Reviving a book project

One of the first ideas to come out of writing this blog was to edit a book about Tokyo’s postwar architecture. It’s been several years since and I am wondering how I would go about a book on this or a similar topic now, almost five years later.

The idea back then was to connect iconic buildings from the 1950s-70s to some important themes of Japanese postwar history. I initially thought of this as a group effort, i.e. collect a bunch of clever people and collect their writing to be published as an edited volume. Manu’s photos would provide the visual anchor.

Some buildings and provisional themes from back then were as follows (links to the blog posts I wrote on them over the years):

There were a couple of other buildings/structures that lend themselves to a book of this kind (not to speak of all the single family homes showcased in recent exhibitions). Among those are:

Two years of life here and one year of coursework on Japan’s (economic) history have added quite some complexity to my perception of this country. While you can certainly learn about a place while writing about it, the format of the Tokyo book was perhaps too academic for a plunge of this kind and didn’t take off because of this. The Yangon book, on the other hand, was conducive to such a plunge: a guidebook with 110 separate buildings almost creates the narrative and the overarching themes for you as you go along.

Since coming back here in 2015, my PhD research has focused my work on a particular aspect of Japanese history (urban economic history) as well as Tokyo as my case study (the first Asian megacity). I have introduced my research in various places on this blog, and don’t need to do so again here. Suffice it to say, it is harder to link my work to “iconic” buildings. The spatial manifestation of my research is/was much more ephemeral, located in the neighbourhoods and the urban fabric rather than its structures.

I will teach a class at Temple University next term called “Metropolitan Tokyo”. I am not yet done with preparing the syllabus for it, but I will take a historical approach to the city (as opposed to some of my predecessors, who taught this class from a geography or architecture perspective). Given that this course will coincide with the hot phase of my dissertation writing, I will make sure to have as many overlaps between the two as possible.

To sum up, the initial legwork I did on the various buildings (not to speak of Manu’s meticulous work on photographing them), a better understanding of Japan and its history, my PhD and the Temple course make 2018 and 2019 a much better time to produce a book on Tokyo, also as a culmination of our time in this great city. However, I think the concept needs quite some re-work, which is the reason for this and future posts.

Herewith three quick ideas:

  1. A chronological exploration of Tokyo’s economic history from 1945-1970 (1973?), with 10-15 or so interspersed buildings / structures that bring to life that particular moment / theme from the narrative. I am unsure regarding the exact periodisation, but 1945, 1952, 1955, 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1973 are key dates. And while there are several Tokyo history books available in English, they’re usually grander sweeps and do not spend too much time on the city’s economic development.
  2. Instead of a chronological exploration, I could stick to the thematic idea. To limit these to economic history topics accessible to the lay reader, the selection would have to be quite special. Off the top of my head, I can think of: supply (urban manufacturing), demand (the urban consumer, the three sacred treasures, etc.), exchange (Ameyoko, black markets, Tsukiji, etc.), egalitarianism (my research), space-intensive urbanization (my research), conquering the world (increased export orientation, HQ-ization of Tokyo’s CBD), and others. Buildings could be introduced via anecdotal insets.
  3. A guidebook of about 40 buildings from this period. These would be mini-essays of about 1,000 words each. While I am intuitively drawn to this format and have done quite some legwork already, it could be rather hard to weave this together as coherently under the economic history banner. It would perhaps also be an even more niche publication. And, not to forget that buildings from this period are increasingly rare and threatened by the wrecking ball. To make them the focus of a book is thus a bit risky.

There are probably more ways to frame this going forward, but may this suffice for now to get the brainwaves focused on a publishing project that I can channel part of my PhD into. With the 2020 Olympics coming up, I feel this is an auspicious time (perhaps the only time) to get a book like this produced. Gambatte!

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