Tokyo’s Epoch-Defining Architecture

Rapidly changing attitudes toward Western design (Taishō, Part 2A)

The Taishō period (大正時代, 1912–26) was a time of unprecedented urban expansion in Japan. By the middle of the era, Tokyo (東京) would take on the shape recognizable in the modern city, one completely different from the feudal city some older denizens would still have recalled. Called Edo (江戸) during the Tokugawa Shogunate (徳川幕府, Tokugwa Bakufu, 1600–1868), the city was renamed and made Japan’s capital after the Meiji Restoration (明治維新, Meiji Ishin, 1868).

Already by the time of the Great Kantō Earthquake (関東大地震, Kantō dai-jishin, 1923), the population of the city alone was well over two million, and if we consider the suburban areas of the prefecture, the number rises to nearly four million. Underscoring the shift from rural to urban, as of the 1920 census, more than half of the city’s residents had not been not born there.¹

Along with these changes in population, there was also an architectural Westernization that occurred, initially in a strictly literal way during Meiji, but soon coming to take on a distinctly Japanese flavor.

Japanese culture’s ability to take outside influences, adapt them, and integrate them has come to be emblematic. This reputation reached its peak together with the nation’s economic dominance in the ’80s, particularly regarding their manufacturing sector. The phenomenon was by no means new; their more regional borrowings such as the adoption of Chinese Hanzi as kanji (both 漢字), and from which their other scripts, hiragana (平仮名) and katakana (片仮名) also ultimately derive is an early example: Kanji and Hanzi are closely related systems of ideographic writing, while hiragana is the main syllabary for Japanese and katakana is a syllabary generally reserved for words of foreign (other than Chinese) origin. While this certainly enriched the Japanese language, it also created one of the most Byzantine writing systems ever.

For a more era-appropriate example, there is a whole category of food known as yoshoku (洋食), translating as “Western food”. According to an article in the Japan Times

But what it really means is European dishes as interpreted and assimilated by Japanese chefs over a century ago, at the time when foreign foods—and chief among them meat dishes—were being discovered for the first time.

A corollary term, yōkan (洋館), came into being at this same time, meaning “Western-style buildings”, but just as with the culinary term, it referred to the Japanese version of European architecture, focused particularly on the Meiji and Taishō eras. After Taishō, it’s simply referred to as kindai kenchiku (近代建築), “modern architecture”.

The move from wholesale borrowing to adaptation can be seen in how attitudes toward Western architecture changed between Meiji and Taishō. In Meiji, Japan didn’t wait passively for Western ideas to arrive on its shores, it sought them voraciously, sending hundreds of scholars, diplomats, businessmen, etc. abroad to be schooled in the most modern thinking available. The Iwakura Mission (岩倉使節団, Iwakura Shisetsudan) was one particularly large and well-known venture, with over 100 individuals participating in a three-year (1871–1873) tour of the United States and Europe. The main objectives of the mission were to begin renegotiation of treaties with these powers, as well as making a thorough study of the modern industrial, political, military, and educational systems in the countries visited. Foreign experts were also invited to Japan to share their knowledge, and these factors together spurred Japan’s industrial revolution.

Architecture was far from an exception, and many Western-style constructions sprang up across the country. A still-extant red-brick neoclassical example is Tokyo’s Ministry of Justice Building (Hōmushōhonkan 法務省本館, now with 旧, “old” appended, Hōmushōkyūhonkan, as it is no longer in primary use). Already an architect of note for some 20 years in his native Germany, Wilhelm Böckmann was invited in 1886 by the Meiji government to rebuild Tokyo into a modern capital. A year later, he had his partner, Hermann Ende, join him, and together they designed the Ministry of Justice.

But the expatriate pair’s plans for a Japanese branch office together with a grand Hausmannesque redesign of Tokyo fell through, partly because of the massive budgetary requirements, but still more so because of a growing backlash against Western architects. Even design icon Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Imperial Hotel (teikoku hoteru, 帝国ホテル) was to be a fixture of Tokyo from Taishō until its demolition in the ’60s, returned home rather than remaining to see it completed.

Although the building and its architect are much more fondly thought of by the Japanese today, Western-style buildings as interpreted and designed by Japanese architects were already taking over. An excellent example is found in Tokyo’s Central Station (中央停車場, Chūō teishaba, now known simply as Tokyo Station, 東京駅, Tōkyō-Eki), a building still in use today. Another neoclassical, the building was designed by Tatsuno Kingo and Kasai Manji (辰野 金吾, 葛西 萬司), the former of who had studied in Europe and designed the Bank of Japan headquarters building in Tokyo (Nippon Ginkō, 日本銀行, also still in use) in 1890.

After some delays caused by the First Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, the station was finally opened in 1914. Though it shares several features with the Böckmann-Ende design both in terms of style and materials, the two stand in stark contrast: The Ministry of Justice Building would look at home in any European capital of the day, while Tatsuno’s design is unmistakably Japanese, intended as, and remaining to some extent, a national symbol.

Also in the Marunouchi (丸の内) area where Tokyo Station sits, the Marine Insurance Building, completed in 1917, was the first building to be designated a biru (ビル). Short for the kanaized English word “building” (birudingu, ビルディング), the word has come to describe most office buildings in Japan. Although much more restrained in terms of ornamentation, the facade shows a progression of the Japanese-Western style toward an Art-Deco sleekness and consolidation of details into geometrical shapes.

The use of the term biru is an interesting linguistic point as well: Foreign words, and in particular English ones, were borrowed into Japanese at an unprecedented rate at this time. Some of these words, apart from mobo and moga, which I’ve already remarked on, include mama and papa, which came to nearly supplant the native terms. But again, words that derive from foreign ones but have been so altered by Japanese usage as to be nearly unrecognizable, include rumpen and saboru. In Japanese, ルンペン, meaning “loafer”, comes from German Lumpenproletariat and サボる, “to skip” (work or class), comes from French sabotage, respectively. The latter is interestingly written in mixed kana with -ru appended in hiragana to turn the borrowed, abbreviated word into a Japanese verb.

The Ginza Wako building (銀座和光) provides an excellent example of the epochal sweep from Edo village to Taishō modernity: watchmaker Hattori Kintarō (服部 金太郎) identified the location of the wooden Asano Newspaper building (朝野新聞社屋, Chōyashinbunshaoku) as ideal for his new shop, commanding a central crossing of Ginza for his new shop. Incidentally, Hattori’s business was to evolve into an internationally well-known one: Seiko. He purchased and razed the old structure, replacing it with a Europeanized one, incorporating a clock tower in 1894.

The Hattori Watch Shop (服部時計店, Hattoritokeiten) was in turn destroyed to make way for the current building, which houses the evolution of another of Hattori’s ventures, a department store now known as Wako (株式). This building is iconic of modern Tokyo; a Taishō Deco-neoclassical structure made of concrete and steel designed by Watanabe Jin (渡辺 仁), also incorporating a clock tower.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 2B: When Tokyo Moved West

Part 3A: Asakusa Movies

Part 3B: Asakusa Opera

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go

Part 5: How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan

Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: Japan’s Turbulent Taishō


  1. Edward Seidensticker, Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake: How the Shogun’s Ancient Capital Became a Great Modern City, 1867–1923, 1983, which I’ve drawn from throughout.
  2. Robbie Swinnerton, “Toyoken: Narisawa’s take on ‘yoshoku’ cuisine”, Japan Times, 2014, emphasis mine.

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