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Kiyochika: Master of the Night


Although Edo was Japan’s de facto center of political power from the early 1600s, Kyoto remained the capital until 1868, when an official transfer to Edo occurred and Edo’s name was changed to Tokyo. This map dates to 1879. Unlike the elegantly proportioned and stately streets of Kyoto, laid out in a classic grid pattern, the new ruling city accommodated a jigsaw puzzle of natural topography. Rivers, streams, and canals emptied into lowlands and estuaries. To the west of the Sumida River, land rose unevenly but steadily to a higher ground.

“High city, low city” was a phrase that defined both topography and social status. There were two focal points in the new Tokyo: the bustling commercial and entertainment areas along the river and, to the west, the parcels of land that grew from the central moated castle. When the shogun-daimyo-samurai societal structure collapsed, so did the reason for and population of that “retainer” culture. The city, high and low, was open to anyone—if not economically, at least for leisure activities and strolling around. Kiyochika’s prints explored new vistas, not with the conventional bird’s-eye view, but from a human eye at a human scale.

Credit for map:
Survey map of Tokyo (1879) from the collection of Edo-Tokyo Museum

The Freer|Sackler is closed for renovation and reinstallation. The popular exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan is still on view in the International Gallery. (Enter through the Ripley Center.) Join us for our reopening celebration on October 14–15, 2017.