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Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010

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New stone- and brick-faced Meiji high-rises tower over older wooden buildings around Nihonbashi Bridge, across which a tramcar is passing. STEPHEN MANSFIELD PHOTOS

The great Meiji bazaar: remodeling Tokyo

Special to The Japan Times

When the prime minister, Count Hirobumi Ito, hosted his great masquerade ball in 1885, the venue selected for the occasion was the Rokumeikan in Hibiya, close by the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo.

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Towering inferno: The 12-story Ryounkaku (Cloud Surpassing Pavilion) in the Asakusa entertainment district was a veritable Meiji Era skyscraper boasting restaurants, art galleries, gambling tables, one floor of imported items and an observation deck. Sadly, it fell victim to fires that raged after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

It was really the only choice for such an extravaganza, despite being a somewhat controversial symbol of Westernization in some quarters.

Designed by Englishman Josiah Conder (1852-1920) and completed in 1883, the symmetrical brick and masonry facades of the Rokumeikan (Deer-cry Hall) were a fine example of Meiji Era (1868-1912) syncreticism.

A mix of new Tokyo and French Second Empire, the exterior of the two-story building commissioned by the Foreign Ministry for the housing of overseas guests combined a number of Italian Renaissance themes characteristic of a 15th-century palazzo, with cupolas after the Mogul style, a miniature Mansard roof and segmented arches.

The interior, not to be outdone by the outer flourishes, comprised a billiard room, promenade hall, a suite for official state guests, reading and music areas, and a ballroom.

The French chef's banquet menus might include a choice of Hungarian lamb, red snapper casserole, and beef filets with horseradish sauce. Guests could repair to one of two bars for German beer and American cocktails served by the bilingual staff, or withdraw to the smoking room where Russian cigarettes and Havana cigars could be procured.

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Multi-sourced: The former Imperial University (later University of Tokyo) Medical School in Koishikawa Botanical Garden dates from 1876 and is an interesting hybrid of classical European, Renaissance and romantic styles reflecting a confluence of Meiji Era tastes.

When the count's guests arrived, conservative anti-government elements were shocked to see Japanese dignitaries turn up dressed as characters ranging from Dr. Faustus (the legendary philosopher who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power) and Mary Queen of Scots to Mother Hubbard. By all accounts, Persian and Egyptian themes were particularly well represented among the 400 guests.

Mingling with women dressed in Louis XV court dresses were imaginative caricatures, including an Oscar Wilde figure accompanied by two votaries. Prime Minister Ito himself arrived as a Venetian nobleman, with his wife a Spanish aristocrat in a yellow silk dress and mantilla, and their daughter dressed as an Italian peasant girl.

Such a spectacle, inconceivable in the earlier Edo Period during centuries of feudal rule by the Tokugawa shoguns from 1603 to 1867, spoke clearly and powerfully of formative change.

It was an age when men like Ito, in imitation of their Victorian counterparts, grew luxuriant mustaches and hung gold watch chains from timepieces they carried in their waistcoat pockets. The watches were significant, for the nature of time itself was changing. City residents had always depended on temple bells to tell the time.

Tellingly, too, of Meiji Japan's pell-mell modernization drive, the Edo Period board game sugoroku, in which players threw dice and moved from frame to frame along an illustrated itinerary equivalent to a sightseeing tour of Edo (present-day Tokyo), underwent a fundamental change. Famous places were replaced with the theme of shusse-sugoroku ("climbing the social ladder"), so that the illustrated route — tracing ambitions of the day — started with images of peddlers and rickshaw drivers, proceeded past the entrances to well-to-do merchants' homes, and terminating in the club houses and boardrooms of the elite.

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Neglected history: In Europe, certainly, and in many other parts of the world as well, these under-maintained Meiji Era buildings (right) on the Tokyo Geijutsu University campus would be heritage listed and carefully preserved.

Buildings would be needed to match the new aspirations. Architecture was synonymous in people's minds with advanced Western culture. Creating a Westernized cityscape, therefore, became identified as the hallmark of a civilized society.

The great Meiji building bazaar would turn Tokyo into something akin to an Expo site, an emporium of construction styles the like of which neither the city nor the country had ever witnessed. Architects vied to recreate European models of modernization, producing an efflorescence of brick banks, schools, post offices, town halls, bridges, factories, and train stations that would utterly transform the urban landscape.

This emerging city is visible in the woodblock prints of the day. Artists such as Ando Hiroshige III, Kobayashi Kiyochika and Utagawa Yoshitora show us aspects of modern life in their street scenes: pedestrians in Western dress, wheeled traffic, brick and stone hotels and banks, gas lamps, European-style shopping streets, steam trains, omnibuses, and factories belching plumes of smoke as noxious as anything found in Lancashire or the rust belt of North America.

The changes to Tokyo were most noticeable in individual buildings, standing out as beacons of modernity, rather than in entirely reconceived zones. If the trappings of Westernization in the form of missionary schools, horsedrawn carriages, even the odd velocipede (forerunner of the bicycle), were visible in the foreign settlement at Tsukiji, its best-known sight was the Tsukiji Hoterukan — known to Westerners as the Edo Hotel.

When it was completed in the autumn of 1868, crowds of Japanese sightseers flocked to see this symbol of new civilization. More than 100 woodblock prints commemorated the opening; a slew of color prints followed in 1869 and 1870. A triptych by the prominent artist Utagawa Kuniteru II depicts merchants making deliveries in the bustling forecourt, with a Japanese flag fluttering in the background beside the Akashi Bridge. A contemporary photograph confirms the accuracy of Kuniteru's rendition.

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Luxury living: The Iwasaki House in Yushima (above) was built in 1896 as the main residence for the founding family of Mitsubishi, the Iwasakis. Though now reduced to just three of its original 20 wings, the opulent pad still has many magnificent features, including this delightful upper verandah.
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The hotel was the work of a former carpenter named Shimizu Kisuke II, who had also worked as a building contractor in the foreign settlement at Yokohama. Japanese carpenters, imitating the pseudo-Western giyofu style of the day, liked to transpose the decorative eclecticism popular in Europe, adding local motifs such as dragons, clouds and phoenixes to their buildings. Cupolas, towers and turrets were common.

The timber frame of the Hoterukan in Tsukiji, its tiled roof, dark outer walls crisscrossed with a traditional Japanese plaster patterning known as namako-kabe, and a bell tower suggestive of traditional castles, were essentially Japanese in execution. However, Western features were incorporated in the form of European furnishings and decor, sash windows and an expansive veranda suggestive of British Raj architecture.

Bearing a striking resemblance to the Hoterukan was Japan's first bank, Mitsui House. Designed by the same architect, Shimizu Kisuke II, the building was completed in the Nihonbashi district in 1872. A tall structure made of wood and faced with stone, it rose to five stories. Like the Hoterukan, it boasted a tower, and other details suggestive of Edo Castle, where Shimizu had once worked.

As prime examples of this new, hybrid architecture, such buildings spoke of a strong urge to embrace the future, tempered by a hesitation to completely disengage from the past.

As Jinnai Hidenobu, a contemporary scholar of urban morphology, has astutely observed, "Many architectural masterpieces of this time reflected the plurality of demands growing out of a mixture of old and new values, in which an admiration for Western structures signaling a new epoch coexisted with an unwillingness to discard trust in castle architecture as a symbol of stable social status."

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Set in stone: As solidly built as it looks, the green-domed 1910 Hyokeikan building in the grounds of Tokyo National Museum in Ueno now houses part of the Asian art collection.

Tokyo's experiments with Western-inspired architecture and other urban accretions, which would lead to an extraordinary jam of styles and not a few visual dissonances, were already apparent in the Ginza quarter's mishmash of gas lamps, willow trees and telegraph poles.

The Great Ginza Fire of 1872 had provided the opportunity to modernize the city-center retail district. What came out of this ambitious project was the Ginza Brick Quarter, designed by the English architect Thomas Walters. It took almost a decade to create what was intended to be a fireproof architectural showcase for a contemporary Tokyo.

On completion, there were more than 1,000 brick buildings running across the Ginza and contiguous Kyobashi areas. The country's first sidewalks were installed, and the street itself, now widened as a firebreak, was paved with brick.

Many Meiji Era pictures of Tokyo's public and commercial buildings, recorded on postcards and in photographs, bear a strong resemblance to Victorian constructions. With so many English architects, engineers and designers invited to work in Tokyo this is hardly surprising.


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