Getting Lost in Rivers of Intelligibility

Nihonbashi in Edo meisho zue (Click for larger image)

As I work through my piles of material for my next lecture, I find it impossible to ignore the ways in which water defines the city.  When seen from above, the largest of these rivers, the Tonegawa, overwhelms the Kantô Plain.  Over thousands of years, the enormous hydraulic energy  of the river has produced a fairly sizable river delta that can easily be seen from satellite images.

In the class, we are probably not going to spend that much time looking at the rivers at such heights.  We’ll look at them from  where they were experienced: from water level.  By the mid-17th century, human labor put the hydraulic energies of the rivers to work, constructing canals not only for the movement of people and goods, but also for the control of floods, irrigation, submersion, and the dumping of waste.

While the human history of the river, makes for good reading and looking, the research that I have been drawing from glosses over how people transformed the mouth of Sumida (Sumidagawa) and Edo (Edogawa) Rivers in the late-16th and early-17th centuries. The pictures may show the effects of relentless human activity on waterfront of the city, but they are sparse in detail.  They don’t illustrate what kind of work was being done on the water and everyday experience near the rivers.  Perhaps I am asking too much.  (Shouldn’t I do this work myself?)  Or perhaps I should look at thing paucity of information as a positive thing, as it might show the limits statist technologies of legibility.  Things might have been moving at speeds to fast to pin down.

While I worry that I might drown my students in intelligibly, I want to take them to the water’s edge for a couple of reasons.

First, the bridges and open spaces near river were the first “public” places in the city.  Edo castle was off-limits.  But the rivers were the thoroughfares of the time.  Like waterfront of the city of New Orléans, the places near Edo’s great waterways were the most contested, crowded, talked about, and illustrated spaces in the city.  The Tokugawa government had its own ideas on how the public should be defined and controlled.  For example, it often posted public announcements at some of the busier bridges and performed public trials on Nihonbashi.  However, the public spaces of the Edo were defined through the coming together of so many people and goods, that it was difficult for the bakufu to keep the flourishing of these public spaces under wraps. (Click here for an electronic version of the Edo meisho zue (A Guide to Famous Places of Edo).)

Second, rivers were places where markets, religion, and pleasure resided together.  They were places where people left the mundane world behind for a life of constant motion and change.  Amino Yoshihiko has suggested that liminal spaces like riverbanks, beaches, and islands often hosted markets, which were approached as places apart for the everyday.  Markets were places where objects, “things,” were separated from their mundane condition and changed hands. Things were in constant motion.  Amino wrote that the market, “was seen…as a place linked to the sacred world, the world of deities.  Upon entering such a place, both people and things were severed from their mundane relations.  It was only in an ‘unencumbered’ condition that objects could be exchanged as simply things-in-themselves.  To put it another way, both people and things became the possession of the deities once they entered the space of the marketplace” (Amino: 212)

In the middle of the semester, armed with historical maps and my camera, I am going to take my students to Asakusa and Ryôgoku, two places where amusement, pleasure, and commerce shared the same space.  If anyone has any suggestions on routes that they would enjoy walking along, I would love to hear them.  I don’t want to get them lost.

Works Consulted and Cited:
Amino, Yoshihiko. Rethinking Japanese History. Translated by Alan Scott Christy. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, forthcoming.

Kelman, Ari. A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

About Colin

Ph.D candidate in modern Japanese history at University of California, Santa Cruz
This entry was posted in environmental history, Japan, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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