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.

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. 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 …

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