Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Anna Sherman's "The Bells of Old Tokyo"

Anna Sherman was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. She studied Greek and Latin at Wellesley College and at Lincoln College, Oxford. Sherman worked as an editor at Millennium Journal of International Studies, Financial Times Energy, and then, after moving to Asia in 2001, for Hong Kong University Press and other imprints in Hong Kong and Tokyo.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Bells of Old Tokyo, her first book, and reported the following:
The Bells of Old Tokyo evolved as voices in a labyrinth. Each speaker connects the reader to the city’s past and its future. Page 99 is an interview with Yamamoto Makoto, who rings the Bell of Time in Ueno Park, as his grandfather and then his mother had before him.

With a few brief words, Yamamoto sketches the history of time-keeping through the twentieth-century and the twenty-first: its evolution from radio announcements to television broadcasts to satellite signals beamed to mobile phones. How did anyone know what time it was before those modern technologies existed? I asked Yamamoto. Before the modern era, no one really cared about being so precise, he answered. ‘But now it’s the Digital Age, and things are different.’

I came away from the interview profoundly moved by Yamamoto’s fidelity to an ancient concept in a city famous for its cutting-edge technologies; also how lonely it is, ringing that bell every single day at 6AM and 6PM. (Yamamoto’s wife rings it at noon, when he is at work.) When Yamamoto retires, someone else will take over: his children will give up the house and the position. I asked Yamamoto if he himself, as a child, wanted to become the bell-ringer. ‘Absolutely not,’ he said, somber. ‘I wanted what everyone wants. I wanted the life other people had. When you’re the bell-ringer, you can never go away on holiday. You can never take time off to be sick…’

It’s eerie: page 99 is the crossroads of The Bells of Old Tokyo; its heart. The passage follows the book’s two great narrative fractures – the first is a break in Tokyo’s own history: the last shogun has just departed the city, after which Tokyo became the capital, and Japan began modernizing at breakneck speed. The second fracture happened in my own life: I left Tokyo after the 2011 tsunami and the Fukushima reactors exploded. Page 100 marks my return, but on page 99 I’m still outside Tokyo: an exile.

Page 99 is very characteristic of the book: I take the reader inside a private space, one out-of-bounds to most people living in the city. While writing Bells, I often visited hidden, forgotten places and sometimes forbidden ones: the inner sancta of temples; laboratories where physicists build atomic clocks tiny as rice grains; memorials to war victims in softly-lit chambers inside the earth; artists’ workshops. Places anyone can visit and others where you have to beg your way in. Yamamoto’s house and its bell tower were places I begged my way in, but once there, found richness – Yamamoto's family memories, the bonds that tie him to place, and the great bell itself.
Visit Anna Sherman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue