In 1603, Japan severed diplomatic relations with the rest of the world and effectively became a hermit kingdom. The period from 1603 to 1868 was known as the Edo Period, and is often portrayed in film in other media.
A Buddhist monk turned tech entrepreneur wants to bring this back to reality—or rather virtual reality—with his project EDO VR.
"The Edo period was a very unique period in Japanese history, yet there's not much visual evidence from this period," Oishi Shinkyo told me over the phone. "I really want people from the present to learn about this period while having fun."
Shinkyo is collaborating with art historian Nobuo Nakamura to recreate a famous street that stretches from one area of Tokyo (Nihonbashi) to another (Kanda) based off of a famous Japanese handscroll artwork called the Kidai Shoran. In the preliminary mockup, you can see traditional streets and buildings crisscrossed with people from the Japan of old.
They took the Kidai Shoran as a reference point due to its scope.
"Woodblock prints only depict one scene, but this artwork shows the whole street view," said Shinkyo. "It's a bit like a Google street map from the past."
Shinkyo, who was born into the life of a Buddhist monk, studied at Ryukoku University—originally founded just for Buddhist monks—before entering the IT sector. He spent a few years working with tech companies making gaming apps before setting up his own virtual reality startup AVATRA six months ago to focus on his project of recreating feudal Tokyo in VR. Shinkyo is still working as a part-time monk.
Through making this VR world, Shinkyo explained that he wanted to provide a more authentic portrayal of Edo Japan than the average viewer might have observed through mainstream Japanese period dramas and films.
"Those programmes sometimes recreate a fantasy version of Edo Japan by including elements that didn't actually exist in the past," said Shinkyo, citing epic group fight scenes between samurais as an example. "There are a lot of gaps in people's knowledge with regards to this historical period—it was actually a really peaceful time, for example."
While the project is just getting started, Shinkyo wants people to get a sense of what has and hasn't changed in Tokyo. As an example, he noted that certain street names remained unchanged in the present even though massive skyscrapers now stand where once there may have been a wooden shack.
Ultimately, Shinkyo wants to turn his version of VR Tokyo into a gaming world, and also envisions applications in museums and classrooms so that kids can receive a more hands-on history lesson.
"We're just crowdfunding so we can recreate sections of Edo Tokyo in VR at the moment, and it's trial and error at this stage, but after that we want to do a game project that either contains a narrative or that focuses on specific events in sections of Tokyo," added Shinkyo.
Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.