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University of California Press
Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects

Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects

by Jordan Sand
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ISBN-13: 9780520280373
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/29/2013
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 941,036
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jordan Sand teaches Japanese history at Georgetown University and has written widely on urbanism and material culture in East Asia.

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Tokyo Vernacular

Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects

By Jordan Sand


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95698-8



The Public Square and the Boundaries of the Commons


In 1939, as the war in Asia escalated and Japanese authorities increasingly repressed dissent at home, Marxist historian Hani Goro published a small paperback about Michelangelo. The book opened with a photo and description of Michelangelo's "David." Hani portrayed the artist himself as an underdog fighter for justice like the subject of his sculpture. He described Florence's central Piazza della Signoria, where the "David" stands, in the following way:

This was the piazza [hiroba] where several thousand representatives of the citizen masses [shimin minshu] of the free city and independent state of Florence gathered in an atmosphere filled with energy to debate and pass resolutions and translate them to action, in order for the people of the nation [karera kokumin] to manage the politics of their beloved country [karera no ai suru kokka] themselves, and in order to protect and develop their autonomous politics, creating no gap for autocrats to arise from within and protecting themselves from invaders from without.

These words express in a nutshell the ideal that Hani propounded of the piazza, public square, or—in the modern Japanese translation term—hiroba. This term, which literally means simply "broad open space," here represented a universal ideal. In Toshi (The city), a work published a decade later, Hani would call this ideal jiyu naru kotsu—a free traffic or intercourse among citizens. Although Hani's Michelangelo was not censored, the author was later lionized for speaking out against militarism during the war, and the book came to be revered as a classic. As postwar Japanese rejected what they called their "feudal" past, along with the emperor worship and militarism of the war years, and pursued the language and action of a democratic polity, Hani's portrait of a self-governing urban citizenry acquired a utopian appeal.

Postwar intellectuals feared, however, that Japan lacked not only a tradition of democratic citizen politics but also a tradition of urban spaces suited to such politics. Writing in the journal Toshi mondai in 1956, urban geographer Sugimura Nobuji surveyed plaza types in the cities of European countries and their colonies, noting that plazas marked these cities apart, because Japan—and indeed all of the Orient with the exception of countries that had been European colonies—lacked them. He theorized that plazas had been built in the West in part because when large numbers of people gathered, a sense of citizenship formed. Sugimura thus understood plazas as instruments of citizen making. Without them, civic participation in Japan was naturally hindered.

The absence of plazas was felt particularly acutely by architects. In the urban studies volume of Kenchikugaku taikei (Compendium of architectural studies), a standard multivolume architectural reference work published in 1960, architects Yoshizaka Takamasa and Tonuma Koichi contrasted the cities of ancient Greece, where the agora revealed "a healthy interpretation of humanity within the community of citizens, however limited," with Japan's ancient capitals, whose urban form expressed "Oriental despotic rule lacking communal solidarity." This trait, they wrote, became yet more pronounced in the feudal cities that emerged in Japan during the subsequent medieval and Tokugawa periods.

To compensate, postwar architects designed "citizens' plazas" (shimin hiroba), most often adjacent to new municipal and prefectural office buildings. Later architects observed critically that these plazas were seldom used by ordinary citizens. Meanwhile, civic aspirations invested in the hiroba were reflected in the term's popularity in journalism and policy circles, along with the term "citizen" (shimin). Newspapers sometimes printed readers' contributions in columns called "readers' plazas." The long-term plan for Tokyo published by the progressive Minobe administration in 1971 was called "Plan for a Tokyo of Plazas and Blue Skies," although it did not in fact propose the construction of new plazas. Like the blue skies—a metonym for antipollution policy—the plaza here was notional, pointing toward a democratic civil society.

Yet as Hani's characterization of Florence's Piazza della Signoria reveals in its promiscuity of terms for the urban citizenry and the national citizenry, popular sovereignty and public authority, the citizens who gathered in the public square were conceived as much in the terms of modern nation-state citizenship as in the frame of an urban public sphere. And although Hani spoke of "free intercourse," suggesting the interaction of multiple subjects and opinions, Japanese advocates of the urban plaza in the 1950s and 1960s were as likely to emphasize its importance as a site of solidarity and of the expression of a unified national voice.

A conception of the plaza or public square as an open commons—the site of a public formed through spontaneous and unorchestrated interaction, where universal access but not universal consensus is guaranteed—thus stood in tension with a conception of the plaza as the instrument of citizen solidarity, the site of a public formed through unified mass action. This tension between different ways of figuring the public politically had its architectural counterpart in the problem of monumentality. In addition to providing space for citizens to gather, trade, and exchange opinions, public squares and plazas have historically been built to enhance vistas of buildings and sculptures, making them monuments bearing symbolic or commemorative meaning. Monumental space symbolically aggrandizes the power of the people who occupy it, too. Much like the excess beyond mere function that a monumental setting imparts to a structure, the space of unified mass action acquires a significance beyond the mere capacity to hold large numbers of people. As a space of politics writ large, the hiroba becomes a monumental site, where the collective will exceeds the will of the individual. The public square in Japan's early postwar decades embodied in unresolved form both the grand political idea of popular sovereignty and an emergent space for the traffic of ideas, the unified voice of the people and a cacophony of people's voices, the monumental and the everyday.


Japanese cities had possessed open spaces, and crowds had gathered in them, for centuries. After Edo was destroyed by fire in 1657, the Tokugawa shogunate created broad avenues and open spaces around bridges to serve as fire breaks. Over time, these spaces were transformed into informal markets and entertainment districts. In addition, some Buddhist temples opened their precincts to the general public, making them popular sites for commercial and leisure activities. What the Tokugawa city lacked, from the standpoint of modern democratic ideals, was a space explicitly granted to the citizenry for the purpose of gathering. Nor did the Meiji government consider the provision of monumental open spaces essential to the city's modernization. German architects Hermann Ende and Wilhelm Beckmann, commissioned in 1886 to redesign the central districts of the capital, proposed a baroque city plan that would have had large public squares, but the Meiji government chose instead to focus on regularizing the street pattern and providing basic infrastructure for commercial development. As the transport network developed, it became common practice to create open spaces—mainly traffic rotaries—in front of train stations. Apart from these, the Meiji city did not have planned spaces called hiroba, plaza, or square. For the modernizing state in the 1880s, traffic flow thus took priority over monumentality. After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, there were once again plans for a new city that would include public squares, but these plans were largely thwarted, this time not by government but by the organized interests of landowners.

Hibiya Park, the country's first planned public park, was one of the capital's first open spaces to acquire political significance as a site of mass gathering. Created in 1903 on grounds just south of the Imperial Palace, the park became a frequent site of mass demonstrations beginning with the protests against the Portsmouth Treaty of 1905. Political rallies continued in Hibiya through the 1910s. May Day demonstrations were held at Ueno Park and other parks in Tokyo from 1920 until 1936, when they were banned. In accordance with the Public Order and Police Law instated in 1900, all gatherings in parks and other outdoor public spaces required permits from the police. The use of public space in these mass political events was thus premised on state sanction. Violence erupted in a few cases when permits were not granted or when the demonstrators transgressed the boundaries of the state-sanctioned public by marching out of the park—as when demonstrators attempted to bring their protest from Hibiya to the gates of the palace in 1905. Two competing models of national sovereignty clashed in this incident: one in which the people amassed in public might appeal to their emperor directly and one in which public parks provided space for pacification of the masses, with police present to maintain order and buffer the emperor and his ministers.

Events tied to a public that was unambiguously coeval with the Japanese monarch, since all sovereignty resided in him, took place in the front plaza of the Imperial Palace beginning in the late nineteenth century. Here, crowds witnessed military parades and displays of captured arms and celebrated national holidays in the presence of the emperor. In November 1940, fifty thousand people sang and shouted banzai together following the reading of a rescript by the Showa emperor in this plaza to celebrate twenty-six hundred years of imperial rule. The land was imperial household property, and the events were carefully orchestrated around the presence of the emperor, under whose gaze they took place.

In 1945, under the Allied occupation, the front plaza of the Imperial Palace was declared a public park. For five years, it became the site of May Day demonstrations, spearheaded by the resuscitated Communist Party, which referred to the site as the People's Plaza (Jinmin Hiroba). Like earlier political assemblies in parks, these events were sanctioned by permits from the police. As Hara Takeshi has noted, in their focus on a charismatic leader standing on a podium, Communist Party rallies in front of the palace bore a structural similarity to the military reviews and imperial celebrations that had taken place in the plaza before the end of the war. The Left's appropriation of this public space so closely tied to the imperial state came to an end in the violence of May Day 1952, just three days after Japan had regained independence. Two demonstrators died and hundreds of demonstrators and police were injured. On this occasion, the demonstrators had applied for a permit to use the plaza, been denied, and marched toward the palace anyway. The clash between police and demonstrators was thus sparked by the same contest seen in Hibiya in 1905, between police and representatives of the political opposition, over claims to the central symbolic site of national sovereignty.

In the same fashion, claims to space on the part of large groups of politically mobilized Tokyoites in the first two postwar decades were driven by the vision of a unified national public. Citizens protested in places they understood as public property, either because it had been granted to them by the state or because they treated it as their own by right as the citizens of a democratic polity. This meant that generally they gathered in structured and directed assemblies that expressed unitary political objectives rather than engaging in debate, discussion, and the "free traffic" of ideas. When Kuno Osamu claimed that Japan's first citizens were born in the Anpo antitreaty revision protests of 1960, he meant that at these mass protests—the largest Japan had ever seen—Japanese expressed their individual wills in concert, aware of their responsibility as the bearers of sovereignty in a democracy. This enormous mobilization of ordinary people unquestionably signified a watershed in political consciousness. Yet as monumental spaces of a unified public and sites of mass assembly, the proverbial hiroba of postwar democracy did not fundamentally differ from either the hiroba of wartime fascism or the hiroba of Communist May Day protests.

The Anpo protests of 1960 took place on the grounds of the National Diet Building, where the nation's elected representatives were gathered, and in the surrounding streets. Here, citizens representing numerous groups and political positions, not directed by a single party, assembled to express themselves freely. Different groups approached national politics and the theater of protest in conflicting ways. Members of the student Communist bund, Zengakuren, defied the established parties of the Left by protesting without their sanction and breaking into the Diet grounds. Newly created independent citizens' groups sought to dissolve the boundary between the demonstrations and the everyday city by encouraging passersby to join them spontaneously.

Yet because of the nature of the cause, citizenship in the Anpo protests still ultimately manifested itself in the display of national solidarity. Protesters understood their presence around the Diet Building as a temporary occupation for a single purpose. Most of the protest took the form of organized and choreographed marches. As George Packard notes, demonstration marches were conducted with permission from the Tokyo Public Safety Commission until May 20, 1960, after which the marches were held without permits, but remained focused on the Diet Building and unified in their demands. Although the students' effort to enter the building by force resulted in violent clashes with the police, Packard reports that protesters adhered to police restrictions by not carrying placards when they protested on the Diet grounds without permits.

Conservative politicians in the Diet, meanwhile, referred to the building grounds as "sacred space" (seichi) and sought to pass a bill forbidding protest there altogether. Anpo thus shared with the Hibiya protests of 1905 and the May Day protests in the palace plaza the character of a battle between politically mobilized national subjects and the government over a space of national sovereignty. Despite the horizontal organization among protesters from many walks of life that suggested a widely held new sense of the meaningfulness and obligation of civic participation, then, Anpo as it played out in the streets had as much in common with earlier forms of mass politics as it did with the continuous "free intercourse" among urban citizens idealized by Hani or the face-to-face communication that Jürgen Habermas considered the foundation of the democratic public sphere.


As Wesley Sasaki-Uemura has noted, the failure of the Anpo protests to prevent the renewal of the U.S.-Japan security treaty signaled "the end of united-front mass movements on the national scale," yet the groups that had gathered around the Diet in 1960 continued as a multiplicity of "micropublics" pursuing local and national political issues in print. This new political activism flourished particularly in the medium of minikomishi—privately printed newsletters and journals, often written in a personal, epistolary style. Anpo thus contributed to the development of an increasingly diverse democratic public sphere. Grassroots groups born in the context of the 1960 demonstrations, like the Voiceless Voices (Koe Naki Koe No Kai), valued spontaneity and horizontal ties while resisting institutionalization. These traits would persist in other movements as part of a citizen politics that kept parties and universal political philosophies at arm's length, seeking instead to engage other citizens in everyday places and on issues of everyday life.


Excerpted from Tokyo Vernacular by Jordan Sand. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations



1. Hiroba: The Public Square and the Boundaries of the Commons

2. Yanesen: Writing Local Community

3. Deviant Properties: Street Observation Studies

4. Museums, Heritage, and Everyday Life: From Exoticism to Common Heritage

Conclusion: History and Memory in a City without Monuments



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