A sort-of book review: “Tokyo in Transit” by Alisa Freedman

Calling this a “sort-of” book review because I’m mainly highlighting the topics and themes that jumped out at me the most about the eminently informative book, Tokyo in Transit: Japanese Culture on the Rails and Road (2010), by Alisa Freedman, Professor, Japanese Literature, Cultural Studies, and Gender at the University of Oregon. A summary of the book from the author’s profile page:

“Using an approach that crosses the fields of history, literature, and cultural studies, this book explores the ways mass transportation changed Tokyo’s social fabric, giving rise to gender roles that have come to represent modern Japan. The world’s largest transport system, Tokyo trains and buses are social and cultural spaces different from other metropolitan commuter networks and provide a more distilled means of observing the effects of urbanization than other public places afford.”

Overall, Tokyo in Transit is a very worthwhile read. I provide one word of caution: like most books written by academics (as opposed to “popular” historians), the book can occasionally read like an academic text rather than a popular history (which the book’s title might suggest). For instance, the author seeks to support an overarching thesis related to how the “male gaze” has shaped the ridership experience and the transportation system itself. This is an interesting exploration but in some instances can feel a little heavy-handed.

(From the book: 1924 cartoon by Ippei Okamoto depicting a female bus conductor harassed by riders.)

With no further ado, here are some of the highlights that struck me as I read the book:

Prostitution on trains

“In June 1908, the presence of high-class prostitutes soliciting on trains was reported in newspapers…They were most often seen during the spring of the year and were said to be most prevalent on the Sotobori line. In general, it was reported, between nine and ten o’clock at night they would ride through all of its station stops, pretending to be absorbed in reading a newspaper. However, when the opportunity arose, they were said to attract men, primarily bankers and Chinese exchange students.” – page 63

How to cough, and other etiquette

Then, as in now, Tokyo trains are famous for their teaching of etiquette.

“the January 3, 1920, Asahi newspaper reported that the municipal streetcar executives, with the support of the Tokyo municipal police, prohibited passengers from coughing without covering their mouths to prevent the spread of colds. Illustrated guides to etiquette for short commutes and long-distance train travel were published for youth in the Taisho period…One of the twenty films produced by the Ministry of Education in 1925, the charming 1925 Public Manners: Tokyo Sightseeing 『公衆作法 東京見物』…was an instructional guide to proper behavior in urban places.”

Page 66 (kanji title added by The Tokyo Files)

The following film, noted as being from 1926, appears to be the same film as mentioned above.

Page 91: reference to the Kyushu-to-Tokyo train journey undertaken by the title character in Natsume Sōseki.s novel, Sanshirō 三四郎.

Train-related suicides

This section reminded me of a conversation I had with some JR East employees at the top of Mt. Fuji. I don’t recall the specific statistics they shared with me, but I just remember being shocked by the frequency with which people use the train system to commit suicide. However, in the early 20th century there was a short period of time where train-related suicides were dramatically more common.

“In 1907, the year [Sanshiro] was written, out of a total 9,180 reported suicides, 1,001 were committed with the help of a speeding train…these deaths in 1907 and 1908 marks a fad. As a comparison, the 228 cases acknowledged by JR East in 1998 (the first year in modern Japanese history that reported suicides nationwide topped 30,000) was a record number for the company in recent history.” – pages 108-109

Emergence of Shinjuku Station

Shinjuku’s role as a transit hub grew dramatically in the 1920s (along with Tokyo’s growth in general), which is described though much of the middle-section of the book.

Oki Atsuo 大木惇夫

Quotes from a work by Oki Atsuo 大木惇夫 / 大木篤夫 (1895-1977), a poet, translator, and lyricist. The poem, “Yamanote no Ginza” 山の手銀座, was published in the September 1929 issue of Bungaku Jidai 文學時代 (Literary Age) (1929-1932). (See National Diet Library for more editions of this publication.)

Traladeda traladeda tralalon.

This is Shinjuku, Yamanote’s Ginza.

The glimmer of the bright lights — What fun!

For new love, the speed is fast.

Meet at the station for a date.

Just say you’re going to Musashino Cinema,

But go straight to the hotel.

(From what I can tell this not the same publication as the similarly titled 文藝時代(1924-1927), which was founded by Nobel-prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata 川端康成.)

Urban gaze

Page 123 delves into the act of observing the city and creating works to reflect what is seen, through photographs, sketches, or other means. References to: New Edition of the Guide to Greater Tokyo 新版大東京案内 (1929), by Kon Wajiro 今和次郎. The following image from that work is from “Collections of the Present in the 20th Century and Beyond: Tokyo’s Fieldwork and Guidebooks as Curatorial Practices,” from the European Journal of Creative Practices in Cities and Landscapes (CPCL):

See also: Urban Survey and Planning in Twentieth-Century Japan: Wajiro Kon’s “Modernology” and Its Descendants (Journal of Urban History)

A Page of Madness (1926)

On page 125, a reference to the 1926 silent film, A Page of Madness 狂った一頁, the only film made by the Neo-Perceptionist Motion Picture Society (Shinkankakuha 新感覚派, or 新感覺派). (With original story by Kawabata.)

The Landscape of Modern Mobility

On page 127, description of “The Landscape of Modern Mobility”, published in the 1929 issue of Shincho. The collection of five urban sketches includes:

  • “One Yen Taxi Girl” (Entaku garu) 円卓ガール, by Hayashi Fusao
  • “Diary of a Dancer on the Chase” by Kuno Toyohiko 久野豊彦 (1896–1971)
  • “Mannequin Girl Sketch” マネキン・ガール点描, by Rokuro Asahara 浅原六朗
  • “A Steak Girl’s Record Book” by Yasunari Kawabata

The item that stuck out at me here was the term “steak girl” and, to a lesser extent, “one Yen taxi girl.” As noted here,

“More like bars than coffee houses, cafés were staffed with young women, who waited on male customers and made income from tips. ‘Steak girl’ was a humorous derivation of the slang ‘stick girl’; perhaps more in fiction than in reality, both kinds of women were paid the approximate price of a beefsteak to accompany a man on a stroll through the Ginza neighborhood as a fashionable accessory or ‘walking stick’. ‘Mannequin girls’ were similar to contemporary fashion models, but they stood still in shop windows, attracting the attention of passers-by. A one-yen taxi (entaku) service began in Tokyo in 1927. As reflected by the name, a passenger could travel anywhere in the Tokyo metropolitan area for one yen. A female assistant often accompanied the driver.”

See also: Deja vu as Shukan Shincho turns back the clock (The Japan Times, 2016)

Impressions of Tokyo (1914)

A book of woodblock prints and prose by Honma Kunio 本間国生 titled Impressions of Tokyo東京の印象』(1914). (See link for full text.)

War Trains

Page 135-136 describes “Under Tokyo’s Roof: Investigations”, published in the 1932 issue of Kaizo 改造 (“Reconstruction”), a magazine whose topics included labor and social problems.

“These six sketches, illustrated with photographs, are set in and around Shinjuku. They are replete with images of laborers, including the “late-night salaried classes” (shin’ya kinro kaikyu), and of the impending war…The authors use highly emotional sensory language and vivid juxtapositions to convey their belief that Japan is entering a new phase of its modernization, and that militarization is becoming another spectacle of the cityscape. The view of war they present is ambivalent. For example, in “Battle Cry of the Night,” a roaring midnight “war train” of Japanese soldiers screams like a demon with emotion and excitement as it passes through stations in the Shinjuku ward…”

Smells of Shinjuku

Page 137 notes that “Shinjuku Station was associated with night soil carts,” and that comics “describing the smells of Tokyo’s then fifteen different wards appeared in the 1909 issue of Tokyo Puck; Shinjuku Station is depicted as reeking of both fine clothes and horse manure.”

Catalysts of change

Tokyo historians (including amateurs like myself) often refer to events as happening before or after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. It is undeniable that the earthquake’s devastation was the direct cause of massive redevelopment. But, as noted on page 140, Tokyo’s rapid development in the early 20th century did not begin with the earthquake.

“In a 1929 essay titled “Today’s Tokyo” (Ima no Tokyo), Kon Wajiro states that rather than the 1923 earthquake, the 1914 opening of Tokyo Station had been the symbolic turning point in Tokyo’s maturation into a modern metropolis, for several important social and spatial changes had occurred in the fifteen years since.”

Train electrification

Pages 140-141 add an important point: “Before the electrification of train lines, even the important stations had to be marginalized in the outskirts due to the air and noise pollution caused by steam locomotives. By the mid-1920s, most of Tokyo’s inner-city lines were using cleaner electric trains.”

Message boards 伝言板

This next item is maybe the most interesting thing in the book about old transit culture in Tokyo:

“In Shinjuku Station there was also a large chalkboard, on which people could leave messages to friends or dates – a sight that came to represent Shinjuku Station and the changing gender relationships it epitomized.” – pages 142-143

An example message noted by a reported in the Asahi: “‘To Matsumoto: Well, I will be waiting in England. Murayama.” The journalist assumes that England was the name of a Shinjuku cafe.” (Page 149)

For example, here’s a message board In Shibuya Station circa 1956 (source):

Transit-oriented shopping and entertainment

Pages 144-145 describe the integration of large department stores with train stations, noting that “Keio Paradise” in Shinjuku was the first “‘terminal department store'” in Japan.

Also of note on page 145 is that Tokyo’s first neon sign was Musashino Cinema (Shinjuku Musashino-kan), built in 1926. (According to another source, the original Mushashino was built in 1920 and moved to the new location in 1928; either way, it is important to the history of Japanese movie-going. In 1929 it became the first permanent theater in Japan to show ‘talkies’.) Photos of the Musashino Theater from 1936 and from 1947:

Also a reference to the 1927 Kinokuniya bookstore:

Shinjuku and romantic encounters

Starting on page 145, the impact of Tokyo (in general) and Shinjuku (in particular) on romantic relationships is discussed.

“[Journalist] Nii Itaru explained…it was especially easy to meet a romantic partner in Shinjuku: “If a man leaves home alone, he will not end up going where he had planned. A single man may meet someone on the train – if not, on the platform when he gets off at Shinjuku Station.”

“The association between Shinjuku and sex was further revealed by the opening of the opulent, three-story Shinjuku Hotel in 1926. With eighty rooms equipped with baths for the very high cost of two to six yen a night, this establishment catered to couples and became known as Tokyo’s first “love hotel.'”

Also amusing is a description of the Fashionable Dates – Rendezvous Guide (1935), written by journalist Ogawa Takeshi, who “roamed Tokyo and observed the behavior of young couples, whom he presumed to be unmarried…Ogawa offers Tokyo couples advice on how best to use twelve of the most popular city train stations…Ogawa describes more than thirty sample dating courses, using different literary forms…along with cartoons, charts, and graphs:

There’s more to the book but maybe I’ll include that in a subsequent post…


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