The Ryōunkaku (literally, “cloud-surpassing tower”) discussed in this book was a 12-story brick tower built in Tokyo’s Asakusa district in 1890. Like today’s Skytree, it attracted attention because of its height, making it a symbol of the capital. This tower easily dwarfed the miniatures of Mount Fuji that survived around the city as relics of the Edo entertainment industry. Built in Tokyo’s premier entertainment district of the time, the Ryōunkaku provided people with a new visual experience.
Viewed from the top of the Twelve Stories in Asakusa, the world reflects the glorious reign of Civilization and Enlightenment.
--Artist Takehisa Yumeji
The Great Kantō earthquake, which struck on September 1, 1923, caused the upper floors of the tower (from the eighth floor and above) to fold and collapse. Since it posed a danger, the remainder of the building was dynamited and cleared by the army corps of engineers. Although the tower stood for only 33 years, it is remembered in children’s songs that were sung at the time, such as “Iroha ni Kompeito.” The building also left a profound impression on migrants to the modern city who came in search of a better life, as a place where they could look out upon the prosperity and enormous size of the capital and contemplate their dreams.
A long diary entry for the day I stood at the top of Ryōunkaku in Asakusa, my arms folded.
--poet Ishikawa Takuboku
Although the Ryōunkaku was famous, it was a project undertaken by a single private enterprise. Therefore, its actual management and the events organized in the tower by planners and designers, as well as the details of its construction, are not well recorded and are largely unknown. Only fragments of its history are commonly noted: that the first elevator in Japan was installed there, that it hosted a photo contest of famous beauties, or that the rooftop deck was surrounded with wire mesh after a person committed suicide by jumping from the tower in the latter part of the Meiji period.
Now that it’s just a memory, even the Ryōunkaku’s photos of beauties are a source of nostalgia.
--playwright Yoshii Isamu
This study is an experiment in historical sociology that attempts to bring to light the lost building Asakusa Ryōunkaku Twelve Stories, which is famous in name but little known in reality, by treating it as a virtual focus wherein the urban experiences of people intersected and intertwined.
The space of a city comprises the intersection of countless gazes of freely mobile bodies. While embracing the heterogeneity of viewing subjects and the objects of their gaze, the city is a space and an experience that weaves together bodies and gazes somehow in response to one another. This book is an experiment in urban historical sociology in this sense too.
One point on which this study moves beyond other work on the Ryōunkaku lies in its careful assembly of diverse materials spanning different domains of inquiry to bring the lost building into focus. It also presents some new discoveries, such as a pamphlet of geisha reviews that was sold at the beauty photo event. However, the presence of particular phenomena or materials alone is not what constitutes “research.” Research requires the presence of a researching subject, who takes an interest in the phenomenon, identifies questions, and probes the unknown. Almost half of this book explores the work of amateur scholar Kitagawa Chikashi, who excavated the history of Ryōunkaku, collected records and memories of the building, and investigated events and people related to it. Thus, another distinctive feature of this book is that it takes the formation of the researching subject (in this instance, Kitagawa) itself as a theme. The book both inherits Kitagawa’s unfinished project and experimentally reconstructs his legacy, derived from the passing remarks of an old man I knew more than thirty years ago.
(Written by SATO Kenji, Professor, Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology / 2017)