Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I'm delighted to be with you today. Professor Itoda introduced me as a young man. (Laughter.) As a young man, therefore, but more importantly as a good friend, please forgive me if I am a little straightforward in my comments today.
And since I am English, let me begin by apologizing. I am a historian of modern Japan, but I do not know as much about Asakusa as I should. There are perhaps a couple of reasons for this. And both require apologies…
First, I am a historian rather than a Japanologist. By this I mean that Japan seems interesting to me not on its own terms, but rather as a place with which we can think about how the world got to be the way it is. Because of this, in the past, I have been less interested in those places that seem very 'Japanese' than in those sites that seem to have been more involved in the process of modernization. But as Professor Itoda has noted, few places are as fertile as Asakusa for understanding not only the progress but the contradictions of modernity, the dark as well as the light.
Second, my current research has not allowed me to spend as much time in Asakusa as I would have liked. I am now completing a long-term project on exhibitions, from the end of the Edo period to the present day. This has brought me closer to Asakusa, but not quite close enough. After all, exhibitions have been devoted more often than not to the present and future, consigning traditional places like Asakusa to the past. They have left the depths of the old, low city for the modern heights of Ueno and Senri Hills.
But modern exhibitions have much in common with early modern Asakusa. It is obvious how both combine 'high' ideals (the worship of Kannon, a survey of progress) with 'lower' entertainment (plays, peep shows, native villages, amusement parks). Less obvious, but perhaps more interesting, is the way in which both Asakusa and exhibitions relate to the geography and political economy of the city. And here is where I think I may be able to contribute to this project.
Even in English, we now know quite a lot about Asakusa. Let me borrow shamelessly from previous scholars in rehearsing briefly what we do know.
In the early modern period, thanks to Jinnai Hidenobu, we know a lot about Asakusa's place in the geography of Edo. And thanks to Nam-lin Hur, at the University of British Columbia, we know a lot about the relationship between prayer and play in Asakusa itself.
Nor was Asakusa's position quickly threatened, as city and country swept into the modern era. Asakusa was the epicentre of interwar popular culture. It was Asakusa, rather than the newer centres of Ginza or Shibuya, that attracted Kawabata's attention with its Ero Guro Nansensu.
But what happened next? Forgive me if the following sounds a little critical. I would like to quote a few passages from Donald Richie, one of the the longest foreign residents in Japan and perhaps the most perceptive observer of city and country in the postwar period.
In 1947 he stood with Kawabata on the roof of the Asakusa subway terminal tower. "This had been the amusement quarter… Now two years after all of this had gone up in flames… the empty squares were again turning into lanes as tents, reed lean-tos, a few frame buildings began appearing. Girls in wedgies were sitting in front of new tearooms…".
In 1978 he participated in the Sanja Matsuri, still immune to the sakoku mentality of the postwar period. "Bands of men… become a centipede…" (Laughter.) "Foreigners are encouraged. Japanese are here so fully enmeshed in each other that they can drop the national xenophobia."
By 1989, however, he is more pessimistic as he walks along the Sumida river. "It's all artificial old-Japan now. One can tell by the number of girls dressed in cute camping clothes who time travel. They run down from Harajuku to see olde Nippon… The new Asakusa is an empty barren place, expensively masquerading as what it once was."
Finally, in 1997, Richie is writing the introduction to Kawabata's novel, about to be translated into English. He comes back to Asakusa. "Fifty year ago it was still alive… No longer. It has been gentrified, something which can occur only in a dead neighborhood. There is a certain amount of created nostalgia… I wander for an hour, but it is no longer Asakusa so I leave…"
This is only one version of Asakusa's last fifty years. Richie is honest in acknowledging that his story is one of nostalgia and regret. And we do not have to agree with him. But it provides a useful starting point, perhaps.
Some of the reasons for the changes are clear. Asakusa's place in the geography of the city has changed. The endless expansion westwards has bypassed the old centres. As Professor Itoda mentioned, without a terminal, you don't have a chance.
Time is running out, so let me conclude by placing Asakusa's problems in a broader historical context. After all, Asakusa's predicament, if it is that, is a common one. How are neighbourhoods, cities, countries to sustain themselves when the energies of development have moved elsewhere? Europe provides numerous examples of what were once vibrant commercial centres, but have become hollowed-out tourist sites.Venice is the most famous. But London also affords a number of interesting comparisons.
The most striking parallel may be SE1, the neighborhood immediately south of the river, where I have lived for the last three years. For four hundred years, this was, quite literally, London's shitamachi. Plays and prostitution in Shakespeare's time. Dirty industry and grinding poverty in the 18th and 19th centuries. A charity case for most of the 20th. The last 20 years have seen a transformation, however.
The location is not unpromising: it is, like Asakusa, very central, if not quite in the centre. Transport has had some part: one new tube line and a Eurostar terminal, although the latter has just moved. And heritage has certainly been useful: Dickensian trails, converted wharfs, and of course Shakespeare's Globe.
The difference between SE1 and Asakusa, however, may be the willingness to complement the old with the radically new. The Tate Modern, which used to be a power station, now attracts more visitors than any other modern art museum in the world. Creative industries queue up to locate their offices in the neighborhood. And young people flock to live there. I still have some friends who have a hard time even thinking about coming south of the river. But their loss is my gain. Perhaps Asakusa can be Tokyo's SE1?
Thank you for your kind attention. (Applause.)
Thank you very much. That was a fascinating speech, and I hope that we will maximize the benefits of insights that have been gained so far.