Authors have skillfully utilized Japanese cities like Tokyo to develop their stories and let readers appreciate the beauty and complexities of the country. Such real-life locations provide more than vivid and immersive reading experiences. It allows a story to flow into a wide variety of themes, from personal contemplation and love to struggles and societal issues. Literature also shows a truly interesting system of how cities in Japan are divided into smaller administrative units called special wards. Get to discover some of them by looking at how they got featured in Japanese novels. Who knows? You might find new additions to your list of future destinations.
What are ‘Special Wards’?
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Tokyo is a metropolitan prefecture composed of 23 special wards, 26 cities, 5 towns, and 8 villages. These special wards are only found in a ‘shitei toshi’ or designated city that exceeds a population of 500,000. Each ‘ku’ (ward) is governed by a chief and an assembly that is nominated by residents.
The term ‘special’ is used because, although they have a level of autonomy as local governments, they function seamlessly as one sizable metropolitan body in the heart of Tokyo. Several public services — which are typically handled by cities — are handled by the government of the larger prefecture. They consist of fire protection, sewage removal, and water delivery. Meanwhile, The wards are granted the authority to deal with matters that directly affect their people’s lives, like housing, education, and welfare, on their own. The metropolitan government imposes various taxes that would often be imposed by city governments to pay for the joint public services it offers to the twenty-three wards. It also makes transfer payments to wards that are unable to pay for their own government services.
Special wards are only present in Tokyo among the wards of large Japanese cities up to this day. However, before 1943, the wards of Tokyo City were just like those of Osaka or Kyoto. But by the 1970s, Tokyo’s special wards had much more autonomy than the wards in other cities, making them more equivalent to autonomous cities than districts. Some special wards explored in Japanese fiction are Meguro, Setagaya, and Shinagawa.
1. Meguro (LOVE by Hideo Furukawa)
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The Meguro Ward is located in the southwest of Tokyo, neighboring the central wards of Minato, Shibuya, and Shinjuku. Its ideal location offers quick access to the city’s main attractions while also providing a calmer and more peaceful ambiance as compared to the bustling city center of Tokyo. The Meguro River cuts across the ward’s land area and is a perfect place to see vibrant cherry blossoms.
In Hideo Furukawa’s 2005 Japanese novel featuring Tokyo is ‘LOVE.’ the characters remain in a constant state of motion, always in pursuit of elusive desires, most of which they ultimately fail to attain. As the story unfolds, their journeys lead them in various directions, but in the end, they all return to the same river. The twenty characters travel across the neighborhoods of Meguro, Gotanda, Shinagawa, and Shirokane in quest of solace, comfort, and safety from the pressures of daily life. The characters in these stories all share the trait of being subjects trying to locate something in the city — sometimes without even realizing it — that can help them untangle the tangle of their issues, emotions, and conflicts.
The city is a labyrinth where the characters’ quest is carried out; it is an apparently inhuman confusion of streets, alleys, buildings, and crossroads where they frequently get lost, but they also seem to be aware of which direction to go as if in response to an impulse, to a sort of physical – and perhaps unconscious – memory throughout the city.
The Landscape in LOVE
In LOVE, the urban landscape plays a more active role than simply serving as a projection of the characters’ emotional and mental states. It is fully realized from a symbolic point of view and eventually influences the plot because the book’s main characters—even the cats—move through life in much the same way that they move through the city. They are all clearly alone, indicating that being alone is the norm and an inevitable circumstance for people who live in cities.
2. Setagaya (Parêdo by Shûichi Yoshida)
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A short journey westward from Meguro leads to the ward of Setagaya. This city is known for its residential neighborhoods mostly made up of detached houses. If you make your way to the Miyanosaka Station, the Gotokuji Temple is just about a 10-minute walk away where you can find countless figures of the infamous Maneki Neko or Japan’s lucky cats.
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Author Shuichi Yoshida had this place as an inspiration for his Japanese novels featuring Tokyo is Parêdo or Parade. Five distinct narrators share their perspectives on their lives in the tranquil ward and the ongoing series of violent assaults that have been plaguing their neighborhood. The five young roommates discuss the happenings but don’t appear overly concerned. As they identify the person responsible for such attacks, the story reveals much about their mutual indifference in relation to the fortress they find at home. The characters’ frailty and lack of hope cause them to lose both the motivation to “conquer” the city and the drive to search for answers there.
Shimokitazawa (Moshi moshi Shimokitazawa by Yoshimoto Banana)
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One of the neighborhoods in Setagaya also gave life to the Japanese novel featuring Tokyo is Moshi moshi Shimokitazawa (Hello, Shimokitazawa Speaking) by brilliant writer Yoshimoto Banana. The narrative explores death, one of the author’s favorite themes, and explores how people cope with it in metropolitan settings.
Yoshie, the main character of the novel, had to deal with her father’s sudden death. Yoshie’s family boasts an affluent background, residing in a breathtaking mansion located in Meguro. Her mother, a woman of noble birth, exudes both kindness and a rebellious spirit. However, despite the opulence of her surroundings, Yoshie begins to experience a growing sense of unease within the confines of her home. It’s a feeling rooted in the pain she carries due to her father’s recent passing.
Recognizing the need for a change, Yoshie makes a decision. She opts to relocate to a modest, somewhat run-down apartment nestled in Shimokitazawa. This move marks a significant turning point in her life. The atmosphere of this neighborhood profoundly affects Yoshie, striking a chord with her anxious heart.
In sharp contrast to the pristine and orderly exterior of Meguro, Shimokitazawa’s chaotic and unpredictable ambiance mirrors Yoshie’s inner turmoil. The disorder, irrationality, and turbulence of the area resonate with her on a deep level. Moreover making her finally feel at home in a way she never did in her opulent mansion.
3. Shinagawa (Tôkyôwan kei by Shûichi Yoshida)
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In the southern region of Tokyo, close to the busy Tokyo Bay, sits Shinagawa Ward. Its advantageous location makes it a crucial transportation center with quick access to both Haneda Airport and the famous Tokyo Station, which acts as a main thoroughfare connecting Tokyo to other regions of Japan. Shinagawa has earned a reputation as a gateway to Tokyo and beyond in part due to its accessibility.
Shuichi’s renowned creation, “Tôkyôwan kei,” is a Japanese novel featuring Tokyo. It explores romantic love between Ryôsuke and Mio in a symbolic setting. Ryôsuke toils in a Shinagawa warehouse near Odaiba, an artificial island within Tokyo Waterfront City, where Mio also works.
Navigating Separation in the Urban Landscape
The closeness of Shinagawa and Odaiba is hindered by a challenging gap, just one kilometer apart. Tokyo’s complex transit system underscores their separation. The cityscape, not the city or its territory, undermines their bond.
The workplace shapes their social identities. They discuss challenges with coworkers and friends across the bay. The protagonists find strength to overcome the social structure, seeking allies in the urban setting that metaphorically caused their separation.