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Tokyo Marks Its 400th Year, Rather Quietly

Lack of funds limit celebrations in Japan's modern capital, which surrounds a castle that is the legacy of the banished shogun rulers.

November 16, 2003|Eric Talmadge | Associated Press Writer

TOKYO — From his 14th-floor office window, Tsunenari Tokugawa can almost see the exact spot where his ancestors settled four centuries ago. It's just a few blocks away -- but it might as well be in another universe.

Banished from power more than a century ago, the Tokugawa clan of "shogun" rulers no longer runs Japan. Tsunenari Tokugawa, 63, has settled into semi-retirement, dividing his time between being corporate advisor to a shipping firm and running a foundation to preserve his family's treasure trove of armor, swords and documents.

The clan's greatest legacy is what lies outside the window of this great-grandson of the last shogun -- the sprawling, moat-encircled castle grounds now occupied by Emperor Akihito, and around it the whole city of Tokyo, which this year celebrates its 400th year since the Tokugawa family made it the capital.

"People's opinions of the Tokugawa era range from dark and negative, because of the closing of the country to the outside world, to sentimental and nostalgic because of all the TV dramas set in that time," Tokugawa said. "But I've been pleased by all the interest generated by the anniversary."

So far, it has been a quiet sort of interest. Tokyo's celebrations -- mainly small festivals and exhibitions -- have been subdued compared with, say, the celebrity-studded gala for the Russian city of St. Petersburg when it turned 300 this year.

"I wish we could have put on celebrations like St. Petersburg," City Hall official Shoichi Okuaki said. "But Tokyo doesn't have the money."

Tokyo, which was called Edo until 1868, has much to commemorate. But the timing isn't exactly auspicious.

With the economy slumping, the number of homeless people, though still low by international standards, is rising. Their cardboard or blue vinyl huts are a common sight in parks or under bridges. Unemployment and bankruptcies are hovering near record highs, and Tokyo's coffers are running low.

Little money is being spent on promoting the anniversary, and many Tokyoites haven't realized there's anything in the works.

"I had no idea," said Keiko Omura, 24, a clerk. "I'm not really interested in that sort of thing."

Officials hope that will soon change. The biggest anniversary event will be a festival of parades, floats and outdoor stage performances over the fourth weekend in November, in and around the main park, Hibiya Koen, which borders the Imperial Palace moat.

Takuji Fujimaki, an organizing committee official, said the festival is patterned after a traditional celebration held in Tokyo until a century ago. It is expected to cost about $3 million and draw 1 million or so people.

Tokyo, which means "eastern capital," was a provincial castle town until 1603, when the Tokugawa family moved the center of government here, splitting away from the imperial court in Kyoto ("capital city"). By the end of the 18th century, it was the biggest city in the world, with a population estimated at 1.3 million. London then had 860,000 and Paris 540,000.

More than 12 million people live in Tokyo and 2 million more commute in. About a fifth of Japan's population of 127 million lives in greater Tokyo, making it the world's biggest urban area by U.N. estimate.

Tokugawa said he believes that his ancestors' greatest achievement, along with building Edo into a thriving capital, was maintaining peace for 200 years.

The Tokugawa government's two-century-long closing of Japan also helped create a strong sense of nationhood and uniqueness that continues to be an element of the national character, one that has been criticized as exclusionist by many foreigners and trading partners.

But that too is changing.

Tokyo today can call itself cosmopolitan. Figures for October show 354,250 foreigners registered as living here, a fivefold increase over 50 years. Many train stations and major roads that used to be signposted exclusively in Japanese have added English and Korean.

So many of Japan's key functions -- government, corporate headquarters, top universities -- are concentrated in Tokyo that a debate has raged in Parliament for more than a decade over whether some should be moved.

That argument is bolstered by Tokyo's precarious location.

Tokyo has regularly been devastated by earthquakes. A quake in 1923 killed at least 140,000 people and left much of the city in flames. Experts generally agree that the city is well overdue for another Big One.

Moderate quakes shake the city frequently, but rarely cause damage or disrupt trains.

Still, a major disaster would have global financial impact. Despite Japan's decade-long recession, Tokyo has a bigger GDP than Brazil or Canada.

Because of earthquakes, fires and the bombing in World War II, Tokyo doesn't look old. Skyscrapers, elevated highways and endless expanses of asphalt and neon give it a soulless veneer.

Its most famous historical landmark, the Nihonbashi bridge, is now just another nondescript concrete structure dwarfed by a freeway overpass. But the city still has its little surprises, like centuries-old temples and bonsai gardens tucked away in otherwise drab business districts and cramped neighborhoods.

"Things are always changing drastically in Tokyo," said Kiyoshi Tamura, 83, a retiree who has lived in Tokyo since he was in grade school. "Some places have become so different from 20 years ago, they are unrecognizable."

That's part of Tokyo's charm, Tamura said.

"Although I've been only to East Asian countries, I still think Japanese skyscrapers are just incredible," he said, standing in the shadows of several erected recently in one of the city's newest development projects.

"I believe where I live is the best place to live."

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