In 1940, Taniguchi Yoshiro looked on through the windows of the Yamanote Line as one of Tokyo’s great architectural symbols crumbled to dust. It was true, the Rokumeikan, once the center of all things cosmopolitan and “high collar” in Japan, had long since been relegated to a tertiary position in the high-class milieu of the empire. And yet, for Taniguchi, it was a somber moment, watching from afar as the walls of the building were knocked down. So much history had happened behind those walls – but more than that, the building itself had served as a national symbol for one of the most momentous eras in modern Japanese history, for good or for ill. And now, the Rokumeikan was no more.
Taniguchi had a special reason to be cognizant of what was being lost. He was an architect, and an accomplished one; at age 36, he had now already been a professor at the prestigious Tokyo Institute of Technology for over a decade. Taniguchi was at the forefront of the continued rush toward new modern forms of architecture, but also held a great appreciation for his own country’s past. He often incorporated traditional Japanese architectural forms into his modern, western-style works. And the Rokumeikan, while wholly “western” in design, represented the moment when the upper echelons of Japanese society had jumped wholeheartedly into European modernism. More than anything, it represented the Meiji era itself.
The Meiji era (1868-1912) began with the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, signaling the death knell of Japanese feudalism and the rule of the samurai. Japan opened itself to the world outside of its nearest neighbors and colonial holdings of Hokkaido and the Ryukyus; newly empowered Emperor Meiji and his clique of statesmen and bureaucrats chased after European technology, as well as the trappings of cultural modernity: clothing, music, political structures, new pastimes – and architecture. Taniguchi was born in late Meiji, and watched the continual breakages with the past arising from both governmental policies and devastating natural disasters. As the Rokumeikan fell, Japan was on the cusp of launching itself into an even worse, all-encompassing disaster – World War II. This, too, was something that Taniguchi would witness.
It was his drive to conserve the continually destroyed and paved-over history of Japan that would lead him to create one of the last few places in the country to walk amongst the buildings of Japan’s first modern era. After the devastation of the war, in the hills of Inuyama, far from the concrete sea of Tokyo, he established an open-air museum where the otherwise doomed relics of modernizing Japan could continue on. The name of Taniguchi’s new creation was, fittingly, Meiji Mura- the “Meiji Village.”
Why Does the Past Disappear in Japan?
The Rokumeikan was far from the only significant building of its era to face destruction. Japan, in general, is not a place where physical remnants of the past are easily maintained. Despite the image of Japan as a land of ancient temples, Shinto shrines, and castles, truly old buildings are few and far between. Historically, almost all buildings were made from wood, said to more easily withstand the various natural disasters Japan is beset with. Wood, however, is also susceptible to both fire and decay. Great conflagrations would regularly sweep across Japan’s urban landscape, leaving little in their wake. Edo, the capital of the Tokugawa Shoguns and forerunner to Tokyo, was leveled by one disaster or another roughly every 25 years from 1600 to the firebombing of Tokyo in WWII.
Japan has long held a philosophical stance of impermanence. Things are fleeting; something that is at the heart of the concept of wabisabi (侘寂). With things bound to eventually fade away (or be utterly destroyed in an earthquake, or fire, or landslide, or tsunami, or even the rare tornado), the country didn’t develop a spirit of conservationism towards its own physical history until fairly recently.
Castles are a good example of the belated desire to maintain the physical landscape of the past. Japan’s samurai fortresses are world-renowned. However, very few of the hundred or so extant castles are actually originals. Seen as relics of a feudal past during the Meiji Era, when the samurai class was abolished, castles were left to rot or torn down completely. Perhaps as many as 2000 castles were demolished. Only twelve originals remain; many more ruins of the original stone moats and retaining walls can be found, since they’re harder for wear, tear, and human hands to dismantle. Only too late did people realize what had been lost, and rebuilding projects started up in the ’30s, ’40s, and the post-war era – although often resulting in concrete structures that only maintain a traditional facade. In their interiors, one often discovers uniform white concrete walls lit by florescent lighting, not too different from what you’d find in a provincial museum in the former Soviet Union.
The desire in the Meiji era to create a modern Japan – one that could both compete with and be considered equal to the European powers – resulted in the tearing down of many such symbols of the past. Japan’s first western-style buildings, from the short-lived Hoterukan – Japan’s first hotel – to the even more impressive Imperial Hotel, arose on land previously occupied by the traditional villas of daimyo – samurai lords.
The Past is Replaced – the Story of Marunouchi
One of Tokyo’s most famous districts, the Marunouchi, was one such lot. What is now the heart of Japan’s most well-known financial district was once an inlet on Edo Bay, not far from the castle. Part of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s massive land reclamation projects in its new capital, the inlet was filled in in the 1590s. Soon encircled by Edo Castle’s inner and outer moats, the area became known by the name now pronounced as Maru-no-Uchi: “within the circle.” The district became the home-away-from-home for numerous daimyo, forced by the Shogunate to spend off-years living in Edo to prevent rebellion in the provinces.
Over twenty-four of these lords had their great villas in the Maru-no-Uchi, but as upheaval wracked Edo in the 1850s, daimyo’s residences became easy targets for arson or attack by the numerous pro-imperial, anti-foreign radicals operating in Edo. Many daimyo fled to their own provincial holdings as soon as the last Shogun, Yoshinobu, rescinded the centuries-old dictate necessitating residences in Edo. By the time the Shogunate fell, Maru-no-Uchi was a wasteland, where weeds grew amongst the few remaining, mostly-abandoned lordly residences. The poet Takahashi Kyoshi described the desolate Maruonouchi as “…the abode of foxes and badgers.”
The entire area was bought up in 1890 by the ascendant Mitsubishi corporation, and became known as the Mitsubishi-ga-Hara (三菱ヶ原), the Mistubishi Meadow. The fields were slowly returned to civilization, becoming a major part of the ostentatious Meiji push for modernization. In 1894, Mitsubishi brought in one Josiah Conder, British architect, “hired foreigner” (お雇い外国人), and “father of Japanese architecture,” to begin work on a series of three-storied, red-bricked western buildings. The neighborhood was known as Marunouchi Londontown, and together with the famed Ginza Bricktown near at hand to the south, built in the 1870s, became one of the most exciting neighborhoods in Japan for those wanting to glimpse what modernity seemed to hold in store for them.
Bricks on Bricks
In the same year, Conder built the area’s first modern office space, the Mitsubishi Ichigokan. The building was in the Queen Anne revival style, popular in the Conder’s homeland. Almost simultaneously, the Meiji government was putting together plans for a central Tokyo train station to be located nearby. Upon its construction, Tokyo Station would cement Marunouchi’s place as the central business district in the new, modern Tokyo. (This had to wait until just after the Meiji emperor’s death, and the end of the era named after him – the 1st Sino-Japanese War interrupted the planning progress.)
The Marunouchi of Meiji, whether expanse of field or red brick, is now largely gone. Taniguchi witnessed it happening in his own time. Bombs in WWII decimated much of Tokyo Station. Mitsubishi tore down its Londontown after the war. Glass towers arose where once daimyo’s residences stood, as Japan’s economy regained its footing, then rocketed into the stratosphere in the 1980s.
Bridge to the Past, Bridge to the Future
Even when physical remnants of the era remain, they’re often obscured. No better example exists than the famed Nihonbashi bridge, not far from Marunouchi. In the Edo era, it was a massive, arched wooden structure, spanning the waters where the five roads to Edo converged. It was one of the great entrances to the city proper, bustling with foot traffic. In the late Meiji era, the bridge was torn down, replaced with a modern, level stone structure. In the middle of the bridge lays the “point marker,” the basis of road distances for all routes in Japan. During Meiji, all around the bridge stood some of the great symbols of Westernization, from the Mitsui Bank building to the Mitsukoshi department store.
The area, too, fell victim to the horrific firebombings of WWII. The Nihonbashi bridge survived, although some of its stones still show burn marks – one of the few remaining signs of the bombings that leveled Tokyo in 1945, killing over 100,000 people. The bridge still stands, but is mostly hidden underneath a modern overpass. Once, views of Mt. Fuji could be had from the bridge – now the bridge itself can hardly be seen.
Even by the time he was a student at the Tokyo University Department of Architecture in the early 1920s, Taniguchi had witnessed the cycle of destruction, development, and destruction again. The vaunted Imperial Hotel represented the process well. Built on land that had previously belonged to the Abe Clan, who ruled Shirakawa in what is now Fukushima Prefecture, the first iteration of the Imperial began construction in 1888. It was the brainchild of two Meiji oligarchs, Foreign Minister Count Inoue Kaoru and Viscount Shibusawa Eiichi (soon to feature on the new ¥1000 bill).
Inoue was also the stateman behind the creation of the era-defining Rokumeikan. A former samurai of Choshu domain and a major force behind westernization projects in Japan, ironically, during the unrest leading to the Meiji Restoration, Inoue had been so opposed to anything foreign that, in 1863, he’d set fire to the British Legation in Edo. Now, a scant two decades later, he was the driving force behind two major buildings whose very purpose was to welcome and impress foreign dignitaries and visitors.
The original Imperial Hotel opened its doors in 1890. Its name was appropriate: not only did it front the moat of the imperial palace, but its largest investor (at 21.1%) was also the Imperial Household Agency itself. The Imperial was designed by Japanese architect Watanabe Yuzuru, and was three stories high, with 60 rooms. French cuisine was served, in accordance with the usual fare presented at imperial luncheons in the palace just across the moat.
In 1922, the old Imperial met its fate as so many of the grand buildings of Tokyo, and Edo before it – by fire. By that point, a new, chic 2nd Imperial was already under construction. The Meiji era building was replaced by a creation of the new era, Taisho – a structure that would become one of Tokyo’s greatest landmarks for the coming decades. Taniguchi was already witnessing the eras physically turn over around him, with the Imperial Hotels representing much of that spirit. What he couldn’t know at the time, however, was that the 2nd Imperial – the work of internationally famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright – would become the centerpiece of the park Taniguchi would go on to be most remembered by.
The Birth of Meiji Mura
It was 1960, twenty years on from the demolition of the Rokumeikan, and fifteen since the devastation of World War II. Taniguchi Yoshiro had survived the conflagrations of the war, emerging into a rapidly changing Japan. Decades earlier, Taniguchi had been actively designing architecture for the Japanese Empire – including a garden at the Japanese embassy in Germany, where he was supervised by the infamous Nazi Albert Speer. Now both Empire and Reich were gone, their terrors fading into the past.
Taniguchi was involved in rebuilding the ruined urban landscapes of Japan. Face to face with such widespread destruction, he became even more concerned with the idea of historical conservation. The war, natural disasters, and development had already taken so many of the Meiji-era buildings that had inspired him. In the 1950s, he joined the Cultural Properties Specialists Council and the Japan Agency for Cultural Affairs, trying to help bring about a greater spirit of conservatism. Such topics were on his mind as he schmoozed with former classmates at a high school reunion in his hometown of Kanazawa, on the Sea of Japan.
As he discussed the urgent need to preserve Meiji-era buildings for future generations before they were lost, one friend immediately took the message to heart. This was Tsuchikawa Moto (土川元夫). Tsuchikawa was at this point executive vice-president of the Nagoya Railroad Company (called Meitetsu for short), a major train operator in central Japan. Right there, in the midst of their high school reunion, the two began brainstorming for what would eventually be called Meiji Mura.
Meeting of the Minds
By 1961, Tsuchikawa had risen to president of Meitetsu. He was able to bring the considerable financial might of the company to bear on their conservation project. Soon they had established a foundation, with an architectural committee filled with historians, who, when made aware of an important Meiji building in peril, “…would race to the site like paramedics racing to save a patient.” 
Tsuchikawa’s leading role at Meitetsu also ensured that their conservatory would have the land and location needed to maintain the buildings they’d save. The company owned a scenic plot of land in the city of Inuyama, not far to the northwest of Nagoya. It lay on Lake Iruka, an uncommonly large agricultural reservoir in the mountains near the border with Gifu Prefecture.
(While beautiful, the reservoir has its own tragic Meiji history. In 1868, the very year of the Restoration, the dam holding back the lake’s waters collapsed following heavy rains. Over 900 of those in the villages downstream perished in the ensuing flood.)
When Meiji Mura opened to the public on March 18th, 1965, it was home to fifteen Meiji-era structures saved from an untimely fate. Their origins were diverse; some were from farther south, in Kyoto, while even distant Hokkaido was represented. Taniguchi himself served as the open-air museum’s first director. The collection of re-located, rebuilt, and refurbished buildings would only increase – and would soon gain its most famous addition.
Saving Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps America’s most famous architect, had long been fascinated by Japanese graphic design. Wright was born a world away from Japan, in Wisconsin. His birth came in 1867, the year before the Shogunate fell and the Meiji period began. By the late 1880s, as newfangled Western edifices were going up all over Japan, Wright was falling in love with traditional Japanese prints (ukiyo-e). In 1905, he took his first trip outside of the United States, heading on a months-long tour of Japan. Arriving in the late Meiji era, he was able to witness much of the “old Japan” he’d become fascinated with, as well as the industrialization and westernization that had swept the country since Commodore Matthew Perry opened Japan to the West in the years before Wright’s birth. 
In 1911, the last year of Emperor Meiji’s rule, Wright was put in contact with the manager of the Imperial Hotel, Hayashi Aisaku. Hayashi was looking for an architect to design a new Imperial, Wright jumped at the opportunity. Soon he was in Japan, starting a design process that would culminate in the opening of the 2nd Imperial Hotel in 1923. The building was markedly larger than the 1st Imperial, with over 240 rooms and long, 500-foot wings. The building mixed Mayan Revival stylings, carved out of igneous Oya stone (大谷石), with subtle Japanese aspects. In front of the lobby was a large reflecting pool.
In 1922, as Wright was working on the in-process structure, a large earthquake hit Tokyo. It was only days after fire had ravaged the 1st Imperial Hotel, and the earthquake toppled what remained of it. The 2nd Imperial, however, was undamaged. An even greater challenge to its foundations came the next year, when the Great Kanto Earthquake wracked Tokyo and beyond. Over 70% of the city’s buildings crumbled, and fires took the lives of over 100,000. Yet Wright’s marvel still stood. As one of the few buildings of its size left standing, it served as an important staging ground for disaster response in the days that followed. The building’s survival became the stuff of legend, and Wright made sure all the tabloids back in the US knew of his success.
Boom and Bust
The hotel was one of the great landmarks of the Tokyo of its day. Charlie Chaplin stayed at the hotel in 1932, and is said to have deeply enjoyed the restaurant’s wagyu (Japanese beef). This was on the same trip where Chaplin narrowly missed assassination by far-right militarists during the League of Blood Incident (an event that Japanese Red Army leader Shigenobu Fusako‘s father was involved in). The hotel was the height of resplendent extravagance for 1920s and ’30s Japan.
However, despite claims that the hotel was “earthquake proof,” its foundations had in fact been seriously damaged in the 1923 quake. Floors bulged; the building sank into the mud Wright had built it on top of (under the assumption that said mud would produce a dampening effect during quakes). Even before WWII, management understood a third Imperial would have to be built. The building received further damage during the firebombings of that war. When the US Occupation forces arrived to a devastated Tokyo, the Imperial was coopted by the occupying military. After being returned to Japanese ownership in 1952, it continued to attract stars from abroad – Marilyn Monroe stayed there not long after. The grand hotel’s days were, however, numbered.
In 1967, and despite some degree of public outcry, it was announced that the 2nd Imperial would be demolished. In its place would rise a sleek, modern high rise, capable of taking on the number of guests necessary in a Tokyo now in a state of continual economic growth. Taniguchi leaped to save the building, despite it being from an era that had already begun to replace the edifices of Meiji. The base structure, being of concrete, could not be salvaged, but as much of the trappings and Oya stone as possible were rescued prior to demolition.
By March 1968, Wright’s Imperial was no more. In 1970, reconstruction of the lobby at its new site in Inuyama began; the exterior took six years. Seven years later, Meiji Mura began reconstructing the interior; this was finished in 1985. By this time, both Taniguchi and Tsuchikawa had passed; their hard work, however, had ensured that Wright’s most famous Japanese building would live on, at least in some form. It has since gone on to be by far the most famous building at Meiji Mura, where visitors love to walk its halls, sipping coffee in its recreated cafe on the mezzanine complete with Wright-designed furniture. In its interior, at least some sense of its era remains.
History in the Hills
These days, Meiji Mura is home to over 60 reconstructed buildings representing the recent Japanese past. The buildings are spread out over a wide, hilly area, with many perched on panoramic hilltops. These include the ramblings halls of the Mie Prefectural Office, built in 1879, a great representation of the wooden, western-style government offices built throughout Japan in the early Meiji era. Emperor Meiji himself visited the offices in 1880, and they were in operation until 1964. Meiji and Empress Shoken’s private train cars are in a garage nearby.
Hospitals, schoolhouses, private homes, and more abound. One such belonged to Saigō Tsugumichi, younger brother to Meiji Restoration legend Saigo Takamori; another is the villa of Prince Saionji Kinmochi, one of the most significant political figures of the ’20s and ’30s. Yet another is the summering house of author Lafcadio Hearn, author of Kwaidan and numerous other books on Japanese ghost stories and urban legends. Built in 1868, the building was originally in Shizuoka Prefecture, and now hosts a small confectionary store (and a standee demonstrating just how short Hearn was).
The sheer variety of buildings makes mentioning them all a difficult prospect within a narrative of this size; both Western-style and more traditional architecture from Meiji through early Showa abound.
There’s the Sapporo Telephone Exchange, built in 1898. The building was constructed in stone to protect the expensive technological contraptions therein from fire, a worry even in the colder northern reaches of Hokkaido, even then still in the process of being settled by Japan. There’s the Kureha-za kabuki theater, from the very first year of Meiji, where performances are still held. There’s a prison, its wooden bars still resembling those of the feudal era. A police box that used to stand in front of Nishi Hongan-ji temple in Kyoto remains at the ready. A red-roofed photographer’s studio welcomes you to view old family portraits taken during its years of operations; a high latch near the ceiling once allowed the owner to ascend to the roof to remove accumulated snow, the building originally having been located in snowswept Niigata Prefecture. A large, beautiful sake brewery from Aichi Prefecture showcases the tools of the trade.
Meiji Beyond Japan
Meiji Mura’s collection goes beyond the borders of Japan itself. The Meiji era was the first period in which Japanese nationals were allowed to emigrate beyond the archipelago; amongst the upheaval of modernization also came great poverty, with some left behind by societal changes. With both the encouragement of the Meiji government, and receiving countries in need of low-wage workforces, impoverished Japanese began their long journies to the three regions that would become home to more ethnic Japanese than anywhere on Earth outside of the homeland: Brazil, the west coast of the United States, and Hawaii.
All three diaspora communities are represented at Meiji Mura. The oldest is the Hawaii Immigrants Assembly House, built in the town of Hilo on the Big Island in 1889. At the time, the land was still in the Kingdom of Hawaii, still four years off from the overthrow of the indigenous monarchy and the annexation by the United States that followed. The building was initially designed as a church catering to Japanese Christians, watched over by its head pastor, Okabe Jiro – who would eventually become an important statesman back in Japan. After its functions as a church ceased, it became an important community space for the Japanese immigrant population of Hilo. These days, it houses various displays demonstrating the lifestyles and occupations Japanese immigrants in Hawaii undertook. Next to the building, the flag of Hawaii flutters in the breeze.
Just across from the house flies is another flag; the green and yellow of Brazil. This two-storied rambler with sloped, tiled brown roofs was the creation of Japanese immigrant Kubota Yasuo. Kubota moved to the coast near São Paulo in the early Taisho era, building his home in 1919. Life on the local coffee plantations was a difficult one, and Kubota had to endeavor doubly as hard in order to clear enough of the nearby forest to build this new home. He hired a fellow Japanese immigrant to design the house, who incorporated a number of Japanese elements. Inside, one finds numerous displays featuring the lives of Japanese immigrants to Brazil, who now make up the largest diaspora Japanese community in the world. There’s even a model of the Kasato-maru, which ferried the first group of Japanese immigrants to Brazil in 1908.
Lastly comes a home that would not look out of place in many an American city; appropriately, a United States flag flies nearby. This is the Seattle Nikkei Evangelical Church. Built in 1908 as a standard residence, it was bought by a group of Japanese immigrants in the 1930s. For these Japanese immigrants, owning such a house was the product of hard work in difficult circumstances over a long period far from home. Yet, the house was cruelly appropriated from the Japanese owners during World War II, and the resident family was rounded up and sent to internment. Following the war, a separate group of Japanese evangelicals bought the property, turning it into a church; the main living room is still arranged as if for a religious service. As the population of Japanese Christians in the area dwindled, the building’s use came to an end, and it was moved to Meiji Mura.
These three buildings demonstrate a fact often glossed over in Japan: that Japanese culture and populations reach beyond the main islands, into a historical diaspora with a history just as vital. Meiji was the era when that diaspora began. Seeing artifacts of those communities at home amongst the buildings of Japan’s ages of modernization brings home how the diaspora’s history is part of the nation’s story, too.
The Ages March On
In March of 2021, it was announced that all seventeen stories and 772 guest rooms of Tokyo’s current Imperial Hotel will soon be demolished.
This third iteration of the Imperial has had its share of storied happenings since opening in 1970, including hosting the 2005 marriage of Princess Sayako, sole daughter of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. Amongst the numerous eateries and drinking establishments within the current hotel is to be found the Old Imperial Bar; the hotel’s official website describes the venue as “…a patrician salute to our architectural heritage of Frank Lloyd Wright, with fascinating motifs from the 1923 Imperial, and masterfully concocted spirits from around the world.” Presumably, this bar will soon be just as much a thing of the Tokyo past as Wright’s great architectural monument.
The land beneath the current Imperial was once the sloshing waters of Edo Bay. Then it became reclaimed land, home to numerous refined samurai estates. Their wooden eves fell to disuse, and up rose new Western-style buildings, testaments to the industrialization and modernization of Japan. The first Imperial, one such edifice, burned, and up arose the second Imperial, even more modern and chic. Then Wright’s creation was dismantled, and the gleaming towers of the third imperial rose in its place. And now, even that building is slated for destruction, making way for a massive “urban renewal project” at a price point of $1.8 billion. 
Truly, the rule of Tokyo, and the physical landscape of Japan as a whole, is change. Even when disasters have been (somewhat) tamed, impermanence remains the assumption. That’s why a place like Meiji Mura is so important. A building the size of the current Imperial can’t just be moved and rebuilt; that wasn’t quite possible even for Wright’s much smaller Imperial, which only consists of its lobby in reconstructed form. But, in some sense – divorced from its urban setting, from the high-society crowds of Japan’s Roaring Twenties – it lives on. So do the other, older buildings of Meiji Mura. One of Kyoto’s first street cars runs the length of the park, with tourists dressed in the maroon hakama of the Meiji era’s high-collar schoolgirls riding along. These artifacts of ages gone by live out a new life in a land and time apart. Somewhere out there, Taniguchi Yoshiro must be smiling.
What to Read Next:
 Nakano, Yūko. (Jun 22, 2022.) Meiji Mura Brings Early Modern Japan to Today. nippon.com.
 Severns/Mori. (2008-2014). Introduction. Window on Wright’s Legacy in Japan.
 (18.03.21.) Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel to make way for $1.8bn renewal scheme. Global Reconstruction Review.
Edward Seidensticker. (1970.) Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake.
Abe, Kimimasa. (1954). Early Western Architecture in Japan. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 13(2), 13–18.
Kerr, Alex. (2001). Dogs and demons: Tales from the dark side of Japan. New York: Hill and Wang.
Meyer, Ulf. (2011). Archtectural Guide Tokyo. Dom Publishers.