The people and stories behind Meiji Era’s (1867-1926) architecture

Facade of the State Guest House (Akasaka Palace)

Facade of the State Guest House (Akasaka Palace). Built in 1909, it is one of the biggest buildings constructed during the Meiji period. Photo: Heritage of Japan

Behind every building there is a backstory of the people for whom and the purpose for which it was built. There is also the story of pioneers at the dawn of Western-style architecture in Japan. The buildings of the Meiji Era tell of a bygone era, of the incredible innovations of Industrial Revolution introduced from Europe into Japan, of the local events and developments that paralleled those in the West. Take a walk back in time to explore some of those stories.

Factories are iconic symbols of the Industrial Revolution era. During the 19th century, the worldwide demand for cloth had grown so much that merchants and nations competed fiercely to meet the supply of textiles for making clothing. Textile mills and factories, beginning with England, installed new machines to increase productivity and to cut the costs of labour.

Tomioka Silk Mill

Tomioka Silk Mill is Japan’s oldest silk-reeling factory. Established in 1972 to mass-produce and export high-quality silk

Tomioka Silk Mill, UNESCO site

Tomioka Silk Mill, UNESCO World Heritage site (Source)

Inside: 300 machines imported from France

Inside Tomioka Silk Mill: 300 machines imported from France (Source)

Ukiyoe print of the Tomioka Mill at work

Ukiyoe print of the Tomioka Mill and workers at work (Source)

The Meiji oligarchy wanted the fruits of Western progress, so they sent learning missions abroad to absorb as much of the western technological innovations as possible. One such mission, led by Iwakura, Kido, and Okubo and containing forty-eight members in total, spent two years (1871-73) touring the United States and Europe, studying government institutions, courts, prison systems, schools, the import-export business, factories, shipyards, glass plants, mines, and other enterprises. [Source: Library of Congress]

The government reorganized itself and also formed a professional corps of diplomats. Consequently, many Western-style buildings were built to receive foreign experts and carry out the reforms. Many of the Meiji era buildings were designed by Dr. Katayama Tokuma, who is regarded as the father of modern architecture in Japan. Katayama studied for in many years in the UK, France and Germany and under British architect Josiah Conder.

Aerial view of the Akasaka palace

Aerial view of the Akasaka palace. Photo: Cabinet Office

Among the more extravagant projects undertaken was the Akasaka Palace (see photo above). Styled in part after the New Palace in Vienna, Buckingham Palace and the Louvre, its basic design was based on the Versailles Palace and it remains the only neo-Baroque European style palace in Japan.

Built of stone aroundd a steel frame, the palace building is both fire-resistant and earthquake-proof

Built of stone aroundd a steel frame, the palace building is both fire-resistant and earthquake-proof Photo: Heritage of Japan

Building began in 1899 and was completed in 1909, under the overall direction of Dr. Katayama Tokuyama who was an architect who studied under British architect Josiah Conders, who advised the Japanese government on many projects. The interiors lavishly decorated with imported French mosaics, fireplaces, furniture and chandeliers, and Italian rose and white marble in the early 19th c. Empire style during the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, Akasaka Palace is, like its Western counterparts, a stately and enduring monument of great beauty. Take a virtual tour of the palace here.

Akasaka (Togu) Palace designed by Katayama Tokuma in 1899, now functions as the State Guest House

Akasaka (Togu) Palace designed by Katayama Tokuma in 1899, was built for the Crown Prince and his bride. Little used as it was deemed expensive, costly to run, instead it was used to house some government departments and the Diet Library. Recently refurbished, it now functions as the State Guest House. The garden fountain seen here features four griffin statues. (Photo credit: Heritage of Japan)

Inside: Stunning and sumptuous staterooms like this ballroom

Inside are many stunning and sumptuous staterooms like this ballroom. The palace fuses Japanese motifs such as samurai armour and helmets,  Japanese drums, phoenix with western flying horses, goddesses and sphinxes in the gilded stucco reliefs.

As part of the “Japanese spirit, Western knowledge” effort, Japanese began wearing European-style army uniforms, morning coats, top hats and ball gowns. Members of the Imperial court adopted European European titles and rococo, neo-baroque, neo-classical buildings were established and concerts of classical music were being performed.


In its efforts to modernize and in adopting the cultures and systems of the West, Japan needed experts to design Western-style buildings. Josiah Conder(see photo above left. Photo: Wikimedia Commons), an architect was invited from Britain to fill the role as adviser to the Meiji government. One of Conder’s notable projects include the former Iwasaki Family House and Kyu-Iwasaki-tei Garden at Taito-ku Tokyo Japan, designed in 1896(see photo below, photo: Wikimedia Commons)


Conder taught the history and structures of Western architecture to Japanese students. His very first class of graduates included Katayama Tokuma(see photo above right, credit: Wikimedia Commons), the man who became court architect (who built the Crown Prince’s Akasaka Palace – see photos above) and who designed the Hyokeikan (see photo below).

Hyokeikan designed by Katayama (student of Josiah Conder), now part of Tokyo Ueno Museum

Hyokeikan, designed by Katayama Tokuma (student of Josiah Conder) and completed in 1908, it now part of Tokyo Ueno Museum (Source: Hyokeikan website)

The Hyokeikan has a magnificent vault dome in its entranceway

The Hyokeikan has a magnificent vault dome in its entranceway (Source: Hyokeikan website)

The word Diet derives from Latin and was a common name for an assembly in medieval Germany. The Meiji constitution was largely based on the form of constitutional monarchy found in nineteenth century Prussia and the new Diet was modeled partly on the German Reichstag.

19th century Japanese Parliament

In keeping with Japan’s modernization and westernization drive, German architects Wilhelm Böckmann and Hermann Ende invited to Tokyo in 1886 and 1887, respectively, drew up two plans for a Diet building which were similar to other Western legislatures of the era. Böckmann’s initial plan, for example, was a masonry structure with a dome and flanking wings, which would form the core of a large “government ring” south of the Imperial Palace. However, due to public resistance in Japan to Foreign Minister Inoue Kaoru‘s internationalist policies, the first two parliament buildings were built to a more “Japanese” design, with traditional Japanese architectural features.


Japanese Diet Hall Design by Fukuzo Watanabe (Photo: In the public domain)

Prime Minister Katsura Tarō chaired the commission, which recommended that the new building emulate an Italian Renaissance architectural style. This too received much opposition, so after a public design competition in 1918, and 118 design submissions, the current Diet building was built based on the design by the first prize winner, Watanabe Fukuzo, who produced a design similar to Ende and Böckmann’s.

Ende and Böckmann’s Diet Building was never built, but their other “government ring” designs were used for the Tokyo District Court and Ministry of Justice buildings. Returning diplomatic and study missions from the west also called for domestic reforms that were carried out. Between 1871 and 1873, a series of land and tax laws were enacted as the basis for modern fiscal policy. Private ownership was legalized, deeds were issued, and lands were assessed at fair market value with taxes paid in cash rather than in kind as in pre-Meiji days and at slightly lower rates. [Source: Library of Congress *;]

Ministry of Justice's former Administration Building, designed by Herman Ende, Wilhelm Bockman in 1895

Ministry of Justice’s former Administration Building, designed by Herman Ende, Wilhelm Bockman in 1895 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

From the onset, the Meiji rulers embraced the concept of a market economy and adopted British and North American forms of free enterprise capitalism. The private sector– in a nation blessed with an abundance of aggressive entrepreneurs– welcomed such change.

Economic reforms included a unified modern currency based on the yen, banking, commercial and tax laws, stock exchanges, and a communications network. Establishment of a modern institutional framework conducive to an advanced capitalist economy took time but was completed by the 1890s. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Yokohama Specie Bank

Yokohama Specie Bank, 1880, which became the Bank of Tokyo’s Yokohama branch, now the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of History and Culture (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As in the West, trade and the industrial revolution in Japan created a demand for a host of banking and financial services. Stocks were traded vigorously, new instruments for market speculation evolved on the back of capitalism. New buildings were erected to facilitate and conduct these financial and banking activities. Education and school institutions had to be reformed as well. Germany was the primary model for educational reform. German language and literature were taught and Western-styles schools for the elite were built.

Tokyo University built in the Uchida Gothic style

Tokyo University built in the Uchida Gothic style  Source: Wikimedia Commons

Educational institutions and western-style university buildings such as Tokyo University (above and below) and Meiji University were established in keeping with the necessary educational reforms.

Tokyo University

Tokyo University  Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Meiji University, Faculty of Law 1881

Meiji University, Faculty of Law 1881 Photo: Meiji University

A number of Western-style brick buildings of the Meiji era have been designated as an important cultural assets and turned into museums, such as the Kyoto National Museum. Other examples may be seen below:

Craft Gallery of the National Museum of Modern Art, built by Hisashi Tamura in 1910.

Craft Gallery of the National Museum of Modern Art, built by Hisashi Tamura in 1910. Designed as “The former Headquarters of the Imperial Guards.” (Photo: Craft Gallery of the National Museum of Modern Art)

Kyoto National Museum designed by Katayama Tokuma

Kyoto National Museum designed by Katayama Tokuma in 1895, and built to house art treasures donated by the Imperial Household Ministry as well as those owned by temples and shrines (Photo: Kyoto National Museum)

Ryounkaku (a.k.a. Asakusa Twelve Storeys), built in 1890, was Japan’s first western-style “skyscraper”, and the first to install an elevator. At 52 meters with 12 storeys, it was the tallest building in Tokyo. The building contained 46 stores selling goods from across the globe.

Ryounkaku (Asakusa Twelve Stories), the first Skyscraper

Ryounkaku (Asakusa Twelve Stories), 1890. (Photo: Heritage of Japan)

Japan had witnessed the improvements in transportation, communications, trade and banking made in the West, where the Industrial Revolution had taken place in the late 1700s beginning in Britain and lasting through till around 1840. Japan wanted to resist the power and hegemony of the West by emulating the West. The Japanese sought Western technology and modernized essentially to level the playing field so they would not be colonized or taken advantage of by the West.   Under the nationalistic slogan “rich country, strong military,” the Japanese government was intent on learning the secrets of the West and Western experts were brought to Japan and Japanese experts were sent abroad to learn everything they could. The government’s top-down modernization policy dictated the goal of “more production through new industry” so that giant government-operated factories for the military, such as the Koishikawa arsenal factory,  were built. The rapid development of industries in Tokyo, besides giving rise to urban problems such as noise and pollution from the smoke emissions from factory chimneys, as well as the formation of labour unions and social unrest with workers protesting their long hours, low wages and sweatshop conditions. Ultimately, that tenacious onslaught and monentum of industrial development both supported as well propelled Japan headlong into two wars: the Sino-Japanese War(1894-1895)  and the Russo-Japanese War(1904-1905).

Koishikawa Arsenal Factory

Koishikawa Arsenal Factory  (Photo credit: Edo-Tokyo Museum; Heritage of Japan)


In 2015, “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining” mainly located in the southwest of Japan were designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The development of the iron and steel industry, shipbuilding and coal mining underpinned the rapid industrialization of the country from the middle of the 19th century to the early 20th century. To showcase the nation’s achievements, the country’s first National Industrial Exhibition was held on August 21, 1877 (bottom right photo: color print depicting the Opening ceremony to the first National Industrial Exhibition. Credit: National Diet Library). The national event (inspired by the 1873 Vienna International Expo) emphasized its aspect as an industrial promotion opportunity providing a meeting place for Western technologies and their Japanese counterparts, for conducting product survey and industry promotion.


Colour prints of the first National Industrial Exhibition (Photo credit: National Diet Library)

The approximately 100,000 m2 venue contained the Fine Art Building (top left photo, photo: National Diet Library), the Agricultural Production Building, the Machinery Building, the Horticultural Building, and the Animal Building. An approximately 10 m high American-style windmill (for pumping up groundwater) was constructed at the park entrance. All the exhibits collected from across Japan were categorized roughly into six groups (mining and metallurgy, manufactures, fine art, machinery, agriculture, and horticulture). They were judged based on the criteria of materials, manufacturing methods, quality, adjustment, effectiveness, value and price. Medals, certificates of merit and other honors were bestowed on excellent exhibits

Redbrick warehouses (similar to those that proliferated in Manchester during U.K’s Industrial Revolution), were constructed along with expansion of harbour facilities in the late 19th century by the Yokohama city government.  Planned by a Japanese architect and government official, Tsumaki Yorinaka, the redbrick warehouses were erected in 1911 and 1913 to serve as custom houses. When the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake struck Yokohama, the Akarenga red brick buildings suffered less damage than other buildings due to their reinforced structure with iron implanted between the bricks.

Akarenga redbrick warehouses in Yokohama were completed in the period straddling the Meiji and Taisho periods

Akarenga redbrick warehouses in Yokohama were completed in the period straddling the Meiji and Taisho periods  (Source: Free domain)

Other than buildings, notable Meiji era structures included warehouses(see photo above), lighthouses and aqueducts/bridges, an early example of which is the Suirokaku Aqueduct along the Biwakososui River in Kyoto.

Suirokaku Aqueduct, Biwasosui River, Kyoto, 1890

Suirokaku Aqueduct, Biwasosui River, Kyoto, built in 1890. Tanabe Saburo was only 22 years old when he designed and built the aqueduct.

Eight lighthouses were built according to western specifications during the Meiji era. The lighthouse seen in the photo below is one of eight built during the Meiji period.

Oldest Western-style lighthouse, in Shinagawa, Tokyo Bay waterfront, built by French engineer Francois L. Verny in 1870. The lighthouse is one of eight built during the Meiji period (photo credit: Flicker Creative Commons, Daniel Rubio)

Oldest Western-style lighthouse, in Shinagawa, Tokyo Bay waterfront, built by French engineer Francois L. Verny in 1870. (photo credit: Flicker Creative Commons, Daniel Rubio)


2 responses to “The people and stories behind Meiji Era’s (1867-1926) architecture

  1. As always, a most interesting article. Thanks for this. One very small typo, btw: “mourning coats” should be “morning coats”. (They are worn during the daytime for formal occasions.)

  2. Thank you for the awesome posts!

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