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
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.