edo waterways

From an 1857 area map of Ginza/Tsukiji/Nihonbashi. Source: http://www.ginza.jp

From an 1857 area map of Ginza/Tsukiji/Nihonbashi. Source: http://www.ginza.jp

This weekend I took a tour of Edo-era waterways, getting to know the way that the civil engineering projects of the city of Edo (now Tokyo) sculpted the landscape, ferried people, connected spaces, and shuttled goods around the city. Edo was the biggest metropolis in the world in around 1800, surpassing Paris and London (and presumably other cities…). The “great unifier” Tokugawa Ieyasu had big plans, which included not only the first national tax systems and surveys, but city planning of his new roost to a massive extent. As a counterpoint to the grid-like development of major Euro cities, Edo has been a point of reference for people who want to balance growth and sustainable relationships with building and resources. The rivers were part of a huge development project in which land was excavated the re-located, and where the port life of Tokyo extended all the way into the city, far from its fringes. (For more on the kinds of settlement, firebreak and entertainment districts that cropped up, see Jinnai Hidenobu’s Japan Echo article here.)

Anyway, the trip was pretty great. It was led by a design/planning historian who has been doing this for a few years. He had to take a break a few times from narrating, a reality check moment in the life of Japanese academia. The face-time and on-time for talking and public speaking is so much more lively and important here than in the R-1 hermit culture of US universities that my field encourages. (The North American kind of work setup rewarded in a lot of the Humanities really discourages interaction apart from official pedagogical events, like classes and conferences, things that go on a CV. The versions of public intellectual in Japan are more market-responsive in interesting ways, more social and differently ‘productive’ in a lot of cases…but that is another post.) I felt a pang of sympathy, the throb of killing off my character from an earlier teaching-job life, as my throat was literally raw from all the teaching and public talking I had to do my first week at my new job. I was glad not to have to be verbal, but just to slosh around taking in the landscape (ok, and some new engineering vocabulary).

The timing of our trip was lucky, as some of the locks on the rivers had only recently started opening on Saturdays, meaning we could get through that part of the laced network of waterways. We passed through fishing villages, party-boat districts, varying degrees of small-scale wave (the Sumida-gawa was the choppiest, but only in contrast to the utter placidness of the rest), rock walls still standing and bordering the river from the 1600s, tons of scenic views, and under a whole array of historical bridge styles.

Heading back to Nihonbashi (along the Nihonbashigawa river, I *think*) one of the bridges made of wedged-in rocks, still standing. I don't think anyone has the patience to do that anymore (or the duress).

Heading back to Nihonbashi (along the Nihonbashigawa river, I *think*) one of the bridges made of wedged-in rocks, still standing. I don’t think anyone has the patience to do that anymore (or the duress).

The headroom was, apparently, precisely 23cm on top in this one.

Modern rivets! Some of the bridges were seethrough, and then would open up to a big vista, whose light contrast was quite nice.

Modern rivets! Some of the bridges were seethrough, and then would open up to a big vista, whose light contrast was quite nice.

Then, poof!

A great moody day for looking at skyscrapers, before turning around to putt down the river again.

A great moody day for looking at skyscrapers, before turning around to putt down the river again.

 The most fun part for me, apart from starting to put together these unfamiliar parts of the city with a different linking system, was the locks. I’m familiar with them from midwestern rivers, but had never been on the boat side of things (as opposed to the car side of things). There was some fancy boat-work necessary when other boats passed–kind of like driving in the Silver Lake hills, you have to negotiate with your neighbor. First, you wait…

Hanging out, 5 or so minutes, waiting for clearance.

Hanging out, 5 or so minutes, waiting for clearance.

..and then it rises. I literally watched the markers on the side of the canal rise meter by meter as we floated up with the loosing of the water flow. It was pretty cool.

Here we go...

Here we go…

A feature of the boat ride was the dispatch of umbrellas in time for the “rain”–the water that inevitably comes dripping off the lock when it is raised.

There are yet more topographies–the rebuilding after the great 1923 fire, for one. But what really impressed me was how much the city had since the 1964 Olympics been re-engineered to make car traffic flow. There was a consistent horizon of car-movement on the surface of the city, things adapted to that horizon of lateral movement that we could see pass by overhead. No doubt 2020, the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, will bring new changes to the water-highway nexus.

For me, this was a great introduction to earlier eco-thought as well as parts of the city I don’t know that well. I am not great at transcendental perspectival viewing–I am much better at immersive perception, and this gave me a way to toggle back to the birds’ eye view of maps. Some day soon I hope to get to Higashi-ojima, the only “subway” station located smack on top of a river, and see the other flip side.

Higashi-ojima station, on the Shinjuku-sen line. Source: Bridge Photo of the Day, http://www.bphod.com/2012/07/tokyo-japans-bridges-higashi-ojima-eki.html.

Higashi-ojima station, on the Shinjuku-sen line. Source: Bridge Photo of the Day, http://www.bphod.com/2012/07/tokyo-japans-bridges-higashi-ojima-eki.html.

Today’s nature photo

…is the sea of humanity. Of which I saw a lot today. What was I doing? Oh yeah, I was on my way to get a haircut, and got distracted.

Here, another accidental matsuri (festival), a procession of folks from the local Kumano Jinja temple. This is one of the wilder sects of Shinto, very local–also, whose big three sites are the stomping grounds of the guy I wrote a book about. Anyway, the mascot of the Kumano sect is a three-legged crow, which has since gotten famous since the national soccer team took it on as its mascot.

The three-legged, 8-span crow, at Kumano taisha Jinja.

The three-legged, 8-span crow, at Kumano Taisha Jinja.

The mikoshi, the palanquin that people/a bunch of men are carrying, is the central object of the procession. But today, there was also a horse.

Guys carrying the mikoshi right in the thick of a hip shopping district, near Meiji Jingu shrine--surrounded both by camera-snapping by-standers, and blase kids out for a shop or a stroll.

Guys carrying the mikoshi right in the thick of a hip shopping district, near Meiji Jingu shrine–surrounded both by camera-snapping by-standers, and blase kids out for a shop or a stroll.

Sunday throngs and stray things on a main main drag of a Sunday--near Meiji Jingu shrine, coming up from Gaienmae.

Sunday throngs and stray things on a main main drag of a Sunday–near Meiji Jingu shrine, coming up from Gaienmae.

equinox flower

higan1

Higanbana (彼岸花)~said to bloom most fully at the autumn equinox. Taken @ Shirayuri campus.

Each day I have been trying to make one foray out into a new natural space or thing–a way to explore my neighborhood, the things and people in it. The geography around here has changed vastly, I am told by an 85-year-old man I met yesterday. I went over to Zenpukujigawa Ryokuchi kōen (park), about 5 minutes away. I had heard it was a great place for cherry blossoms, and in general, a greenspace not to be missed, as it snakes along the Zenpukuji River. One of the neighborhoods around here is called Horiuchi–“within the moat.” This moat no longer exists, due to the massive public works projects of post-1860s modernity that buried various water functions underground. But the geography is still dotted with names that recall that waterworks system.

Anyway, I was standing looking at a big map of the park–I had actually mixed it up with another park, and was getting squared away. The guy already looking at the map, on a bike, started talking to me, and telling me about the neighborhood. He said when he was growing up, and even after the war, it was really spooky–really dark, no real road, a path not big enough even to drive a vehicle through. He said he had just been thinking of an event that took place caddy-cornered from where we were standing. I could only imagine how dark and forlorn a dusty place it would have been, before baseball fields, a real road, and street light. In the year the war ended (1945),  a JAL stewardess–one of the real glamour jobs of the time–had been stabbed to death, and buried, by a Belgian priest. The priest then took advantage of diplomatic immunity (I am fuzzy on these details) and skipped the country without a trace, and “justice was never done.” At that point, a policeman rode by on a bicycle, clocking the conversation. You may understand why I forgot to take a picture of urban nature at that point!

I walked back to the train, and off to work, where I took the above photo–some of the higanbana splashed all over. They are said to signal the beginning of cold weather, and also mark the equinox, which is a big day for encountering the dead. Yes, there is the obon festival, with all its dances, in August, but as a colleague reminded me, the equinox is the day WE go to THEM, they don’t come to us–to do the maintenance of gravesites, memories, and ongoingness. (There is a whole literary lore of the higanbana, which I hope to get to at another time.)

The effort at place-foraging goes hand in hand with also setting up my own roof garden, and figuring out how to extend into a more bona fide “community gardening” mode, both at home and in work. I was initially elated at seeing how many pins for “nursery” there were nearby–it turns out that they are actually day care centers (保育園). Yay for day care access, but places to get plants and supplies in hand are a bit scarcer, alas. So I had the latter-day urban natural experience of mail-ordering soil, along with a mini-composter the likes of which we could sure use in the US. The delivery guy saved me from carrying heavy-kilo bags a mile from the nearest Home Depot-like place in the ‘hood, where the available soil was all hopped up with chemicals anyway. There is a whole world of things to conceptually translate, making an edible garden on a roof in Tokyo, and calculating food-miles in a very different way…that is one of them.

Yeah, I know...but to start "somewhere" you gotta start! It is marked "breakable," and is 25 liters. (Foot included for scale.)

Yeah, I know…but to start “somewhere” you gotta start! The bag is marked “breakable,” and is 25 liters. (Foot included for scale.)

spring 2014 @ UCLA: urban ag, again

 

bio180_flyer

Because I grew up in the middle of big big-scale corn and soybean farms, I have to admit that sometimes, I have qualms about the term “urban agriculture” or “urban farming.” The scale here just seems different–less vast, but responsive to different things. I think we need a new term, like we need a new term to displace the awful eradicating phrase “food desert,” which we should know better than to use in LA! Maybe this Quarter we will find a way! The link to the course blog is here.

published!

jinzo_ningen_cover_image_amazon_format

This week the first in the series of retro robot stories I am translating and publishing on Expanded Editions came out. Titled “The Man-made Baby,” it came out as part of the “robot boom” that hit after Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis was screen to wide acclaim in Tokyo.

“The Man-made Baby” is available on Amazon. Here is the copy that accompanies it.

What is science to love? “The Man-made Baby” (1928) is Hirabayashi Hatsunosuke’s answer to this quandary. In the early twentieth century, science offered a host of new words to describe the experience of being caught up in love. Is love best described in the words of seismology—as an earthquake? As an electrical jolt? A mysterious perfume? Is science even adequate to the task at hand? Inquiring minds want to know!

Hirabayashi investigates this question in the sympathetic story of a moga, a modern girl living in 1920s Tokyo. Fusako is steeped in urban culture and yearns for the new new thing. She falls for and clashes with a cool, collected and very married scientist as they jointly investigate the “black box” of love.

“The Man-made Baby” is the first popular work in Japanese to place the theme of a robot at its center. The robot, translated more precisely as “artificial human,” is a scientific enigma that poses the questions, “what is love to science” as well as “what is science to love?” As a robot more human than the metal-clad beings we have come to know and love in later sci-fi, the artificial baby is a mysterious project hatched between a scientist and his young assistant, this modern girl. The plan to conceive, publicize and début the artificially created baby lures in enthusiasts as well as skeptics—namely, the scientist’s wife. Hirabayashi’s story is a rare treatment of the modern girl as a creature of conflict— not quite vamp or siren, not quite feminist icon, she crosses a number of lines that lead her into an unchartered future…

About the author
Hirabayashi (1892-1931) was a leading journalist and critic in 1920s-30s Tokyo, published in all the “right” places. He had a special passion for the independent cultures of working people, and for women’s rights—a startlingly bold position for his day. Although he is known as a journalist, a writer on Hollywood’s long shadow in Japan, his short stories drawing on cinema genres such as melodrama are less known. “The Man-made Baby” was published in one of the most popular and genre-bending venues of its day, a monthly magazine that gave a home to modern detective stories, gothics, and the budding genre of science fiction.

More stories on the Vintage SF imprint will follow this fall/winter.

korean TV shoot in s la

This weekend I helped coordinate a photo shoot for a Korean crew visiting some of the gardens in S LA built by the organization I work with, Green Grounds. The “PBS of Korea,” EBS, is making a two-part series about various food justice movements in the US.

The two-guy crew was able to follow our hosts, Roberto, Sandra and young Lee Aguilar as they worked in the very lush space that has replaced their front lawn. The crew was were pretty eager to see some vegetables which are apparently very pricey in Korea growing like weeds in this lawn, and also quite curious about how the movement for parkway gardening was able to succeed in LA.For my part, I was interested in hearing about the very active scene of urban gardening in Seoul.

Two of the gardens that GG worked on in S LA have been catalysts for changing the LA City Code after plantings on the lawns ran afoul of technical language that only allows a very small group of plants and a few edibles to reside on  a parkway (the strip of land between the street and sidewalk which is even “double-wide” some places in LA).

Turning over the soil, picking out grubs, and planting new fall seedlings.

Turning over the soil, picking out grubs, and planting new fall seedlings.

Coming up

I am very excited to be part of this upcoming conversation in New York on “blackness in Japan.”

Poster for upcoming NYU symposium on blackness in Japanese lit and culture/s
Poster for NYU symposium on blackness in Japanese lit and culture/s

Lots of people know there is a pretty vibrant hip hop scene in Japan. But when people think about links between Japan and the “west” they tend to think the “west” was a single monoculture. Few people know, for example, that the talent on the “black ships” piloted by Matthew Perry that barged into Yokohama harbor was a minstrel show.

An example of how Japanese culture was greeted with many multiple kinds of “west” is English-language instruction. Many people who have taken part in the English industry in Japan know the politics of hiring–it is easier to get and keep a job if you look like a familiar version of an “American” whose image might be seen on TV ads or in imported blockbuster movies.  The legacies of English, though, are more multiple: the very first e-kaiwa (English conversation) teacher was a half-Scot, half-Chinook man named Ranald McDonald who hailed from what is now known as Canada. In any case, this symposium promises to situate Japan in a more interesting series of routes between itself and not only the west–the US. But it also connects Japanese people and places to the different ports of call both literal and figural that wrote black culture into a world system. Encounters on different scales–personal, regional, national, global.

The event was put together by Will Bridges (Japanese lit) and Nina Cornyetz (Japanese lit/film), and sprang from a panel at the Association for Asian Studies in 2012, in Toronto. The panel also included Shana Redmond (American studies/Afr Am history) and Yoshinobu Hakutani (American lit), who will be reprising their papers to incorporate an additional year and a half of thinking.

The initial run of this panel was really exciting for a couple of reasons. The first was the array of new materials–new to me–and new contexts. I had read works by each of the presenters before, but the liveness brought a new dimension to the table–really impressive considering that the works all contained close readings of dense verbal/literary texts or images. This was by far the most engaged and engaging panel I have seen at an AAS, so I am looking forward to hearing from participants past and present!