When the prime minister, Count Hirobumi Ito, hosted his great masquerade ball in 1885, the venue selected for the occasion was the Rokumeikan in Hibiya, close by the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo.
It was really the only choice for such an extravaganza, despite being a somewhat controversial symbol of Westernization in some quarters.
Designed by Englishman Josiah Conder (1852-1920) and completed in 1883, the symmetrical brick and masonry facades of the Rokumeikan (Deer-cry Hall) were a fine example of Meiji Era (1868-1912) syncreticism.
A mix of new Tokyo and French Second Empire, the exterior of the two-story building commissioned by the Foreign Ministry for the housing of overseas guests combined a number of Italian Renaissance themes characteristic of a 15th-century palazzo, with cupolas after the Mogul style, a miniature Mansard roof and segmented arches.
The interior, not to be outdone by the outer flourishes, comprised a billiard room, promenade hall, a suite for official state guests, reading and music areas, and a ballroom.
The French chef’s banquet menus might include a choice of Hungarian lamb, red snapper casserole, and beef filets with horseradish sauce. Guests could repair to one of two bars for German beer and American cocktails served by the bilingual staff, or withdraw to the smoking room where Russian cigarettes and Havana cigars could be procured.
When the count’s guests arrived, conservative anti-government elements were shocked to see Japanese dignitaries turn up dressed as characters ranging from Dr. Faustus (the legendary philosopher who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power) and Mary Queen of Scots to Mother Hubbard. By all accounts, Persian and Egyptian themes were particularly well represented among the 400 guests.
Mingling with women dressed in Louis XV court dresses were imaginative caricatures, including an Oscar Wilde figure accompanied by two votaries. Prime Minister Ito himself arrived as a Venetian nobleman, with his wife a Spanish aristocrat in a yellow silk dress and mantilla, and their daughter dressed as an Italian peasant girl.
Such a spectacle, inconceivable in the earlier Edo Period during centuries of feudal rule by the Tokugawa shoguns from 1603 to 1867, spoke clearly and powerfully of formative change.
It was an age when men like Ito, in imitation of their Victorian counterparts, grew luxuriant mustaches and hung gold watch chains from timepieces they carried in their waistcoat pockets. The watches were significant, for the nature of time itself was changing. City residents had always depended on temple bells to tell the time.
Tellingly, too, of Meiji Japan’s pell-mell modernization drive, the Edo Period board game sugoroku, in which players threw dice and moved from frame to frame along an illustrated itinerary equivalent to a sightseeing tour of Edo (present-day Tokyo), underwent a fundamental change. Famous places were replaced with the theme of shusse-sugoroku (“climbing the social ladder”), so that the illustrated route — tracing ambitions of the day — started with images of peddlers and rickshaw drivers, proceeded past the entrances to well-to-do merchants’ homes, and terminating in the club houses and boardrooms of the elite.
Buildings would be needed to match the new aspirations. Architecture was synonymous in people’s minds with advanced Western culture. Creating a Westernized cityscape, therefore, became identified as the hallmark of a civilized society.
The great Meiji building bazaar would turn Tokyo into something akin to an Expo site, an emporium of construction styles the like of which neither the city nor the country had ever witnessed. Architects vied to recreate European models of modernization, producing an efflorescence of brick banks, schools, post offices, town halls, bridges, factories, and train stations that would utterly transform the urban landscape.
This emerging city is visible in the woodblock prints of the day. Artists such as Ando Hiroshige III, Kobayashi Kiyochika and Utagawa Yoshitora show us aspects of modern life in their street scenes: pedestrians in Western dress, wheeled traffic, brick and stone hotels and banks, gas lamps, European-style shopping streets, steam trains, omnibuses, and factories belching plumes of smoke as noxious as anything found in Lancashire or the rust belt of North America.
The changes to Tokyo were most noticeable in individual buildings, standing out as beacons of modernity, rather than in entirely reconceived zones. If the trappings of Westernization in the form of missionary schools, horsedrawn carriages, even the odd velocipede (forerunner of the bicycle), were visible in the foreign settlement at Tsukiji, its best-known sight was the Tsukiji Hoterukan — known to Westerners as the Edo Hotel.
When it was completed in the autumn of 1868, crowds of Japanese sightseers flocked to see this symbol of new civilization. More than 100 woodblock prints commemorated the opening; a slew of color prints followed in 1869 and 1870. A triptych by the prominent artist Utagawa Kuniteru II depicts merchants making deliveries in the bustling forecourt, with a Japanese flag fluttering in the background beside the Akashi Bridge. A contemporary photograph confirms the accuracy of Kuniteru’s rendition.
The hotel was the work of a former carpenter named Shimizu Kisuke II, who had also worked as a building contractor in the foreign settlement at Yokohama. Japanese carpenters, imitating the pseudo-Western giyofu style of the day, liked to transpose the decorative eclecticism popular in Europe, adding local motifs such as dragons, clouds and phoenixes to their buildings. Cupolas, towers and turrets were common.
The timber frame of the Hoterukan in Tsukiji, its tiled roof, dark outer walls crisscrossed with a traditional Japanese plaster patterning known as namako-kabe, and a bell tower suggestive of traditional castles, were essentially Japanese in execution. However, Western features were incorporated in the form of European furnishings and decor, sash windows and an expansive veranda suggestive of British Raj architecture.
Bearing a striking resemblance to the Hoterukan was Japan’s first bank, Mitsui House. Designed by the same architect, Shimizu Kisuke II, the building was completed in the Nihonbashi district in 1872. A tall structure made of wood and faced with stone, it rose to five stories. Like the Hoterukan, it boasted a tower, and other details suggestive of Edo Castle, where Shimizu had once worked.
As prime examples of this new, hybrid architecture, such buildings spoke of a strong urge to embrace the future, tempered by a hesitation to completely disengage from the past.
As Jinnai Hidenobu, a contemporary scholar of urban morphology, has astutely observed, “Many architectural masterpieces of this time reflected the plurality of demands growing out of a mixture of old and new values, in which an admiration for Western structures signaling a new epoch coexisted with an unwillingness to discard trust in castle architecture as a symbol of stable social status.”
Tokyo’s experiments with Western-inspired architecture and other urban accretions, which would lead to an extraordinary jam of styles and not a few visual dissonances, were already apparent in the Ginza quarter’s mishmash of gas lamps, willow trees and telegraph poles.
The Great Ginza Fire of 1872 had provided the opportunity to modernize the city-center retail district. What came out of this ambitious project was the Ginza Brick Quarter, designed by the English architect Thomas Walters. It took almost a decade to create what was intended to be a fireproof architectural showcase for a contemporary Tokyo.
On completion, there were more than 1,000 brick buildings running across the Ginza and contiguous Kyobashi areas. The country’s first sidewalks were installed, and the street itself, now widened as a firebreak, was paved with brick.
Many Meiji Era pictures of Tokyo’s public and commercial buildings, recorded on postcards and in photographs, bear a strong resemblance to Victorian constructions. With so many English architects, engineers and designers invited to work in Tokyo this is hardly surprising.
Josiah Conder, the best-known foreign architect of the Mieji Era, arrived in Japan in 1877 at the invitation of the Ministry of Technology. While teaching at the influential College of Technology, Conder managed to complete a number of architectural projects, including the School for the Blind in Tsukiji and, in 1881, the Imperial Museum at Ueno — a Gothic, redbrick building that managed to incorporate Islamic elements.
The Meiji Era writer Ogai Mori, enjoying a stroll up the gentle slope of Muenzaka, in the district of Yushima, would write of the house that Condor built for Iwasaki Hisaya, son of the founder of the Mitsubishi industrial and financial conglomerate, “Even in the days I am writing about, the Iwasaki mansion was located, as it is today, on the southern side of Muenzaka, though it had not yet been fenced in with its present high wall of soil.”
The high outer walls described by Mori remain, screening off the mansion from passers-by, though these are of a later Meiji brick vintage. Otherwise, the Conder-conceived grounds and house remain eerily intact — and open to the public. As visitors can see, in Iwasaki’s world of extreme privilege, its residents could enjoy parquet flooring, gas- powered steam radiators, coffered ceilings, a Western toilet, and a separate building reserved for billiards.
Predominantly Jacobean in style, the spacious second-floor colonnade recalls the Ionic style once seen in the grand country residencies of Pennsylvania. As guests moved through the house, with its passages connecting Western to Japanese interiors, they would be required to change their footwear and clothing accordingly.
Conder had found an imaginative sponsor in the Iwasakis. In 1894, he completed the first brick buildings for the company in an area known derisively as the Mitsubishi Wasteland. A wild tract of undergrowth to the east of the Imperial Palace, people wondered aloud what could be done with such a desolate plot known as the habitat of foxes and thieves who operated with impunity even during daylight hours.
The Iwasakis, who knew exactly what could be done with the land, went along with the bemusement, even joking that they might cultivate a bamboo wood there and introduce tigers.
Instead, though, the four-story, redbrick structures that went up on the Wasteland over the following years formed the nucleus of a district known as London Block.
This grand, transforming project moved English cultural geographer Paul Waley, a Japan specialist, to capture the awkwardness and dissonance of the area when he wrote in his 1991 book, “Tokyo: City of Stories,” of these Marunouchi blocks having “a late-Victorian London air of Marylebone High Street or parts of Kensington, but without the architectural conviction and spontaneity that grows out of native soil.
“Photographs of the London Block in its early days,” he continued, “reveal a pronounced sense of unease. The buildings need carriages and trolleys and the bustle of late-Victorian and Edwardian London. Instead, all they have to look out on are a few rickshaws and the occasional disoriented passer-by.”
There are still people who fondly remember the area before it was demolished in the late 1960s.
Dutch writer Hans Brinckmann worked at the Naka 8th Building, one of these London-style constructions, from 1954 to 1956. In his book, “Showa Japan,” he attests to the similarities: “The area indeed had the feel of London’s Lombard Street, on which it was modeled, and a lunchtime stroll along its wide, tree-lined streets never failed to revive our dusty spirits.”
Diminutive by today’s standards, these buildings were considered tall when they were built.
However, one of Tokyo’s most extraordinary buildings was a veritable Meiji Era skyscraper — the much- photographed 12-story Ryounkaku (Cloud Surpassing Pavilion) — which boasted restaurants, art galleries, gambling tables, a whole floor stuffed with imported items, and an observation deck.
Located in the entertainment district of Asakusa, the octagonal redbrick structure was completed in 1890 with the help of a British engineer named W. K. Barton. By far the tallest building in Tokyo, it moved the Meiji Era writer Mantaro Kubota to attest: “From anywhere in the vastness of Tokyo — the embankment across the river at Ueno, the long flight of stone steps up Atago Hill — there it was, waiting for you, whenever you wanted it.”
Smidgens of Meiji Tokyo survive to this day, some of them imposing, large-scale edifices such as the 1911 Kogeikan craft gallery in Kitanomaru Park, the International Children’s Library of Literature, and Tokyo National Museum’s green-domed 1910 Hyokeikan building, both in Ueno. The 1896 neoclassical Bank of Japan, a design supposedly modeled on the Bank of England, is still there, something to be immensely grateful for.
Other examples survive in private residences, including that of the late painter Yokoyama Taikan in Ueno, that of Count Maresuke Nogi, a famed general in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, in the eponymously named Nogizaka district, and in a number of both private and public buildings such as the graceful Kushiage Hantei, a restaurant in Nezu, and the Hongo-kan, a student lodging house which, at three-storys, is the tallest remaining Meiji Era wooden structure in Tokyo.
After the government set up an Architecture Bureau in 1886 to coordinate the construction of a Diet Building, a short period of fascination with German architecture terminated the English domination of Meiji designs.
Consequently, Wilhelm Bockmann and Hermann Ende were brought over to plan and supervise the construction of the Diet Building. Their most enduring structure is the 1895, neo-baroque Ministry of Justice building, whose exterior walls form an intricate plane dressed with white granite bands overlaying red bricks. Perhaps it is the awkward location of the building on the borders of the Hibiya and Kasumigaseki districts, but few people seem aware of the existence of this magisterial example of Meiji Era architecture.
Turning to continental Europe for a model fit for Meiji royalty, architect Katayama Otokuma designed the Akasaka Palace, another quintessential Meiji building that is still standing, though it is not open to the public. Though technically accomplished, the palace’s 1909 design is stylistically less successful, based as it is on pared-down quasi- Versailles aesthetic combined with German neo-baroque. However, one of the reasons it has survived successive earthquakes and bombings during World War II may be because its steel frame, supplied by Carnegie Works of Pittsburgh, was reinforced with masonry and brickwork fixed by metal clips to the main cladding.
Among other Meiji constructions still standing in Tokyo is Conder’s Nikolai Cathedral in Ochanomizu. Of this the playwright Hasegawa Shigure, who sometimes stayed with an aunt in the nearby Kanda district, noted: “She took me to see the Nikolai Cathedral, then under construction. . . . It was when I stayed with her that I first heard the sound of violin and piano and orchestra. In our part of the low city such sounds and such instruments were quite unknown. So it was that I first caught the scent of the West.”
Not everyone endorsed the changes.
In his youth, the famed author Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) lamented the passing of the city’s older physical fabric, writing, “Laid waste, my city, by rustic samurai. No trace remains of Edo as it was.”
The writer Nagai Kafu (1879-1959) shared those feelings. Casting an eye over the type of city that rose from the impulses of the Meiji Era, he wrote, “When a city aped the West to the degree that Tokyo did, the spectacle provoked in the observer is an astonishment, along with a certain sense of pathos.”
Judged in terms of good taste, the great Meiji bazaar was the best and worst of all times.
Stephen Mansfield is the author of “Tokyo: A Cultural and Literary History.”