Table Speech

26 Years of the Community Magazine Yanesen

February 10, 2010

Ms. Mayumi Mori
Non-fiction Writer & Essayist

 I was born and grew up in Douzaka, Bunkyo Ward in 1954. This area survived the Great Kanto Earthquake and the wartime air strikes. Looking back on my childhood in the mid-1950s, there were still many empty lots where children played with baseball, menko cards and spinning tops.

 Tokyo changed dramatically with the Tokyo Olympic Games of 1964. New roads and modern buildings were constructed one after another, yet my neighborhood with sooty tile-roofed houses with weatherboarding remained intact. I was 10 years old then, and I still recall how frustrated I felt.

 After some years, I returned to my hometown to bring up my children. As I took walks with my small children and looked around, I realized anew many old things from my childhood still remained: wooden telephone poles, old rainwater tanks, wooden garbage boxes, small wayside shrines and so on. Out of curiosity I conducted a research on my own town, and eventually it became something of an obsession for me. I also met many neighborhood housewives who showed interest in joining my project.

 Our community has many old things, as it developed around Kanei Temple founded in Ueno in early 17th century. There are still more than 100 temples in Yanaka. As we conducted extensive research, we found out that Ueno became the academic and cultural center after the Meiji era. Just looking at writers, Ougai Mori, Souseki Natsume, Rohan Kouda, Ichiyo Higuchi, Touson Shimazaki, Koutarou Takamura and Yuriko Miyamoto had all lived in our town.

 In October, 1984, we published the first small community magazine entitled “Yanaka, Nezu, Sendagi”, Yanesen for short, depicting three old areas of our community. The magazine has three features. Firstly, it has cover stories based on interviews, featuring the lives and deaths of ordinary people living in the community. Secondly, we select well-known places like Dango-zaka or Shinobazu Pond and write feature articles about them. And lastly, we accurately record the achievements made by artists, including writers and painters. When we launched our magazine, we could get very interesting first-hand experiences from people born in the 1890s. Today, only a few people have personal memories of life in the Meiji and Taisho eras.

 For the first issue, we sold 1,000 copies of 8-page-Yanesen in the precincts of Daien Temple in Yanaka. Today, it has grown into a 64-page-magazine published quarterly with 10,000 copies. We have 4 staff members and annual sales are approaching but not exceeding 13 million yen.

  Manuscripts are mainly based on oral recollections through interviews. We learnt that history of ordinary people, especially those underprivileged including women and children, can be recorded only through interviews.

 Yanesen is all handmade, from planning, data gathering, interviews,
writing, ad canvassing up to cut-designing. We deliver our magazines to 300 shops by bicycle. 60% of our readers are local residents, and the remaining 40% are former residents. We also send our magazines to readers overseas. Our activities go beyond magazine publication. As many people have come to enjoy walking, we now publish “easy to walk maps” and postcards.

 The final 94th number of Yanesen was published last August. Our current activities are updated on our website Yanesen, so please visit our site. Other activities are various events including lectures, exhibitions, movie shows and workshops. A circle was founded to record lives in Yanesen.

 During the past 26 years, I had interviewed about 3,000 people and recorded their life histories. Preserving as well as renewing and utilizing old buildings in and around the area are also our important activities. There are many historic constructions of great worth in Tokyo, which must be preserved. We first worked to preserve the Sougakudou in Ueno, which is the oldest concert hall built in 1890. The red-brick Tokyo Station is now being restored to its original form of 1914 as a result of our daily petitions. Today, many young people and overseas students are interested in historic Japanese construction and culture, and we receive requests from them wishing to live in these refurbished buildings, including traditional warehouse or row house.

 Now let me share with you the outcome of our activities. Today, the brand name Yanesen has developed a life of its own. It has made entry on list of “places young people prefer to live” and is getting positive evaluation as town loved by intellectuals. Young people have set up various groups and activities, including “Yanaka Art and Crafts Exhibition” or second-hand book fairs.

 We would like to keep supporting the young people, as we try to hand down the documents and materials we collected by compiling them into the “warehouse of memories.” We are also trying to convert written documents into visual and vocal materials.

 I was once told by an elderly resident that the Chinese letters for ‘information’ literally mean ‘repaying favor with charity. I would like to keep creating and sending out such warm information.