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Urban Modernization of Japan in the Meiji Period

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Japan is one of the developed countries in the world, it has an unique urban form which is very different from other developed and Asian countries. Japan started its modernization since the Meiji period. At that time, Japan learned a lot of urban design experience from western countries, but it did not use those principles directly. The planners in Japan applied them based on Japanese culture and situations. During the process of the urban development, Japan created its new planning system which was suitable for itself and made Japan’s urban form distinctive from other countries. The term ‘Machi’ helps to illustrate the Japanese style well, it’s a small-scale approach to functional changes. This paper will discuss how Japan imported foreign urban design ideas and applied them on their own modern urban construction then formed a distinctive urban pattern. Finally, the paper will discuss how Japan used its urban planning method to Tokyo urban development.

Imported Foreign Urban Design Ideas

In the Meiji period, the Iwakura Mission headed by Iwakura Tomomi and other three elites presenting almost half of the elite group that controlled the Meiji government. This mission sent many officials and students to the US and European countries to learn advanced technologies and knowledge. It lasted almost 2 years. It was the beginning of the Japan learning from the West. During the process, Japan learned some urban design principles. The most important one is Howard’s Garden City which Japanese showed great interest in it. But they did not use it directly, they adjusted the principle according to Japan’s situation. It was first used in the New Tokyo Plan to deconcentrate Tokyo. In this plan, the city’s size was limited to ten kilometers (a one-hour commute at the time), the subcenters and satellite cities were proposed. It resembled Howard’s diagram number 5 of city growth, but it used the theory for a large metropolis instead of a town and proposed decentralizing commercial areas to the rim of cities.

The German idea of urban landscape which developed from the nineteenth century in conjunction with Anglo-American ideas sought to reform existing cities by small neighborhoods separated by green areas. This idea was coincident with the thought of Japanese planners. They prefer small-scale, machi-like patterns.

The Japanese planners Ishikawa and Nishiyama who were two important planners in Japan’s history focused on aspects of foreign planning that revolved around the idea of small cities and on urban units as the basis for metropolitan planning. They paid attention on works of the American planner Clarence Perry and Thomas Adams. Perry was a strong advocate of the neighborhood unit. He was an early promoter of neighborhood community and recreation centers. Thomas Adams was a pioneer of urban planning; he became a designer of low-density residential developments that were commonly referred to as ‘garden suburbs’. Both of their proposals were close to Japan’s city division into independent units.

The Japanese planners appreciated another German planner, Gottfried Feder. In 1939, he wrote ‘The New City’. He proposed creating agricultural cities of 20,000 people divided into nine autonomous units and surrounded by agricultural areas. Each city was to be fully autonomous and self-sufficient, with detailed plans for daily living and urban amenities provided. Nishiyama appreciated Feder’s ideas very much, his reference to Feder’s book had a lasting influence on the Japanese interpretation. When Japanese used Feder’s theory to their own planning, they just applied the patterns that the notion of adjoining centers catered to all daily needs linked into a larger network of central places, meanwhile, they ignored the esthetic part and the European medieval forms of the theory.

Thus, Japanese planners picked up Western ideas, especially German concepts to develop their own cities. Their selections based on their own needs and understanding of the organization of cities in small units, decentralization and deconcentration. They developed their cities as a conglomerate of neighborhood.

Japan’s Urban Modernization

In the history, European and American planners tried to change Japan’s urban appearances and wanted to give a big influence on its city planning by western urban design principles. While Japanese planners picked up useful foreign planning concepts and transformed the cities from feudal society pattern to modern urban form based on their own needs. During the Meiji restoration, the Meiji government overturned the prohibition of land transaction, and landowners became powerful. At the meanwhile, the government could finance by land taxes because of the private landownership. Private landownership became a major factor in shaping Japanese urban planning which prevented the government expropriation or planning on a large scale.

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Because of the society change, many aristocrats left Tokyo and returned to the provinces, leaving vast abandoned spaces in the center of the capital. This change reinforced the existing patchwork character of Japanese cities. The Japanese elite needs more tools for Japan’s modernization. They integrated Western planning concepts into Japanese thinking. There were seldom projects in Japan used European grand design, but one project was inspired by Parisian axis and symmetry, a government district in Hibiya in 1887. It proposed large boulevards connecting major institutions and ministries and wanted to create monumental public places surrounded by large buildings and a new central station. Finally, the project was dropped and the government just took a piecemeal approach to improve the following Tokyo’s roads and parks constructions. Japan did not have monumental urban design and never attempted to change existing landownership structure. They just wanted a planning instrument designed to unify urban landscape and preserve a particular Japanese status.

During the modernization process, Japanese planners used a suitable instrument: land readjustment. Early forms of land readjustment for the urbanization of rural areas divided large areas into tiny building sites to maximize the profits of the land. Because of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 Japanese planners turned land adjustment as their main instrument of urban planning. This instrument helped Japanese to rebuild their homes and businesses rapidly. Land readjustment let people stay on their former sites which they had already occupied, and introduced minor changes to the site. While creating new thoroughfares, the city’s old land division was not changed a lot by using land readjustment. It reduced the size of the building sites, and irregular and tiny lots were produced which made the buildings further up in height.

Those developments in Japan’s history related to its traditional culture and understanding of urban pattern. The term Machi could explain it well and help to understand Japan’s urban design principles.

Machi Application

The term Machi is used to describe units inside a Japanese city which are various or diverse, such as monofunctional districts for samurai and their retainers or for merchants, and geisha district or a shopping district. The form, size, and definition of urban machi varied over the centuries. The idea of machi roots in many aspects of Japan’s urban design. In Japan’s history, the formal division of the city into units was with strict social hierarchies and control structures. The early Kyoto subdivisions were developed as towns. One block surrounded by larger streets consisted of five or six townships and several such units formed larger township. Money-lenders and sake brewers generally managed the town affairs and security, and the townspeople managed themselves. These neighborhood organizations who administrated their own events and activities have long been the primary partners of local government. Even nowadays, the local government may ask local traditional self-governing neighborhood organizations for advice before making decisions on controversial projects. Such associations based in the neighborhood are also part of strong vertical hierarchies, from neighborhood to district, ward, and prefecture. The term Machi also refers to a small town. Japan traditionally has had a large network of small towns fulfilling different purposes. Since the Meiji period, amalgamations had reduced the number of municipalities. The decline of the traditional small towns and the emergence of large metropolises led to Japan’s beginning of modern city planning.

The idea and practice of machi resonated with the rapid transformation and modernization of Japanese cities since the Meiji restoration and impacted how Japanese imported foreign concepts. When Japanese made comprehensive plans for large urban regions, they included the notion of small units. This method helped Japan’s modernization in a fast speed.

The Beginning of Modern City Planning

Since the early urban patterns were densely built up and populated, and the buildings were constructed in wood, and the streets were narrowly unpaved. In the Meiji period, to avoid incidence of fires in industrial growth became an important issue at the beginning of modern city planning. The urban administration started building broad, straight and paved streets. They also improved the water supply. Because of the centralization of the government, most new institutions and town planning measures designed with a high degree of central control. The city planning started in the capital, Tokyo, most major new ideas were firstly tried out there then extended to other cities. Because of the big fire happened in 1872, the rebuild of Ginza became a significant plan for Tokyo. The government seized the opportunity to redevelop a part of Tokyo into an impressive and fire-resistant district. In this project, the top priorities were road-widening, fireproofing and western style. Roads were widened into four widths and paved with brick and separated vehicles and pedestrians. The buildings were built in brick or stone. The first gas lighting was installed and roadside trees planted. While because of the financial shortfalls and the unpopularity of the brick buildings, this project ended in 1877. Nevertheless, it was still a successful project in the history since it contributed to the formation of Ginza as a place of modern shops, and finally led to Ginza as Tokyo’s prime commercial center.


During the Meiji period the urban design was developed with a high degree of technical sophistication and accompanied by contemporary developments in Europe and America. The differences between Western countries and Japan’s urban development were: Western countries’ development based on a broad coalition of health and hygiene activities, they considered the public welfare and urban quality life as the highest values; Japan’s development was hold by central government, it had limitations of the provision of main infrastructure and the houses and urban amenities were occupied by decisions.


  1. Hein, Carola. “Machi Neighborhood and Small Town—The Foundation for Urban Transformation in Japan”. Journal of Urban History, vol. 35, no.1, 2007, pp. 75-107.
  2. Hein, Carola. “Shaping Tokyo: Land Development and Planning Practice in the Early Modern Japanese Metropolis”. Journal of Urban History, vol. 36, no.4, 2010, pp. 447-484.
  3. Sorensen, Andre. The Making of Urban Japan-Cities and Planning from Edo to the Twenty-First Century. Routledge, 2004.

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