Accepted paper:

Viral City: Urban Tokyo as Illness in the 1920s


Nathan Shockey (Bard College)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines the imagination of Tokyo as disease in the period following the Great Kanto Earthquake. I take up the work of governor Goto Shinpei, a former doctor and colonial administrator, as well as fiction by the modernist Yokomitsu Riichi to present a picture of the city as a sick body.

Paper long abstract:

This paper considers the reconstruction and reconceptualization of the city of Tokyo through discourses on the management of disease in the 1920s. Fukuzawa Yukichi once famously described civilization as an outbreak of "measles" (hashika), and viruses played roles both real and metaphorical in creating image and infrastructure of the modern metropolis. Gotô Shinpei (1857-1929), a bureaucrat of Haussmanian stature, was a doctor who served as Minister of Health, Chief of Civil Administration in colonial Taiwan, and head of the Manchurian Rail Company before taking over as mayor of Tokyo in 1921. As mayor, Gotô instigated a plan for urban growth that drew on his experience developing vaccines and inoculating colonial populations, rethinking the city as an organic body to be regulated through road, rail, water, electricity, and sewage networks. In Gotô's Tokyo, people, products, and problems flowed through urban arteries and circulatory passages; like an ill patient, the city could be managed and transformed into a healthier mass organism. I consider Gotô's approach in tandem with close readings of short stories by the modernist writer Yokomitsu Riichi (1898-1947), whose urban fiction sketches parallel representations of the city as sickness. In "Kôkasen" (The Elevated Line, 1930), Yokomitsu tells the tale of a group of drifters living under one a rail line, the diseased bodies shunted aside by the expansion of a rail network built to diffuse and transmit a consumer lifestyle. In "Napoleon to Tamushi" (Napoleon and the Rash, 1926), Yokomitsu describes the dialectic of reterritorialization between the human body and the conquest of space, as the colonizers' body is transformed into a viral map. These stories both critique and reinforce the image of the city as an ill body criss-crossed by networks of authoritarian power - by taking together the work of the bureaucrat and the literatus, it is possible to see a vision of 1920s Tokyo as an organism that produced sickness contra the promotion of healthy hygienic urban space.

panel S7_17
Out of Step and Out of Time: Insurgent and Abject Cultures ca. 1923, 1945, 1968