The Lake Biwa Canal Plan 1885-1890/ Civil Engineer: Tanabe Sakuro (1861-1944)

Tanabe Sakuro (1861–1944) was a Japanese Civil Engineer. He studied under Henry Dyer at the Tokyo Imperial University. His most famous achievement is the Lake Biwa Canal that runs from Lake Biwa to Kyoto city. The canal is partly underground and on the bank of the canal he built Japan’s first Hydro-electric power station. Sakuro had lost the use of his right hand in an accident, but he learnt to use his left hand to write and graduated in Engineering in his early 20s.

The Governor Kitagaki appointed him as the project’s chief engineer. He was appointed a Kyoto government official in 1883, at the young age of 21. He was such a young genius that the prototype of the concept for the Canal had already been done as his graduation thesis at Kobu Daigakko (The Imperial College of Engineering) “Biwako Sosui Koji no Keikaku (A Plan for Lake Biwa Canal Construction).”

In 1888 when hydraulic power was successfully generated at Aspen in the United States for the first time in the world, Tanabe immediately visited the site. Tanabe contributed a great deal towards the decision to construct a hydroelectric plant during the Lake Biwa Canal construction. As a result, the Japan’s first hydroelectric plant started its operation here in Keage [1].

Through the excavation of the first and second Canal, the second largest hydropower station in the world was completed, he made an important contribution to the formation of the basic development framework of modern Kyoto.

(Picture of Tanabe Sakuro in his 21)

Brief history of Tanabe Sakuro [2]:

  • 1861: he was born in edo as the eldest son of magojiro tanabe, a western gunnery expert and disciple of shuhan takashima.
  • 1883: he graduated from the imperial college of engineering.His graduation thesis was “lake biwa canal project.”At the request of the governor of Kyoto prefecture, Kunimichi Kitagaki, he became goyo-gakari of Kyoto prefecture and was engaged in the construction of lake biwa canal.
  • 1888: he went to the United States.And visit hydro power plants
  • 1890: lake biwa canal was completed. In autumn, he married shizushi, the first daughter of Kunimichi Kitagaki.
  • 1891: completion of the keage power plant, the first hydroelectric power plant in Japan. Sakuro Tanabe became a professor at imperial university (current Tokyo university).
  • 1894: he was awarded the Terford Medal by the British society of civil engineers.
  • 1896: he was asked by his father-in-law, kunimichi kitagaki, who served as director general of the Hokkaido government, and resigned as a professor at the imperial university.As the director of the railway department of the Hokkaido government, he was in charge of planning and constructing the Hokkaido government railway.
  • 1900: he became a professor at Kyoto imperial university.
  • 1923: he retired from Kyoto imperial university.After his retirement, he continued being involved in railway construction plans in various places such as Osaka municipal subway.
  • 1944: he died.










(A statue of Dr. Tanabe Sakuro near the Keage Area of The first Canal)

[1] Okude, Kunio. 2015. “History of Japan’s first commercial hydroelectric generation at keage power station”, IEEE Conference on the History of Electric Power 129(6):396-402.
[2]Kyoto Shimbun. 琵琶湖疏水の100年. [One Hundred Years History of Lake Biwa Canal]. Kyoto. Kyoto: Kyoto City Supply and Sewage Bureau, 1990.

2 Comments on “The Lake Biwa Canal Plan 1885-1890/ Civil Engineer: Tanabe Sakuro (1861-1944)

  1. It is inspiring to hear about Tanabe Sakuro’s journey as one of modern Kyoto’s developers. I have been fascinated with Kyoto as a city that is rich in tradition while fused with advanced technology. The Biwa Canal was a great achievement in order to create the hydropower station to provide electricity for the city and Kyoto’s trams at that period. Not limited to the power generator, back then, it was also a notable achievement to use the canal for transportation means both to carry freight and passengers from the lake to surrounding cities, including Kyoto. Even nowadays, even though the canal is not used so much for generating electricity, the Lake Biwa Canal still contributes to the country for water supply, irrigation, and a beautiful tourism site that is popular throughout four seasons, especially spring and autumn.

  2. Very fascinating and thorough research, coming full circle to the visionary himself. Of course, it is important to see how such important figures continue to be heroicized. Did you encounter any counter-narrative that may suggest that other antagonists were involved in the narration of this infrastructure urbanism? Did such systems not cost too much? Were there issues of labor inequality in the people who built this infrastructure? How was this infrastructure received in its time before we have the hindsight to realize how incredible it is today?

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