In 1800, the Shogun’s chief minister wrote the following about the city of Edo:
"Someone said that if Edo did not have frequent fires, then people would be more showy and flash. In the capital or in Osaka they do everything with lavish elegance: people hang up paintings in their homes or put out arrangements of flowers. But in Edo, even in the affluent areas, everything is restrained. People only display a single flower [in a bamboo tube or a simple pot]. The wealthy have fine chess sets, but the box will have paper fixed under the lid to double up as the board. Edo’s sense of conciseness comes from continual fires."
According to Professor Timon Screech, author of Tokyo Before Tokyo: Power and Magic in the Shogun’s City of Edo (Reaktion Books, 2020), the city is the source of much of what we consider to be Japanese culture: sushi, Mt Fuji, cherry blossoms. Tokyo Before Tokyo is a rich illustrated volume that presents the vibrant visual history of Edo. The book is presented as a series of vignettes, dealing with key landmarks and districts from the old city, from the Shogun’s castle to the famous red-light Yoshiwara district.
In this interview, Professor Screech and I talk about the different vignettes that make up Tokyo Before Tokyo, and the role that Edo played in old Japan. We also investigate his decision to focus on landmarks and districts, and whether any of old Edo can be seen in today’s Tokyo.
Professor Timon Screech is Professor of the History of Art at SOAS University of London. He is the author of at least a dozen books on the visual culture of the Edo period, including perhaps his best-known work Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Images in Japan, 1700-1820 (University of Hawaii Press, 1999). In addition to Tokyo Before Tokyo, his other most recent book is The Shogun's Silver Telescope: God, Art, and Money in the English Quest for Japan, 1600-1625 (Oxford University Press, 2020). In 2019, Professor Screech was elected as a Fellow of the British Academy.
Nicholas Gordon is a reviewer for the Asian Review of Books. He is also a print and broadcast commentator on local and regional politics. He can be found on Twitter at @nickrigordon.
Nicholas Gordon is an associate editor for a global magazine, and a reviewer for the Asian Review of Books. He can be found on Twitter at @nickrigordon.