The Disappearance of Meiji: Why it’s Hard to Find Tokyo’s Recent Past

The Disappearance of Meiji: Why it’s Hard to Find Tokyo’s Recent Past

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A faded image from Meiji Japan featuring the Asakusa Twelve Stories, also known as the Ryounkaku
In Tokyo, the recent past is often obscured beneath endless concrete. Take a journey through the city's history to discover why.

Architect Ulf Meyer once described Tokyo as “a wonderful catastrophe.”

It’s a city unlike any other, a sea of ferroconcrete stretching endlessly from the reclaimed shores of Tokyo Bay. A sort of regimented grey chaos that continues beyond the confines of the 24 wards that make up what was once called the City of Tokyo, out towards the expanse of its western suburbs, beyond the borders of Chiba, Kanagawa, Ibaraki, and Saitama Prefectures.

“Tokyo” becomes the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, the Shutoen (首都圏), the single most populous in the world, home to well over thirty million people – a larger population than many countries. By many definitions – population, economic might, cultural capital – Tokyo is one of the greatest cities on earth, blessed with a remarkable public transit system and subject to an extensive and powerful bureaucracy

What modern Tokyo hides, though, is the age of the city; its history. For such a historically significant place, it can be hard to get a feel for its past. Many of Tokyo’s greatest historical landmarks no longer exist, victims of natural disasters, war, and a constant need to develop and build. Besides a few major exceptions, Tokyo can feel almost historyless. Of course, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth – but you might not be blamed for missing it through all the concrete.

And the lack of visible history doesn’t just apply to long-since decayed or burnt buildings from the days of the samurai and beyond. It applies to even the buildings of Japan’s more recent past, the Western-style edifices erected as Japan left behind feudalism and chased after an international-style modernity. Tokyo became Tokyo in the Meiji era, from 1868, and in the ensuing decades built itself up anew.

That Tokyo, and that Japan, is perhaps even harder to find these days than the Japan of the samurai. But you can still catch glimpses if you know where to look – even if that “where” is on a forested stretch near a gleaming lake, far from the original homes of the early modern buildings themselves. To take in more than a little of early Tokyo modernity, you may need to leave Tokyo itself.

Tokyo extends outwards from Sunshine City, Ikebukuro. Photograph by Noah Oskow.

Table of Contents


History Enshrouded in Concrete

Now, it’s a clear mistake to assume Tokyo represents Japan as a whole. The Japanese archipelago is long, its cities, towns, and villages varied (if, these days, similar, as a result of standardized urban planning and construction techniques). Tokyo, however, is the center, and has been for some time. The story of how Tokyo’s modern history had been physically decimated can, perhaps, stand in for the country as a whole. In a country as bureaucratic as Japan, it often seems that as goes Tokyo, so goes the nation.

Behind the modern city is a deep history, one that dates back many hundreds of years. Until the late 1860s, Tokyo went by another name – Edo. The military capital of the Tokugawa shoguns, by the 18th century, Edo had become the beating heart of the collection of samurai domains called “Japan.” Once a sleepy fishing village, newly-minted Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu chose Edo as his military capital in 1603, with his samurai, attendants, and retinue expanding the population of his new castle town almost overnight.

In 1635, the Shogunate declared that all tozama daimyo – feudal lords who had fought and lost against the Tokugawa in the climactic Battle of Sekigahara three decades earlier – would need to establish residences in Edo and live there every other year, leaving wives and heirs behind when they returned to their home domains. In 1642, this rule was extended to fudai daimyo – those vassal lords who had allied with Tokugawa before Sekigahara, and who were thus on the shogunate’s good side. This meant that all the great lords of Japan now had to maintain households in Edo, and households meant attendants.

The population swelled as the various daimyo’s samurai retainers, servants, cooks, grooms, advisors, and more moved to the city. Commoners, merchants, and the underclasses followed suit, creating the material basis on which the thousands and thousands of samurai could subsist. Then, in turn, came the entertainers and culture-makers to serve the merchants and commoners. Edo expanded beyond a mere castle town into the largest metropolis the world had ever known. By 1721, it had a population of 1,000,000 people.

Edo castle and environs. 17th century.

The Flowers of Edo

Like localities across Japan, Edo was a city of wood, paper, and tiled roofs. Beyond the samurai districts, located primarily in the hilly Yamanote region to the west of Edo Castle, the merchant and commoner quarters took on a standardized look. Neighborhoods consisted of nagaya (長屋), longhouses that rented individual rooms, often with earthen floors. Outhouses, wells, and garbage facilities were shared. Stores would be located at the ends of longhouses, and the life of the city existed on the main streets in front of the nagaya.

Such longhouses went by another name, however: yakeya (焼け家), literally “burning houses.” Herein lies one of the main reasons so much of Tokyo and Japanese history no longer exists in physical form. Fires were a near constant in the wooden urban landscape, especially in the densely packed Shogunal capital. So common, in fact, that major conflagrations were known colloquially as the Flowers of Edo. During the Edo era alone, major sections of the city were devastated by fire more than 49 times. Between 1600 and the end of World War II, Edo, and later Tokyo, were essentially leveled by some form of disaster roughly every 25 years. Rebuilding and construction were even then a major aspect of Edo’s life and economy. Some destruction was extensive enough to make rebuilding seem moot, however; the Great fire of Meireki, in 1657, destroyed as much as 80% of the city, including the great keep of Edo Castle, which was never rebuilt.

Scroll painting depicting the Great Fire of Meireki (明暦の大火). The conflagration is believed to have killed over 100,000 people.

An Age of Change

In 1853, when American Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry arrived to force open Japan to Western trade, Edo remained one of the great wooden urban spaces of the world. Perry’s arrival kickstarted Japan’s rush toward modernization. The shogunate fell in 1868, by which time Edo had nearly emptied as daimyo and samurai, no longer beholden by the sankin-kotai system, fled the city en masse. The new Meiji government, which had reinvested the emperor with temporal power, briefly considered making another city its capital. Edo won out, however, and was christened with its new name: Tokyo (東京, “Eastern Capital”). And as a modern new capital, it was deserving of modern new edifices. Much as was the case with Western-style clothing, newly built facades on European lines became one of the most important symbols for Japan’s attempt to catch up with the foreign colonial powers at its doorstep.

Creating a Western-looking country was about more than just aesthetics. True, there were many, like Fukuzawa Yukichi, who believed in the superiority of aspects of European civilization. But what lay behind the desire of Japan’s new elites to take on the physical characteristics of Europe was an attempt to be counted among the ranks of modern societies. Japan was subject to unfair and hated unequal treaties, which enforced unbalanced trade with European countries and granted exterritoriality to Western expatriates. Foreigners were free to cause a ruckus, as Japanese courts and police had their hands tied. As the world around Japan fell to colonialism, it seemed the way to prove that Japan was an equal – and not simply another “uncivilized” prize to be won – was to appear as “modern” as possible.

The Battle of Ueno. The sole major battle within Edo during the Meiji Restoration saw the near-total destruction of the city’s venerable Kan’ei-ji temple.

High Times at the Hotel-Kan

The first notable attempt at “Western” style architecture began construction when Tokyo was still called Edo, and the Shogun yet ruled. It was known as the Hoteru-kan (ホテル館), combining the Japanized pronunciation of “hotel” with a Sino-Japanese suffix for “building,” kan. As one might guess, the Hoterukan was Japan’s first modern hotel. Situated to the south of the newly-completed foreign settlement in Tsukiji on Edo Bay, in the words of Edward Seidensticker, “the Hoterukan could only be early Meiji… an original, a Western building unlike anything built in the West.”

Designed by Shimizu Kisuke, who would go on to found the Shimizu Corporation, one of the largest construction corporations in the world, the Hoteru-kan consisted of “…foreign details applied to a traditional base or frame.” Two hundred feet long, the structure had over one hundred rooms and employed a similar number of staff members. A remarkable landmark of early Meiji, it suffered the fate of so many great buildings in Japan, burnt to cinders only four years after completion.

A Meiji-era print of the fabled Hoteru-kan.

That same fire, in 1872, was the one that razed to the ground a nearby area of the city known as Ginza. What emerged from the ashes was a major test case for Western-style architecture, the Ginza Bricktown. These new brick buildings were like nothing seen in Tokyo before, and the shops that occupied their storefronts inspired awestruck crowds to immediately gather. Ginza became such a popular spot to wander and window-shop that a new term eventually came into usage in the early Taisho era (1912-1926): ginbura (銀ブラ), meaning “to stroll about Ginza.” The buildings themselves were drafty and cold, and did not prove popular with tenants; yet, they served their purpose, ostentatiously displaying “modernity” within Tokyo.

Such architectural symbols sprung up almost at random amidst the wooden buildings of Tokyo, themselves not much changed from Edo. 1870 was a turning point, when the Meiji government established the Building Bureau of the Ministry of Engineering. The ministry brought on numerous oyatoi gaikokujin (お雇い外国人, “hired foreigners”), expert architects who left their mark. Most famous of these was Josiah Conder, an Englishman whose name pops up again and again when engaging with the most famous construction projects of the era. Condor went on to teach many of the Japanese architects who would define the styles of the Meiji period and beyond.

“Father of Japanese Architecture” Josiah Conder in Japanese garb.

Return to the Rokumeikan

Perhaps Condor’s most famous contribution is the building that still defines the era: the Rokumeikan (鹿鳴館), finished in 1883. Initially conceived by its commissioner, the Meiji oligarch Count Inoue Kaoru, as a site to host balls and dinner parties for foreign dignitaries, the Rokumeikan replaced the older Enryokan, a Japanese-style building built by the Shogunate which was seen as unfit for diplomatic usage. Condor wanted to include Japanese architectural aspects in the design but was overruled – the building was to be made in an entirely Western fashion. The new Rokukeikan quickly became the prime gentleman’s club of Meiji-era Japan. With its ballroom, dining halls, and banquets with menus written entirely in French, the building became a symbol for Japan’s rapid westernization, for both good and ill.

The Rokumeikan.

Admired by some, the Rokumeikan was also a source of great controversy. Sex scandals involving the highest echelons of the Japanese state emerged from its vaunted halls. Worse yet, to a growing faction of traditionists and reactionaries, it represented the state’s misuse of government funds in an undignified mad dash to ape more powerful foreign nations. The Rokumeikan helped teach the Meiji elite, both men and women, how to comport themselves as modern gentlemen and ladies. But it also taught traditionalists that the Meiji state was quickly becoming foppish and self-conscious. It played its role in demarcating the cultural stereotypes of the day: dandified, westernized “high collars” and rough, traditionalist “bankara” – barbarian collars.

Watch our video on the history of the bankara and their opposition to the staid “high collars.”

The story of Count Inoue, sponsor and mastermind behind the Rokumeikan, is an ironic one. Born a samurai of Choshu Domain, he’d been a part of the radical Sonno Joi – “Respect the Emperor, Expel the Barbarian” – movement. He’d been so opposed to the foreign presence in Japan that, in 1863, he’d set fire to the British Legation in Edo. Now, he’d emerged as one of the primary forces of westernization within the new Meiji government, helping construct European-style buildings that symbolized how “foreign” Japan was bound to become. Japan’s first Minister of Foreign Affairs, he was brought down by the scandals emanating from his own Rokumeikan, resigning only one year after the building opened.

Despite his controversies, Inoue would eventually be raised to the rank of marquis.

The Twelve Stories

In 1890, a towering building rose in Asakusa, the boisterous entertainment district in Tokyo’s northeast near the old Senso-ji temple and the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters. This was the Ryounkaku (凌雲閣, “cloud-surpassing tower”), although it’s known more colloquially as the Asakusa Twelve Stories (浅草十二階). As the name suggests, the building was 12-stories tall; at least 220 feet tall, a remarkable height for the day, it was the tallest building in Japan. The Ryounkaku could also claim the first elevator in Japan, which ferried twenty passengers at a time to its eighth floor for panoramic views of the new Tokyo. The various floors were filled with shops hawking goods from Qing China and other exotic locales.

Edward Seidensticker wrote:

“If the Rokumeikan was the great symbol of the Meiji elite and its cosmopolitanism, the Twelve Stories was in late Meiji the great symbol of the masses and their pleasures.”

Tokyo from Edo to Show 1867-1989: The Emergence of the World’s Greatest City. P84.
The Ryounkaku rises above Asakusa.

The Twelve Stories was visible from great distances, and for the average person took on perhaps a greater symbolism than even the Rokumeikan itself. Author Mantaro Kubota recalled that:

“From wherever you looked, there it was, that huge, clumsly pile of red bricks. From the roof of every house, from the laundry platform, from the narrowest second floor window, there it was, waiting for you. From anywhere in the vastness of Tokyo – the embankment accross the river at Mukojima, the observation rise at Ueno, the long flight of stone steps at Atago hill, there it was, waiting for you, whenever you wanted it.”

Kubota, Collected Works, XII, 210-11. Translation by Seidensticker.

The Atmosphere of an Era

The grand buildings of Meiji helped define the atmosphere of one of Japan’s most tumultuous periods. It was an era when old-style wooden rowhouses still abounded, yet telephone polls were rising, wires crisscrossing the sky. Trains began chugging their ways across the countryside, billowing smoke. Streetcar lines ran through the cities, men in dark-colored hakama, bowler hats, and bifocals racing to catch the trolly that would bear them home. Women in kimono sat alongside besuited men in jinrikisha, a creation of the Meiji era, pulled by well-muscled drivers in light happi garb and straw hats.

Taking on Western affectations in dress and architecture never quite convinced foreign policymakers to renounce their unequal treaties. What happened instead is that Japan itself become a colonial power, taking by turn territories in Taiwan, Korea, Micronesia, Manchuria, and more. Now it was Japan’s turn to “educate” their new colonial charges, bringing with them the same embodiments of perceived civilization they’d hurriedly adapted following the Meiji Restoration. European-influenced buildings in unique Japanese styles went up all over the Japanese Empire. First among these was Taiwan, a landscape to which Japan introduced modern European architecture as a colonial power. Many of these symbols of the age of Japanese colonial empire still remain today.

The Takao Prefectural Office, Taiwan.

Crashing Down to Earth

Three phenomena conspired to rid Japan of most of the physical symbols of this era: earthquake, war, and development.

In the capital, there were still the standard “Flowers of Edo,” which continued to blaze out of control on occasion even after they’d more properly be called “Flowers of Tokyo.” Much more ruinous, however, was the sudden disaster that came a decade after the Meiji Era ended with that emperor’s passing in 1912.

In 1923, the 12th year of the Taisho era, a massive earthquake struck the Kanto plain. devastating Tokyo, Yokohama, Chiba, Shizuoka, and communities over a vast stretch of central Japan. Worse than the earthquake itself were the resulting fires; the quake had struck during mealtime, and the flames used for cooking spread to debris. Firestorms engulfed huge stretches of affected cities. The Shitamachi, the cultural hearth of old Edo, was almost completely incinerated. As much as three-quarters of the buildings in the entire city were damaged or destroyed.

The Metropolitan Police Department building in the central Marunouchi district burns.

All in all, well over a hundred thousand people lost their lives, most from fire, although some perished in the earthquake or the tsunami that struck the coast. An additional 6000 ethnic Koreans and some socialists were murdered by angry lynch mobs led by military and police who spread rumors that such “untrustworthy elements” were causing further damage.

The Ryounkaku broke asunder during the earthquake’s shaking. The stories from the eighth floor upwards collapsed, its mass of red bricks tumbling into a nearby lake. The remaining eight of the twelve stories stood forlornly above Asakusa for another year, before army engineers dissembled them. The nearby Yoshiwara pleasure quarters burned, as did Shinbashi station further south, the northern terminus of Japan’s first railroad line. Nearby to the reduced Twelve Stories, one major landmark survived: the great Senso-ji Temple, in operation since before the Tokugawa’s arrived in Edo.

The Ryounkaku, before and after the Great Kanto Earthquake.

Man Made Conflagration

After 1923, the next great disaster to strike Tokyo and, indeed, the whole of Japan, was World War II. Rebuilding from the Great Kanto Earthquake had taken around a decade, so Tokyo had just over ten years afterward to enjoy physical stability. It was during this period that a new architectural style sprung up in Japan, and was soon carried over to its numerous colonies: the aptly named Imperial Crown style (帝冠様式). The syncretic architectural style combined Neoclassical bases topped with Japanese-style roofs; often, a tower rises from the concrete building, tapering into a pyramidal shape. The style was made to emphasize the Japanese nature of the constructions. Many examples survive throughout Japan and its former colonies.

Nagoya City Hall is an example of the Imperial Crown style. It survived allied bombings and still operates to this day.

Much that existed in Japan in 1943 had ceased to do so by 1945, burnt to cinders amidst all-encompassing bombing raids. 60% of Japan’s urban space from Aomori to Kumamoto was reduced to smoldering rubble. As many as 900,000 people were killed in the bombings – including the two atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even more than the 1923 Kanto Earthquake, this marked a major breakage with the past, and this time on a country-wide scale.

Asakusa’s Senso-ji Temple, survivor of the Kanto Earthquake, burnt to the ground alongside its famed pagoda during the horrific March 10th, 1945 air raid. That night saw the most destructive air attack in history, with as many as 100,000 people killed, and a million left homeless. By war’s end, the US had sortied over 1000 air raids over Tokyo alone. The devastation was near absolute; housing, infrastructure, history, and lives were reduced to kindling. It took many years for the city, and the country, to rebound, during which time the US Occupation arrived, and most remaining buildings of note – especially those in the central Marunouchi District – were taken over for occupation force usage. A new era was dawning, and it would be built on the literal ashes of the past.

A leveled and burnt-out Tokyo following the end of WWII.

Self-Sustaining Development

There is a third reason why even historically significant buildings and architectural examples disappear from the Tokyo landscape: development. A familiar specter haunting older buildings the world over, development is a particular danger for any grand old building in Tokyo. The incredible sums funneled into the construction industry and the sheer value of land in the densely-packed capital mean that, in the words of Ulf Meyer, “Tokyo is the only city in the world in which any piece of land is approximately ten times as valuable as anything anybody could ever build on it.”

Even in 1940, before the conflagration of the Pacific War, changing tastes and construction interests were bringing down the remaining symbols of the Meiji era. The Rokumeikan made it through the trials of 1923, but was in a reduced state, its walls peelings and design outdated. It was announced that the building would be demolished to make way for something new. This resulted in one of Japan’s first conservation movements, led by parliament member Kita Soichiro. Demolition moved ahead, however, and one of the great symbols of Japan’s rush to modernization came down – not as a result of disaster or attack, but because of profit motive.

Since war’s end, construction and development have very much become the shadow industry behind Japan’s massive economy. Upwards of 40% of Japan’s national budget was used on construction well into the 1990s. Money flows from the government to ministries, from ministries to sub-ministries, onwards to privately licensed companies and subcontractors. Budgets are based on how much money was used the previous year, so it’s always in a ministry’s best interest to use as much of its budget as possible – even when projects are unneeded. Projects often go to companies with personal relationships to bureaucrats, without any real bidding process. Continuous development is such a mainstay of the Japanese economy that Japan is often referred to as a Doken Kokka (土建国家): Construction State.

The Construction State is what has seen over 60% of Japan’s coastline become encased in concrete, and riverbeds paved over. While gigantic public works are carried out throughout the countryside, the same overgrown construction industry is constantly at work amongst Tokyo’s invaluable real estate. Notable buildings of all modern eras – Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-1926), Showa (1926-1989), and Heisei (1989-2018) – have fallen to it. Historical conservationism has only recently solidified in Japan, and even then is often no match for profiteering and bureaucratic inertia.

Construction underway in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. Photograph by Noah Oskow.

Finding the Disappeared

So, the Meiji era, so important to defining what Japan has become in the modern world, is nearly invisible in its own capital city. Still, there are the remaining structures, if one knows where to look. Some are even prominent – most notably the side of Tokyo Station facing the Marunouchi district, originally designed by Josiah Conder protege Tatsuno Kingo. The rare mansions of Meiji plutocrats remain; a few buildings have been rebuilt mere decades after being disassembled when it was realized just what had been lost. Meiji buildings remain in other parts of the country, from Osaka to Hokkaido. And most of all, they remain on the hills near a certain lake in Aichi Prefecture – but all that is a story for next time.

Beyond the great temples and shrines, which continue to stand apart from the constant urban change, Tokyo’s seeming lack of a history is part of what makes it Tokyo. To return to the words of Ulf Meyer, “… the only constant in this city’s architecture is change. Tokyo never seeks permanence. It is forever incomplete, forever as perishable as its architecture.” Botond Bognar, endowed chair at the University of Tokyo, has said that “Tokyo is a city of tremendous resilience presided over by a spirit of impermanence… The city is better defined by events, by the flow of information, human activities, fast and continuous change, and an inclination for novelty, than by its physical entity or the material essence of its built fabric.”

In the Meiji era, the “sons of Edo” lamented the passing of that city, constantly finding new benchmarks by which to date the exact “death” of Edo’s last remnants. Now we do the same for Meiji, and the other eras passing by. But while edifices may disappear from Tokyo, whether by fire, bomb, or wrecking crew, the streets and pathways remain surprisingly unchanged. We still walk down the same roads as did the men and women of Meiji, and the children of Edo before them.

This is part one of a two-part series looking at the architecture of the Meiji era and prewar Japan. Part 2 covers Meiji Mura, the architectural park devoted to conserving buildings from Japan’s recent past.

Shinto’s Heart: The Unique Architecture of Japan’s “God Havens”


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.

Seidensticker, Edward. (1983). Low city, high city: Tokyo from Edo to the earthquake. New York: Knopf

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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