Colorful flowers in the Glover Garden in Nagasaki, Japan

Prewar Modern Architecture in Japan | Beautiful architecture with a blend of Japanese and Western styles

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When you think of modern architecture in Japan, you are most likely to think about post-war contemporary constructions in Tokyo like the Skytree, several architectural pieces of art in the Omotesando and Ginza areas, and the International Forum near Tokyo Station. For traditional architecture, it is best to visit Kyoto, but how about that special period in Japanese history when they were first flooded with Western influences, the Meiji Period? Let us give you an overview of what happened, and which buildings are great examples of this special type of quasi-Western Meiji era architecture.

Western Architects in Japan

When Japan was opened to the rest of the world at the end of the Edo period, foreign residences, trading posts, and churches began to be built in the area. Glover’s mansion was built on Nagasaki‘s hilltop and was built by the Japanese according to Glover’s instructions, but foreign engineers who came to Japan also began to work on the mansion. Inspired by the architecture of the settlement, master carpenters built Western-style buildings throughout Japan in the early Meiji period (quasi-Western architecture), imitating the way they were built.

Beginning of the Meiji Era

At the beginning of the Meiji era, the Japanese government was eager to acquire Western architectural techniques in order to build the cities needed for modernization. British architect Josiah Conder was invited to work in Japan as an advisor for the government and teacher for Japanese architects. One of his students was Tatsuno Kingo, the Japanese architect who went on to build the building for Tokyo Station and the Japanese Bank.

The government’s plan to concentrate on government offices made it necessary to train more professionals, and he approached the German government, which Japan considered to be one of the most advanced countries in Europe to which it could aspire, with an offer of leadership. It was decided that the design office of Hermann Ende and Wilhelm Boeckmann would be in charge of the project, and they came to Japan.

Ende and Boeckmann advised the Japanese government of the time to send 20 young men to Germany to acquire the skills needed to build a modern nation, and the government dispatched a total of 20 young men to Germany, including three architectural engineers, Tsumaki Yoriki, Watanabe Yuzuru, and Kawai Kozo, and 17 advanced masons, carpenters, artificial stone plasterers, bricklayers, painters, roofers, and plasterers.

After three years of study, some of them became the first graduates of the current Tokyo Institute of Technology and some became artists, but many of them were active in the field of architecture in Japan. Among other noteworthy achievements, Kotaro Sakurai, who studied at the University of London, became the first Japanese to be certified as an architect in England in 1892.

Architecture as Engineering

In Japan, architecture was seen as a technology to be learned from the West for the sake of modernization, and it was no longer considered to be art or art at all. In addition, after two large earthquakes that caused extensive damage to brick buildings, there was a growing interest in Japan’s unique technology for earthquake-resistant construction. Thus, the tendency to think of architecture as an engineering discipline became stronger. This attitude has continued to this day.

In 1920, in the middle of the Taisho era, Sutemi Horiguchi, Mamoru Yamada, Kikuji Ishimoto, Keiichi Morita, Mayumi Takizawa, and other graduates of Tokyo Imperial University’s Department of Architecture gathered to form the Secessionist Architecture Association, the first architectural design movement in Japan.

Meiji Era Buildings in Tokyo

If you travel to Japan and have an interest in architecture, you should definitely check out a few buildings from this fascinating period in Japanese history. The good news is that Tokyo still has quite a few surviving buildings that date back to the Meiji period, so you won’t need to travel far to find constructions from this era. Here are 3 typical examples of prewar modern architecture in Tokyo:

  • Ichigokan, Tokyo: while this is not the original version of the building that was built by Josiah Conder and modeled after office buildings of that time in England, this newly constructed building that opened in 2010 is a very precise reconstruction of the original. The red bricks truly bring a nostalgic feel of the British architecture of the late 19th century.
  • International Library of Children’s Literature, Tokyo: this children’s library is situated in the renovated building of what used to be the official library of the Ueno area. It is essentially a steel frame with brick cladding, as was usual at that time.
  • Bank of Japan Head Office, Tokyo: designed by Tatsuo Kingo, the building of the Bank of Japan in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi area strongly resembles the building of the National Bank of Belgium which was considered one of the most modern designs of its time. It is very interesting to see a Renaissance-inspired design in the middle of Tokyo, as this style is rarely seen anywhere else in Japan.

Meiji Era Architecture Outside of Tokyo

Here are two areas outside of Tokyo where you can see some fine examples of constructions from the pre-war period in Japan;

  • Kitanocho, Kobe: if you travel to Kyoto or Osaka, Kobe is only a short train ride away. Kitanocho is really worth a visit if you are interested in Meiji era architecture as this is a whole village that is filled with beautiful buildings from that time. As this area is near the port, Kitanocho was a place where many foreigners lived who brought their architectural predilection with them, so it is no surprise that a British man designed the area. A real attraction for locals at the time, it is now especially interesting for tourists to the area.
  • Glover Garden, Nagasaki: similar to Kitanocho, Glover Garden is also an area where many foreigners settled after the Japanese borders opened to them. Mr. Glover was originally from Scotland and settled in Nagasaki when the port opened to all foreign trade. He later played a role in overthrowing the old government that was the start of this new era. His house, which you can see in this garden, is the oldest wooden building in the Meiji style in Japan.

Your Japan Tour

As seasoned Japan experts, we can help you create your perfect Japan tour including itineraries that includes beautiful Meiji era modern architecture. Contact us to start planning your unforgettable holiday to this fascinating country full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, culture, history, nature, and delicious food!

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