Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Tokyo - 1932 and 2012"

In reading an old article about Japan entitled "Tokyo To-Day" (by William R. Castle, Jr. - Under Secretary of State, formerly American Ambassador to Japan) in the February 1932 edition of National Geographic, I found it interesting how some things were basically unchanged between 1932 Japan and 2012 Japan, and other things quite different.  Aside from the progression of modern architecture and technology though, I'd say things haven't really changed all that much culturally.  Let's take a look at some quotes from the 1932 article and see how they compare to 2012.

Re: "To-day Tokyo is a city of broad streets, of many splendid buildings, of spacious parks.  For the tourist it has lost much of its charm; but, after all, it belongs to the Japanese, not to the tourist."

In 1932, Tokyo was remarkable for the number of modern office buildings it had - signaling a departure from centuries of tradition.  At this point, Tokyo is awash in high-rise buildings, and what is surprising to a resident of this mega-city, isn't that there are many modern new buildings, but rather that any old structures remain at all!  And as for the comment "... it belongs to the Japanese, not to the tourist", this is true enough, although many locals these days would also like to see a little more of some historical aspects of the city being preserved, rather than systematically razing everything to the ground in a fever of endless construction.

Re: "Except for the huge, gaudy advertisements everywhere, there is not as much color in the modern streets as one who has received presents of gay kimonos bought in shops run strictly for tourists might expect.  Little girls, as I said, wear the most brilliant colors, but the street costumes of all others are restrained in the extreme.  The men's clothes are always somber."

Certainly this applies for winter, although less so for summer.  I've fallen into this habit myself - wearing basically dark clothing most of the time in the winter (which is the typical winter attire here).  For summer, people wear light-colored shirts and visible ties (as opposed to ties buried under a sweater), but still avoid overly bright colors.  If everyone wore bright colors, it wouldn't be any big deal, but when most people are wearing predominantly dark colors, if you do go out into that backdrop in very brightly colored clothing, you then really stand out!

Re: "A good-natured crowd, each unit a little inclined to ignore the existence of other units, but rather through self-absorption than because of rudeness.  I never saw an instance of conscious rudeness in the streets of Tokyo.  One goes to the Ginza again and again, partly because it is the place one naturally goes to buy anything, from fruit to a Mikimoto pearl or an umbrella; but principally, I think, because it is a wonderful place to get a cross-section of the life of the city."

This is an important observation.  While people here, as anywhere, have their likes and dislikes regarding other people, on the whole, people place civilized behavior in public above personal feelings, and the inclination to "ignore the existence of other units" as Castle puts it, makes it possible to enjoy oneself with friends, etc. out in crowded spaces.  Where there is space to spare, you can go and find a private spot to spend time with friends, but when there is very little private space, "ignoring the existence" of people nearby actually works really well - once you're used to it.  (Lest the concept be misunderstood:  It goes both ways.  When you are quietly sitting somewhere and there is a noisy group nearby, you let them be noisy, and when you are part of a noisy group, you don't worry overly much about your surroundings as people leave the group alone.  Over time, it's basically a give and take arrangement.)

Re: "The earthquake made Tokyo realize, as never before, the value of parks, not only for beauty, health, and recreation purposes, but as places of refuge for fleeing crowds and as obstructions to sweeping conflagrations.  Since 1923, therefore, plans were made for three large new parks and some 50 smaller ones."

This is referring to the great 1923 earthquake (about the same strength as the 2011 quake), which destroyed much of Tokyo and Yokohama.  I hadn't realized that many parks came about as a result of that.  I wonder which parks the planned "three large new parks" are.

Re: "You walk along the straight, dusty street which leads into the Yokohama boulevard.  You see modern buildings and modern shops; the street cars make just the same unpleasant squeaking that they make in Boston or New York and look just about the same.  The Orient, always except for the people, seems pushed far into the background; and then you come to Shiba Park, walk through the great gates and pass under the shade of ancient trees into the group of temples, shrines of some of the Tokugawa shoguns."

This has fundamentally changed, as "the Orient" is more well-known for steel and glass towers now than the old wooden buildings the area used to be known for, but there are still a few areas in Tokyo where you can do a slight time-slip maneuver and slide into what feels like a different era.  But those areas are fewer and fewer as Tokyo's habit of relentless destruction of nearly everything in the pursuit of endless new construction has resulted in there being very few old things and areas remaining.

As for street cars, they were mostly eradicated.  There is one that runs exclusively on its own right-of-way (thus making it a train more than a "street car", since it doesn't run in the street), and one that only has one small section where it actually runs in the street.  The formerly vast street car system of Tokyo was replaced with subway trains and standard surface street buses.

Re: "And then the movies are just as crowded as the theaters.  There is a movie industry in Japan, but this does not detract from the popularity of the Hollywood productions.  Talking pictures were hard to deal with at first, but now a solemn individual sits at the side of the picture and translates, apparently to the satisfaction of the audience, as the play progresses.  The translator's endeavors to keep up are more interesting to the foreigner than are some of the plays."

I hadn't thought of this before, but with silent movies, you could just insert new frames between the scenes with whatever language you liked, but once a sound track was added, apparently they didn't initially have a way to overlay text on top of the picture.  It's hard to imagine someone sitting by the screen doing simultaneous translations throughout the movie though!  That would be a difficult job I imagine!  I wonder if they tried to say each line right after the actor said it, or to say it (with a script) at the same time?  I tried Googling for something related to this, but didn't find anything.  If someone knows about this bit of history, I'd be interested hearing more about it.

Re: "These great papers are thoroughly up-to-date.  They have regular airplane services of their own to carry pictures from Osaka to Tokyo, and transmission of pictures by wireless or by wire is as much used as in the United States.  Moreover, the papers carry on large humanitarian work in the maintenance of hospitals or welfare enterprises."

A couple of things caught my attention here.  First, that newspapers had their own aircraft back then for carrying pictures from one area of the country to another.  And the "transmission of pictures by wireless or by wire" part!  I hadn't realized that fax machine technology was already in regular use in 1932.  According to Wikipedia:

"Scottish inventor Alexander Bain worked on chemical mechanical fax type devices and in 1846 was able to reproduce graphic signs in laboratory experiments."

1846!  Wow!  And the article goes on to say that commercial telefax came about before the invention of the telephone!  I had thought that telephones preceded telefax machines.

Re: "Tokyo is full of cafes, always crowded, modeled somewhat on the cafes of Paris.  In former days people gave geisha parties, those rather solemn affairs at which geisha's danced their symbolic dances.  They were very expensive, and those who could not afford the expense contented themselves with picnics.  Now the cafes are crowded, their principal patrons being, perhaps, the 'mobos' and the 'mogas'.  (The Japanese, more than any other nation, love to abbreviate, and 'mobo' is the abbreviation for modern boy, and 'moga' is the abbreviation for modern girl.  Indeed, these mobos and mogas, dressed almost always in European clothes and trying to adopt the freedom of European manners, are about the most modern aspect of Tokyo.)"

Well here's something that hasn't changed!  The terms "mobo" and "moga" aren't used any longer, but the statement "The Japanese, more than any other nation, love to abbreviate" may actually be true.  If not "more than any other nation", then certainly "one of the top abbreviation-loving nations"!

Re: "So far as ideas are concerned, Kipling was wrong in saying that the West and the East could not meet.  In Tokyo the West has met the East, and out of the meeting is growing a new kind of civilization, in which the ideals of the two hemispheres are fusing."

Indeed!  In 1932 it was more Japan changing with things imported from the West, but in 2012, there has been a lot of influence in both directions.  The two certainly do meet.  Completely mesh?  Obviously not, but a lot has been learned on both sides, and there is much to be learned on both sides still.

One of the things that's interesting to me about this 1932 article, is that it shows the level of western-inspired change before WW-II, in contrast with some people's idea that Japan's westernization began after the war.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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