Move the Emperor

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Tokyo City Hall

Looking down from the height of City Hall to the plaza below.

Tokyo street scene

The imperial palace at the center of Tokyo occupies a lot of expensive real estate. Why not sell the land and move the imperial family? The imperial family used to move around, very long ago; so there's no absolute demand that they stay in one place, and if you want one location, Kyoto housed the imperial family for over a thousand years. Their residence in Tokyo is not much more than a century and a half old. The fertility rituals the Emperor performs could be done in Kyoto just as they used to be.

But there is a tie to Tokyo. It is not to the imperial palace but to the now absent Edo Castle of the Tokugawa shoguns, which was the seat of real power since the 1600s. That power was exercised in the name of the absent emperor. Now the modern government exercises power in relation to the displaced emperor who lives on the site of and in the shadow of the shogun's demolished castle.

Suppose the emperor did move back to Kyoto, what would that do to Tokyo? Would the city prosper, or would it lose its heart? Or would anyone notice? Imagine Imperial Garden Condominiums on the site, or maybe just more anonymous Marunouchi office buildings. Or what about a theme park on Japanese history, using the current Imperial buildings?

The Meiji Restoration was supposed to banish Edo Castle power just as they dismantled the castle itself; the Restoration was to exorcise the ghost of the Tokugawas and refashion the elite. Now long-running historical TV dramas romanticize the earlier Tokugawa shoguns. The void in the center of Tokyo remains, even if you go into it, even if you meet the emperor. But you can't meet the central Power. It isn't there. In Tokyo it's clear that the political tie to place is not to an encountered source but to an absence at the center. You could not meet the Origin, just as you cannot encounter power or celebrity in itself face to face. Negative theology. Theme parks may pretend to achieve that presence -- maybe that is the only way to "see" it, but the Dao that can be spoken is not the eternal Dao.

The tie to place is earth and landscape, and social grammar, but also moments, formations, histories and encounters, and also encounters with absences. Ichigo ichie.

The most dramatic symbol of power in Tokyo is the lofty Tokyo Municipal Government city hall, which has chosen to clothe itself in Western images (it is Notre Dame, although in the place of the nave of the cathedral there is an enclosed plaza). Yet this city hall has less powerful than it seems, because the boroughs have much independence and the national government lords it over all from its low-slung buildings.