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A woodblock print from 1888 depicting ballroom dancing at the Rokumeikan (Photo: Alamy)
A woodblock print from 1888 depicting ballroom dancing at the Rokumeikan (Photo: Alamy)

For Edo the bells tolled

  • This fascinating new book looks at the transformation of Tokyo through the prism of time, memory and loss
  • Author Anna Sherman tries to track down the bells that marked time in the city of the shogun, when Tokyo was still Edo

Elegy and lament have a precious place in the Japanese sensibility. Gushing and ranting are discouraged. One must feel strongly but express gently. Tickling the receiver’s emotional core without the accompanying shame of sentimentality has always been the great artistic challenge. Japan often rises to it.

It does so in a way that is different from crushing Russian realism and the Western veneration of the idea that a story factually told, dead-pan, will eventually reveal something about the human condition.

This difference can be attributed to Japan’s language and its treatment of time, both of which accommodate multiple shades of meaning. This is often exasperating for outsiders, who are inclined to label this way of life as an ambiguous dance around what is actually meant. On the contrary, what the Japanese have built is a cult of specificity with little room for doubt. Outsiders don’t get it because they are not meant to.

The Bells Of Old Tokyo—Travels in Japanese Time: By Anna Sherman, Picador, 352 pages, $28 (around  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>2,000).
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The Bells Of Old Tokyo—Travels in Japanese Time: By Anna Sherman, Picador, 352 pages, $28 (around 2,000).

Language and time are the preoccupations of Anna Sherman’s incredible first book The Bells Of Old Tokyo: Travels In Japanese Time. These are hardly novel obsessions—particularly for the gaijin (foreigner) resident of Tokyo—but Sherman’s marshalling of a massive amount of reference material (my uncorrected advance copy had 78 pages of notes and 17 of bibliography) and her own historical imagination is idiosyncratic and original.

Before power was restored to the emperor in 1868, the Tokugawa shoguns ruled Japan from the early 17th century. Tokyo was called Edo then and time was marked by the striking of bells attached to temples in various locations of the city. Western clocks were not followed—the old bells were rung once in 2 hours (each Edo double-hour was given to an animal of the Chinese zodiac) and the exact time of ringing varied according to season. Sherman’s quest is to track down those old bells in the modern megalopolis.

The Zōjō-ji temple in Shiba Park with the Tokyo Tower in the background
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The Zōjō-ji temple in Shiba Park with the Tokyo Tower in the background (Photo: Alamy)

Her mission is sparked by a map in Shiba Park’s Zōjō-ji temple showing the sound range of each bell, “a series of circles overlapping each other like raindrops in a still pool". Her other inspiration is the composer Yoshimura Hiroshi’s book O-Edo Toki No Kane Aruki (Edo’s Bells Of Time), which she says is so alive to sounds that it “describes Tokyo as the blind must know it".

There are an overwhelming number of contexts for the use of the word “time" in Japanese. Elsewhere, Sherman has written that in her old thesaurus, the many words for time “roosted underneath sections for the Past and the Present and the Future; alit in subsections for Cyclical Time and Approximate Time, and flew off the page after the entries for Irregular Time and Fixed Time".

Armed with a map and imperfect Japanese, Arkansas-born Sherman traverses the diverse neighbourhoods of the famously never-ending city to see how people remember the palimpsest of Tokyo’s topography. One of the grand passions of the Japanese is destruction followed by rebuilding. It solidified as a response to the disasters the region is prone to, particularly earthquakes and fires. “Juxtaposition" and “contrast" are words often used to describe the experience of Tokyo, but the fact of the matter is that on foot, and even from a bird’s-eye view, the city presents itself as a forest of concrete and garish hoardings, with relatively sporadic islands of the pre-modernity that is romanticized. The spectral thread that runs through the pages of Bells but remains largely unsaid—in true Japanese style—is that Tokyo moves on so quickly materially because, otherwise, there will be nothing to remember spiritually.

In the central Nihonbashi district (the site of Japan’s Kilometre Zero), Sherman visits a children’s park “that smelled of hot tarmac and dust and rain". It has been built on the site of the former Kodenmacho prison, which predated the Tokugawa regime and even outlived it. According to the priest in the nearby temple of Dai-Anraku-ji, the prison’s bell of time used to hang in Edo Castle but was moved because the noise irritated the shogun.

Sherman’s meeting with Tokugawa Tsunerari, 18th in the line that began with the first shogun Ieyasu, is arranged at the Tokyo Kaikan, a club that is the successor of the fated Rokumeikan. The colonnaded Rokumeikan—the “renaissance villa on the Pacific"—was built in 1883 and came to symbolize the moment Japan opened up to the West. Its porticos, balconies and ballroom were razed once and for all in 1941, by a wartime government “embarrassed and resentful of the Meiji era’s wholesale embrace of what was foreign".

The story of Tsukiji on Tokyo Bay is of more recent provenance. The wholesale fish market—the world’s biggest, and known for its tuna auctions—was established there in 1935 after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 destroyed the old site in Nihonbashi. In October last year, the market moved to a larger site in Toyosu across the bay. The fish market was built around the same time as the Hongan-ji temple, a short walk away.

Hongan-ji, whose “white marble evoked the earliest Buddhist structures in ancient India", was built as a “hymn" to Japan’s short-lived dream of an Asian empire. The general mood was one of returning to roots after a doomed affair with the West. In this spirit, Hongan-ji’s architect, Itō Chūta, found for the temple a time-telling bell that had once “sounded the hours" at Ichigaya in the north-west of the city (Sherman later visits Ichigaya to recount novelist Yukio Mishima’s bizarre death).

Edo nostalgia is a long-standing tradition in Japanese literature and art. There were writers (like Nagai Kafū) and woodblock painters (like Kobayashi Kiyochika) whose entire oeuvre was based on a wistful evocation of the recent past. Later still, their standard came also to be borne by gaijin writers who became inextricably tied to Japan. Indeed, Sherman stands on the shoulders of giants, particularly her compatriots Edward Seidensticker and Donald Richie. Her particular ingenuity lies in the fresh view she takes from above.

In his preface to Seidensticker’s brilliant and unconventional history of the city (Tokyo From Edo To Showa: 1867-1989), Richie put his finger on the strain of Japanese thought that underlines the elegiac attitude to even that which has not definitively become the past. It is a category I like to think of as the Late Present, the softly crackling embers of an age. Of the author, Richie writes: “Seidensticker disliked much of modern Japan until newer manifestations indicated something worse was on its way, at which point he would become nostalgic about what he had formerly disliked."

In Bells, Sherman’s own sense of the Late Present and time passing is conveyed through the exquisite interludes at Daibo Coffee, an old-school kissaten (tea-drinking shop) in the trendy Aoyama district where the eponymous owner would “roast coffee in the half-light" and then pour it “over jagged ice shards in the summer" and “into porcelain bowls in the winter". Many chapters close with a scene in Daibo—it is here that Sherman practises language and contends with meaning and metaphor up close.

As Bells progresses, it becomes clear that Daibo’s fate is already sealed. It is an old place in a new city. The master craftsman will accept the denouement gracefully and the customer will try to find the right words to say what his space has meant to her.

Almost three years ago, I was a short-term resident of Tokyo. One cold night, a group of colleagues and I spilled out on the pavement after drinks at a pub in Akasaka (the locality where the smallest bell of time hangs at Entsu-ji temple). Someone asked about our senior colleague Minami-san. He had last been spotted hailing a cab after throwing up on the kerb. My wise friend Sayuri-san had sighed knowingly: “Ah, Minami-san! A man of the boom years."

A young and bright-eyed Minami-san would have entered the workforce in the late 1980s, the last years of the Japanese economic bubble. Those were years of euphoria and excess when everything seemed possible. With that throwaway statement, I felt that Sayuri had touched upon something essential about Japanese time and memory. On almost every page of The Bells Of Old Tokyo, Anna Sherman manages to do just that.

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