Tokyo (1923 onwards) Westernisation after the earthquake
Following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, reconstruction of Tokyo was heavily influenced by foreign culture and ideologies such as high modernism, expressionism and progressivism. The disaster had struck the center of Westernisation in Japan.
The government had viewed the destruction of Tokyo as an opportunity to a build new modernistic city that rivals metropolises of the West. Even before the earthquake, the city was of poor living conditions. People lived in overcrowded, unplanned spaces of poor sanitation, and there were a lack of adequate public transport and green space. Influenced by foreign city planning ideas such as Tony Garnier’s Industrial City and Camillo Sitte’s aesthetic emphasis on urban spaces, city planners of envisioned a new Tokyo rid of slums and rich in state facilities.
Tokyo’s urban plan started with creating a pleasant environment for its residents, such as building more parks, better public facilities, paving roads and creating wider streets. Trees were planted everywhere and parks would provide sports and recreation facilities and community gardens for Tokyo’s residents. The importance of city planning and open spaces would be further elaborated in the following blog posts.
Besides brand new city planning and land readjustments plans, architecture also took to a Western approach. As with many aspects of Tokyo’s reconstruction, buildings were built according to foreign standards. After the earthquake, the government subsequently issued a decree that all public buildings to be built in reinforced concrete. Overnight, the city was transformed from low-rise timber to concrete blocks. For example, hospitals were built as compact multi-storied buildings using a reinforced concrete structure to withstand future fire and earthquakes. Elevators were also installed.
Ideas of modernity and the contemporary were also reflected in architectural forms. There was an obsession for soaring towers during the period after the earthquake. Buildings were erected to reach new heights. This trend was also shown in the competition to build a new earthquake memorial hall in 1924, where most architecture entries featured vertical obelisks, arches and columns. The winning entry was a steel reinforced semicircular building with a projecting columnar tower in the center. (Figure 1) Western elements were gradually adopted into Japanese architecture.
Figure 1: Maeda’s winning entry for the earthquake memorial hall
While residents embraced the idea of a more livable city, there was still much opposition as it meant losing private property to make way. Most people wished to return to their normal lives before the earthquake instead of having to adjust to a new metropolis. Furthermore, there was criticism towards Westernisation of architecture. Some argued that architects blindly imitated Western architecture. For example, the earthquake memorial hall failed to take into account the religious values of victims and adopt any of Japan’s unique spiritual culture. Instead, it was just another Western inspired tall tower.
The hope to contract a new capital was too idealistic. The government simply did not have enough political or economical power to override property rights and constitutional structures to construct the futuristic metropolis they envisioned. However, Tokyo was still able to process much in its urbanisation and architecture forms, and residents became more accepting and open to foreign ideas, paving the way for further modernisation.
Schencking J. Charles, The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
Weisenfeld S. Gennifer, Imagining Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923, University of California Press,2012