Comparing Cities

In Edo-Period (1603-1868) Japan, there flourished a literary genre for comparing the three great cities of Edo (Tokyo), Kyo (Kyoto), and Osaka.

This trinity of metropolises (called santo 三都) attracted large numbers of migrants and visitors from other parts of the country. Edo, the de facto capital, had more than a million inhabitants from the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries (the present-day Tokyo metropolitan area, with a population of more than thirty-six million, has the largest concentration of people in the world). The merchant city of Osaka supplied the capital with oil, sake, soy, ginned cotton, and cotton cloth, while Kyo, the “capital,” remained the seat of an emperor largely stripped of his political, if not symbolic, power.

The genre of santo kurabe combined first-hand observation with regional prejudice and poetic convention. Denizens sought to play up the distinctiveness of their cultures, even as artists and writers elaborated on the differences among the triumvirate of cities.

Noted painter Shiba Kokan (司馬 江漢,1747-1818), for example, wrote a letter to a friend in 1813 listing the good and bad points of Edo and Kyo.


Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodblock print of Nihonbashi, Edo

On the good side, Edo has an efficient water transport system that makes it easier and cheaper to bring in goods. Fresh bonito, sardines, and clams can be readily obtained from the open-markets of the waterfront, and radishes, mustard spinach (komatsuna) and other vegetables are not expensive. One can get good sake from Itami and Ikeda, and in the summer, hire a boat to go down the Ryogoku and Sumida Rivers for some fresh air. Men and women have separate wash areas in the public bathhouses, where the tubs are big and the water plentiful. Money can be made in the big city without too much trouble. Low-end prostitutes display themselves in the windows of the Yoshiwara brothels, and “you’ll never see a woman having a pee.”

On the bad side, strong southerly winds mar the viewing of the cherry blossoms in spring, while easterly winds spread fire across swaths of neighborhoods. Shop clerks are rude, and women are unattractive and ill-mannered. Real estate prices are exorbitant, drinking water is full of impurities, and the roads are full of dogshit. The surrounding countryside is flat, and there are not many interesting temples and shrines to visit.

Utagawa Hiroshige's woodblock print of Sanjo Bridge, Kyoto

Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodblock print of Sanjo Bridge, Kyoto

As for Kyo, the good points include the plethora of temples and shrines; the numerous festivals; the cheap land and rentals; the beautiful, refined women; cherry blossoms on a clear spring day; mushrooms in autumn; cheap but tasty sake; and expensive but delicious eel. There are no typhoons and earthquakes are rare. Shopkeepers are generally cultivated people who read literature, compose poetry, practice the way of the tea, and write in Chinese. The public areas are clean and people don’t quarrel in public. Urine can be exchanged for vegetables here.

Now for the bad points. Summer is very hot and winter very cold. Water transport is bad. Shijo (Fourth) Avenue, where people go to cool off, is windless and crowded. Thunder is frequent, and the people are “heartless” and “lack moral fiber”. Firewood is expensive because it has to be brought down from the mountains in ox carts. The miso bean paste is white and “flavorless.” No fresh fish is available, and money cannot be easily made. Public baths are small and “the way men and women pile in together is positively unhygienic.” Women who urinate in wooden pails just roll up their skirts and sit backwards, and “many of them don’t wipe properly when they’ve finished either, which is very uncouth.”

Another literary form, mono-kurabe (comparisons of things), is based on poetic competitions similar to our own balagtasan. Poets strive to cap three-line stanzas (with 17 syllables) with two-line (14-syllable) stanzas to make pairs of verse. In this type of literary jousting, elegance of phrase outweighs strict accuracy.

An anonymous gem of a mono-kurabe has the pro-Edo speaker declaring that “In all the world/Of all the flowers,/Edo cherries excel.” To which the pro-Kyo speaker responds: “The capital’s flowers are made of/Woven brocaded cloth.” The Edo speaker lists “Autumn salmon/Winter mackerel,/New Year’s bonito too,” while Kyo counters with “Conger, unsalted cod and/Fine ungutted smelt.” Edo says that “In all Japan/Edo-caught eel/Is like none other to be found,” and Kyo says “More than enough for everyone–/Lake Biwa’s luscious carp.” Edo declares that “Bearded cheeks/Scarce become/The Kyo man’s speech.” Kyo says to Edo: “Your woman’s words are like a man’s/When speaking ill of another’s face.” Edo thinks that “Edoite women/Have a slight dialect/But there’s nothing else to complain of,” and Kyo’s riposte is: “So why do you summon/Kyo’s dancing girls?”

Compare this to what our own Nick Joaquin says about the Visayans in The Woman Who Had Two Navels (1961): “The South was famed for extravagant rather than gracious living—for its fabulous banquets and the size of the diamonds its women wore—no less than for the stark misery in which the common folk lived. To Northerners, the South was the land of the languid voice and the harsh whip, of fine pastries and some really unspeakable folklore about bogies and vampires and obscene monsters; and it was, of course, the place from where, since as far back as anybody could remember, had come a steady supply of heiresses, servant girls, and prostitutes. The great landowners were practically independent chieftains; and the women, according to a malicious saying current among Manilans, ‘didn’t wash’.”

This is pataasan ng ihi (pissing contest) at its most eloquent.

Source: Sumie Jones and Kenji Watanabe, eds., An Edo Anthology: Literature from Japan’s Mega-City, 1750-1850 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013).

Note: This essay was originally published in “Letters to Narcissus”

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