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
• 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
DNA of Traditional Japanese
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
• 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
• 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
• “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.”