by Roderick Conway Morris

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Ashmolean Museum, Oxford/Ushio and Noriko Shinohara
Doll Festival by Shinohara Ushio, 1966

The Blossoming of Tokyo

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 2 October 2021


When in 1721 the first census was taken Edo, the forerunner of modern Tokyo, had a population of 1.3 million, making it the largest city in the world. Despite a litany of catastrophic earthquakes, floods, fires and bombing raids the Greater Tokyo area has grown to over 37 million inhabitants, making it the largest conurbation on earth.

A little over four hundred years ago Edo was a mere fishing village at the mouth of the Sumida River of a remote bay. Its original name meant 'estuary', which became the title of a local clan and the samurai and poet Ota Dakon built a castle there in 1457. In 1590 the warlord Togugawa Ieyasu made it his headquarters.

Having overcome all his rivals, bringing to an end over a century of civil wars, Ieyasu became the first Togugawa Shogun (military dictator) in 1603. Edo's geographical position at the centre of Honshu, Japan's main island, made it ideal to command the whole country. Meanwhile, the now powerless emperor continued to reside in Kyoto, three hundred miles away to the west.

The Shogun officially designated Edo as his capital, rebuilt Edo Castle, excavated a network of canals connected to the Sumida River and reclaimed land for residential districts. To give this upstart new town pedigree, Ieyasu and his successors even constructed replicas of Kyoto's famous features, such as lakes, hills and temples, including a scaled down version of one of the old capital's most magnificent Buddhist shrines.

However, it was not long before Edo began to produce a distinctive culture of its own and forms of art that celebrated the vibrant life of this bustling city, a phenomenon that has continued to this day. The story of this fascinating metropolis is now told with impressive style and expertise in 'Tokyo: Art & Photography', curated by Lena Fritsch and Clare Pollard at the Ashmolean Museum. They are also the editors of an attractive, extensively illustrated book of the same title.

To maintain their grip on this large and populous land, the Shoguns developed a novel system for keeping the country's over 250 daimyo, or regional lords, under control by obliging them to reside in Edo in rotation with their samurai retinues for a full year, leaving their wives and families in Edo as virtual hostages when they returned home to the provinces. This practice of sankin kotai, or alternative attendance, was formalized by the third Togukawa Shogun Iemitsu in 1635.

While the samurai classes in Edo were encouraged to cultivate, alongside the arts of war, such aristocratic pastimes as poetry, calligraphy, painting, the No theatre and the tea ceremony, a burgeoning merchant class grew up to provide other forms of entertainment, such as public tea houses, taverns, restaurants, kabuki theatres and brothels.

The first Yoshiwara red light district was established in 1617 to control prostitution, but the quarter quickly developed into a centre for all kinds of diversions, where the samurai and common classes could mix on more or less equal terms. Indeed, the 'alternative attendance' system made Edo a place where people from all over Japan came together and the means by which the products of Edo's innovative artistic culture became familiar throughout Japan.

One of Edo's most popular artistic manifestations were the woodblock prints. At first most were pin-ups of beautiful women, prominent courtesans and kabuki actors. But over time these ukiyo-e, or pictures of 'the floating world', of the Yoshiwara pleasure district expanded to take in other areas of Edo and the countryside and famous sights beyond.

From the 1740s onwards ukiyo-e printers perfected techniques of using several successive blocks to make ever more sophisticated multi-colour prints. Towards the end of the century, Hokusai emerged as the first great master of landscape prints, whose numerous images, such as his 'Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji', 'Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces' and 'Unusual Views of Japan's Famous Bridges', won him enduring fame.

Hiroshige was born in 1797, when Hokusai was already in his late thirties, and his Illustrated 'Souvenirs of Edo' would eventually run to ten volumes. Hiroshige retained undimmed his energy and powers right up to his death in 1858. And his 'One Hundred Views of Edo', printed between 1856-58, with its 120 sheets was the largest ukiyo-e series ever executed.

Tokyo, enjoys the doubtful distinction of having been regularly devastated more often than any other city in the world. The Great Ansei Earthquake in 1855 killed 10,000 and seriously damaged the Yoshiwara pleasure district. In 1910, the Great Sumida Flood inundated most of the downtown area and displaced over a million people. In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake left 140,000 dead, 400,000 buildings destroyed and 1.5 million homeless. And the American firebombing of the city in March 1945, killed over 80,000, levelled over 15 square miles of central Tokyo and once again left 1.5 million homeless.

Cherry blossom has been both a symbol of the transience of beauty and life itself but also of re-birth in Japan since ancient times. But given Tokyo's history, it is not surprising that it has a particular resonance here. Numerous woodblock prints recorded dramatic scenes during and after The Great Ansei Earthquake in 1855. But Hiroshige preferred to celebrate the resurgence of the city the following spring with his tranquil image of the 'Suijin Shrine and Masaki on the Sumida River' for his 'One Hundred Views of Edo', by framing it with cherry tree branches in blossom.

In the late 1890s Toyohara Chikanobu gave the immensely popular festive tradition of hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, a new twist by depicting elegant beauties dressed in kimonos viewing them illuminated by the newly installed gas lamp posts in Ueno Park (still one of the most popular venues for hanami).

The contemporary artist Aida Makoto adds another spin in his collage of a cherry tree 'Uguisudani-zu' of 1990, where the blossoms are composed of hundreds of cards advertizing call girls, collected from phone booths in this well-known modern sex district of the work's title, evoking in an ironic way the old symbolism of the impermanence of beauty and the fleeting nature of earthly pleasures.

Cherry blossom is central to the oeuvre of the renowned woman photographer Ninagawa Mika, whose studio is close to the Meguro River, another favourite Tokyo spot for hanami. In 2017, Mika took 1,800 shots over two to three days of the blossoms on the trees lining the river's banks and floating in the water. She has also the author an enchanting immersive installation created for the exhibition by lining the entrance corridor's walls, floor and ceiling with her images of blossoms.

In 1868 the Meiji Emperor was restored to power. He moved to Edo from Kyoto, Edo Castle became the Imperial Palace and the city's name was changed to Tokyo (Eastern Capital). The Emperor instituted a programme of extraordinarily rapid programme of westernization. The introduction of modern printing techniques, including lithography and photography, seemed to threaten the very existence of traditional Japanese woodblock printing.

However, in the second decade of the 20th century a vigorous revival took place. Two principal schools emerged: the New Print Movement that advocated traditional methods, with artists producing designs and highly skilled craftsmen still cutting the blocks, and the Creative Print Movement, whose practitioners followed hands-on western artists in the entire production process.

In the wake of the Great Kanto Earthquake, eight leading Creative Print artists contributed a dozen prints each to an ambitious collection celebrating city's regeneration entitled 'One Hundred Views of New Tokyo', which included images of underground stations, a baseball stadium and factories.

Following the devastation of the World War II, in 1945 nine Creative Print artists nostalgically recorded 15 former landmarks in 'Scenes of Last Tokyo', including Tokyo Station. A number of other artists successfully synthesized Japanese and western styles, such as the painter and illustrator Suguira Hisui, the in-house designer for the Mitsukoshi department store, which itself had managed to transform itself from a venerable kimono shop into a modern store modelled on Harrods, but also staged excellent art exhibitions and published magazines devoted to the arts.

During the post-war period, Japan came to dominate the camera market through the first-class products of the likes of Canon, Fuji, Nikon, Olympia, Pentax and Sony. And it is above all the prolific work of Tokyo's art photographers that nowadays projects the image of the city around the world.

These images could become historical records of thousands of people and places overnight. For the Japanese capital remains the city most at risk from major earthquakes. The people of Tokyo, as the artist Machida Kumi has observed: 'live with a subconscious awareness that a disaster could happen and destroy the city at any time. Tokyo has a powerful engine that just doesn't stop. Whatever happens, the city gets rebuilt again and again'.

Tokyo: Art and Photography; Ashmolean, Oxford; 29 July - 3 January 2021

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023