One spring day that year, I had hesitatingly stepped into the Ginza subway station, Asakusa-bound. Hesitatingly because the subway was off-limits to members of the Allied Occupation of Japan. There were still signs like NO FRATERNIZATION WITH THE INDIGENOUS PERSONNEL. Since I was an occupier, an alert MP could have had me sent back to Ohio for good. Once in the subway, howeveronce I had burrowed into the then pervading smell of old clothes and pickled radishthere were no MPs.
And none in Asakusa either, though just about everything there was off-limits. I could wander at will, the only foreigner in the place, a covert occupier among the oblivious occupied, a single person gloriously lost in the pleasure palaces of the devastated city. There was the Rokku, a solid street of motion-picture theaters, the first of which, the Denkikan, had opened in 1903. And the promenade along the Sumida River where pretty girls with open parasols stared. And the Nakamise, that long row of roofed shops stretching from the Kaminari (Thunder) Gate, with its guardian deities and its enormous lantern, all the way to Senso-ji, the Asakusa Kannon temple. At least, it would have reached there had the temple not been destroyed during the appalling U.S. incendiary raids of March 9 and 10, 1945. Between 70,000 and 80,000 people were killed in the bombings, and some two-fifths of the city razed, including most of Asakusa.
Yet now, less than two years later, the enterprise, the sheer vitality, of the place overflowed. There was the smell of fresh-cut wood, and the lemon yellow flash of new lumber as buildings went up. And all the people to patronize them. Hundreds, strolling along the lanes of Asakusa, picking over the merchandise, loafing on the corners. All of them out on a weekday for a good time, all dressed up (the single good kimono, the white shirt and tie) or down (work clothes, army uniforms, farming garb); everyone out of fashion because they were still dressed for wartime and it was now well into peace. And everyone was smilingthere was possibility, prospects, the worst was over.
Lots of new buildings, lots of new stores and booths, lots of new entertainment. The shooting galleries were back, whores were evident, and the World's Fattest Lady had returned. The famous merry-go-round ("Japan's Largest") was back, too, though the Casino Folies, next door, where the "opera" had been, was still a burned-out lot. There were lots of such lots, places where something had been, the holes not yet filled in. Buildings grouped around the gashes stood awkwardly. The crater left by the Casino Folies was large. This had been the home of the Asakusa Opera, beloved by many, including the writers Yasunari Kawabata and Kafu Nagai, and remembered for its truncated Rigoletto, where La Donna é Mobile became a local hit even though, with no tenor being available, the Duke was played by a soprano. Usually, however, the fare was more varied. There were Charlie Chaplin imitators, comedy skits, and an all-girl dancing troupe, the popularity of which was occasioned, said the resident comedian Enoken, by the completely false rumor that the girls dropped their drawers during Friday matinees. Nagai remembered (in Edward Seidensticker's translation) what it was like backstage at the Asakusa Opera. "The powerful flesh of the arms and legs ... called to mind the earthen hallway of a florist's shop, where a litter of torn-off petal and withering leaves is left unswept and trampled into shapelessness."
It was in this packed, gaudy, sexy, meretricious and completely enchanting place that I wandered, along with so many others, enthralled, happy to be pushed off the sidewalk as I stopped to sample roasted eel, a purported aphrodisiac. I could peer into the back rooms and be stared back by the resident courtesans, country girls bewigged, sandled, expensive. Or I could walk into the Tokyo Club Theatre and improve my knowledge of Japanese film. Here was a reality that my Occupation round of billet, office and PX could not equal.
From the first, I, no less than Kawabata or Nagai, became a devotee of Asakusa, a round-eyed flaneur on the narrow Asakusa boulevards. I went to all the strip shows with all their variations (bath strip, tightrope strip), grew to like the pink, sweet horsemeat, shared with the famous authors their nostalgie de la boue, a quality that Kawabata once phrased as "a taste for back streets."
Was I an occupying imperialist indulging my vile colonial desires? Probably. How many times, I wonder, did I take the Ginza Line to the very end and surface into this sexy stratum, redolent of oysters over rice and camellia hair oil, cotton candy and underarm sweat. Hundreds, probably, each time led by the lurerarely experiencing a real strike but always getting hooked. The bait of Asakusa was the bribe of authenticity. My orderly Allied Occupation world seemed but a narrow veneer laid over this teeming land now so thriving with ambition and hope. There it was all rules and regulations. Here it was fortuitous, random, real. No one much smiled in my Army newspaper office, but in Asakusa there were lots of smilessome of them cunning, others not. I would bask in this human warmth, and when I, probably smelling of pickled radish, took the subway back, it was with a sense of loss, as though I was leaving some Garden of Eden, some state of happy innocence.
I have not now for many years experienced that romantic notion, and the reason is that this Asakusa no longer exists. Progress, enterprise elsewhere, did it in. Oh, Asakusa's still there on the map of Tokyo and the Ginza subway still ends there, but that indulgent labyrinth, that pleasure warren that I used to pull over my head, is not. The Nakamise now sells tourist kitsch in the hope of turning a sale or two, the site of the Denkikan holds a Japanesque apartment block with a few impoverished beauty-shop boutiques on the ground floor. Buildings still stand awkwardly around vacant lots, but this is not because of war and destruction but because of rampant peacethe high price of land, outrageous taxes and ruinous loans. The merry-go-round and the World's Fattest Lady have disappeared.
And the place is empty, deserted. Vanished are the pleasure seekers of old Asakusa. People now come only on holidaysat New Year's to Senso-ji, the temple reconstructed in painted ferroconcrete. Otherwise, silence, emptiness. In its determined march to the West, Tokyo's "heart" has simply left Asakusa behind, back in the East, down by the muddy rivershitamachi, the "low city." Tokyoites still play but they now do so in front of their computers, in the boutiques of Harajuku or the pimp-filled alleys of Shinjuku.
Asakusa makes sporadic efforts to bring back this vanished attention. Gentrification, that last-ditch appeal, has been attempted. All the extant old temple pavilions have been segregated to an area behind Senso-ji. Uprooted from their historical environment, they stand as though staring in consternation, and the several real Edo structures now appear just as phony as the plastic-looking replicas next to them. There is now not only the Denkikan Mansion, but also a plaque observing, among others, the dead comedian Enoken. A small street has been rusticated with Olde Japan cherry blossoms and fairy lanterns. Jinrikishas are being pulled about, providing jobs for local youths. And the Rokku (once six blocks of drama, sword fights and motion-pictures halls) now calls itself the Rox, hiding behind this trendy title all the empty lots, the torn-down theaters, the flashy temporary structures ("Beaux Arts: We Sell a Tasty Life"), the fact that little life is left.
In these 60 years, the level of national health has gone up, people have begun to live longer and, for a time, had more money. Tokyo rose from its ashes like some gorgeous, Disneyfied phoenix. But Japan has paid a price for its progress. The sense of hope and possibility that Asakusa so embodied is now in short supply everywhere. If one desires an allegorical tableau of the downside of the Japanese "economic miracle," an opportunity is presented in Asakusa. The district survived the 1923 earthquake, the reign of the Japanese military, World War II, the 1945 fire bombingsbut it was finally killed off by the outbreak of peace, and reduced to its present corpse, the elegiac lament its only unguent.