LONDON — A Scotsman credited with preventing thousands of Japanese from dying of cholera in the 19th century is being officially honored in his hometown of Edinburgh.
Officials have unveiled a stone bench to commemorate the important but little known life of William Burton, who redesigned a large part of Japan’s crumbling water supply system in the late 19th century and thereby significantly improved the nation’s public health.
The commemorative bench is aimed at letting local people know more about the man considered one of the most influential British engineers in Japan as it opened up to the outside world.
Burton, whose name is certainly better known in Japan than Scotland, is also credited with designing Japan’s first “skyscraper” — a 12-story pagoda built in Tokyo.
In September, Burton’s relatives, as well as Scottish and Japanese dignitaries, gathered in the garden of his former home to take the wraps off the memorial bench that sits in what are now the grounds of the city’s Napier University. It was the 110th anniversary of his death.
There were also lectures on the Scotsman’s achievements. His great-great grandson, Kevin Masaya Kmetz, played a three-stringed Japanese lute.
“William Burton played a fundamental role in improving drainage systems and sanitation conditions in Japan, and in doing so helped improve the health of its people,” Edinburgh Consul General Masataka Tarahara said.
“I am therefore delighted that the commemorative bench at Edinburgh Napier University will act as a reminder to future generations of the legacy of this great man,” he said.
“Burton is honored to this day in Japan for his role in its transformation from an inward-looking, relatively undeveloped country into a leading industrial nation,” said Alan Wilson, who helped get the bench made and installed. “His work transformed the face of Japan and over the decades saved tens of thousands of lives.
“He was a great Scottish engineer and pioneer in an age during which we excelled at producing both,” Wilson said. “This memorial is a fitting reminder of the man in his birthplace, but it should also be an inspiration to young people at Edinburgh Napier University and stand as a mark of the friendship between Japan and Scotland.”
Burton was born in 1856. After doing his apprenticeship as an engineer in Scotland, he moved to England to become the engineer at the London Sanitary Protection Association.
It was while he was working in London that the Scotsman was headhunted by the Japanese government, which was looking for foreign talent to help upgrade its national infrastructure, including the railway network and ports.
He was appointed a professor of sanitary engineering at a university in Tokyo in 1887 despite possessing no recognizable qualifications and set about advising the government on its water supply systems.
Burton visited nearly all of Japan’s major cities and provided advice on the design of new water supply and drainage networks. He also gave his expertise to officials in Taiwan, then a Japanese colony.
At the time, Japanese cities suffered from poor quality water and cholera was a threat. As the cities grew, so did the need to ensure sanitary conditions.
One of the biggest problems was that human sewage was used to fertilize the rice fields and when it rained this ended up running into the rivers and entering the water supply.
According to Olive Checkland, who wrote a short biography of Burton, the Scotsman helped improve the filtration process, which saw water travel through sand filters. He also built better reservoirs to store fresh water for consumption.
But it isn’t only Burton’s expertise in the field of water for which he is remembered in Japan.
In the late 1880s, he designed a 12-story brick pagoda that was to become Japan’s tallest structure. The iconic building, called the “cloud breaker” in Japanese, was situated in Tokyo’s Asakusa district.
It attracted many visitors and even boasted an elevator. Sadly, it was damaged during the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and had to be demolished.
Burton immersed himself in Japanese society and married a Japanese woman with whom he had one daughter.
Checkland said Burton’s assimilation was “remarkable” for the era, particularly when the Japanese resented many foreigners.
Burton died of a fever in 1899 at the age of only 43. Summing up his life, his biographer wrote, “His extraordinary commitment to the provision of pure water for Japan and Taiwan must have kept him constantly at work. One can only wonder at the dedication of this man to his adopted country. During his residence in Japan . . . he crammed a lifetime of work experience.”
Despite the passage of time, Burton devotees still go to his tomb in Japan every year to lay flowers and sing Scottish folk songs.