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

3 Comments on “Tokyo (1923 onwards) Westernisation after the earthquake

  1. Having read this blog post about the westernization of Tokyo, it arouses my interest in how westernization occurred due to a natural disaster instead of the more common approach. For example globalization, improvement of technology and so on. From the winning entry, I could also understand the beginning of Tokyo trying to accept the western architectural elements in order to improve the stability of architecture. However, it is still questionable, whether it is to blindly integrate both cultures or taking the advantage of stability in western countries while retaining the beauty of Japan traditional architecture.

  2. The topic of globalization had been so widely discussed in many different cities, which they could be seen to adopted ideas at a very similar way, glass, steel and concrete. However, Japanese seemed to have remained the essence of their culture and reinterpreted them into their daily lives. The way of seeing of how they were able to do reinterpretation so well seemed to be of how their culture and traditions were not only expressed in architecture, but also in their daily habits of very disciplined behaviours and all other aspects.

  3. I believe modernisation of Japan started with Meji Restoration, when the first phase of Westernisation began as Western knowledge was borrowed and expertise was hired to build new railway, roads, etc. However, the progress of modernisation stopped when Kanto Earthquake and World War II took place. The urban planning by Meji was said to be very modern, a grid plan, wider and tree-lined main roads, invention of street car, etc. The idea of speed, efficiency and connectivity had been deep rooted in Japan since 1800s, before these ideas became prevail in the United States in 1920s. I would say the Japanese were the pioneer in terms of modernisation throughout Asia. Nevertheless, what I like about the Japanese cities is always the unplanned part, in which the people take initiative to make their community a better place, simply by putting potted plants in front of their doors.

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