Sunday, August 29, 2010

Tokyo Down the Middle

Cognitive geography is a term to help understand the notion that traces of culture, crime, power, art, beauty, movements of people are left on the land and transmitted through a kind of common knowledge. I have pursued this idea in the sense of literature, art, or money creating demands on neighborhoods of a city that persist but have always understood that evidence is elusive and prone to the occult.
Until I followed a train of thought last night about Japan, the variety of its language, and the notion of tradition and modernity in the forms and functions of its land & cityscapes. While uncovering information about Tokyo's Fukagawa District in Sumida Ward to the east of the Imperial Palace, I learned about the division between Yamanote and Shitamachi towns absorbed into this mightiest metropolis.

Fukagawa, a Shitamachi place, and other eastern Edo-era towns were merchant enclaves, earthier, considered coarser in language and custom but keepers of more ancient flames than the Samurai classes whose Yamanote villages where the elite power centers and, to this day, more contemporary in mindset and thereby considered more open to Western influence. The presence of Fuji-san lent further geographic weight to the pre-eminence of Yamanote (literally 山の手, "towards the mountain") versus Shitamachi (下町, "low city").
The impact reverberates today in the sense that the common wisdom holds Yamanote more trendy, wealthier, colder in affect, modern. Conversely, Shitamachi, are more steadfast, traditional, welcoming though socially conservative, speaking a dialect that implies less refinement. Shitamachi are haven to workshops, artisans, restaurants, and small industries. Yamanote are marked by the commuter, the Salary Man, Fortune 500 multinationals, and global brand temples.
While the post-war "Economic Miracle" may have been driven by the force of Yamanote culture, the malaise of the past decades have stoked nostalgia for Shitamachi values that seem more substantial than the money gods of modern life.
Landscape is, in effect, destiny.

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