Taisho Roman and Social Change in Tokyo
The Taisho Period was a short, but fairly peaceful and prosperous time in Japan, considered to be the Japanese version of the Roaring Twenties, with economic growth and increasing importation of culture from the West, particularly Europe. Looking back, it was almost a proto-hipster era, complete with handlebar moustaches and ostentatious fashion choices influenced by the West. Imagine growing up in the Edo and Meiji periods, and suddenly seeing young people walking around in suits and top hats, and kimono with loud and colorful patterns. It must have seemed absurd!
While the Meiji Period was defined by grand, European-style government buildings and public works meant to project the image of strength and empire, Taisho-style architecture and design reflected many of those European elements in everyday homes and shops. New materials, and especially small design flourishes began to differentiate otherwise uniform Japanese-style buildings. Windows and doors in particular started to take on more Western elements, with unconventional shapes, and tiny details in the woodwork. This wasn’t the minimalism we usually associate with Japan, but the birth of a new sense of design and creativity into the growing middle class.
Much of this is now called the Taisho Roman style, short for “Taisho Romanticism”, and can still be found in both original and reconstructed buildings, but like most aging buildings they are quickly disappearing with age and new construction. Many barely made it out of the Taisho Period at all. With 1923’s Great Kanto earthquake and subsequent fire, and then the firebombing of Tokyo during WWII it’s a miracle for any of them to be standing. When you do find a Taisho Roman building, you know it immediately.
While it’s quickly changing due to the relocation of the fish market, Tsukiji is a great place to find small clusters of Taisho era shops. Many are being renovated to house newer businesses on the first floor, but they still retain their shapes, and many preserve their upper floors as well. Just north of the market, the retro exterior of popular butcher’s and yakiniku restaurant Miyagawashokkeiran sports the trademark wooden window frames of the Taisho Roman style on its upper floors.
Although established in the Meiji era and redesigned at the beginning of the Showa era, a typical Taisho technique known as billboard architecture was used where the original shape of the building was kept but covered over with cement and painted over in a garish copper green common to the Taisho era. To really experience Taisho Roman, a quick trip out to Kawagoe in Saitama will bring you to Taisho Roman Dori, perhaps the most intact district of original buildings from this period, and with many of them still holding the original shops.
Not limited to gaudy greens, the Ohashi Ganka Clinic in Kitasenju exhibits a more gothic European style that was also adopted during the Taisho era. Though a reconstruction of the previous aging building from 1917, the clinic remained faithful its origins when rebuilt in 1982, and even the Kitarodo 1010 shotengai that it sits along has been carefully composed around the grounds drawing your eyes to the contrast of the European balconies and steep gables against a backdrop of modern Japanese apartment blocks.
Perhaps the best way to get a sense of the interior design elements is in a traditional Japanese coffee shop, or kissaten. These shops enjoyed an incredible boom during the era, as imports of coffee increased from places like Brazil, and cafe culture started to become hip for socialising. There are many coffee shops in Japan still operating in their original buildings, though even the ones built throughout later decades were designed with a similar aesthetic that became the default style for how a traditional Japanese cafe should look and feel. You can find a retro-style cafe in nearly any neighborhood or town, but our favorites in Tokyo are Kojo in Ueno and the Meikyoku Kissa Lion in Shibuya, a truly original cafe for classical music lovers where no talking is allowed and all of the chairs face forward to the music coming from their vintage audio system.
While there aren’t many new buildings (if any) being constructed in the Taisho style, once you see a few originals you’ll start to notice those small details across all kinds of design, from interiors to tea packages. For Japanese, it represents a growing and vibrant Japan before the war, just starting to connect with the rest of the world and come into its own in terms of a unique design sense for the general public.
- Facility Name
- Ohashi Ophthalmology Clinic
- Tokyo Adachi-ku Senju 3-31
- Information Sources:
- NAVITIME JAPAN