The best books for understanding Japanese urban history

Blair A. Ruble Author Of Second Metropolis: Pragmatic Pluralism in Gilded Age Chicago, Silver Age Moscow, and Meiji Osaka
By Blair A. Ruble

Who am I?

I am a comparative urban specialist who came to Japanese urban history through my aspiration to place Russian urban studies within a comparative context.  Several Japanese and Western Japan specialists encouraged me to advance this exploration by examining capitalist industrial urbanization in Japan.  Historians and political scientists -- particularly at Kyoto National University -- provided a platform for me to expand my engagement with Japanese urbanization; relations which have continued for some three decades.  More recently, I included Kabuki in The Muse of Urban Delirium, a collection of essays that seeks answers to the challenges of urban diversity, conflict, and creativity using various performing arts – opera, dance, theater, music – as windows onto urban life.


I wrote...

Second Metropolis: Pragmatic Pluralism in Gilded Age Chicago, Silver Age Moscow, and Meiji Osaka

By Blair A. Ruble,

Book cover of Second Metropolis: Pragmatic Pluralism in Gilded Age Chicago, Silver Age Moscow, and Meiji Osaka

What is my book about?

Second Metropolis compares North America's, Russia's, and Japan's "second cities"--Chicago, Moscow, and Osaka—at the height of their capitalist industrial expansion between 1870 and 1920.  The book discloses the extent to which social fragmentation, frequently viewed as an obstacle to democratic development, fostered a "pragmatic pluralism" that nurtured pluralistic public policies. Such policies are explored through six case studies that illustrate how even those with massive political and economic power were stymied by the complexity of their communities. These three cities, though the products of very different nations and cultures, shared an important experience of inclusive politics during an era of extraordinary growth and social diversity.

The books I picked & why

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A History of Tokyo 1867-1989: From EDO to Showa: The Emergence of the World's Greatest City

By Edward G. Seidensticker,

Book cover of A History of Tokyo 1867-1989: From EDO to Showa: The Emergence of the World's Greatest City

Why this book?

This new edition combines under one cover Edward Seidensticker’s colossal Low City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake and Tokyo Rising.  Few cities have been so fortunate as to have such erudite-yet-accessible books written about them; by an outsider, no less. A towering figure on late twentieth-century Japanese studies and letters, Seidensticker arrived in Tokyo weeks after General Douglas MacArthur had assumed control of the country. His work on major twentieth-century Japanese writers earned him graduate degrees and faculty appointments at major American universities; his freelance writing on Japanese life extended the reach of his work well beyond the halls of academia. Most strikingly, his historical works about Tokyo demonstrate a deep knowledge of, and passionate devotion to,  the city on every page.


Neighborhood and Nation in Tokyo, 1905-1937

By Sally Ann Hastings,

Book cover of Neighborhood and Nation in Tokyo, 1905-1937

Why this book?

Cities often look quite different from the bottom up than from the top down. The practical demands of making cities work often rest on the shoulders of the most local of officials.  Consequently, neighborhood officialdom often engages with citizens and residents more openly, even in authoritarian systems. Such engagement may hold the seeds of future democratic change. Hastings’ study of Honjo Ward and other proletarian Tokyo districts before World War II reveals a surprisingly robust participatory political and cultural environment across the early twentieth century.


Neighborhood Tokyo

By Theodore C. Bestor,

Book cover of Neighborhood Tokyo

Why this book?

Theodore Bestor carries the neighborhood theme forward into the boom years of the 1980s.  Based on ethnographic fieldwork between 1979 and 1981, Bestor pulls apart the deep web of social, economic, and political relationships which hold neighborhoods and communities together despite being submerged in the enormity of Tokyo.  He uncovers actors, institutions, and customs which facilitated modernization while sustaining a veneer of tradition.  At it core, Bestor’s neighborhood revealed a social and cultural inventiveness that enabled its communities to engage with and benefit from unprecedented social change.


The City as Subject, 13: Seki Hajime and the Reinvention of Modern Osaka

By Jeffrey E. Haynes,

Book cover of The City as Subject, 13: Seki Hajime and the Reinvention of Modern Osaka

Why this book?

Osaka became an industrial giant during the Meiji period, remaining one of the world’s fastest-growing cities throughout the later decades of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth.  The city outgrew Tokyo in both population and industrial production for a brief period during the 1930s.  This was a time when social displacement, horrendous public health and housing failings, and labor unrest threatened communal wellbeing.  The city responded with some of the most innovative social policies of the era, especially under the leadership of Mayor Seki Hajime.  As Hanes uncovers, Seki used his training as a social economist to promote increased industrial production that simultaneously became people-centered. The result was a modernized Osaka that retained a vibrant social inventiveness in the years leading up to World War II.


Atlas Historique De Kyôto: Analyse Spatiale des Systèms de Mémoire D’une Ville, de Son Architecture et de Son Paysage Urbain

By Nicolas Fiévé,

Book cover of Atlas Historique De Kyôto: Analyse Spatiale des Systèms de Mémoire D’une Ville, de Son Architecture et de Son Paysage Urbain

Why this book?

Only an organization with the deep pockets of UNESCO could have supported and produced this magnificent historical atlas of Kyoto, covering more than 15 centuries of urban development through comprehensive data connected to stunning and informative maps analyzed by two dozen leading historians, urbanists, architects, and cartographers.  As site to more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than almost any other city, Kyoto has drawn UNESCO engagement across several decades. This volume captured that work at the beginning of the twenty-first century through essays arranged chronologically drawing on the built environment to trace Kyoto’s physical, economic, cultural, and political evolution. The spectacular maps tell the story even for those readers who struggle with the French text.


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