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  • Mirrors of Memory. Culture, Politics, and Time in Paris and Tokyo
  • David Garrioch
Mirrors of Memory. Culture, Politics, and Time in Paris and Tokyo. By James W. White (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2011. x plus 286 pp.).

Every city, while remaining indefinably urban, has its own character, its own particular feel. This is perhaps all the more so for world cities like Paris or Tokyo. What makes these such different cities, despite their size, their shared vitality, their cosmopolitan cultures, their functions as the capitals of modern nation-states, yet also as global centers of world capitalism? That is the question that James W. White sets out to answer.

He suggests that where Paris appears orderly, harmonious, coordinated and historical, full of monuments and with clear boundaries, Tokyo seems chaotic, sprawling, and nonmonumental, its buildings impermanent. Paris has aroused great artistic and political passion, whereas Tokyo has not. The two cities' relationship to their suburbs, to other parts of their nation, and to the rest of the world, is very different.

The divergent histories and cultures of the two places are the obvious key to their modern differences. White offers eight key reasons for the differences outlined. First, the Japanese are concerned with microcosms rather than with wholes. Second, the French apply abstract concepts, Cartesian principles, whereas the Japanese are more pragmatic, their cities based on notions of impermanence. Third, disaster has repeatedly befallen Tokyo: fire, earthquake, then war. Fourth, traditional building styles are very different, Paris using stone and Tokyo wood. Religion is the fifth factor, the Christian emphasis on human dominance over nature endowing Paris with highly visible stone churches, whereas in Tokyo Buddhist notions of transience and a Shinto cyclical world view contributed to impermanence and a rejection of regularity. Sixth, in the twentieth century markets have had a free hand to reshape Tokyo but in Paris have been strictly limited by concerns about cultural heritage. Seventh, the nature of political authority in the two places has been very different, Paris rigidly controlled by the state, Tokyo largely left alone (since the initial creation of Edo). Related to this is the eighth factor: fear. Paris has been shaped in part by fears of foreign invasion, but repeated state intervention has also resulted from the fears the city has provoked both in the country's rulers and in the French provinces. Japanese governments, on the other hand, have been very little perturbed by the growth of Tokyo or by fears of crime or revolution.

This summary may make it sound as if White is recycling well-worn cultural stereotypes, but the book is far more intelligent than that, and the detailed analysis justifies and qualifies many of these initial statements. [End Page 235] White examines each explanatory factor more closely, showing how the contrasting military and administrative functions of each city have influenced their form; how the relationship to the state has shaped them differently; how monuments and commemorations reflect different forms of memory and uses of public space; how positive and negative images of cities in general and of each city in particular have influenced urban policies; and finally, how the relationship with other parts of the nation and with the suburban periphery has affected their development.

Here I must make a disclaimer: while I know Paris well, I do not know Tokyo first-hand. Given that on closer examination many differences turn out to be relative, of degree rather than of kind, I cannot evaluate all of White's comparisons. Thus he claims that there is little social differentiation in Tokyo, compared to Paris, while recognizing that in both cities there are wealthy and poor areas. This may be true, though I think he underestimates the diversity of Paris.

Some of his points are incontestable: the impact of disasters and war on the urban fabric; or that of fortifications—successive walls around Paris, a central fortress but no other defences in Tokyo. White remarks on the difference between the active citizenry of Paris, even under an absolute monarch, and the more compliant inhabitants of Tokyo who were thus, paradoxically, far more able to do what they liked with their city. Historically...


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pp. 235-237
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