Bringing Fresh Light to the Japanese ‘Enlightenment’

Hotel Meteropole, Tsukiji, Tokyo c.1905. Image from:

For today’s bloganuary entry I’m sharing my review of a book I recently read. As some of you know already, I occasionally contribute to Rosie Amber’s book review site. This book came to me via that source. Rosie will be posting it on January 25th.

The book is set in an area of Tokyo called Tsukiji, an area that is now a shopping mall, but that was, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, an area designated for the homes and businesses of foreigners. In the words of C.E. Ferguson, in an article entitled “The American Embassy in Tokyo”, published in The Overland Monthly, in February 1910 and quoted on the website, “The quarter of Tokyo given over to foreign residence is known as Tsukiji. The word means ‘made ground’, the few acres having been made by filling in a part of Tokyo Bay … It is a low flat region but little above the line of high tide and a storm occasionally floods it.”

The book’s author, Heather Hallman, added the following in a recent email to me: “The foreign quarter was established in 1869 as a concession to Western foreigners demanding residence and a commercial/diplomatic presence in the capital city. The first legations were housed in Tsukiji’s hotels. Unless foreigners married Japanese, if they wanted to live in Tokyo, they had to reside in Tsukiji, until the rules changed in 1899. The Great Kanto Earthquake pretty much leveled Tsukiji in 1923. All that remains today of the foreign quarter is a plaque near St. Luke’s hospital, which I believe is the only one of Tsukiji’s institutions to have survived in its original location. The university moved to Ikebukuro and the diplomatic missions scattered throughout the city, mostly to western Tokyo neighborhoods”

Her book is a superb evocation of what life might have been like in that place at that time.

I’m not sure why I expected something different when choosing this book. On the other hand, what I got was by no means a disappointment. That it might be better described as historical romance, rather than historical fiction, could provide an explanation, although, to be fair, it is both.

Written in a style full of the wit one might expect from a work by Jane Austen, this exploration of the unlikely relationship between two people from different cultures, set at the end of the nineteenth century, is a delight that can be experienced on several levels.

There is the inevitable clash of cultures that took place when the hitherto feudal Japan opened up to trade with Europe and the USA.

There is the rapidly evolving role of women in both cultures; there are the erotic possibilities that arise when two people experience a passionate desire to explore each other’s need for sexual fulfilment.

Finally there is the corruption and exploitation of human weaknesses that accompanies the pursuit of lucrative trade deals and investment in new infrastructure.

In Talk of Tokyo, all these elements combine to produce an effervescent cocktail of scenes to both educate and delight the reader. The central character, half French, half Japanese, is a young woman whose French father deserted the family whilst she was still a child. She is determined to ‘out’ any foreign male who seems likely to treat Japanese women with equal disdain. Until, that is, she meets an English man whose sensibilities prove he is, at the very least, the exception that proves the rule.

The story is told in alternating first person narratives from both hers and his point of view, a technique that permits the author to indulge her proficiency in wit and irony through the contrast between the two. Both characters mature as the story progresses so that, by the end, two become one, so to speak. Along the way they expose one or two criminal conspiracies, something they are able to do, in part, because of the incompetence and/or lack of commitment on the part of the conspirators.

All of the other characters have substance, too, as do the settings. There is just enough detail to bring a face, a room, or a street to life without over burdening the reader with too much dull description.

The whole book is a delight to read, none more so than the erotic passages which are beautifully handled, and ‘handled’, in this context, very definitely has a double meaning.

Try as I might, I cannot think of a single reason to award fewer than five stars. Highly recommended for anyone who likes romance or history – especially a place and period that remains largely hidden from view in the English speaking world. I congratulate Ms Hallman for bringing it into the light.

Talk of Tokyo by Heather Hallman. Boroughs Publishing Group, 2021.

There are purchase links on the author’s website:

3 thoughts on “Bringing Fresh Light to the Japanese ‘Enlightenment’

  1. Nice post. I live in Japan. Tsukiji actually still exists, but it became a fish wholesale market. Recently, they just moved that market and Tsukiji changed into a kind of shopping mall.

    If you want to see photos of the buildings that were rebuilt for the foreign residents, do a search for Yokohama. Many of the structures built after the quake still remain.

    Liked by 2 people

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