Joseph Conder: Enduring legacies of a ‘high-collar’ expat

by Michael Mcdonagh

Japanese domestic architecture has changed a lot in the last 100 years, but Western-style architecture was slow taking off and in fact the modern Japanese architectural establishment owes its organization, training system and much of its sense of style to one man: Josiah Conder.

Conder was invited by the Meiji government in their effort to emulate the Western powers. Born in London in 1857, Conder worked for William Burges, one of the leading architects of Victorian England. Two years into his apprenticeship his design for a country house won a major architectural prize and prompted an invitation to work in Japan.

Initially contracted for five years, he arrived in Japan in 1877 and was immediately appointed a professor at the Imperial College of Engineering (later merged with the University of Tokyo) and an architect to the Ministry of Public Works. It was an extraordinary assignment for Conder, who didn’t have a single building to his credit, but things went well: his starting salary of 333.33 yen was soon rounded up to the princely sum of 400 yen a month.

An excellent teacher, Conder was deeply admired by his students, some of whom — Kingo Tatsuno, Tokuma Katayama and Tatsuzo Sone — became the most prominent architects of their generation, responsible for such important buildings as Tokyo Station and the Akasaka Palace. To this day, Conder’s classes remain the blueprint for Japanese university architectural courses.

Conder was a practical and eclectic designer who liked to mix and match styles. His exuberance with Eastern arches and domes sometimes led his paymasters to complain that his designs were not Western enough.

In 1883 Conder was commissioned to build the Rokumeikan, a clubhouse that brought together the Japanese social, political and industrial elite with their Western counterparts in a head-spinning round of parties. Conder’s Italianate structure in Tokyo’s Hibiya district struck a popular chord and made him the toast of the town. Royal commissions followed. Conder created Japan’s first two Western-style palaces.

Unlike his contemporaries, who returned home when their students had become sufficiently skilled, Conder decided to remain in Japan. On leaving the University of Tokyo in 1888 he founded Japan’s first private architectural design office. He fulfilled his patrons’ fantasies of making Japan “the England of the East” and his buildings were affectionately dubbed haikara (high collar) — a reference to the sophisticated chic of the stiff-collared Western gentleman.

Conder moved in illustrious circles. Thirty-nine of his 70 buildings were mansions, clubs and embassies. He was decorated twice by Emperor Meiji and enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the Iwasaki family, the founders of the Mitsubishi group of companies.

The first of his three Iwasaki mansions, built in 1889, was devastated in the 1923 earthquake, but its excellent gardens still exist as Kiyosumi Teien garden.

The second, Kayachotei, the beautiful wooden Iwasaki mansion in Taito Ward was, in its heyday, home to seven family members and 48 servants. It is occasionally open to the public.

The third, Kaitokaku near Shinagawa, is an exclusive watering hole for Mitsubishi management and is off-limits.

However, it is still possible to visit the redbrick Furukawa House, near Komagome, which was Conder’s last work. Built for the owner of the Ashio copper mine, is also famous for the spectacle of its English-style gardens in full bloom.

Conder’s houses have delightfully concealed Japanese living areas where the owners could retire after a bout of exhausting Western-style entertaining.

Other surviving Conder buildings include the Mitsui clubhouse near Keio University and a house built for Duke Shimazu in Higashi Gotanda. The cultural traffic wasn’t all one way. Conder helped popularize traditional Japanese arts in the West through his books on flower arranging and landscape gardening.

His love for Japan couldn’t protect him from occasional homesickness. The dedication in his 1891 book reads: “To the old folks at home, from whose companionship many years of work in far-off Japan have separated me.”

His talents were diverse. Under the professional name Gyokuei, during eight years study under Kyosai Kawanabe, he became an accomplished Japanese-style painter.

In 1881 Conder married his dance teacher Kume Maenami and lived out his days in his self-designed house near Roppongi. He died, 11 days after his wife did, on June 10, 1920. They are buried together in Gokokuji Temple.

A statue of Conder, elegantly dressed with cigar in hand, stands in the grounds of the University of Tokyo campus.