Monumentalizing the Everyday

The Edo-Tokyo Museum

Author: Jordan Sand

Abstract:

The Edo-Tokyo Museum is both the crowning achievement of the populist historiography of Edo- Tokyo studies and the monumental embodiment of an era of cultural nationalism in Japan. It embodies the perennial tension between the city as home to a unique local culture and the city as a site of state power. The historians who oversaw the design of the exhibits envisioned a celebration of local everyday life, and focused their efforts on narrating the history of a mythic urban folk. A critical walk through the museum reveals three fundamental modes of mythic projection that underwrote this folk narrative: the city of the past as a "world we have lost," commonplace tools as icons of an essential native culture resisting modernization, and the modern century as a march of progress in everyday life, indexed by ever-improving commodities. Throughout this narrative, the protagonists are the "ordinary people" (shomin) of Edo-Tokyo. In contrast, the building's architect saw the city solely in terms of its national significance and sought to project an image of grandeur suited to the position of Japan as triumphant superpower. No conflict was recognized between the two seemingly contradictory impulses, however, since myths of the everyday, exploited by government as well as academics in these years, promoted the easy fusion of local and national narratives.
Regions: East Asia
Countries: Japan

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September 2001
© Jeff Kingston