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.
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.