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Book Club > 1/20 Low City High City

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message 1: by Bill (new)

Bill Johnston | 755 comments This is our thread for Edward Seidensticker's Low City High City. You may also own it as Tokyo from Edo to Showa. We'll be reading all of High City Low City, which is the first half of Tokyo from Edo to Showa. Low City High City ends with the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923; quite a low point for the city, but quite a transition as almost the entirety of the city was leveled and burned and they had to start over from scratch.

Sorry about the delay. I was stuck in the middle of another slow-moving history book. I will be starting Low City High City now.


message 2: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 1283 comments Thanks, Bill. I’m probably still ten days from starting this but am looking forward to it and seeing everyone’s thoughts along the way.


message 3: by Alan (last edited Feb 01, 2020 06:36AM) (new)

Alan If I join in, it will be next month. Life is simply too busy right now, much as I would like to. But I look forward to reading all the comments and will hope to come to this asap.


message 4: by Aleksandra (new)

Aleksandra (asamonek) | 45 comments I am in! Perhaps it would make sense to have the discussion proceed (more or less) chapter by chapter?


message 5: by Alan (last edited Jan 18, 2020 04:24AM) (new)

Alan Well, somehow I seem to have acquired this, so I will join in once I get going!


message 6: by Bill (new)

Bill Johnston | 755 comments Normally a history book would proceed well chapter-by-chapter, but this one doesn't seem to proceed very chronologically.

Chapter 1 is short, and is the an emotional appeal to the loss of the Low City and its crammed in mass of tradesmen and merchants, a class that never really recovered from the great earthquake in 1923 (or so the author seems to be saying). Then it goes into the transition from Tokugawa to Meiji rule.

Chapter 2 is less focused. It doesn't stick to the earlier part of the period the book covers, or even to one particular topic. Transportation, art, fires and floods are topics covered here. I'm still working my way through chapter 2.

Seidensticker writes well but in places the minutiae still leaves it some of the dryness of a history book. It really could stand to be better organized, either thematically or chronologically or both.


message 7: by Bill (new)

Bill Johnston | 755 comments This book is helping already. I started reading Tokyo Ueno Station yesterday, and I'm better able to place events in the book to the geography of the city.

In my edition, there is a significant error in the first map: Akasaka and Asakusa are reversed. Asakusa should be in the NE, between the castle and Yoshiwara. (Dang but those names can be easily confused when not written in kanji!)


message 8: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 1283 comments Bill wrote: "This book is helping already. I started reading Tokyo Ueno Station yesterday, and I'm better able to place events in the book to the geography of the city.

In my edition, there is ..."


Really, though, as someone who will treat maps of this sort as gospel, wouldn't you have thought they'd have corrected it by now? I bought this new. *grumble grumble*

Thanks for the heads-up. Now I have to decide whether to correct my copy in pencil or know that 6 months from now I"ll recall, "bill said something was wrong with this map but I don't remember what...."


message 9: by Alan (new)

Alan I've just had a look at the map and then poked about on the Internet. The archives online for Hong Kong Uni have the same map, with the same mistake, so I'm presuming the book isn't the mistake, it's in the original map. What I don't see in the book is any citation for the map source - unless I'm missing something.

What also didn't help me was that in the first map, north is north. But in the second map, north is east, so you have to turn it 90 degrees. And then all the print is at the wrong angle, so you have to turn it back to read... Aargh!

I haven't started reading yet and I'm already irritated lol.


message 10: by Bill (new)

Bill Johnston | 755 comments Chapter 3 is called "The Double Life". It refers to Japanese people trying to be both 'Japanese' and 'Western'. The second they were eager to do, to demonstrate their civilization and enlightenment and equality with the west, but were limited by their means. The first they were at times ashamed of publicly, but engaged in in private or if they were conservative, and women were more constricted in how much westernization they could adopt.

Hopefully he can stay on topic in this chapter. There's a lot to say about that topic during the Meiji and Taisho periods.


message 11: by Bill (new)

Bill Johnston | 755 comments Chapter 3 does better at sticking to its topic than chapters 1 and 2 did, but wanders off topic near the end.

Chapter 4 is about the primary entertainments of the city and how they transformed from Edo to Tokyo, and stays on topic through the whole chapter. Perhaps Seidensticker is getting better as the book goes along!

Still, it reads like a huge bucket of miscellaneous facts is being poured over you, to see what sticks.


message 12: by Aleksandra (new)

Aleksandra (asamonek) | 45 comments Bill wrote: "Chapter 3 does better at sticking to its topic than chapters 1 and 2 did, but wanders off topic near the end.

Chapter 4 is about the primary entertainments of the city and how they transformed fro..."


I read the first two chapters. What a funny exercise it is to read all this without walking around Tokyo... So far, the book is a lovingly presented rant composed of seemingly random musings, but I think it would make much more sense with some visual reference. I wish this book was made into an online course (like those in the Visualizing Japan series at edX).

However, I have to say that after reading the author's introduction and knowing his earlier work, all is forgiven. Throughout the two chapters I was still able to appreciate Seidensticker's fondness of the city and also his compassion towards people occurring in the stories. I am really glad someone recommended this book!

By the way, I found this video about Seidensticker and some of his work. It's unrelated (or is it?), but perhaps someone may find it interesting?
Here it comes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xWdNM...


message 13: by Ian (new)

Ian Josh | 271 comments I’m still a bit behind on this, but hope to devote a little time to knocking off a few chapters soon:

Just a note on the writer.

I assume some of you remember reading The Great Passage, translated by JW Carpenter, and JWC is one of Seidensticker’s pupils from his days at Michigan State.

The little I’ve heard her speak of him, she and others all see him as one of the leaders of the initial postwar growth of translating literature and the culture of Japan.

My only other anecdote on ES is that in the Tanizaki museum there is a huge blowup of him and ES and a few others taken as Tanizaki was getting quite old. If any of you have read Tanizaki’s later books, many of
Them with a slightly (or more so) prevented old man as the main character, I always think that ES chose to visit Tanizaki to really get the best idea on how to write such a character...maybe by speaking to him... maybe by just watching him...


message 14: by Bill (new)

Bill Johnston | 755 comments Chapter 5 takes us on a tour of the wards in Meiji Tokyo, telling us what there is of note in each ward and the commonly perceived purpose of each and who lives there.

I think it's one of the better chapters. It stays on topic and gives us a panoramic view of how various areas developed. It describes how the High City became more important and expanded westwards, while the Low City lost the cultural significance it had in the Edo period. ES may prefer the Low City, but he recognizes why and how the High City 'won'.


message 15: by Bill (new)

Bill Johnston | 755 comments Don't give up, folks! It gets a bit better as it goes along!

Though I have to admit that the book I started last night (Architecture of Minoan Crete) is more rationally organized, and I'm enjoying it more than Low City High City because it better meets my expectations for a history book.


message 16: by Alan (last edited Feb 01, 2020 07:29AM) (new)

Alan Finally got started on this - well, just. So far the Preface and chapter 1.

Now, much as I like a meandering book, much like the other comments above I find this already a little all over the place, but I'm happy to go with the flow. I think the Preface is important, because it pretty much shot to pieces my expectations of this as a 'history' book: 'The subject here is the changing city', he writes, and then talks about 'the story of currents that have flowed in upon the city'. I get the feeling that if I hold on to this metaphor it will help with the shifting back and forward of time and subject. Rather than a straight this happened, and then this happened, kind of thing.

Useful it is, though, and even now I have a much clearer picture in my mind of the layout of Edo and the low/high contrast. It reminded me very much of London, say, in the 16th century, with the divide between the north and south of the Thames (the 'unlicensed' Southwark outwith the control of the city authorities, and hence the number of playhouses). Or Edinburgh and the development of the New Town in contrast to the crowded, squalid and jam-packed Old Town. In fact, probably every major city had/has this divide - which somehow makes Tokyo a little less unfamiliar, and a little more understandable.

Guided by Bill's encouragement, I shall try and get through another couple of chapters in the next few days!


message 17: by Alan (new)

Alan Chapter 2 (Civilization and Enlightenment) deals a lot with the infrastructure of developing Edo into Tokyo: buildings, waterways, rail system, rebuilding after fires, defining the wards , etc.

Chapter 3 (The Double Life), as Bill noted above, deals - at least for the most part - with the tension between traditional Japanese culture and a developing Westernization.

Chapter 3 in particular is a bit, again as Bill notes, throw everything and see what sticks. In the space of 2 pages, for example, he covers traffic, beer, house numbering, tree planting, ice cream and lemonade, artificial limbs and fashion. Really, it's exhausting, and I don't get a sense of links between one subject and the next.

Overall, what I'm getting from this is an impression, a general sense of a developing city. It seems like the kind of thing to go back to for the occasional detail. And what it lacks, for me, is it being properly set out against the wider historical context. Yes, he mentions the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, but only in passing. I think this is a result of the structure, darting back and forward in time, leaping from one subject to another.

Phew! Ever onwards...


message 18: by Alan (new)

Alan Finished this morning. Had to wait until p.283 out of 286 for the most fun fact:
'In aristocratic mansions where the latrines were segregated by sex, male sewage was more highly valued than female.'
Who knew?!?

Overall, I enjoyed this. But it's a book to return to as and when I (finally) get to visit Japan. I can imagine me dipping in and out of relevant sections as I wander around the city - more a historical guide book. For now, sitting in an armchair thousands of miles away, it's just a never-ending stream of fact after fact...

It also feels a little dated. Published in 1983, the 60 year gap back to when the book ends means it is now 37 years old. Indeed, he refers to the 'current emperor', meaning Hirohito. His opinions, when they surface, seem to reflect a different age as well.

I'm glad to have read it, but I'm not sure I could face the second part any time soon!


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