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Entries in A True Novel (2)


True Taisho

A Taisho printOn page 675, the three sisters are discussing how and why Peter Jansen would have bought the properties and allowed the families to live on the land for so long. Fuyue claims it all makes no sense. "A company's main motive is profit making, isn't it?"

Harue and Natsue respond with a bit about Taisho Romanticism:

"You can't imagine what it was like," [Natsue says,] "when there was some Taisho romanticism in the air, before the country became so militaristic." 

"Taisho romanticism would mean nothing to a Westerner," [Fuyue responds.] "They wouldn't even know what the Taisho period is."

"Oh, you just don't know. Westerners too were much more romantic back then."

It's a complicated point that takes into account Japan's history in the early part of the twentieth century.

Emperor TaishoThe Taisho period is named for Emporer Taisho, a sickly, weak man who held the imperial seat from 1912 until his death at the end of 1926. Because he was physically unable to handle much work, the reins of power slowly slipped out of his and the oligarchs' hands, coming more and more to rest in the Diet, the Japanese legislature. The preceding period (the Meiji Period) and the following period (the Showa Period) were marked by an aggressive militarism. By contrast, the Taisho period was one of relative calm.

The sisters' claim that the West was somehow "more romantic back then" is patently absurd. The West was in the middle of World War I. True, Japan sided with the allies and so won some unprecedented peace on the international front during those years. But the Russian and Chinese revolutions roiled Japan and its foreign policy, leading directly to the warmongering that culiminated in World War II.

And yes, Japan was sliding more toward a modern democracy as control fell away to the Diet.

A Western woman in a Taisho kimono and obi (sash)But the famed romanticism of that period is mostly seen as a constructed ruse, a palliative, a flimsy illusion. Inflation was at run-away levels. Westerners were moving into Japan, even buying up vast tracks of land in unforeseen numbers. The national debt soared. Student unrest--particularly communists, seen as another "Western" influence--was at an all-time high.

A Taisho schoolgirlNevertheless, the Japanese even today have a hankering for the period. Entire festivals still feature young women parading down the street in Taisho fabrics. They look back in fondness on Taisho schoolgirls, so innocent and young. On Taisho geishas, the height of their craft. On Taisho architecture, so delicate and spare.

Those buildings weren't made to last. And they didn't. In 1923, the 7.9 Kando earthquake, centered just off the coast near Tokyo, devastated the countryside, destorying ports and entire towns, killing over 140,000, and causing unsanitary conditions that allowed a typhoid epidemic to kill tens of thousands more. Japan could be said to have never recovered from the earthquake--until late in the 1930s.

And by then, of course, it was too late. That vaunted Taisho romanticism is partly what allowed Hirohito to rise to new heights of power. 


True Karuizawa

As you know by now, much of the action of A TRUE NOVEL takes place in and around Karuizawa, a popular weekend destination for those wishing to escape the excessive summer heat and humidity in Tokyo, much like Litchfield county is for those in New York City. Karuizawa lies in the Nagano prefecture, a little over 100 miles west-northwest from Tokyo. Karuizawa also lies near the very center of the main island of Japan. The town is dominated by its views of Mount Asama, a fairly active volcano that has erupted often in modern history, as recently as 2009. Asama is still categorized by the Japanese Meteorological Agency as a Rank A volcano--that is, more eruptions are imminent.

Mount AsamaThe central shopping district of Karuizawa--its "ginza"--is lined with old-school shops, many of them fostering nostalgia for a "lost" Japan. Fine ceramic tea cups, bits of antique lace, and even rice paddy shoes can be found among the stalls. In fact, many Japanese still consider Karuizawa to be an oasis from modernism, as opposed to other locales nearby in Nagano which include many industrial towns and some collapsed agrarian enclaves, no longer viable.

Karuizawa's ginza.

That said, Karuizawa has been repeatedly rebuilt until much of it looks about like a tourist town in the United States--say, Estes Park, Colorado, or Woodstock, Vermont. As you can see by this photo, there's been a concerted effort over the years to "Westernize" the town, adding architectural features that look distinctly disjunctive in a place that celebrates its connection of an older, lost Japan.

Karuizawa was "discovered" in the nineteenth-century by Christian missionaries, as they moved out from Tokyo into the countryside. They themselves set up small chapels and homes here to seek a cooling climate from the beastly summer weather of Tokyo. Soon, Western bankers and merchants followed, building more lavish homes, many of them in the style of Swiss chalets or American Western "cabins." The grandeur of these residences contrasted sharply with the poorer, more downscale surrounding towns.

 After World War II, any Western ownership (but perhaps not its influence) waned considerably. Today, the area has been revitalized as wealthy Japanese families purchase land to build newer, even grander homes or as development groups buy up sets of home to tear them down for upscale condominium developments.

Here's a vacation home for sale today in Karuizawa.

Even the Prince Hotel has undergone a renaissance. It has now sprawled out into several, large, luxury hotels. They cater to the the winter sports crowd who come for the new ski runs in the area. In fact, Karuizawa has morphed into an all-year resort.

One of the Prince Hotels

And yet it remains what it has been for over a century: an odd amalgam of West and East, a representative of the way Japanese culture can assimilate foreign ideas and concepts. Take, for example, this shot from the edge of town.