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Literary Accounts of the Decline of Senba

From: Monumenta Nipponica
Volume 67, Number 1, 2012
pp. 29-73 | 10.1353/mni.2012.0009

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

It is said that Senba is Osaka's navel. Just as the fetus grows by drawing nutrients and oxygen from the mother's blood through the umbilical cord, so too did the new Osaka draw nutrition from the mother, old Osaka, through the umbilical cord of Senba.

[O]nce the child is born, there's no longer any need for the navel. An organ that was once indispensable is now little more than a small, wrinkled indentation on the belly, and while it is at the center of the stomach, the space it occupies is meaningless.

Senba 船場 was once the center and powerhouse of the Japanese economy and, even after the Meiji Restoration, remained Japan's most prestigious financial and commercial quarter. As such, its merchants and business people formed a kind of aristocracy with its own unique dialect, customs, values, and lifestyle. Yet modern writers, almost without exception, portray Senba as a place that no longer exists. Of course, as we shall see, the physical area of Senba, though not administratively recognized, within its traditional boundaries is still the home to powerful corporations, many of which can trace their histories in Senba back over centuries. The decline of Senba portrayed in literary works, then, refers to the disappearance of a unique culture. This study explores the process of that decline over time through literary memoirs, travel writings, novels, and short stories. The value of a literary study of this sort is that it portrays the complexity of history at the level of personal memory and provides a fresh perspective on the meaning of the transformation of economic structures for the individual.

Senba held critical importance in Japan's pre-Restoration economy and intellectual development. The works of writers who were sensitive to and intent on portraying the transformations taking place around them reveal that there was no single cause for the gradual demise of Senba culture, but rather a number of interrelated reasons. After the Restoration, as we shall see, the area enjoyed a kind of renaissance and continued to attract merchant families and businesses. Its erasure as a cultural space came about with the modernization of individual neighborhoods, which was accompanied by the decline of the apprenticeship system, the spread of egalitarian ideas, and migration to the suburbs, although as we shall see, Senba's influence lingers in the organization of Japan's economy.

Senba Before the Meiji Restoration

Senba is one of the oldest distinct sections in Osaka. Its origins date to 1598, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi 豊臣秀吉 is said to have ordered the removal of 17,000 merchant and manufacturing households to make room for Osaka Castle expansion. Though Senba has never had a modern official designation, most people in Osaka recognize its boundaries. The area was well defined by rivers and canals that made it a commercial transportation hub, as with a number of medieval cities in Europe. The eastern boundary of Senba is the Higashi-yokobori canal, created in 1583 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi as the western-most moat of Osaka Castle (see figures 1 and 2). The northern boundary is defined by the Ōkawa (formerly the Yodo river) and its tributary the Tosabori river, which forms a part of the Yodo river system supplying the water for the series of canals that served as Senba's arteries. The western boundary was formed by the Nishi-Yokobori canal begun in 1600, and the southern boundary was defined by the Nagahori canal, constructed 1619-1622.

The merchants of Senba tended to congregate in neighborhoods according to their place of origin and the merchandise they manufactured or marketed. Hideyoshi and subsequently Tokugawa Hidetada 徳川秀忠 (who presided over the rebuilding of Osaka after he and his father, Ieyasu 家康, destroyed the city during the campaign of 1614-1615) coerced or recruited merchants, craftsmen, and workers from throughout the Kansai region to move to Osaka, and even today the names of towns they came from continue to designate the avenues and districts: Sakai-suji, Hirano-machi, Fushimi-machi, Azuchi-machi, and Awaji-machi, for example. Despite the turmoil accompanying the downfall of the Toyotomi, the Senba merchants prospered, in part because of monopoly rights, tax exemptions, and other favors granted by the Tokugawa...

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