[from A Certain Distance, 10]
Eventually I was able to afford a modest house just down the hill a ways from Yotsuya in a quaint old neighborhood called Arakicho. The main boulevard, which ran the rest of the way down to Shinjuku, was lined with affordable public housing units for middle class families. My job was to handle shipping documents, write business letters (occasionally in English), and to translate. In a word I was a paper shuffler. I would place my official seal on each document, firmly pressing the ivory onto the vermilion red ink cushion, and then carefully apply the stamp in the space made available for it next to my name. Then the document would be sent on its way. Life was fairly uneventful. The morning paper brought news of the geopolitical posturing going on in the world, but it all seemed rather distant and somehow unreal. Artists and writers could still pursue their activities more or less unhampered as long as it was not overtly political. I could still enjoy the city more or less the way I used to with only a few restraints. Occasionally I’d drop by the Lupin for a drink with my old writer friends, but gradually that part of my life grew more distant. Mostly I’d stick closer to home, in Arakicho. The neighborhood seemed to have everything I needed. In 1935 I published a thin volume of surreal poems, but all in all I had come to accept my new role as a failed writer.
I love this city – its endless turns and sudden shifts, dead-ends and narrow, meandering back streets. Its circularity. Endlessly frustrating and fascinating, the city’s shape was formed by two opposing forces – the need to keep things out, mainly potential dangers to whoever was in power at the time, hence the castle walls and the system of inner and outer moats, the puzzle of streets, canals and thoroughfares via which there is no direct route to anywhere since all ways must avoid the forbidden core of the city; and yet the need to promote trade and communication on these same routes, requiring a vast web of increasingly complex means of transportation including the trains and subways which would appear along with the sudden shock of modernity. The main boulevards form a series of concentric circles around the palace (routes which, if followed, always bring you back to the same place), and then finally, once outside this maze, for the first time you hit a good straight road, one of the traditional trading routes which take you out to the provinces. But here still there are limits, for the old trading routes ran unimpeded only through the territory of the shogun’s most loyal vassals, and oddly enough, these same routes and these same limits still exist in modern times.
Tokyo was destroyed twice in one century. First in the earthquake and fire of 1923 and then in the firebombing of 1945. Each time it rose from the ashes like a phoenix and each time it retained its traditional shape and its traditional limits. The upper class occupies the same neighborhoods – the hills encircling the palace moat – which it did during pre-modern times, and in one of the horrible ironies of that century of violence, the homes of the wealthy and powerful largely escaped the worst of the destruction. General Curtis LeMay’s strategic incendiary bombing targeted the working class districts along the Sumida river, and was designed to create a firestorm so that the raging fires would do the rest of the B-29s’ work. Over 100,000 people died in one night of bombing, most of them old men, women and children, most of them poor or working class. It was the most lethal of any of the bombings during that war including Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Most of the city lay in ashes after the war, but its basic shape remained. Structures like the elevated girders supporting the main commuter train lines had survived, and it was beneath these where the first yakitori stalls and bars opened up. At first there were only corrugated iron shacks and encampments dotting the landscape, but soon new neighborhoods and settlements began sprouting like weeds.