“Tokyo Before Tokyo: Power and Magic in the Shogun’s City of Edo” by Timon Screech


From about 1765 to 1840 Japanese finding themselves in Edo might have been amused by skimming over a few senryū, short satirical or comical poems which made fun of the pretensions of the administrative capital. 

One wag wrote


The things to see in Edo
Are no more than this:
‘pieces’ and ‘gold’


the “pieces” in question being low-value copper coins, and the “gold” representing the supposed materialistic greed of Edo’s inhabitants. “But most senryū,” Timon Screech writes in his new book Tokyo Before Tokyo, “are mostly self-validating statements mocking lightly in a kind of praise.”


Tokyo Before Tokyo: Power and Magic in the Shogun’s City of Edo, Timon Screech (Reaktion, November 2020)
Tokyo Before Tokyo: Power and Magic in the Shogun’s City of Edo, Timon Screech (Reaktion, November 2020)

Although Screech, a professor of art at the University of London and author of several books on Japan, knows Edo and its inhabitants intimately, he points out at the end of his book, Edo “dwindled and departed. Today it is gone.” In this lavishly-illustrated, beautifully-written and comprehensive book, the splendid yet informal writing enhanced by anecdotes, contemporary art and poetry from beginning to end, Edo comes back to life, its vibrancy restored and its former grandeur put on display. The feeling is of actually being there, in this departed city, with an informed, instructive and often witty guide showing the sights. It’s as close as anyone living today could ever get to understanding the Edo “mentality”, if we may use this term with impunity.

Rather than a history and a tour around the principal monuments of the city, Screech approaches Edo by presenting it in a series of “vignettes”. This allows him to explore the inner spirit of Edo, reveal what it represented, and how it became the soul of the Tokugawa shogun’s realm, demonstrating his power both physically and spiritually. The emperor by contrast lived (often in retirement) in Kyoto, rarely venturing outside its limits and wielding little more than a shadowy semblance of power. It was the Shogun who ran the show, and, as Screech shows us, the former small town of Edo transformed itself into an important centre of political and commercial power. It was never actually the capital of Japan until 1868, when the Meiji emperor was restored to imperial power and it officially became Tokyo. Screech connects Edo with modern Tokyo in a short epilogue showing us that as Japanese society changed after 1868, the rigid hierarchy began to loosen and its contacts with the west became ever closer, the character of the city changed, too, and Tokyo, now an ultra-modern megalopolis, is today “almost entirely from the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries.”

The vignettes through which Screech acquaints us with Edo include physical aspects such as the castle, the great bridge known as Nihon-bashi (replaced by a stone bridge in 1911) and the infamous Yoshiwara “pleasure district”, but they also discuss the city as a “sacred space”, an “ideal” city and a place with a real “poetic presence”. These chapter headings explain Screech’s subtitle; there’s political power being displayed through physical symbols such as impressive buildings, but there’s also a spiritual or even magical side to Edo, and they both coalesce to demonstrate and cement in people’s consciousness the power of the Shogun.

By contrast, the Yoshiwara district, in its metaphorical guise as the “floating world”, offered people an escape from the strictures of civilised society and the world of work or commerce—it was a world that was almost surreal, transient in the Buddhist sense. One couldn’t stay there if one came from outside this world, and those who live and worked in it, such as the geishas and courtesans, could not leave it. To get there, a visitor had to cross the Sumida river, which formed the barrier between the two worlds; as one crossed it, the material world receded into the background and the “floating” world drew nearer. Screech is particularly adept at describing how this must have felt: “after a night in the Yoshiwara,” he tells us as he describes a print by Utamaro, “visitors reach a state of detachment from this-worldly cares akin to Enlightenment.” Screech explains this:


In a way, a courtesan and a Buddha were alike. Both were unhoused, untied, without karmic links.


Utamaro’s print, incidentally, depicts a typical Yoshiwara geisha, exhausted after a night’s work, holding a man’s robe which has a depiction of Bodhidharma (Daruma in Japanese, the founder of Zen Buddhism) on it. In the end, Edo itself would prove transient too, although, as Hippocrates allegedly remarked (originally in Greek, of course), “ars longa, vita brevis”, so we still have its art, poetry, printed books, archival material and a smattering of architecture, such as the remains of Edo castle’s wall (the castle burned down in 1873), to keep it alive.

Yoshiwara, which we often think of as merely a red-light district, was a small area of the city, it often functioned only in the imaginations of men fuelled by the readily-available prints and literature about it, or, as Screech tells us, it was as much myth as reality. However, in Edo itself there were several concrete reminders of life outside the floating world. The rulers constructed an “ideal” city from it, centering their efforts on bridges and the castle. This meant employing the traditional grid system of older Japanese cities, which was the first step in establishing “order and stasis in rectilinear, symmetrical form” with proper attention to what the Chinese call feng shui. The rulers were very serious about their use of geomancy, which involves specific rules about the auspicious placement of structures, and would, for example, position Edo Castle), the “single greatest and most visible structure”, in the centre of the city, with the surrounding area cleared of people so that one had to look north to see the ruler’s location because “it was improper to look south.” Facing south, on the other hand, was, according to Confucius and others, an expression denoting regnal power, and therefore the proper direction for the ideal ruler to face.

It was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Imperial Chief Adviser (kampaku) to Emperor Ogimachi (reigned 1557-86) who built the great Third Avenue bridge, the latter’s purpose being “to link, rather than separate,” but it was Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of his line of shoguns, who built the even more impressive Nihon-bashi in 1603. Its purpose, other than the practical, was that it represented for those who crossed it “present and future hope and the benevolence the shogunate would always show its subjects throughout the land,” another example of the shogunate’s close attention to geomancy. Screech’s detailed and fascinating account of this bridge both as an architectural masterpiece and a symbol of shogunal power may be found in Chapter 2, where it is presented as “a site of intense meaning;” people crossing knew that it was near the shogun’s government buildings, but they could not actually see those buildings, which were set back a few streets from the bridge and thereby “spared scrutiny by commoners.”


The shoguns were not content only to establish their presence and power through secular edifices, but also felt a need to have sacred spaces aligned with them. In Chapters 3 and 5 Screech concentrates on the “non-physical aspects” of Edo, dealing with the city as a “sacred space” and its “poetic presence”.

The physical geomancy had to be augmented by a sacred version; “Buddhist history was mapped onto Edo’s quite recent space,” Screech explains, “By this Edo was sacralised and became custodian and successor of the entire history of Japanese faith.” The Tokugawa clan themselves were Pure Land Buddhists, a belief which claims that invoking the Buddha’s name will result in practitioners attaining to a blessed existence in the “pure land”. Adhering to geomantic practice, the shogunate placed new Buddhist temples in the north-east or expanded the ones that were already there to suit its needs. Thus, for example, we find Ieyasu “relocating” the Zōjō-ji temple, expanding it and adding a large number of monks; in 1622 his successor Hidetada “donated a massive gate, still standing as one of Tokyo’s oldest structures.” Because of the Tokugawas’ dedication to Pure Land Buddhism, Hidetada also installed a statue of Amitabha Buddha, whose attendant, Kannon (Chinese: Guanyin), goddess of mercy, is also revered by Pure Land devotees, and who also features in a number of important temples.

Screech begins Chapter 5 by noting that “as a location Edo had its own meanings” apart from being, from 1603, the centre of the shogun’s government. It possessed “authority and culture,” he tells us, “but it had no poetic presence.” In the west, we don’t usually think of cities having a poetic presence; true, poets often write about cities, but London, for example, wasn’t constructed so that it “gave off” some kind of mysterious poetic emissions. Screech explains that there have always been places in Japan known as “poetic pillows,” which meant that they had a meaning outside their mere physicality. Various emperors even commissioned anthologies of the best waka (courtly verses) about these actual places. As an example, Screech gives us a place that has a lot of cherry-trees, which stand for spring, and therefore happiness as well—Mount Yoshino, he tells us, “became the premier ‘pillow’ because yoshi means ‘joy’ (no is a plain).” The place becomes, as well as a physical location, a manifestation of a feeling or emotion, but this was thought to be missing from Edo. One ancient literary work (dating from about 900), the Tales of Ise, mentions the Sumida river, which runs through Edo, although when the tales were written there was no town there. The unnamed hero makes a “descent to the East”, and as he does so he composes poetry. This was seen by later readers to somehow prefigure the importance of the location in the future, and thus provide a poetic reference to what would eventually become Edo, so it began to appear frequently in paintings and poetry.


The ‘descent’ was, accordingly, repeatedly invoked after the creation of the Tokugawa shogunate … the Tale of Ise had always been read, but only in the Edo period was it turned into the paramount literary text, above all other…


which meant that Edo now had its poetic validation, at least in the minds of these later readers and the shogun’s propagandists. In this chapter Timon Screech has given us Edo as we have never seen it before, revealing its soul as well as its physicality. The buildings he tells us about demonstrate the power, but the magic is, perhaps, the most interesting part of Edo’s story, reminding us that in some places, what is not actually seen is often what actually remains.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.