This just in from full-time Japonologist and part-time dandy Leopold Adelgonde Hauspie III, of Belgium. Please forgive Leopold for any minor grammatical errors and/or infelicitous phrasing. His mother tongues are Dutch, French and German.
Writer Tanizaki Jun’ichirō 谷崎潤一郎 (1886-1965) opened his essay Tōkyō o omou 東京をおもふ (‘On Tokyo’, 1934) with an account of his thoughts and sentiments at the time the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 struck his city of birth, Tokyo.
Dissatisfied with the sluggishness of the capital’s modernization, he considered the earthquake as an ideal opportunity to speed up the urban development and make of Tokyo a modern metropolis that could stand comparison with the leading cities of the West. Subsequently the city, at least to a certain extent, did go through the rapid modernization/Westernization that Tanizaki had desired, but ironically, by the time he wrote On Tokyo eleven years later, he had come to dislike the West and felt more attracted now to Japan’s traditional culture. To his regret, the Nihonbashi of his childhood had been swallowed up completely by the overwhelming dynamics of the post-Earthquake urban development that governed the west-bank Shitamachi, which had been designated to become the city’s commercial center. But while Tokyo’s metamorphosis was taking place, Tanizaki had found a new home in the Kansai region, where he still found the traces of the old Japan that were eradicated in his home city.
Through Tanizaki’s personal account of various experiences, preferences and viewpoints concerning Tokyo, we can also discern the contours of another story: that of the changing power balance between the lowlands of the Shitamachi, that until the earthquake had been the repository of the old plebeian culture of Edo, and the hilly Yamanote and western suburbs, that ceaselessly welcomed newcomers from the country and stood at the vanguard of Japan’s modernization. As the Yamanote inhabitants since the Meiji Restauration (1868) had held the power over not only Tokyo, but even Japan, this balance was one that tilted over unstoppably to one side, causing a steady decline of Shitamachi’s culture. Tanizaki nevertheless portrayed the Shitamachikko as extremely proud people who, despite their lack of actual power, had always disdained the ‘country bumpkins’ of the Yamanote, considering themselves to be the only real Edokko and the preservers of the cultural legacy of Edo. But after the earthquake the pride and superciliousness of the Shitamachi folk suffered a devastating blow when what was called the ‘Zonal Urban Planning Map of Tokyo’ redrew the city’s outlines and reshaped the better part of their Shitamachi into a commercial district, thereby crossing out their living space. As Tanizaki saw how his relatives and friends had been driven out of Nihonbashi to the suburbs and beyond, and how the Shitamachi locale had lost nearly all of its familiar Edoesque characteristics, he no longer considered it as his home and disliked it just as much as he had done for opposite reasons in his younger years of adulation of the West.
In this paper I would like to analyze Tanizaki’s views on pre- and post-Earthquake Tokyo with reference to a number of critical texts. First I will consider Tanizaki’s conceptions on the overall conditions of Tokyo’s, and especially Shitamachi’s, urban space before the Great Kantō Earthquake struck. Next I will make a brief sketch of the possibilities Tanizaki believed the earthquake would open for the development of a new, modern urban landscape. Finally I would like to have a look at Tanizaki’s description of the consequences the earthquake and its subsequent urban developments would have for the people of the Shitamachi, and also consider briefly the influence the earthquake had on Tanizaki’s own life.Pre-Earthquake Tokyo
Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, who is best known by the average Japanese for his historical novels and his treatment of Japanese tradition, was actually much attracted to modern and Western things in his early years as a writer – his appreciation of the culture of the old Japan became manifest only some time after his move to the Kansai region in 1923. Such a heightened interest in the Occident, a thing usually associated with the highbrow society of the Yamanote, was not a matter of course for a young man with Tanizaki’s background. Born in 1886 in Nihonbashi, the heart of Tokyo’s Shitamachi, he grew up in virtually the most Edoesque atmosphere imaginable at the time.
In Yōshō jidai 幼少時代 (‘Childhood Years’, 1956), his reminiscences of his childhood that he published at the advanced age of seventy, we find a host of information on what kind of place the Shitamachi must have been in the days when Tanizaki was a boy. Just like in Edo, most of Tanizaki’s neighborhood seems to have been comprised of unvaried low, wooden merchant houses and mud-walled storehouses, with relatively little eye-catching architecture. A maze of narrow back alleys combined with street illumination’s still being scarce made it a dark and somewhat threatening place at night for a little boy. But even more than its outward appearance, it was its plebeian culture that made the Shitamachi what it was. Since olden times, the merchants and artisans of the Shitamachi had been known for their pleasure-seeking attitude rather than for their industriousness, and pleasure quarters and kabuki theater had been an essential part of Shitamachi’s society. When he was barely four years old, Tanizaki’s mother began taking him with her to the kabuki theater. These visits made a deep impression on the young Tanizaki and would even influence his future literary work. Licentiousness too was never far away, as just beyond his house of birth stood a row of dubious archery stalls that served as a cover for prostitution. But as the profane in Shitamachi so often went hand in hand with the sacred, temples and shrines were well represented in the neighborhood as well – though even in these sanctuaries it was not always clear which of the two qualities prevailed. Tanizaki reports that in the Suitengū and Myōtoku Shrines at times quite sanguinary performances of chaban kyōgen 茶番狂言plays and kagura 神楽 dances took place monthly. Still many other particulars suggest that the Shitamachi of the time stood far away from the ‘civilization and enlightenment’ (bunmei kaika 文明開化) mania that held much of the nation in its grip. Old customs like ohaguro 鉄漿, the blackening of teeth, which had long since disappeared everywhere else, persisted amidst the married women of Nihonbashi, and many people were still superstitious enough to be terrified of foxes in human guise.
A lot of the above described practices and settings had declined or even disappeared by the time Tanizaki became an adult man, but even more of them still remained. Tanizaki, however, did not rejoice in their survival. On the contrary, when shortly after the start of his literary career he became madly infatuated with the West, his old-fashioned, utterly Japanese surroundings naturally came to annoy him. In On Tokyo he recalls that upon seeing Western cities in movies, he bemoaned “the misfortune of having been born in this remote corner of the Orient.” (1934, p.9) He wanted Tokyo to become a modern, fashionable metropolis that could stand comparison with the greatest cities of Europe and America, and this could not happen fast enough. In his eyes Tokyo’s modernization proceeded far too sluggishly.
In fact, from the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912) until the time that the Great Kantō Earthquake struck Tokyo in 1923, the city’s development on the whole could perhaps be called a rather slow and gradual process. As Jinnai Hidenobu (1995, pp.4-6) indicates, new, Western elements were introduced into the urban space mainly in the form of individual buildings on single lots, and except for a few rare cases, Western-style large-scale urban planning that created whole rows of buildings or reshaped entire districts where not to be seen. Those experiments with Western architecture moreover were carried out almost exclusively on state properties or premises of the great financial combines, without significantly affecting the lives of ordinary people. As an illustration of how incongruous with its environment Western architecture could be, there is a description in Tanizaki’s Childhood Years of the Shibusawa mansion in Kabutochō, Nihonbashi:[O]n a promontory in the river, converging exactly with the stone embankment, the Gothic-style palace with its Venetian columns and corridors stood facing the water. Who was it that had come up with the idea of building this sort of exotic mansion of classical taste in the middle of mid-Meiji Tokyo? The opposite banks of Koamichō were lined with the endless white walls of warehouses, and you only had to go one step beyond the promontory to see the Edobashi and Nihonbashi Bridges before you – this patch of land alone had the un-Japanese air of a Western scenic lithograph. (1956, p.80)
Isoda Kōichi (1978, pp.11-12) demonstrates with a map of Tokyo’s urban planning of November 1921 that the city planning on the verge of the earthquake was still largely limited to the improvement of roads and modifications of waterways, and made no radical changes into Tokyo’s existing urban framework. Not that road improvement was a superfluous luxury, as Tanizaki’s comments about the ‘underdeveloped state’ of the capital of the late teens make clear:However favorable one’s attitude toward Tokyo, it is unlikely that anyone in the days of prosperity during and right after the [First] World War would have thought of the imperial capital as a magnificent “metropolis”. Newspapers were unanimous in their attack on the traffic disorder and defective roads of “our Tokyo”. I remember well how fully I agreed when a magazine – I believe it was The Japan Advertiser – in an editorial severely flayed Tokyo’s unsightliness, arguing that politicians should better get rid of the capital’s mud and provide roads where automobiles can pass even when it rains, than tossing big words like ‘social measures’ and ‘labor issues’ all the time. From the mouths of both Japanese and foreigners could be heard the reproach that “Tokyo is not a city, but a big village, or a collection of villages.” (1934, p.6)
He found this underdeveloped ‘muddy village’ moreover unspeakably tedious and was craving for modern, Western-style amusements. On strolls in Ginza or Asakusa, he writes: “thoughts of casinos, cabarets and dance halls used to fill my head, but realizing nothing like this existed in this city, it struck me even more intensely than usual: Ah, what a bore Tokyo is!” (1934, p.9) Notorious hedonist as Tanizaki was, he wanted of Tokyo nothing less than to become a trendsetting city of entertainment where the nightlife never ends.
The slowness of Tokyo’s modernization was, however, not the only thorn in the flesh for Tanizaki – the fact that the city had become too crowded and chaotic he found not any less displeasing. In those days, as we learn from his account, Tokyo’s roads were perpetually congested and trains were already stuffed as full as they are now. This chaotic state of Tokyo’s transportation network, Tanizaki said, was caused by the enormous immigration of people from the country that went with the economic prosperity of the late teens. “Tokyo had no time to respond to this all too sudden rise of the population and expansion of the suburbs,” he explains. “Without leaving any time to prepare facilities as surfaced roads or decent apartments, automobiles were imported in rapid succession and cheap, jerry-built rental houses mushroomed in the suburbs.” (1934, p.7)
The pre-Earthquake expansion of the suburbs Tanizaki mentions occurred almost exclusively in western direction. In Shitamachi districts like Kanda and Nihonbashi there was no notable increase of population; within the traditional city boundaries, there was a certain rise in Koishikawa; but the overwhelming population increase took place in the west in the areas then called Toyotama-gun and Kitatoshima-gun (Isoda 1978, p.46). As the city had started nearly from scratch, it had of course known an inflow of people from the country from its earliest beginnings in the Edo period (1603-1867). Naturally, this had always caused for a certain amount of friction with the population that was already settled there. The proud Edokko of the Shitamachi disdained the ‘country bumpkins’ who entered their city, and even as these ‘provincials’ came to hold power since the Meiji period, their pride and defiance did not wane. A good example of the superciliousness of the Shitamachi folk is Tanizaki’s father’s attitude toward the Yamanote influence on ‘their’ Tokyo dialect:[W]hen he heard about my novel Otsuya-goroshi, he said: “There’s no way an Edokko would say Otsuya-goroshi; koroshi is what we say!” My father also hated it when people used modish words like murasaki for soy sauce, or oshinko for okō-pickles. “Don’t say murasaki, but shitaji,” he would say. “Murasaki’s what the country bumpkins call it.” Often such things would bother him, but I can imagine that in the eyes of Edokko of my father’s age it must have been exactly that aspect of the recent Tokyoites that reeked of provincialism. (1934, p.59)
In his youth Tanizaki Jun’ichirō possessed this proud Edokko attitude no less than his father. He recounts how in junior high school he and his friends would swear to each other never to let their future wives be called okusan, the term of address for married women that was used by Yamanote inhabitants and that was by then becoming the standard term. They despised the Yamanote language and called it uncouth, provincial and pretentious. (1934, p.71) Tanizaki’s feeling of superiority had not diminished a bit by the time he moved into the dormitory of the First Higher School at the age of twenty-two, as we learn from the accounts of some of his fellow dormitory residents. They portray him as an outrageously arrogant person who constantly boasts of his Edo pedigree and torments those boys who are so unfortunate to come from the country. To their exasperation he unsparingly poured scorn on their behavior, speech and facial appearance, and teasingly mimicked their ‘funny’ accent at every word they said. (Nomura 1972, pp.92-93)
Fortunately for him and those around him, by the time he had started his career as a writer and became fascinated by the West, Tanizaki had largely abandoned this foolish juvenile hubris. It is nevertheless a good example of how extreme the pride of the Shitamachikko even in the final years of Meiji could be. As Seidensticker (1983) noted more than once, by the end of the Meiji period the wealth as well as the self-contained culture of the Shitamachi had already declined to no small degree, but all this had surprisingly little effect on the notorious ‘Shitamachi pride’. As we will see later, this would change after the Great Kantō Earthquake.
Eventually Tokyo’s above mentioned chaos, overcrowding and backwardness caused Tanizaki to turn his back on the city. In 1919 he moved to Odawara, after which he would never live in his home city again. From 1921 on he went to live in Yokohama, the most Westernized urban area in Japan at the time. About his thoroughly Occidental dwelling and lifestyle there he writes: “[I]n those days I lived in the foreigners area of Yamate in a house which, except for the maids chamber, had not one room with tatami mats; I kept a Western cook, and did not put off my shoes once in a whole day.” (1934, pp.23-24) Whilst he was leading this exceedingly Western-style life, even taking lessons in English conversation, the guitar and social dance, unexpectedly the Great Kantō Earthquake hit the Tokyo-Yokohama region.The Great Kantō Earthquake as an opportunity for change
When the earthquake struck on the first of September, 1923, Tanizaki Jun’ichirō himself was staying in the Hakone region to escape the summer heat, but his wife and daughter had returned a few days earlier to Yokohama for the start of the new school semester. The first thing that occupied Tanizaki’s mind naturally was the safety of his family, but almost simultaneously a more pleasant thought came up as well, as he became aware of the opportunities a devastating earthquake could bring for Tokyo’s modernization:Tokyo’s facelift, the emergence of a melting pot of all sorts of modern temptations, all these things of which I had given up the idea of ever seeing them while I was alive, would be made possible by this earthquake. A process of forty, fifty years would be reduced to ten. My imaginings were no longer mere air castles. (1934, p.15)
Though slightly lighter than Tanizaki had guessed from out there in Hakone, the damage that the earthquake and the following fires brought upon Tokyo was nevertheless severe. Seidensticker (1983, p.4-6) estimated that about a hundred thousand people had died. While large parts of the Yamanote were spared, most of the Shitamachi went up in flames. From its ashes, Tanizaki pictured, would rise:
Orderly roads and new, shiny pavements; a flood of automobiles; building blocks of a geometrical beauty towering high in countless stories; elevated railroads that thread their way in between them; subway lines and streetcars; nights as bright as day and full of excitement; and recreational facilities just like those in Paris or New York. And that is when Tokyo’s citizens will live in a purely Western style and all young people, men and women alike, will wear Western clothing. (1934, pp.13-14)
More than likely there is some element of fiction or hyperbole in Tanizaki’s evocation of his ‘visions’, not in the least because he wrote them down more than a decade later, but it was a fact all the same that as much of the city was leveled by the earthquake, great possibilities presented itself for a kind of large-scale urban development Japan hitherto had never seen. Through a new style of city planning, Jinnai (1995, p.6) says, modernization this time “made itself felt in the everyday urban spaces surrounding people’s actual lives.” Avenues, plazas, parks – all kinds of stylish modern urban spaces that aimed at beauty and comfort as well as function were created throughout Tokyo, making of it to some extent the modern metropolis that Tanizaki had envisaged. But another design that exercised a deep and permanent influence upon the configuration of the city as a whole would not be so beneficial for all the Tokyoites. As Isoda Kōichi (1978, p.12) noted, the ‘Zonal Urban Planning Map of Tokyo’ (Tōkyō toshi keikaku chiiki zu 東京都市計画地域図) that was issued in January 1925 would change Tokyo’s destiny for good.The sacrifice of Tokyo’s Shitamachi
As gradual as the urban development before the earthquake had been, so radical the design of this ‘Zonal Urban Planning Map of Tokyo’ was. It divided the city into three major sections: the western part of Tokyo was declared a residential zone, the center would be a commercial zone, and the east was to become an industrial zone. “When one considers,” Isoda (1978, p.12) says, “that Shōwa Tokyo modernized by expanding to the west, one understands that the countrymen who – as newcomers in the capital – stood at the vanguard of Japan’s modernization, settling mainly in the western districts of Setagaya and Suginami, achieved this modernization by sealing away in the industrial zone the ‘Asakusa-zoku’ Mori Mari spoke about.”
According to Isoda, the Shitamachi was marginalized in order that the Yamanote and the western suburbs should thrive. However – was it inconvenient for his theory? – Isoda downplays the fact that not all of the Shitamachi was turned into an industrial belt. On the contrary, if one takes a closer look at the 1925 map, one notices that Kyōbashi, Nihonbashi, Kanda, and even the above-mentioned Asakusa were actually designated to become Tokyo’s commercial center; Shitaya was positioned into the residential zone; and Honjo and Fukagawa, the two former wards that did end up in the industrial zone, were still allocated a residential strip of land on the banks of the Sumida River. As a matter of fact, as the vital commercial center of the city, west-bank Shitamachi got perhaps most attention of all as far as the creation of ‘stylish modern urban spaces’ goes. This is how Tanizaki described the area after the reconstruction:The appearance of the neighborhoods from Marunouchi to Ginza, Kyōbashi and Nihonbashi has literally changed unrecognizably. When I ride the train from Shinagawa through Shinbashi into the Central Station and gaze at the scenery along the railroad, I cannot believe that this is where the lonely meadows where I used to spend hours and hours playing in my childhood had once stretched out. People returning from abroad say that the splendor of today’s Tokyo is nothing less than that of the leading cities of the West. Even the cityscape I had dreamed of in my younger years after seeing Western movies was not as magnificent as this. (1934, p.19)
Isoda’s statements on Shitamachi’s marginalization are nevertheless valid, for as the Shitamachi became a prodigious modern space for commerce, there was no more room for its plebeian tradition, and it became unsuitable as a living space. The few traces of Edo that the earthquake had left untouched were wiped away meticulously by the zoning map. As an ‘urban space’ Shitamachi was not exactly marginalized – in fact, one might argue that it was upgraded – but its people and their culture were marginalized as their cramped backstreets and tarnished wooden houses got swallowed up in the tremendous dynamics of the urban development, leaving them no place to live. Tanizaki felt this keenly, for all the Nihonbashikko he was close with had left the neighborhood after the earthquake, and the dearest house of his childhood was lost:Tokyo’s Shitamachi I knew so well has completely returned to ashes, and now that even its street logic has changed, I no longer feel any connection to it, except for the fact maybe that I was born there. The location of the house in Kayabachō where I lived from my sixth to tenth year now lies in the middle of the avenue that runs from the Chiyoda Bridge to Eitai. Most of my relatives and old friends have been impoverished; they dispersed and withdrew to the outskirts of the city, some even moving as far away as Korea. Nihonbashi is no longer my home. (1934, p.26)
The emigration from the Shitamachi to the Yamanote and the newly developed suburbs was, as Seidensticker (1983, pp.85-86) remarked, a process that had been going on since long before the earthquake, but earlier it had been almost exclusively affluent merchants and people like writers and artists that relocated. The former primarily moved to hilly regions like Azabu to take up more spacious and comfortable dwellings, while the latter gathered in northern parts of the Yamanote, like Hongō, that had become intellectual and artistic centers. This was no doubt disastrous for the Shitamachi’s cultural and artistic dynamism, as it almost literally ran out of fuel, but the smaller merchants and artisans could still more or less go on with their trade as before. The earthquake and its subsequent urban developments would make even this problematic for many. Hit worst of all among the ‘old-timers’ of the Shitamachi populace were Tanizaki’s Nihonbashikko. The following quotation is a rather long one, but it gives such an evocative and poignant description of – one would almost say – the diaspora of the Nihonbashikko, that it is worthwhile citing entirely:I guess a number of such old-timers still linger about in Honjo, Fukagawa and Asakusa, since even now, after the earthquake, relatively many small houses survive out there. But the most tragic fate of all befell the Nihonbashikko. Lying within the reach of Kyōbashi, Ginza and Marunouchi, the traces of their houses ended up being entombed under huge building blocks, and the existence of the little alleys where they used to abide is no longer tolerated. When I take a walk in [Osaka neighborhoods like] Senba or Shimanouchi, and come across homes with snug latticework and long-established shops with plastered, old-fashioned walls, they remind me of the appearance of the old Nihonbashi and the homes of my elementary school friends. Except for my friend of the Kairakuen, none of them still lives in the same place as then. The Tanizaki main and branch families too, which used to be located in Kayabachō, Horiechō and Suginomori, all within a radius of five, six hundred meters from Kakigarachō, moved to those suburbs I previously called “colder than Hokkaidō”, or even further, to Korea and Brazil. With some of them I lost all contact after my aunts and uncles died, and I don’t have the slightest clue where they could be now. Think of it, the Nihonbashikko have had a hell of a time. When you stand in the middle of Shōwa Street or Ichiba Street and gaze at those impressive avenues around you, you sense the evanescence of human life just as well as the writer of the Hōjōki. (1934, pp.47-48)
No wonder that when the Shitamachikko, on top of the prolonged demise of their cultural legacy, were even taken away their living space, their pride should suffer. Tanizaki confides to us that when he returned to Tokyo on occasions like the death anniversaries of relatives and friends and met again the old-timers of Nihonbashi, he was always overcome with sadness at the sight of their wretched and dejected state. They were now living in suburban towns with unfamiliar names, and were clearly impoverished. “Back in the old days,” Tanizaki relates, “their eyes used to sparkle, their voices were strong and their expressions lively, but now only their Shitamachi dialect is inaptly energetic, while their appearance is pale and miserable.” (1934, p.50) Seeing how poorly they are dressed, Tanizaki goes on lamenting: “The pride of the Tokyoites has vanished in the course of their struggles with the hardships of life, and together with the lost traces of the old Nihonbashi, it has completely sunk into oblivion.” (1934, p.50)
Tanizaki’s own fate after the earthquake would be very different from that of the ordinary Shitamachikko. Immediately after the catastrophe, he sought refuge in the Kansai region of Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe. He first considered this as a temporary measure and planned to return to the Kantō as soon as Tokyo or Yokohama would be sufficiently reconstructed, but unexpectedly even for himself, he ended up staying there. After residing a month or two in temple domains in Kyoto, he went to live in Kobe, then and now the most Westernized city of the Kansai region. For a while he would keep on attending dance parties with the acquaintances from the Yokohama bluff that had fled to Kobe as well, and he continued enjoying all the Western-style amusements of his Yokohama days. But despite the fact that the people from Tokyo and Yokohama one by one returned to the Kantō, for reasons only known to him, Tanizaki would remain. (Nomura 1972, pp.271-86; 1973, pp.70-73)
It would take yet another four or five years, though, before he was completely ‘cured’ from his blind adulation of the West. Slowly but gradually he became interested in the traditional culture of the Kansai, and before he knew it, he had lost his heart to it. Tokyo had modernized more or less conformably with his earlier taste, but he did no longer care:Truly, not a thing in this world turns out as we expect, but most difficult of all to foresee is oneself. … This me, who does not know if he should be sad or happy when he sees how much the imperial capital has changed today; this me, who at some point while Tokyo was Westernizing had come to dislike the West; this me, who instead of looking forward to the Tokyo of the future, longs to the Tokyo of his childhood. (1934, p.23)
Unfortunately, the Tokyo of his childhood was no longer. Almost symbolically, his most treasured house of his boyhood, which he called the locus of his childhood memories, was buried somewhere under the immense crossing of Eitai Street and Shin’ōhashi Street. Just like the unfortunate Shitamachikko depicted above, he had lost his home and had left the Shitamachi, but the crucial difference with them was that his had been a deliberate move. And as he had found a new ‘home’ elsewhere, his pride and self-esteem remained unimpaired. After a while his taste for the ripe culture of the Kansai became reflected in his so-called traditional novels, which would be counted among his finest works. The years shortly before his relocation to the Kansai had in fact meant a bit of slump in his literary career, but once he became firmly rooted into the soil of his newly acquired home, he gained new vigor as an author, and his name would become immortal. All this, however, might have never occurred if there had not been the earthquake to forcibly drive him into the arms of the Kansai.Conclusion
In this paper I have focused on Tanizaki’s predominantly negative comments, as seen in On Tokyo, on the state of the capital’s pre- and post-Earthquake urban space and the conditions of Shitamachi’s culture and populace. But actually, in his essay Tanizaki not only talked about Tokyo’s being not Western enough in his West-loving period or its being too Western in his Japan-loving period, he also complained about more general and permanent aspects of the city and its people’s character. He fervently railed against a host of things, from the unappetizing food and the harsh climate to the lack of nice seasonal viewing spots and tourist attractions. He went so far as to call Tokyo nothing more than a gateway to the inhospitable, somewhat backward and gloomy Tōhoku region. His most fierce criticism of all was reserved for the ‘shacks’ of Tokyo’s western suburbs, which he considered to be the embodiment of ugliness and poor construction. The antithesis of this barren and uncultivated Tokyo, then, was the Kansai region, where suburban houses were firm and fine tourist attractions ubiquitous, where the weather was mild and the food delicious.
Reading On Tokyo one would almost believe that Tanizaki detested Tokyo from the moment he was born. But, of course, with Tanizaki one should be careful not to take everything at face value. Even in his zuihitsu 随筆 (miscellaneous essays), Tanizaki employed many elements of fiction, or at least exaggeration and hyperbole. Famous is the anecdote of an architect who had read the essay In’ei raisan 陰翳礼讃 (‘In praise of shadows’, 1933-34), in which Tanizaki lauds the aesthetic qualities of the shadowy houses of the past. Confidently the architect said that he knew exactly what kind of house Tanizaki desired, upon which Tanizaki is said to have groaned: “Oh no, I could never live in a house like that!” Especially as he wrote On Tokyo while residing in the Kansai and at the peak of his so-called ‘traditional period’, we should beware of overstatements and assume that he wrote from an intentionally radical literary stance.
In fact, Tanizaki’s preferences and opinions were often subtler than one would think at first sight. His lavish use of hyperbolic language invites people to believe that he was an exceedingly capricious man running from one extreme to another, but reality was not always so. In an essay of 1932, for example, he stated that he already had antiquarian tastes and a wish to live in Kyoto once in his life from the beginning of his literary career – something that seems highly incompatible with both the ultra-supercilious Edokko and the ardent admirer of the West. Conversely, even in his supposedly intense traditional-Japan-orientated period, he still read and even translated Western novels. As a matter of fact, Tanizaki gives a conspicuous wink to the reader toward the end of On Tokyo, insinuating that perhaps much of what he said should be taken with a pinch of salt:Though fearful of earning the resentment of the people of my home city, I have been so free to do quite a bit of mudslinging. Probably even friends of me must have been outraged when they read this. But since we, Tokyoites, all share the propensity to lose ourselves and say slanderous things we do not mean, I guess there also must have been people who just laughed it away, thinking: “There goes Tanizaki again.” (1934, p.70)
That he deplored the reality of the demise of his childhood Shitamachi is doubtlessly true, though – the opposite would be inhuman. The fact that at the ripe age of seventy he devoted a whole year of his life to record the memories of the years he spent in it as a boy should be evidence enough of how important the Shitamachi had been to him. “When I think of it,” he said in 1955, “for the work I have produced until now as a writer, I have depended more on the environment of my childhood than I ever could have imagined.” (1955, p.401) Still in this same short essay he wrote two full decades after the somewhat cantankerous tenor of On Tokyo, he defines himself as “a child of a merchant, born in Tokyo’s Shitamachi of the 1880s and brought up in the various cultural traditions, manners and mores of the Tokyo of the time, who later became a writer with all this as his base.” (1955, p.402)