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Visitors to Tokyo and long-term residents of Japan alike may wonder why the Diet building is crowned with a mausoleum-like structure evoking the ancient prototype of a Persian king’s tomb at Halicarnassus.

The answer, according to Hiroyuki Suzuki, a Japanese architectural historian, may lie in the design’s association with Hirobumi Ito, the “father” of the prewar Constitution and a prime minister during the modernizing Meiji Era (1868-1912).

The building, erected in 1936 when Japan was already on the brink of being ruled by an antiparliamentary militarist order, was in other words designed as a “memento mori” — a wistful memorial to Ito and for the promise of a more politically enlightened era than the one that in fact emerged.

Suzuki, a professor of engineering at the University of Tokyo, presented his thesis at a recent symposium at Columbia University on “Architecture and Modern Japan” that attracted 19 scholars, mainly from Japan and the United States, reflecting on the meaning of 20th-century Japan’s architecture.

The symposium, sponsored by the Suntory Foundation, the Japan Foundation and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is the brainchild of Henry Smith, a professor of history at Columbia who has written extensively on urbanism and the development of Tokyo as a modern city.

Japanese architecture since the 1960s, represented by the works of internationally acclaimed modernists and postmodernists such as Kenzo Tange and Arata Isozaki, is well-known in the West, Smith told Kyodo News, explaining the symposium’s focus on the prewar period.

But the whole century before then, when architecture emerged as a profession in Japan and when a revolution in building materials occurred, has been less thoroughly explored, Smith said.

In his paper on the Diet building, Suzuki identified the mausoleum design for the roof as being the same as that adorning the base of a bronze statue of Ito erected in Kobe soon after his assassination in 1909.

The architect of the Diet building, Tori Yoshitake, also happened to be a student of the sculptor of the Ito statue, he pointed out.

“The architectural world has more often than not dismissed the Diet building as uninteresting in design,” Suzuki said. “But my interest in architecture is not just in evaluating its artistic merit, but investigating the meanings attached to it by society and what gives it birth.”

The fruit of collaboration between Columbia’s School of Architecture and the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Industrial Science and Engineering Department, the symposium is the third in a series of meetings that have taken place since 1996.

It attests to the growing international quality of academic exchanges in a field that many would consider arcane.

Shin Muramatsu, a presenter from the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Industrial Science, said the significance of the symposium lay in the globalization of an academic field where scholars were less bound by their own nationality and could examine issues more broadly.

A specialist on Chinese architecture, Muramatsu examined the role that buildings as symbols have played in Japan’s colonial rule of Asia, as well as Hokkaido and Okinawa, and the failed wartime attempt to project Japanese cultural values that would compete with a Chinese or European world view.

The papers presented at the symposium focused not only on political themes, but also on the technical aspects of the field, such as the training of the architect.

Japan, a country that has long honored carpenters as artisans of high merit, was slow to accept the designation of “architect” as having any sense.

Don Choi, a scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, noted that at the turn of the century, the use of new materials in Western-style buildings such as mortar, stone and brick rather than traditional wood, necessitated the teaching of basic craft skills in the classroom.

The question of earthquakes and the problematic use of such materials in an earthquake-prone country was addressed by another scholar, Gregory Clancey, who sees Japanese architecture as expressing two sides of the national character: the fragile, aesthetic “art nation” and the stoic “earthquake nation.”

The symposium was not without its critics.

Hyun Tae Jung from South Korea, a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia’s School of Architecture, said the discussions were too political, which for him, as a Korean, spelled trauma.

He also noted the equivocal position that Japanese scholars take between Western and Asian cultural values.

“Sometimes, I feel that Japanese scholars always show their power, even now,” Hyun said. “At the same time, they show subordination to Western culture. Japanese culture has had a powerful influence on Western culture, but people don’t discuss that.”

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