- Beyond the Metropolis: Second Cities and Modern Life in Interwar Japan by Louise Young
In Beyond the Metropolis: Second Cities and Modern Life in Interwar Japan, Louise Young poses the question of what it meant to be modern in Japan and then answers it with a linked urban history of four provincial cities in relation to the metropolis and their own hinterlands. The choice to draw on the histories of the prefectural capitals of Okayama, Kanazawa, Niigata, and Sapporo—two former castle towns, one port city, and one frontier town—provides the means for an extended reflection on a particularly intense fusing of space and time in urban and suburban Japan during the interwar period.
A thoughtful organization of the ideas and information presented facilitates engagement with this analytically dense and archivally rich work. In the introduction, Young explains how historians tend to understand modernity, the transformations that accompany the advent of the nation-state and industrial capitalism (p. 3). She goes on to describe how, in the interwar period, the regions and localities became “capitalism’s new frontiers” (p. 4). We then learn about the second, or “second-tier,” cities, an administrative categorization used by the government to distinguish Japan’s six biggest cities from the next largest group (p. 260, note 7), and that they serve in this history not because they are alike but because they are different. It is their diverse histories, undergirded by their uneven source bases, that provide complexity to the story of how people in these places understood themselves becoming modern. The subsequent context chapter describes how economic growth and migration to urban areas during and after World War I necessitated the building of infrastructure, including railways, electrical grids, wharves, and bridges, as well as the need for people—municipal managers—to oversee these new developments.
With change came the need to make sense of it, especially in terms of finding ways to create a sense of belonging for urban newcomers, some of [End Page 406] whom could be disruptive. The ramifications of the changes and, more important, how provincial actors contemplated those changes are addressed in the two main parts of the book, which focus on space and on time. Young addresses space in terms of new cultural, economic, and suburban geographies, and time in terms of the pressing need people felt to document their particular local pasts and to imagine their locale in the future. The epilogue succinctly brings the story through the war years, when national concerns once again overrode local ones, and when, in any event, most urban areas experienced destruction. But the die had been cast, and cities rose from the ashes, facilitating the urban modernity of the postwar era. This structure serves to guide the reader through the story of how Japan became urban and how people came to believe that urban meant modern.
The book provides a compelling vision of the material and social imaginary constellations of the time (p. 11), that is, what people, especially members of the middle class, were up to in the 1920s and 1930s, and how they understood their world. They traveled along newly emerging cultural and economic circuits, to and between the metropolis and second cities; built, rode, and celebrated trains and light rail; engaged in city planning; moved to the suburbs; wrote local histories; organized exhibitions that lauded the local; interpreted the ideas of modernology in their own locale; rode elevators and escalators for the first time at the department store; and fretted about modern girls. What emerges is a portrait of a bustling cultural and economic life in provincial cities in the 1920s and 1930s, informed by trends in the metropolis but not necessarily defined by them. In this way, the author argues against the idea of modernity as diffusing from the metropolis and instead shows how the industrious residents hailing from second cities worked to coproduce it.
The histories of the four cities provide the substance for the arguments. An overview of...