Meiji Through Architecture in Tokyo

Tokyo History by Design

The century that followed the close of the Edo period in 1868 was a turbulent one in which Tokyo was subject to the Great Kanto earthquake, two world wars, and fire bombings which, combined, wiped out the majority of the city. As a result, finding historical buildings around the capital can prove challenging and the architectural focus has naturally veered towards the modern structures that dominate Tokyo today. While authentic remnants of the Edo period are nearly impossible to come by in the capital, learning to spot Meiji, Taisho, and Showa architecture can provide a fascinating insight into the last 150 years of Japanese history.

The Meiji Architecture of Empire

The Meiji period, which ran from 1868 to 1912, marks one of the key turning points in both Japanese architecture and the history of the country as a whole. The almost 300-year-long Edo era ended abruptly in 1868 when Emperor Meiji took over in a bid to bring Japan up to speed with the Western world. The dramatic transitions made during the Meiji Restoration are reflected ostentatiously in the architecture of the time which was defined by direct copies of the European style which introduced stone, intricate design, and grandeur.

Out of context, a Meiji era building may look like any other European manor house, however, these recognizable structures dotted around Tokyo act as a symbol of the monumental changes the country went through during the Meiji period and thereafter. Bearing in mind that this small archipelago was completely isolated from the Western world as a “closed country” until 1853, the transition from modest, wooden structures to extravagant, stone buildings, which happened almost overnight, was a great shock to the public who had spent their lives sheltered from the outside world.

The Meiji Architecture of Empire

The construction of new buildings during the Meiji era was somewhat sporadic, meaning there is no one place in Tokyo with a high concentration of European buildings. However, many of these out-of-place structures are conveniently cosied up alongside some of Tokyo’s biggest green areas starting next to the Imperial Palace grounds in Marunouchi. One of the most reputable names in British architecture in Japan, Josiah Conder designed the Mitsubishi Ichigokan, among a handful of other buildings around Tokyo, after he was invited to spread the teachings of British architecture at Tokyo’s Imperial College of Engineering in 1877. Attracting attention in the business district as the first Western office building, the sprawling red brick building is now open as a museum and café found tucked between towering skyscrapers. Café 1894, named after the year it was built, mimics the original style of the British designed Mitsubishi banking department it once housed.

The Meiji Architecture of Empire

It would be remiss to talk about Meiji architecture without mentioning Kingo Tatsuno and one of the city’s most iconic buildings, Tokyo Station. As a student of Conder, Tatsuno’s style was heavily influenced by British architecture but with his own unique approach which seems to have been the key to success in many of Japan’s endeavours from architecture to technology. Tatsuno used his favoured characteristics of red brick and granite stone roofing to create Tokyo Station which was complete in 1908 and by some stroke of luck survived both the Great Kanto earthquake and the world wars.

The Meiji Architecture of Empire
The Meiji Architecture of Empire

Iconic buildings and manor houses for important individuals made up a large proportion of the grand structures built during the Meiji period, including the Kyu-Iwasaki-tei, built in 1896 on behalf of the Iwasaki family. The wooden interior, furnishings, and columned veranda are reminiscent of the styles of 17th century Jacobean, British Renaissance, and colonial style decor respectively. Even more interesting perhaps than the design of the western side of the building is its juxtaposition with the adjoining Japanese building and its gardens which seem to form the perfect representation of the extremity of the changes the Meiji Restoration instigated.

The Meiji Architecture of Empire

As many of the European style buildings constructed at the turn of the 20th century were created primarily as a means of demonstrating the country’s ability to develop quickly, very few of the buildings were actually built to be functional. However, a spattering of more usable Meiji buildings remain around Tokyo including the Old Shimbashi Station Historic Site, which is a reproduction of the original terminus of Japan’s first railway line.

While the stone buildings constructed during the Meiji era were sturdier than wooden temples and townhouses, they certainly weren’t designed to withstand earthquakes so most of the original buildings were destroyed following the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923. Many of the remaining buildings around Japan have been gathered at the outdoor architectural museum Meiji Mura in Aichi Prefecture for those traveling outside of Tokyo.

Facility Name
Kyu-Iwasaki-tei Gardens
Address
Tokyo Taitou-ku Ikenohata 1-3-45
Phone
0338238340
Hours
9:00-17:00 (Admission until 16:30)
Closed
12/29-1/1
Fees
[Admission fee] General 400 yen, Over 65200 yen, Elementary School Students or less Free
Parking Lot
Not available
Credit Card
Not available
Introduction
This is a Tokyo Government-run park located in Taito City. Since the premises with its garden was the principal residence of the Iwasaki clan, who presided over the Mitsubishi zaibatsu, it has been designated as an Important Cultural Property of the country. There is a Japanese-style house based on the classical shoin style of architecture and a Western-style mansion featuring Jacobean motifs of 17th-century England. The impressive balance achieved in the juxtaposition of these two structures had a significant influence on Japanese architecture.
Information Sources:
NAVITIME JAPAN
Facility Name
Kyu Shimbashi Teishajo
Address
Tokyo Minato-ku Higashishimbashi 1-5-3
Phone
0335721872
Business hours
10-17 (Admission -1645 minutes)
Regular holiday
Monday (the following day if Monday is a national holiday), the exhibition replacement period
Information Sources:
NAVITIME JAPAN

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    Kyu Shimbashi Teishajo

    Fun/Leisure/Hobby
    Tokyo Minato-ku Higashishimbashi 1-5-3
  • Kyu-Iwasaki-tei Gardens image

    Kyu-Iwasaki-tei Gardens

    Travel/Sightseeing
    Tokyo Taitou-ku Ikenohata 1-3-45
  • dummy image

    Eat out/Cafe/Bar/Pub
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