Tokyo Before Tokyo: Book Review

The front cover of Tokyo Before Tokyo. 

Tokyo Before Tokyo: Power and Magic in the Shogun’s City of Edo by Timon Screech, published by Reaktion Books in 2020.

Tokyo Before Tokyo is the intriguing title of Timon Screech’s fascinating book, that together with its subtitle Power and Magic in the Shogun’s City of Edo, give the first clues that this book is going to be very interesting. The front cover, which features the multi-coloured print by Utagawa Hiroshige “Nihon Embankment at Yoshiwara” (from the series “One Hundred Views of Edo”), is also an indication of the book’s contents as this one image elegantly conveys the impression of commerce, nature, people, travel and something a little mysterious – all topics woven together by Professor Screech into an interesting portrait of a city which grew to be a powerful focus of urban civilisation and which eventually became modern day Tokyo. Almost everything recognisable from the city of Edo has now been lost under the contemporary mega-city of Tokyo, but Professor Screech skilfully uses contemporaneous sources such as diaries and wood-block prints to provide his readers with intriguing glimpses into both the built environment of Edo and the lives of its inhabitants.

In his introduction, Professor Screech sketches out how the pre-1590 small town of Edo had been settled from prehistoric times but only became politically and economically important from the time that the warrior Tokugawa clan rose in importance and set out to position Edo against the then capital which was situated at Kyoto. He makes clear that this book isn’t a chronological overview of 250 years of history, rather it is as he terms it “a selection of vignettes that are especially telling about how the city worked and how it was experienced [1].” He divides his writing into six chapters: “The Ideal City,” “The Centre of the Shogun’s Realm,” “Edo as Sacred Space,” “Reading Edo Castle,” “The City’s Poetic Presence,” and “A Trip to the Yoshiwara.” Those chapter headings give something of the flavour of the book’s content along with its epilogue “From Edo to Tokyo.”

The book is full of beautiful colour illustrations which Professor Screech (who is an art historian at SOAS) frequently draws upon as evidence for the vignettes he presents to the reader. A particularly compelling vignette is that of town planning and specifically of the siting, building, use and importance of the bridge Nihon-bashi. Screech argues that Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) built the Nihon-bashi in 1603, as a monument to rival those of Europe, to proclaim Ieyasu’s familial hometown Edo the new capital of Japan and to delineate the new start of the Tōkaidō road. Screech suggests a bridge was built, instead of a more typical commemorative structure such as a square, to be defensible [2]. 

By the end of the book, the reader is left with many vibrant impressions of a long vanished city which was once full of energy and life. Though grounded in Professor Screech’s scholarly research, it nevertheless seems to be a book written simply because its topics were of interest to its writer. In addition, the way it has been written makes it easy for a non-art historian to read and to enjoy – which is a great strength.


[1] Timon Screech, Tokyo Before Tokyo: Power and Magic in the Shogun’s City of Edo, (London: Reaktion Books, 2020), 8.

[2] Screech, Tokyo Before Tokyo, 63. 

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