Chronicling the Capital

Chronicling the Capital

Set to speak at the Club this month, writer Stephen Mansfield explains the challenges of unearthing Tokyo’s past for his latest book.

Drawing 24 million overseas tourists in 2016 and now aiming for 40 million, Japan is becoming a travel industry powerhouse. Leading the charge is Tokyo, which is revamping its tourism facilities before it hosts the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Few of the new guidebooks to the city, however, will dive as deep into its history as Tokyo: A Biography. This 230-page portrait chronicles Tokyo’s Godzilla-like rise from the alluvial mud to become the world’s largest metropolitan area in the 21st century, and longtime Japan resident Stephen Mansfield tells the story with detail and panache.

A veteran journalist and author of more than a dozen books, Mansfield pitched the idea for a book on Tokyo’s history in 2013, just two hours after the city was chosen to stage the Olympics. One motivation was that he couldn’t find a book that covered Tokyo’s entire history, from pre-settlement to modern times.

“I also wanted to present the human imprint on the city,” says Mansfield over lunch at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Yurakucho. “Paul Theroux said Tokyo was more like a machine than a city. People pay flying visits to the city and see it like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, without being here for long enough to actually talk to people and get to know districts and find out that there are communities. There’s more warmth in the suburbs, for instance, as you move away from the cool, icy beauty of corporate buildings in the center.”

Originally from the British city of Oxford, Mansfield has worked as a photographer and journalist in Europe and the Middle East. He now lives outside the capital, in Chiba Prefecture, and the detached perspective it affords has shaped his book. His research included many walks through Tokyo, from tours of 19th-century structures in Yushima and Zoshigaya to ancient kofun burial mounds near the fringes of Tokyo, in Setagaya Ward.

But traces of the past can be hard to find in a town that’s gone through as much as Tokyo. The book’s subtitle is “Disasters, destruction and renewal: The story of an indomitable city,” and Mansfield emphasizes the city’s repeated emergence from fires, earthquakes and a World War II firebombing. The 30-year construction-demolition cycle that modern architecture undergoes has also obliterated much of the past.

“If it’s somewhere like Mukojima or Sumida Ward, most of the buildings have been eviscerated years ago, but a lot of the stones in temples and shrines remain, and that was an interesting discovery,” says Mansfield, who will speak at the Club this month. “They have historical inscriptions like mythic birds. They’re almost like public artworks that endure. I don’t mind change, but I think it’s got to be modified with conservation.”

Meet the Author: Stephen Mansfield
May 11 | 7–8pm

Words: Tim Hornyak
Image: Benjamin Parks