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‘Building Japan, 1868-1876’: Reflections from the father of Japan’s modern public works

by

Special To The Japan Times

Richard Henry Brunton was a Scottish engineer who came to Japan in 1868, one of a number of o-yatoi-gaikokujin — foreigners hired to help Japan modernize at the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). This book is his memoir, the story of the eight years he spent living in Yokohama and traveling the country overseeing the dredging of channels and the building of lighthouses and bridges both literal and figurative.

Building Japan, 1868-1876, by Richard Henry Brunton.
292 pages
ROUTLEDGE, Nonfiction.

He was responsible for the first iron bridge in the country (in Yokohama), and for the first telegraph system, and he founded Japan’s first school of engineering. Nearly 150 years later, many of his lighthouses still stand and function, a testament to his skill and efforts.

He first arrived at age 27, and his youthful energy and often bullish arrogance come through in his writing. He was very much a product of his era, and though some of his observations about “the locals” make for uncomfortable reading today, his palpable frustration at clashes with bureaucrats, labyrinthine official procedures and the inability to get a direct answer to a direct question will bring a smile of recognition to many readers. Brunton was a witty, engaging man and his tetchy arguments through the letters pages of the Japan Weekly Mail (a predecessor of The Japan Times) in the appendix make for fun reading and prove that trolling is nothing new. Brunton left Japan in 1876, and though he has slipped somewhat from memory, his achievements still light the way along Japan’s coastline.

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