This is the second time I have to give notice of a prior interest in this author, Peter Popham. The first was when I reviewed his book on Aung San Suu Kyi, The Lady and the Peacock, in 2013. I shared an apartment with Peter and two others in Bristol, UK, in the 1970s, and I subsequently updated his Traveler’s Japan Companion in 1999.
Tokyo: the City at the End of the World was originally published in 1985 by Kodansha. That copyright has now lapsed and Taiwan’s Camphor Press has just re-issued it, with a new preface, and an introduction by the architecture writer Deyan Sudjic.
Popham’s opening chapter is a catalog of horrors, of what can happen, and has happened, to modern cities. For Tokyo there was the last really major earthquake in 1923 (140,000 dead), then the fire-bombing by the Americans in 1945 (100,000 dead), with the wartime bombing of Osaka just to fill in the details. A group of professors researching the effects of any new mega-earthquake, says Popham, try their best not to be alarmist, but they can hardly avoid being alarming
If the citizens of Tokyo don’t, on the surface, appear unduly alarmed by a future major earthquake, it isn’t because they know it might happen, like a future nuclear war, but because they know that it will happen, and they can do nothing about it.
But there’s another way of looking at it. Popham was undoubtedly very happy during the 10 years he spent living in Japan, and his second chapter shows how charming Tokyo can be, “a city of decadent beauty, at the far edge of ecological exhaustion.”
This is actually about Los Angeles in the 1982 film Blade Runner but Popham says it could be about Tokyo. He describes the city’s side-streets as being as lively and idiosyncratic as Penny Lane.
He introduces us to department stores (depato) that are the biggest in the world, and residential areas that are not so much in a place as a distance from another place. Capsule hotels he calls “modified shipping containers.”
“Tokyo has one-eighth of the parkland per capita of New York,” he writes, “and one-fourteenth of London, but a crime rate that is only a fraction of that of either city.”
Succinct encapsulations like these are typical of this book.
Popham’s interest in buildings is to the fore everywhere, but no more so than in a chapter on Japan’s third biggest landowner, Taikichiro Mori (he even interviews the great man, surrounded by his cohorts and minders), preceded by remarks on the country’s “new religions” such as Soka Gakkai because, like Mori, they have risen from almost nothing in the post-World War II era. The book, by the way, in addition to its spectacular cover, is illustrated by numerous black-and-white photos, mainly of architecture.
But Popham’s eloquence really does apply even to buildings.
“That most venerable Japanese magic trick, in frequent use since at least the eighth century, by which they solemnly and meticulously copy some product of another culture and wind up with something unmistakably Japanese, is at work again.”
So he writes about the skyscrapers of West Shinjuku, in an earlier stage of its development “like the stage set for some vast avant-garde production of Greek tragedy.” And Shinjuku Station, Japan’s biggest, is at night “home to hundreds of bums, place of assignation of scores of assorted fiends and deviants, yet neither sinister nor dangerous: only impossible.”
And what about the night pleasure area of Kabuki-cho? What indeed. But you’ll have to read Popham to find out about it — its Ichibankan building, for instance, with its 49 bars. As for East Shinjuku, that had its day back in the 1960s with, as Popham puts it, the era’s drugs, free love and artistic movements. In 1985 it still had a bookshop that hadn’t changed much since Nagisa Oshima made his Diary of a Shinjuku Thief film here in 1969.
Then there’s a chapter about love hotels, with the extraordinary statistic that 55 million patrons visit Tokyo’s every year. (As its population was 28 million in 1985, this must refer to the number of visits, with the same people going there again and again). But many married couples do use them, apparently because in the normal Japanese house they don’t have a private bedroom as such, just a room where they live during the day and sleep with their children at night. Love hotels, incidentally, date only from 1964, the year of Tokyo’s, and Asia’s, first ever Olympics.
More architecture follows. To Popham modernistic towers, even sky-scrapers, can be “venerable,” “articulate,” “undeniably charming,” even “deeply romantic.”
One photo, captioned The National Theater, could, I thought, have been a garage (Popham admits it’s “dumb”). But then there are the “pop architects” who put up frivolous, deliberately temporary structures reminiscent of Spain or Greece. The tiny worlds they create are fun, even silly, but they contrast with the megastructures in a way that’s clearly satirical.
In his introduction Sudjic notes that whereas in 1985 Tokyo could indeed be seen as a city at the end of the world, today it’s much closer to its center. He describes the book as “a revealing and engrossing portrait that says a lot, not just about Tokyo, but about the nature of all cities.”
I was sorry when I’d finished this book. Popham can make even the ground-floor plan of an office bloc interesting. A really good book is one written by someone whose company you enjoy. This one certainly falls into that category, so much so that I wish I’d had longer and deeper conversations with Peter when I had the chance.
I think anyone would consider this an extremely good book. There isn’t a dull sentence in it, and even its chapter headings are memorable. Architecture can be fun, Popham shows, and somewhere writes. As for the book’s style, I was frequently reminded of Jan Morris. Now, 36 years after its original publication, it reads quite simply like a classic.
TOKYO: The City at the End of the World
By Peter Popham
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