By Yukiko Tanaka
For The North American Post
Asakusa soon saw the introduction of new forms of entertainment. There were “music halls” and “revues.” “Asakusa opera,” in which Japanese versions of Rigoletto and Carmen were shown, attracted huge audiences; they were more like operettas but their appeal to a crowd looking for something different from traditional entertainment was great and their popularity was such that it is hard to imagine today. Young Kawabata Yasunari and Nagai Kafu, who both frequented Asakusa then, would eagerly write about their encounters with newcomers in the entertainment business. Asakusa offered the new, if not vulgar, and fascinated the public more than any other place in Tokyo. Incidentally, Asakusa’s history as such seems to invite scholarly investigation and as I learned by chance, there is a group of people who study “Asakusalogy” (if such term can exist).
During the Taisho era, motion pictures were introduced to Asakusa, and in its heyday, there were 14 movie theaters showing motion pictures, including silent films with benshi narrating the stories. Asakusa also boasted the highest building in Tokyo at one point; called Junikai or Twelve Stories, it was a symbol of new consumerism that went hand in hand with mass entertainment.
The tower, however, collapsed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and although Asakusa’s recovery from the devastation of the earthquake was generally swift, the same enthusiasm toward the entertainment industry never quite returned. Young people began moving to Ginza and Shinjuku, looking for pleasure and stimulation offered by new and ever-changing businesses. That no notable university campuses, thus young people, were in Asakusa, some say, was a definite detriment. Its decline continued after the Pacific War, and even after U.S. Occupation released the Sensoji Temple complex back to the Japanese public, it was not the same vibrant neighborhood as it had been. During the 1960s, many theaters and halls in the Rokku entertainment quarter closed their doors for good, aided by the arrival of the television era when many movie theaters saw a loss of patrons.
I do not know when Asakusa ceased to be the most popular destination among foreign visitors to Tokyo, but Shinjuku, I was told, has replaced it as far as the number of tourists goes.
Today, the Ward (of Taito) office, along with local merchants, is anxious to promote tourism among the Japanese as well as foreign visitors. In its newly built tourist center, for instance, it offers, in addition to information, hands-on classes such as in shamisen, a traditional three-string instrument. Seeing a large crowd of sightseers in Asakusa, however, is limited to weekends, holidays and festival times, and primarily around Sensoji Temple. Foreign tourists come to Asakusa expecting to find “old Japan.” Perhaps with this in mind, rickshaw sightseeing tours were recently introduced. Rickshaw is a Meiji invention, not an Edo practice as many might think. Whether or not they’ll be a successful attraction in the area remains to be seen, but I do not see many people, especially tourists, riding them. Perhaps the fee ($30 for fifteen minutes) is a bit too stiff but those at the rickshaw do function as guides as well (only in Japanese, I think).
This series introduces a historical view of various sites in Tokyo. The writer can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.