1930s Tokyo

@Tokyorich posted a link to some amazing color footage of Tokyo from the 1930s. The film shows several of Tokyo's downtown districts such as Ginza, Marunouchi, and Asakusa. There was a lot of western and western-inspired architecture in the first two areas (Asakusa was and still is a more traditional entertainment district) at one time before earthquakes, bombings, industrialization and modernization replaced the landscape with today's dense modern buildings. The footage also features Frank Lloyd Wright's imperial hotel in it's original location where it continued to be used until the 60s, after famously withstanding the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 (although the building was in fact damaged). After it closed in the 60's it was dismantled and the main entrance hall was reconstructed in an open air architectural museum in Nagoya where you can still see it today:

Japanese comments on the Youtube video of the old film show an extreme nostalgia for this "high class" (jyouhin or 上品) city whose modern equivalent is no match in terms of beauty, vision, and culture. Several comments nationalistically blame the American bombing for ruining the city, and it is hard not to sympathize. However this was also the seat of imperial power and the politicization of the urban spaces is striking, with imperial flags fluttering from the European inspired architecture of Ginza and Marunouchi. You get an uncomfortable mixed sensation of the immense freedom and social change of the turn of the century modernizations, and at the same time the impending imperial grasp on the populace. This is the city where Natsume Soseki had lived and written his novels only a few decades prior. Despite the nostalgic yearnings of the modern youtube audience, this was not a time without troubles, and Soseki had been the first to criticize both what he saw as a simplistic mimicking of western culture as well as Japan's rapid industrialization and the toll he saw it taking on society. The nation's imperialization and the spectre of extreme nationalism was also a target of carefully nuanced criticism from authors of the time. And yet comparing this footage to the modern city, there is a definite nostalgia for an urban setting that was in a way more coherent and personal, a place where humanity could be seen in full bloom.

My friend Luke writes via Facebook:
"My old office is in Nihonbashi, near the original Takashimaya department store. There were a few shots in the clips above of people walking on a sidewalk I used to take everyday. (I recognize the glass in the pavement and wall of the store.) There's another showing Takashimaya surrounded by bombed out lots--not even buildings remain. I thought... how many stories have been lived out on that corner, me completely ignorant of nearly all of them when I was there. So weird to see a city you know bombed out--washed out too, I suppose." 
Finally, here is a BBC documentary in 4 parts featuring more color photographs and film of pre-war Japan taken by western photographers, youtube user "Misaganokuni" writes:
"I was really impressed by this film. Many Japanese people still regard Japan before WWII as the country which was very poor and nations were suffering from poverty. But the truth may be completely different from what we were told. I felt that the people in those days were much more happier than people who live in the present society. Their innocent smiles have surely changed my view points toward Japanese. I really want to say thank you to all the staff who created this film." 


  1. I am sure I don't know the whole story, but when I was younger I read every book I could get my hands on about WWII. The Japanese military was horrifyingly brutal and vicious to everyone they got their hands on. Even though I lament the crushing blows we delivered to their homeland I can completely understand the feeling that it had to be done.

  2. I just wanted to say that your blog has been really useful.