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Tokyo Megacity

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By James Hadfield

Donald Richie, that great interlocutor of Japanese culture and elder statesman of the expat literary scene, has gone and made a coffee table book. "Tokyo Megacity" sees the writer team up with photographer Ben Simmons, his co-conspirator on 1987’s "Introducing Tokyo" (Kodansha International), to create a portrait of the capital circa 2009-10. This new volume is a more lavish affair than the duo’s previous book: at more than double the page count, its hardcover edition has the reassuring heft of a school atlas.

Richie is particularly well qualified for this sort of thing. Since first coming here in 1947, he’s spent nearly his entire life in the capital. “I consider myself living in Tokyo, not in Japan,” he told "Midnight Eye’s" Jasper Sharp in a 2008 interview, and his affection for the place — “that livable megalopolis” — is palpable.

"Tokyo Megacity" consists of an area-by-area romp around the city, with short essays accompanied by a few pages’ worth of photographs. Richie dusts off the concepts of Yamanote and Shitamachi — what historian Edward Seidensticker called the “high city” and “low city” — and adds to them one more, the “mid-city.” This he describes as “someplace between the relatively old and the brand new, a place where the two for a moment mingle, where low city energy meets high city enterprise, where money can be made.” It’s a curious distinction: Seidensticker himself came to prefer dividing Tokyo between the “old” north and “young” south, and while Richie’s category provides a convenient hook for Ginza, Roppongi, Odaiba and Shinagawa, he has to pad it out by including Hamarikyu and Rikugien — both exceedingly pretty gardens, sure, but hardly essential parts of the city’s fabric.

Simmons’ photography is, for the most part, more illustrative than artistic: attractive and technically assured, but lacking any distinctive signature. He’s got a good eye for shooting architecture, be it the monoliths of Roppongi, the elevated expressways of Odaiba, or reflections in Shinjuku’s Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower. Some images are striking: a top-down shot of a cyclist running over red pavement; a child dashing across snow in an otherwise empty Yoyogi Park; a smoke- and salaryman-filled "motsuyaki" shop in Yurakucho that looks like it could have been snapped at any point in the last 30 years. As a document of the city at a specific point in its history, this book should retain some lasting value.

The same, alas, can’t be said of Richie’s contributions. An intelligent and unpatronizing writer, he probably assumes too much on the part of his readers. I’m not sure how a neophyte would handle a statement such as this, which appears on the second page of the foreword: “Tokyo is not, it is said, just a congerie of villages, in that such units are not mere remnants of older social structures. Rather, they are more like cells of the body, continuing as vital social units.”

Those familiar with the writer’s work might recall that he made an almost identical observation in "Introducing Tokyo." This turns out to be a recurring problem. When I compared "Tokyo Megacity" to Richie’s rambling discourse-cum-travelogue "Tokyo" (1999; Reaktion Books), I was shocked at how much of it was rehashed, and in some cases lifted wholesale. In his 1999 account, Tokyoites are described as “industrious, wasteful, impatient, gregarious, lavish, enthusiastic, given to following the latest fads and always lamenting the past.” In 2010, they “have been observed [by whom, I wonder?] as industrious, wasteful, impatient, gregarious, lavish, enthusiastic, given to following the latest fads and to lamenting the past.”

Examples like this abound, creating the dispiriting sense of a talented writer who can’t be bothered even to go through the motions anymore.

This review originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

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6 Comments
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"including Hamarikyu and Rikugien — both exceedingly pretty gardens, sure, but hardly essential parts of the city’s fabric."

Well, that's just one man's opinion.

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Just cashing in on his reputation.

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Donald Richie, that great interlocutor of Japanese culture and elder statesman of the expat literary scene. This is so pathetic, it hurts. Yes we all know how pretty Tokyo is and that it is an outstanding " Megacity ". By the way; Mr. Richie is known for some things but where comes this older statesman from? But anyway I wish him luck and all the best. Hopefully he will reach the sales target of 750 books worldwide.
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Tokyo is really not suited to documentation in paper form. It just doesn't work.

Much more suitable, are Forums and Blogs. They can be updated instantly, are reflective of the current state of affairs, and are a group effort.

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I would like to buy this book. anyone let me know the way?

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Only in Japan can a second-rate over-the-hill near-senile writer who resorts to plagarizing himself continue to publish books. Richie should've stuck with what he knows best, Japanese films, and spare us this gobbledygook.

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