Watch Life on the Streets of Tokyo in Footage Recorded in 1913: Caught Between the Traditional and the Modern

What cities have, over the past cen­tu­ry, defined in our imag­i­na­tions the very con­cept of the city? Obvi­ous choic­es include New York and Lon­don, and here on Open Cul­ture we’ve fea­tured his­toric street-lev­el footage of both (New York in 1911, Lon­don between 1890 and 1920) that vivid­ly reveals how, even over a hun­dred years ago, they’d already matured as com­mer­cial­ly, tech­no­log­i­cal­ly, and demo­graph­i­cal­ly impres­sive metrop­o­lis­es. At the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, the 6.5 mil­lion-strong Lon­don ranked as the most pop­u­lous city on Earth, and New York had over­tak­en it with­in a few decades. But by the mid-1960s, a new con­tender had sud­den­ly risen to the top spot: Tokyo.

His­tor­i­cal­ly speak­ing, of course, the word “new” does­n’t quite apply to the Japan­ese cap­i­tal, since as a set­tled area it goes back to the third mil­len­ni­um BC. But Tokyo did­n’t become the cap­i­tal, effec­tive­ly, until 1869 (not that even today’s denizens of Kyoto, the coun­try’s pre­vi­ous cap­i­tal, seem ever to have ced­ed the dis­tinc­tion in their own minds), around the same time that the pre­vi­ous­ly closed-off island nation opened up to the rest of the world. Pro­vid­ed by Ams­ter­dam’s EYE Film­mu­se­um, the footage at the top of the post dates from less than half a cen­tu­ry there­after and con­veys some­thing of what it must have felt like to live in not just a coun­try zeal­ous­ly engaged in the project of mod­ern­iza­tion, but in the very cen­ter of that project.

These clips were shot on the streets of Tokyo in 1913 and 1915, just after the death of Emper­or Mei­ji, who since 1868 had presided over the so-called Mei­ji Restora­tion. That peri­od saw not just a re-con­sol­i­da­tion of pow­er under the Emper­or, but an assim­i­la­tion of all things West­ern — or at least an assim­i­la­tion of all things West­ern that offi­cial Japan saw as advan­ta­geous in its mis­sion to “catch up” with the exist­ing world pow­ers. For the cit­i­zens of Tokyo, these, most benign­ly, includ­ed urban parks: “Japan­ese enjoy to the fullest the plea­sures afford­ed by the numer­ous parks of the Empire,” says one of the film’s title cards. “Uyeno Park, Tokio, is a very pop­u­lar place, espe­cial­ly on Sun­day after­noons.” But then, going by what we see in the footage, every place in Tokyo seems pop­u­lar.

On the brink of thor­ough­go­ing urban­iza­tion, the cityscape includes shrines, wood­block prints, signs and ban­ners filled to burst­ing with text (and pre­sum­ably col­or), and hand-paint­ed adver­tise­ments for the then-nov­el­ty of the motion pic­ture. The Toky­oites inhab­it­ing it wear tra­di­tion­al kimono as well as the occa­sion­al West­ern suit and hat. Young men pull rick­shaws and ride bicy­cles (those lat­ter hav­ing grown much more numer­ous since). Peri­patet­ic mer­chants sell their wares from enor­mous wood­en frames strapped to their backs. Count­less chil­dren, both in and out of school uni­form, stare curi­ous­ly at the cam­era. None, sure­ly, could imag­ine the destruc­tion soon to come with the 1923 Kan­to Earth­quake, let alone the fire­bomb­ing of World War II — nor the aston­ish­ing­ly fast devel­op­ment there­after that would, by the time of the reborn city’s 1964 Olympic Games, make it the largest in the world.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Time Trav­el Back to Tokyo After World War II, and See the City in Remark­ably High-Qual­i­ty 1940s Video

Immac­u­late­ly Restored Film Lets You Revis­it Life in New York City in 1911

The Old­est Known Footage of Lon­don (1890–1920) Fea­tures the City’s Great Land­marks

Berlin Street Scenes Beau­ti­ful­ly Caught on Film (1900–1914)

Down­load Hun­dreds of 19th-Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Wood­block Prints by Mas­ters of the Tra­di­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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