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Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011

Modernity on the move


TOKYO IN TRANSIT: Japanese Culture on the Rails and Road, by Alisa Freedman. Stanford University Press, 2011, 333 pp., $22.95 (paper).

Movement is central to modernity. Baudelaire's flaneur, a walker drifting through city streets, "a perfect idler, ... a passionate observer," who is a part of the urban throng even as he remains apart from it, is paradigmatic.

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The flaneur, however, was more a response to the changed times than an agent of that change.

Trains, on the other hand, are central to the genesis of the new world that was born, in Virginia Woolf's phrase, "on or about December, 1910."

Without the steam engine disrupting the rural rhythms of the countryside, and then bearing those who had been part of that bucolic world out of their fields and tight-knit communities and into the metropolis; without the urban buses and trams where men and women of different classes and different backgrounds were thrown together in a way unprecedented, there would have been much less of interest in the city for Baudelaire's flaneur to observe.

Alisa Freedman, in "Tokyo in Transit: Japanese Culture on the Rails and Road," takes a close look at the "increased use of mass transportation in Tokyo during the first four decades of the twentieth century," and explores how this growing dependence on new ways to move affected the Japanese capital and its denizens.

Freedman has clearly spent time in the archives: The journalistic and pop-cultural material she has unearthed will be new to most of her readers and is an excellent lens through which to view urban transportation and its effects.

She is able to put canonical literary works such as Natsume Soseki's "Sanshiro" to good use as well, but those of us who like to think that literary works are more than just artifacts that cultural studies types can use in support of this or that theory needn't worry: Freedman understands this.

She is interested in the history she can glean from the texts she elucidates, but she never allows the history to displace the texts themselves.

"I do not mean to imply," Freedman writes "that literature becomes a historical artifact to be read merely for social truths that it might impart. ... History and literature intersect and influence each other."

The times, that is, influence what gets written, and the form that writing takes, but the influence is not one way; literature also influences history. That Freedman, in her analyses, slights neither literature nor history makes her book an illuminating read.

She weaves the two strands artfully together in her first chapter, where she describes how the extension of the rails gave rise to suburbs, and also to those stereotypical denizens of the suburbs, salarymen and schoolgirls, both of whom commuted into the city in — and this was the alarming part — the same train cars.

As these commuting salarymen and schoolgirls became a part of Japanese reality they also entered popular consciousness as characters in fiction, fiction that in turn taught readers adopting and responding to these new roles what salarymen and schoolgirls were. The story Freedman chooses to examine, Katai Tayama's "The Girl Fetish," illustrates this well.

Freedman's explication is deft, and since the stereotypes the story interrogates are still very much with us, her analysis will intrigue those interested in today's Japan no less than those interested in literature a century old.

She moves on from the little-known Katai's work to consider Natsume Soseki's "Sanshiro," a classic of modern Japanese literature. Again, movement is at the center of Freedman's reading.

"Soseki," Freedman points out, "uses the motion of trains as a metaphor for the rapid national changes that have not been fully understood by the individuals they affect," and goes on to note that, in Soseki, trains usually take characters on one-way trips "forever out of places where they once felt at home."

Likewise, modernity, as Soseki understood it, was on the move: A force from outside of Japan roaring in to unsettle the nation.

"Tokyo in Transit" concludes with Freedman's translation of Yasunari Kawabata's "The Corpse Introducer," a story that reveals a side of the Nobel Prize-winning author of "Snow Country" that will be new to most English readers: popular (and skillful) pulp-meister.

The story, in which the protagonist marries the corpse of a young bus guide, a photograph of which he cherishes with fetishistic intensity, is rich in delightful grotesquerie, and also reveals much, as Freedman makes clear, about the conditions under which women in the transport industry, at once modern, and free, exploited and objectified, worked.

Freedman's book is so rich in information, and overall so tightly written, that one hardly notices the typos, which occur more frequently than one would like, or the odd sentence where Freedman, normally the most lucid of writers, loses control.

These missteps will, one assumes, be corrected in subsequent printings, and this is a book that should go into many editions. It will certainly reward many re-readings.



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