Tokyo of the past as model for Asia’s fu­ture

The Myanmar Times - - News - YURIKO KOIKE news­room@mm­times.com

TRULY great ci­ties cap­ture our imag­i­na­tion, even when we have never vis­ited them. Paris con­jures re­newal and love, New York is about hus­tle and dy­namism, and Lon­don rep­re­sents staid charm. Is­tan­bul speaks of mys­tery, Rio de Janeiro of zest­ful lib­er­tin­ism and Shang­hai of rapid rein­ven­tion.

And then there’s Tokyo. Of all the world’s great ci­ties, the world’s largest seems to lend it­self least to glib rever­ies.

It doesn’t help that Hol­ly­wood of­ten car­i­ca­tures Tokyo be­yond recog­ni­tion. In the 1980s and 1990s, when Ja­pan posed a se­ri­ous chal­lenge to the United States’ global eco­nomic pri­macy, films such as Ris­ing Sun, star­ring Sean Con­nery, and Black Rain, star­ring Michael Dou­glas, por­trayed Tokyo in clas­sic film-noir terms – shad­owy, men­ac­ing and peo­pled by grotesque com­pos­ites of cor­po­rate ti­tans and Yakuza gang­sters.

More re­cently, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift de­picted a metal­lic and strangely de­pop­u­lated metropo­lis, while the Bill Mur­ray com­edy Lost in Trans­la­tion rather of­fen­sively por­trayed Tokyo as cul­tur­ally in­com­pre­hen­si­ble and bizarre.

None of th­ese Hol­ly­wood stereo­types does jus­tice to the real Tokyo that I and nearly 38 mil­lion other cit­i­zens call home. Like the world’s other great ci­ties, our Tokyo has a rich­ness all its own.

Tokyo is Ja­pan’s city of ro­mance and youth­ful am­bi­tion, and the home to both our im­pe­rial past and our J-pop present. It is our Sil­i­con Val­ley, our Wall Street and our Wash­ing­ton, DC. It is an an­cient city that rein­vents it­self con­stantly and in sur­pris­ing ways. Just take a look at Rakuten, Ja­pan’s big on­line re­tailer, which re­cently made English its of­fi­cial cor­po­rate lan­guage.

Tokyo has been awarded the 2020 Sum­mer Olympic Games, and in the years lead­ing up to that event, the city will move to the world’s cen­tre stage. The Games are thus a defin­ing mo­ment – an oc­ca­sion for Tokyo’s cit­i­zens to con­sider how we want to be seen, and how we see our­selves – sim­i­lar to how the 1964 Games were a defin­ing mo­ment for post­war Ja­pan. Back then, Tokyo proudly stood up as a city that, through hard work, self­sac­ri­fice and imag­i­na­tion, had risen from the ashes of World War II.

The Tokyo of 1964 was built by a great gen­er­a­tion that cre­ated “Ja­pan, Inc”. It was a Tokyo of smoke­stacks and great in­dus­try, but also of new tech­nolo­gies and in­no­va­tion, ex­em­pli­fied by Sony and its self-made founder, Akio Morita, who in many ways was the Steve Jobs of his era.

This pe­riod was also no­table be­cause it was the start of an­other type of trans­for­ma­tion for the city, to­ward sus­tain­abil­ity. At the time, Ja­pan re­lied heav­ily on im­ported en­ergy; but when the oil shocks of the 1970s sent en­ergy prices soar­ing, Ja­pan re­sponded with what was prob­a­bly the first sus­tained na­tional ef­fort at en­ergy in­de­pen­dence. In Tokyo, the re­sults could be seen by the end of the decade, with heavy in­dus­try re­placed by gleam­ing tow­ers of post-in­dus­trial com­merce.

Tokyo has much to be proud of, but my favourite pe­riod is one that few think about to­day. It is the Tokyo of 1900, when the city stood for Asian moder­nity after a mil­len­nium of be­ing over­shad­owed by the West.

The Tokyo of the early 20th cen­tury was a di­rect re­sult of the Meiji Restora­tion of 1868. Many peo­ple out­side of Ja­pan as­so­ciate the Restora­tion with the im­pe­ri­al­ism and mil­i­tarism that erupted in the 1930s, but this misses the point by re­duc­ing an en­tire epoch to what hap­pened in a sin­gle decade. The Restora­tion was more fun­da­men­tally a mod­erni­sa­tion crash course, a com­pre­hen­sive na­tional ef­fort to catch up with the West as quickly as pos­si­ble.

By 1900, Ja­pan had far ex­ceeded the Meiji lead­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tions. No longer a her­mit king­dom, Ja­pan was a bea­con for Asian mod­erni­sa­tion. In­deed, many of the great­est names in mod­ern Asian his­tory flocked to Tokyo, not only to learn for them­selves what Ja­pan had achieved so rapidly but also to think and write freely – lib­er­ties of­ten de­nied them un­der feu­dal rule or im­pe­rial cen­sor­ship in their home coun­tries.

This was the Tokyo where Sun Yat-sen, a founder and the first pres­i­dent of the Repub­lic of China, took refuge. This was the Tokyo where a young Chi­ang Kai-shek came to learn mod­ern mil­i­tary tac­tics, lo­gis­tics and or­gan­i­sa­tion.

This was also the Tokyo vis­ited fre­quently by Rabindranath Tagore, Ben­gal’s great na­tional poet and philoso­pher who in­spired Ma­hatma Gandhi. Tagore was the first nonEuro­pean to win the No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture, and his great lec­ture “The Spirit of Ja­pan” cap­tures Ja­pan’s seem­ingly lim­it­less vi­tal­ity, while also warn­ing against mis­us­ing that dy­namism for na­tion­al­ist pur­poses. This Tokyo even shares to­day’s last liv­ing link to Hol­ly­wood’s golden age: Olivia de Hav­il­land, star of Gone With the Wind, was born there in 1916, the same time that Tagore was de­liv­er­ing his lec­tures.

The early-20th-cen­tury Tokyo is the one Ja­pan and the world needs to­day. With its in­spi­ra­tional vigour and in­clu­sive cos­mopoli­tanism, what bet­ter im­age could one have for Asia’s fu­ture? – Project Syn­di­cate

Yuriko Koike, Ja­pan’s for­mer de­fence min­is­ter and na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, was chair of the Ja­pan Lib­eral Demo­cratic Party’s Gen­eral Coun­cil and cur­rently is a mem­ber of the Na­tional Diet.

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