coarse and the mean.” And like the actor he wished “to clean away the decay.”

Kafu did not wish to clean away anything; he wallowed in decay. He disliked progress as much as conventional morality, and from a very early age, he sought refuge precisely in the coarse and the mean, among the actors, comedians, musicians, and prostitutes of the old city, the Shitamachi, or, as Seidensticker translates it, the Low City, to the plebian east of Tokyo, where history cast its longest shadows. Kafu was a rebel, to be sure, but in his loathing of the modern world and his morbid love of decay (when he wasn’t visiting brothels, he was prowling around cemeteries), a rather reactionary rebel. Or perhaps reactionary is not quite the right word; like Seidensticker, he liked to mourn for the past, without really wishing for its revival, for he was always too curious to see what silliness people would come up with next.

As a young man, Kafu spent some years in America, partly in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which was not at all to his taste. He was happiest roaming around the brothels and opium dens of Manhattan’s Chinatown, where his connoisseur’s nose picked up his favorite odor of decadence. Back in bustling, brash, modern, Meiji Japan, he turned his back in disgust on the literary world, with its coteries, its academic positions, its prizes, and spent the rest of his life in the congenial company of geisha, strippers, whores, and a few scattered fellow enthusiasts of the low life, which revolved around such noted red-light districts as the Yoshiwara in the heart of the Low City. In his book on Kafu, half of which is biography and half translation of Kafu’s stories, Seidensticker quotes the following passage, so typical of Kafu’s mood:

There was a sad, plaintive harmony in the life and scenes of the Yoshiwara, like that of Edo plays and ballads. It was not the creation of novelists who put their skills to the uses of their tastes. And it was not limited to the Yoshiwara. In the Tokyo of past days there was a sad harmony in the crowded lowland flats and in the quiet hilly sections, too…. But time passed, and the noise and glare of the frantic modern city destroyed the old harmony. The pace of life changed. I believe that the Edo mood still remained in the Tokyo of thirty years ago. Its last, lingering notes were to be caught in the Yoshiwara.3

This was written in the 1930s. Here is Seidensticker describing exactly the same place more than fifty years later, long after the old houses of pleasure were transformed into gaudy massage parlors, known as Turkish baths (Toruko), until a Turk objected and they were renamed “soaplands.”

One may not come upon much that looks Turkish beside a Yoshiwara street, but the more ornate styles of Europe and the ancient Orient are most of them there, with an occasional touch of Egypt among them. It is all very interesting and amusing, but a result of anti-prostitution has been to make the Yoshiwara slip yet a bit further from the height of other ages. The more dignified houses went away, and the less dignified ones stayed and became less dignified all the time.

What strikes the reader is not just a similarity of taste, that of solitary wanderings through the old quarters of ill repute, but of tone: wry and melancholy. Life is no longer what it was. Of course it never is. Perhaps it is better now that people are more prosperous, own cars and television sets and whatnot. “So it may be argued,” writes Seidensticker.

Yet variety is lost, uniformity prevails, and for some this is a development to be lamented. Certainly a stroll through the Low City of a summer evening is not the fun it once was.

Like Kafu, Seidensticker can be said to have sought a kind of refuge in the back alleys of Tokyo, a refuge, possibly, from the smug, prosperous, progressive America of the Truman and Eisenhower era—a fine time, perhaps, but not congenial, especially outside the largest cities, to those with a romantic temperament and unorthodox tastes. This might explain why Japan after the war proved so alluring to American romantics with a penchant for low life. Like Isherwood’s Berlin or Henry Miller’s Paris, Tokyo offered freedom from the straight and narrow social restraints that prevailed back home. To be sure, such restraints existed for the Japanese themselves, but they were rarely, if ever, applied to foreigners, for foreigners were beyond the pale anyway. Added to this was a glorious lack of sexual guilt, which must have eased the burden of many a visitor from Ohio or Kansas, or, indeed, Western Europe.

The lure of Japan has, over the ages, proved especially irresistible to homosexual men. Truman Capote, during a trip to Tokyo, declared himself to be in heaven. J.R. Ackerley found love there which was more pleasing and certainly safer than his fleeting affairs with sailors and guardsmen in London. Seidensticker describes a quarter in Shinjuku, which used to be a red-light district and is now “the homosexual capital of the nation” and with its hundreds of bars, bathhouses, and short-term hotels, is “in the running for the designation homosexual capital of the world.” Its cosmopolitanism has been somewhat tarnished, however, by the arrival of AIDS, which has prompted many establishments to bar foreigners from their premises. Nevertheless, the romance of guilt-free male bonding, as common today as it was in the samurai past, and the lissome charms of Japanese boys still attract many Western men, who, even after reaching a certain age, continue to find love in Japan.

But such freedom has its price. For the sense of being beyond the pale, of living as a permanent outsider in a provincial and often xenophobic society, can get on one’s nerves. And so the so-called (so-called among fellow stragglers in Tokyo) Seidensticker syndrome is born: the love that can turn to hate and then back to love again at enormous speed. There is a way to short circuit the syndrome, which is to do something akin to Zen meditation, to reach a point of nonthinking, a spiritual mellowness Zen adepts call satori, which is to say a point where nothing matters anymore: I’m OK, you’re OK, everything’s OK. This, to his eternal credit, Seidensticker has always refused to do. In his last column for the newspaper Yomiuri, just before returning to America in 1962, after having spent more than a decade in Japan, he wrote the following:

There we are. I have felt recently that I might be getting mellow, becoming a reasonable meadow mouse. The Japanese are just like other people. They work hard to support their—but no. They are not like other people. They are infinitely more clannish, insular, parochial, and one owes it to one’s self-respect to preserve a feeling of outrage at the insularity. To have a sense of outrage go dull is to lose the will to communicate; and that, I think, is death. So I am going home. 4

If Seidensticker still feels outraged, he has kept such feelings firmly under control in his latest book. There is an edge of tetchiness here and there, but no more than that. If anything, Tokyo Rising is rather a mellow book, which is perhaps a pity. Seidensticker’s style, discursive, descriptive, sadly amused, comes close to a Japanese genre in which Kafu excelled, called zuihitsu, literally “following one’s pen,” but translated by the Kenkyusha Japanese-English dictionary as “stray (=random) notes.” He observes, notes, and shrugs his shoulders as though to say: “Well, such is life in this fleeting world. It’s sad, but what can one do?” This is not always entirely satisfying. Occasionally I wished he would say more, even give full vent to his outrage. But—as he himself might have put it—there it is, he did not. And since most attempts at theorizing about Japan and the Japanese produce nothing but nonsense and hot air, the lack of it is perhaps a blessing.

Certainly, Seidensticker’s notes contain a great deal of insight. He has approached the city in a variety of ways, but two themes stand out: language and popular culture, particularly the culture of sex, and since Tokyo provides or promises to provide so much of it, this is appropriate. The language of Tokyo, expressed in popular songs, in the names of bars, restaurants, in street slang and advertising slogans, is often a mixture of Japanese and English. A superficial observer might conclude from this that Tokyo, and by extension Japan and the Japanese, are hopelessly Americanized. It is hard to measure such things, but this conclusion would be only partly correct at best. As Seidensticker observes: “Among the pleasures of modern Japanese is that its use of one’s own language so often requires explanation.” What, you might well ask, is a “mobo” or a “maihomu papa” or a “nopan kissa“? Well, mobo is an acronym, current in the 1920s, for modern boy, a young man of fashion; a maihomu (my home) papa is a house-proud family man; and a nopan (no pants) kissa is a bar, offering the services of nude waitresses. The English language, used in this Japanized way, is ornamental, expressing a mood of exoticism or modernity. It sounds cosmopolitan, but isn’t. There was a song, popular just after World War II, which perfectly expressed the quasi-comopolitanism of modern, urban Japan. It is entitled “Tokyo Boogie Woogie,” and goes something like this:

Tokyo Boogie Woogie.
Rhythm. Wowie Wowie.
My heart goes pit-a-pat. Tick-a- tack.
A song of the world. A happy song. Tokyo Boogie Woogie.

It might be a song of the world, but only a Japanese could make sense of it, despite the jazzy English phrases. One of the interesting things about Tokyo is that it is at once utterly fashionable, utterly up-to-date, utterly metropolitan, and utterly parochial. Tokyo people like foreign things, or at least things that sound and look foreign, without particularly liking foreign people.

Tanizaki Junichiro caught this idea wonderfully well in his novel Love of a Fool. The two main characters are a man called Joji and a girl called Naomi. Joji is a dull office worker, born in the provinces, and Naomi is a floozy from the Low City, a kind of bitch goddess of Tokyo low life. She adopts every Western fashion: high heels, lipstick, all the newest dances, and the latest hybrid slang. Joji is so besotted with her that he becomes her slave. He is the provincial Japanese in love with the image of the exotic West, as, in a way, is she. But neither, despite all Naomi’s fashionable posturing, is remotely Westernized, in the sense of being a citizen of the world. They are citizens of Tokyo and their feet remain firmly planted in Japanese soil.

Tanizaki often used sex as a metaphor for culture. The clash between Western fashion and Japanese tradition is apparent in many of his great female characters. Seidensticker’s use of sex is somewhat similar. Through his descriptions of brothels, nopan kissa, peep shows, and pornography, one catches, as it were, the spirit of the Japanese metropolis. He has clearly done his homework in this department with the thoroughness of the true enthusiast, and one could not wish for a better guide to the arcana of the wonderful world of Japanese sex.

There is much to be said for this approach: the back alleys rather than the main avenues, low rather than high life, popular rather than highbrow culture. And it is easy to empathize with his preference for the old, messy, increasingly déclassé streets of the Low City, to the ritzy, suburban sprawl to the west of the High City, which is where all the action is nowadays. The center of Tokyo, certainly as far as sex and other pleasures are concerned, has shifted from the east to the west, from Asakusa to Shinjuku, a suburb which was still an outpost one hundred years ago. Shinjuku is now where the high literati and artists gather to seek their pleasures.

Seidensticker is almost as disdainful of these high literati and what he calls “the odorless rarefaction of the High City intellectual world” as Kafu was in his day. They are usually described as “artistic types” or “intellectual and literary people” who “read difficult publications and discuss constitutionalism and such things.” Again, anyone who has busied himself with the frivolous chatter of many Japanese intellectuals, or “intellis” as they call themselves, cannot fail to see some merit in Seidensticker’s disdain.

And yet, nostalgia can sometimes cause one to miss out on what is interesting about the new. One of Seidensticker’s saddest laments is that Tokyo no longer has such writers as Tanizaki, Kafu, or Kawabata to celebrate the city’s moods.

No novel conveys a sense of Shinjuku as a place, no novel is suffused with affection for it. Shinjuku has no regional literature. It may be said that Tokyo has had none since the war.

The implication is that modern, bustling, high-rise, high-tech Tokyo lacks poetry.

I am not sure this is quite true. The great Shinjuku novel is perhaps yet to be written, but, especially in the 1960s, the quarter was celebrated in drama and the movies. It was the center of experimental theater, much of it, as always with experiments, dross, but some of it as good as anything of its kind in the world. Seidensticker does not do justice to the excitement generated in Shinjuku by such playwrights as Terayama Shuji or Kara Juro. The performances by the latter’s troupe are mentioned in one sentence, as being “conspicuous for their lurid colors.”

This is a bit like saying that Fellini’s films are notable chiefly for their odd costumes. Whether or not they were to one’s taste, the films of Oshima (among them, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief) and the plays of Terayama, Kara, Suzuki Tadashi, and others, were as important to the cultural life of Shinjuku as the nopan kissa or the massage parlors. And the underground theater of the 1960s and 1970s was as nostalgic in its luridly colorful way as Seidensticker’s books. Playwrights, poster designers, and novelists showed a particular interest in the 1920s, a relatively liberal period associated with the catch phrase “ero, guro, nansensu (erotic, grotesque, nonsense),” and the immediate postwar years, when most of the artists prominent in the Sixties grew up. They evoked the atmosphere of the postwar ruins and the liberal Twenties in the same way Seidensticker does: through popular music, slogans, slang, movies, and so forth. They, too, had a horror of the homogenized, anonymous, conformist prosperity of the economic miracle. Far better, they seemed to say, to live passionately in the midst of ruins, than boringly in the riches of concrete and glass.

Perhaps,” writes Seidensticker,

what has happened to the High City, now so close to being the whole city, is among the things encompassed by the voguish expression “postmodern.” A city that is urban in the abstract may be what the future holds.

It is an interesting notion: life experienced entirely vicariously through television, advertising, and other mass gimmicks, life without odor, barely human, homogenous and cold as the modern architecture Seidensticker deplores.

Perhaps, indeed. But one of the most remarkable things about Tokyo is the way the Japanese, unlike the inhabitants of many Western cities, have managed to make the machine age more human. Television, instead of being a sinister flickering presence behind closed curtains on deserted city streets, has been dragged out into the open. It is everywhere, not only in shop windows, but on giant screens looming over the crowds, in taxis, on trains, in coffee shops, and in restaurants. The same is true of music, blaring forth constantly, from every corner, Mozart mixed with “Tokyo Boogie Woogie.” It is as though Japanese can only enjoy themselves in crowds, with everything going on full blast. The effect is not restful, to be sure. It is cacophonous, relentless, often aggravating, but it is not inhuman, and it contains a peculiar kind of poetry, for which at some future date, when the city has been transformed yet again, some writer will feel the deepest nostalgia. One may only hope that he or she will express it with the wit and style of a Kafu, or a Seidensticker.

  1. 1

    Philippe Pons, D’Edo à Tokyo: Memoires et modernités (Gallimard, 1988), p. 349.

  2. 2

    Edward Seidensticker, Kafu the Scribbler: The Life and Writings of Nagai Kafu, 1879–1959 (Stanford University Press, 1965).

  3. 3

    Kafu the Scribbler, p. 144.

  4. 4

    Reprinted in Edward Seidensticker, This Country, Japan (Kodansha, 1979), pp. 331–332.

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