Chicago Shimpo
Rare Photos of Architecture in Meiji Tokyo Tells Story of Modernizing Japan
Exhibition: Edo/Tokyo - Seen Through Its Edifices

• A collection of rare photos of buildings in Tokyo, taken during the early Meiji period by an Italian envoy to Japan, visited Chicago April 15 - 30 on its first trip outside Japan.
• The exhibition, “Edo/Tokyo – Seen through Its Edifices,” at the Japan Information Center in the Consulate General of Japan in Chicago, presented 50 photos taken by the Italian Envoy/Commander B. Bolanni between 1877 and 1881.
• Bolanni’s photos show public buildings in Tokyo, such as the Supreme Court of Justice of Japan and the Ministry of Home Affairs, built during the period when the country was still in transition from the feudal Edo to the modern Meiji era. Every aspect of the government and the society was fluid, and the Meiji government was hastily converting the existing residences of daimyos (feudal lords) into public offices. Some of the buildings in Bolanni’s photos show traditional Japanese tiled roofs on top of stately structures in varied Western styles.
• The collection, originally in an album “Assorted Japanese Sightseeing Spots,” had been discovered in Italy and recently acquired by the Japan Camera Industry Institute, which co-organized the exhibition with the Media Art League.

• An opening reception was held on April 18 at the exhibition venue, featuring lectures by Miro Ito from the Japan Camera Industry Institute/Media Art League and Thomas Gaubatz, Assistant Professor at Northwestern University. Dancer Shunso Arai provided a solo ballet performance inspired by the Meiji era.

DNA of Traditional Japanese Architecture
By Miro Ito

• During the Meiji period that began in 1868, the newly formed Meiji government achieved an amazing feat of rapid modernization that transformed the country from the feudal Samurai society to a nation aspiring to catch up with the West. The Ministry of Industry was created in 1870 to promote industrial activities including civil engineering, mining, shipbuilding and railway expansion with the help of a staff of 249 from overseas. The Imperial College of Engineering, founded in 1886, came to be known as the cradle of Japan’s future prominent architects under the tutelage of British architect Josiah Conder.
• Fire-resistant red brick architecture became a symbol of the Westernized Japan in the new era after a huge fire decimated a large portion of Tokyo – including the Marunouchi, Ginza and Tsukiji districts – in 1872. After the fire, European-style brick houses and buildings replaced the traditional wooden structures that had dominated the capital previously known as Edo. These Western structures in Meiji Tokyo, as seen in Bolanni’s photos, all have a strong characteristic feel of Japanese flavor. Why?
• The event’s co-organizer Miro Ito explained that it’s because there is the “Japanese DNA” in this Western architectural style that was formed in the early Meiji era, which lives on and is still evolving in contemporary Japan.
• Throughout the 1400 years of Japanese architectural history, highly complex and advanced wood post-and-beam structures developed, in contrast with the Western masonry-dominated construction method of stone and brick. Following the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century, large scale temples utilizing complex wood construction techniques began to be erected in Japan. This technique, imported from China, avoided the use of stones and instead used a wooden pillar and beam system, which thereafter developed into a unique and highly sophisticated wooden structural system, as typically seen in the Horyuji temple in Nara.
• A roof is often seen as the crown of an edifice, a dominant and integral part of the dwelling in ancient Japan. With Buddhist temples of the 6-8th centuries, roofs developed into an elegant and dynamic form with the upward sloping eaves. In time, this roof style led to an invention of the “double roof structure” to allow a greater depth of the building with a complex frame structure called koya-gumi (wooden roof truss). This paved a way to the increasingly complex, multi-roof system that appeared with the “shinden-zukuri” style from the 9th century onward. The shinden style’s essential characteristics are the U-shaped, symmetrical arrangement of a group of buildings around the courtyard. According to Ito, Frank Lloyd Wright was inspired by this style for the layout of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (built in 1893).
• This is all basically a wood post-and-beam construction, variations of which produced a multi-roof and multi-story structure seen in the samurai lord castles in the 14th-16th centuries. The multi-layered roofs of these castles extend upward, representing the “zenith of organic principles of architecture” and creating a highly impressive sight.
• Another aspect of the “DNA of Japanese architecture” is the “shoin-zukuri” style that developed as samurai residences in the 16th-17th centuries. Featuring “chigaidana” (set of staged shelves), shoji window and “tokonoma” alcoves, this style originated from Zen monk’s study and is the root of simplicity of modern architecture.

• The DNA of Japanese traditional architecture had been applied to the modern architecture with stones and bricks during the post-Meiji Restoration “experiments” of “East meets West.” In this experiment, a “diverse blend of Gothic, Victorian Colonial/Indian Saracen, Neo-Baroque, Beaux-Arts architecture styles with traditional Japanese elements resulted in a uniquely Japanese style of ‘faux-occidentale.’”

• While Japanese architects were hugely influenced by European architecture during the Meiji era “experiment,” traditional Japanese architecture also inspired the West, to formulate generations of modern-day architects with unique styles. They include architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus movement, in addition to Frank Lloyd Wright.

• In the post-World War II era, the DNA of Japanese traditional architecture was rediscovered by the new generations of Japanese architects.
• What Ito calls the “returning modernist DNA” helped create the Japanese Modernist movement, represented by prominent architects such as Kenzo Tange and Togo Murano. Tange’s Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Murano’s Memorial Cathedral for World Peace and the Nissei Theater also by Murano are typical examples of this movement.
• Additionally, traces of the traditional Japanese architecture DNA can be detected in works by Tadao Ando, Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, all named as “successor of the modernism” by Ito.

Edo/Tokyo: Everyday Edifices
By Thomas Gaubatz

• Gaubatz, who teaches Japanese history at Northwestern University, spoke about everyday life of Edo residents before the city changed its name to Tokyo and what happened to them thereafter.

• Gaubatz introduced the audience to the Edo period life in rear tenement (“ura-nagaya”), showing the illustrations in Shikitei Sanba’s 1813 comic novel Ukiyo-doko (“floating world barber”).
• Edo was one of the largest cities in the world at that time, with 1.2 - 1.3 million residents.
• The tenement was a typical residence to house the low-income populace who were from across Japan and somehow ended up in Edo, with a motley assembly of characters and life stories. It was a “melting pot” where a variety of local accents and patois were heard, and a strongly-bonded community where its members helped and supported each other. Many of the women there worked, and it was common that they had voices of power accordingly.
• When Edo became Tokyo, the architectural landscape surrounding tenements began to change on a daily basis, with more and more new constructions of Western-style buildings being erected. However, the rear tenements survived unchanged until the great earthquake of 1923.
• Modernization brought the new middle class in Tokyo, as the middle- and lower-samurai classes turned into salaried employees. They typically lived in houses in uptown Tokyo.
• As the higher education institutions opened in Meiji Tokyo, students came to Tokyo from every corner of the country. To meet the housing needs for such students, boarding houses became common in the city. Particularly common were boarding houses run by widowers with rooms to rent. Some of the Meiji literatures depict ambitious young students and their lives in typical boarding houses.
• Apartment buildings for the growing middle class appeared in the late Meiji period, first of which was Ueno Club, a five-story wooden building built in 1910.
• All this while, old tenements from the Edo period that survived these changes were still seen in the Fukagawa area in central Tokyo without many changes, until the disaster of 1923.
• The tenement residents’ everyday life, their concerns and worries are memorialized in the novels by the Meiji-born author Kafu Nagai.
• Though surrounded by the inevitable passage of time and changes, Gaubatz said the surviving tenement community was not simply left dying. Support from the local offices were still present pretty much like the Edo period, and the unique culture of mutual support was still alive and well among the residents, who had been shoved off the edge of the modernizing world.

Solo Ballet Performance “Kojo no tsuki”
By Shunso Arai

• To accompany the photos of Meiji Japan, dancer Shunso Arai presented his original dance inspired by the Japanese song “Kojo no tsuki” (“The Moon over the Ruined Castle”) composed by Rentaro Taki and written by Bansui Doi in the Meiji period.
• Miro Ito was the artistic director of the dance, which has been choreographed by Arai himself. It’s designed to express nostalgia for the disappearing old Japan and hope for the new Japan, in the theme of “East meets West.”
• Arai appeared in front of the audience in a costume of a shiny gold bodice, with a black kimono-like top reminiscence of the armor from medieval Japan. According to Ito, who designed the costume, it was imaged after the European armor and Japanese kimono, made from kimono materials.
• Arai, once a member of the National Theatre Ballet of Brno in Czech Republic, said he summoned all of his experience to create this dance. It felt to him like reviving all the techniques he was practicing in his 20s.
• It took Arai almost a year to perfect this dance; he was still making changes until the last moment before the performance, according to Arai.
• “I think the final product [of my performance] is just like these photos [exhibited here],” he said.

• A ballet performance is hard work, and a dancer’s lifespan is pretty short, Arai said. Dancers are prone to frequent injuries (the toes suffer an impact of four times the body weight when landing after a jump). When dancers pass their mid-30s, they become less desirable for stage performance.
• “With more opportunities to perform, a dancer grows more. And injuries will heal. So you shouldn’t be quick to give it up,” Arai said. “That’s what I tell young people to encourage them. I believe that’s my role.”






Miro Ito








Thomas Gaubatz


Dance Kojo no Tsuki (The Moon over the Ruined Castle) by Shunso Arai