Extensive history colored by culture and modernization

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“The globalization that took place in Japan in the late 19th century — from the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868) through the Meiji Period (1868-1912) — was much more drastic and epoch-making than now,” said Kaori Inoue, the manager of planning and public relations for Meiji Kinenkan, a 137-year old historic building with a spacious garden in Tokyo’s Minato Ward.

There was a time when the national policy to ban sea traffic made sense in terms of national defense. When the country was opened, the insistent intervention of Western powers came to an end and put Japan on equal footing with them. This shift brought about changes to every corner of people’s lives.

The Meiji government had a number of problems to solve in addition to dealing with domestic conflicts that lingered after the Meiji Restoration. It was particularly committed to revising the unequal treaties that had been signed with foreign countries at the end of the Edo Period. It was also in a rush to create the Constitution of the Empire of Japan and the National Diet as a modern country established on the basis of constitutional monarchism.

Within the backdrop of such dynamic changes in politics, diplomacy and society, there was a rising need for a venue that could serve as a place to make deals smoothly and tactically.

This is how Meiji Kinenkan’s main building was built in 1881 as an annex of Akasaka Palace, which was the temporary residence of Emperor Meiji and Empress Dowager Shoken after the original palace within the former Edo Castle burned down in 1873. What is now referred to as Meiji Kinenkan’s main building became a diplomatic dining hall dedicated to Emperor Meiji.

Symbol of Westernization

The dining hall of the Akasaka Palace was used on various occasions, ranging from private celebratory events among the Imperial family to annual ceremonies held on three major national holidays, as well as banquets with foreign dignitaries for diplomatic purposes.

The tile-roofed, wooden infrastructure designed in the Japanese traditional style, combined with some Western features in the interior and furnishings, was an important milestone of the earliest stage of the Westernization of Japan’s architecture that survived the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and the Great Tokyo Air Raid of World War II in 1945.

Emperor Meiji used it to the fullest extent to mark and celebrate important events, welcoming both domestic and international guests with sincere hospitality, which was the most effective proof of Japan’s dignity and integrity as a member of the international community.

In 1886, the Empress Dowager Shoken wore a Western-style dress at a violin concert held at the dining hall of the Akasaka Palace. It was the first time that she dressed in a Western way in front of foreign guests — a historic moment at the time when even having the Empress present in diplomatic situations was still a new practice in Japan.

“The attitude of the Empress to promote the reform in the way people dressed in the Imperial Court by taking the initiative in adopting Western clothes herself must have been significant support for Japan’s first Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito and his colleagues,” wrote Yoshiko Imaizumi, senior research fellow and research advancement division chief of the Meiji Jingu Intercultural Research Institute in the chapter of her book “The Emperor’s Dining Hall.” Ito, appointed in 1885, strived for the modernization of Japan.

Presently, there is a great diversity of familiar celebrities that people see as role models. However, in an era when TV and the internet did not exist, the Imperial family was one of the very few models that represented and symbolized the country and where it was headed.

The Emperor and Empress must have been fully aware that every action they took, including what they wore and ate, was exposed to the eyes of the public through the people they met directly, by word of mouth, or through nishiki-e (colored woodblock prints). They played the role of guiding the public in a time of radical change and proved Japan’s modernization and sophistication to the rest of the world at the same time.

Relocation and preservation

In 1888, the draft of the Constitution of the Empire of Japan was deliberated in the Privy Council held at the dining hall. The commemorative moment is depicted in a painting that hangs on the wall of the hall. The constitution was promulgated the following year at the newly built Meiji Kyuden, which stands on the grounds of the original palace.

In 1907, the main building of Meiji Kinenkan was granted to Ito, who played a major role in the creation of the constitution. The building was renamed Onshikan, as onshi represents the action of a monarch giving his possession to his subject as a token of gratitude for loyalty. The building was deconstructed, transported and reconstructed on premises owned by Ito in present day Shinagawa Ward.

In 1918, shortly after the death of Ito, it was dedicated to Meiji Shrine and relocated again to its current location inside the Outer Gardens of Meiji Shrine, close to where it originally stood before its relocation to Shinagawa. It was also renamed from Onshikan to Kenpo Kinenkan (Constitution memorial hall).

The following year was the 30th anniversary of the promulgation of the Constitution of the Empire of Japan, and a commemorative ceremony was held at Kenpo Kinenkan.

A wedding taking place at the historical venue.
A wedding taking place at the historical venue.

In 1947, Meiji Kinenkan became its official name, and it was reopened as a wedding and reception venue for Meiji Shrine. It was the first of its kind in Japan where all wedding-related services were provided, including the ceremony, banquet, dress, makeup and photoshoot. It was also used as a ceremonial hall for other important gatherings such as international conferences.

Inoue said that even in the chaos and ruins of the immediate postwar period, there were young people making marriage vows in the remains of Meiji Shrine that had been devastated in air raids. Meiji Kinenkan responded to the people’s momentum for recovery by providing a venue for glorious moments in their lives.

Last year marked the 70th anniversary of Meiji Kinenkan, and a series of special events were conducted, featuring stories based on facts about the role it played in Japan’s diplomacy as the first Imperial dining hall.

In order to preserve the building’s historical value as a cultural asset, a three-year restoration project was launched last year. While security and functionality are pursuits of the project, every effort is also being put into restoring details of the establishment that had been altered from their original designs.

This year marks the 100th year since the building was relocated to its current location in 1918. An exhibition to commemorate the anniversary is being held until Dec. 27 at Meiji Kinenkan. The free exhibition features the building itself, particularly its use and role in different phases of Japan’s history.

Meiji Kinenkan has been appreciated by many people as not just a historical architecture to look at, but also a place that can be used to celebrate special occasions. The quiet retreat fused with tradition in the middle of the Tokyo metropolitan area is also becoming a popular destination for foreign visitors to hold weddings, conferences and receptions, or to enjoy meals or a cup of coffee.

For more information, access www.meijikinenkan.gr.jp/english/.