Taking a structural stance on culture

Architect seeks to share passion for Japan's cultural heritage through unique guidebook

by Keisuke Okada

It was at the groundbreaking ceremony of Osaka’s Breeze Tower in the spring of 2006 that architect Yuichiro Edagawa met a German woman by the name of Sybille Fanelsa and happened to tell her about his cherished plan to publish a photo book that would introduce the splendor of Japanese culture and tradition to a world-wide audience.

Fanelsa, who is firstly a curator, was attending the ceremony as the public relations manager for the German architectural design studio that had collaborated with Edagawa’s company in designing the building. Impressed by Edagawa’s passion, Fanelsa promised to give him her support. She also, as it would happen, was well-connected in the publishing world.

For the next two years, Edagawa’s main objective became finding the time and the means to juggle his project and his work as principal architect and general manager in Osaka at one of the top three architectural and engineering design offices in Japan — Mitsubishi Jisho Sekkei Inc., a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Estate Co.

He utilized most of his weekends and holidays for photography trips throughout Japan and wrote the book’s text whenever he had time before and after work.

“I was able to manage it because I was living alone in Osaka on job assignment from the company, away from my family in Tokyo. The lifestyle in Osaka is not as hectic as in Tokyo as far as commuting time is concerned,” he says. “I also could make the most of Osaka’s geographical proximity to Kyoto, Nara and other places that abound in cultural heritage,” he adds. “More importantly, my wife is a professional interior designer, too busy to bother about me. My two sons and daughter are grown up. So, my free time was 100 percent my own,” he says smiling.

It all came together, and his dream book, titled “Japanese Identities — Architecture between Aesthetics and Nature,” was published in Germany this past May. The book, which has also been in distribution in the U.S. from last month, won high acclaim in Germany and other parts of Europe for its unique approach to Japanese culture and tradition.

Of his unusual meeting with Sybille Fanelsa, Edagawa now says, “She must have been surprised to hear about my book-publishing plan, as I worked in an entirely different field.

“I owe her much for the realization of my dream, which I had embraced for many years. Without her assistance, this book could have never been published,” Edagawa says.

Featured in the English-German book are 80 structures, including such famous and historic temples as Nara’s Horyuji, the Great Buddha Hall of Todaiji and the five-story pagoda of Kofukuji, as well as Kyoto’s Kiyomizu, Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) and Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion).

Also included are contemporary structures, such as the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, Tokyo Tower, and the National Art Center Tokyo.

The book, according to Edagawa, is designed to be, first, a guidebook for foreign tourists visiting Japan, as it covers Japan’s representative tourist sites. Second, it aims to introduce Japanese culture and tradition, and third, it is intended to contribute to foreigners’ understanding of Japan’s beauty.

“As a professional architect, I chose the structures and sceneries from the perspective of architecture. Ultimately, I intended to help foreigners appreciate the creativity and aesthetic sense of the Japanese people,” Edagawa emphasized. The order of the photos is intended to let readers feel the commonality between the ancient structures and the contemporary ones.

Edagawa believes his desire to contribute to the cultural exchange between Japan and the rest of the world stems from his childhood and youth. The son of a manager at a major Japanese commercial bank, he lived with his parents in Los Angeles for three years during his elementary-school days. He studied at the College of Environmental Design, the University of California, Berkeley, for one year while enrolled at the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Engineering. As a professional architect, he has also had numerous occasions over the years to travel abroad.

“My encounters with great foreign cultures and foreign people, in turn, fanned the flames of my passion to help foreigners appreciate the beauty and splendor of Japanese culture and tradition. It became my obsession,” Edagawa says remembering.

His “obsession” led him during his school days to sit for the state exam to become a certified interpreter and guide. He passed that exam and also, many years later, obtained a license as a tour organizer.

His interest, however, did not lead him into the tourism industry as a career. He, instead, chose to follow through on an earlier decision to become an architect.

Edagawa climbed the corporate ladder to his present executive position, making a name for himself along the way as a corporate architect. His major architectural works include the Tokyo Stock Exchange building (completed in 1988), ADK Shochiku Square in Tokyo (2002), the Osaka Stock Exchange building (2004) and most recently, Breeze Tower in Osaka.

His 14-floor Nibancho Gardens multipurpose building in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward earned him the Special Greenery Grand Prix of the 2004 Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Prize and he was commended by the Architectural Institute of Japan for three straight years from 2005 through 2007. Edagawa has also written numerous articles for architecture trade journals.

Now age 60, the age for many to seriously consider retirement, Edagawa appears equally as happy about the publication of his book as he is about anything he has accomplished as an architect or corporate executive. “I am a person of wide and varied interests. Both my work and my private interests were dear to me, but I hadn’t been able to act on much other than my work.

“I am proud of what I have achieved as a professional architect. But, I am very inclined to devote my energy to the challenge of introducing Japanese culture and tradition to the world. Teaching tourism at a university is one option.”

Looking back on Japanese history, he says, “In the wake of the Meiji Restoration and the ensuing modernization process, the Japanese were exposed to Western civilization, which undoubtedly had a far-reaching influence on our way of living, thinking and aesthetics.”

“This does not mean, however, that . . . the past was completely forgotten. The Japanese . . . developed a unique culture and, despite the strong influence of Western culture and civilization, some of the innate characteristics of Japanese culture survived in our tradition and aesthetics,” he observes.

Edagawa believes that Japanese culture and way of life, embodied in its architecture, can have a positive influence on the increasingly materialistic West, which appears to be stagnating, as evidenced by the worsening global environment and other major problems in today’s world.

“It is my humble hope that readers will be able to feel, through my book, something of the good of Japan.”

“Japanese Identities” — Architecture between Aesthetics and Nature” is available at Maruzen bookstores in Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Sendai and Okayama. It is also available through Amazon in the U.S., U.K. and Germany.