Intersections of modernity and tradition: An urban planning history of Tokyo in the early Meiji period (1868-1888)

David Peter Phillips, University of Pennsylvania


In the first two decades of the Meiji period (1868-1912) the country's leaders engaged in intense discussions about the future of the capital of Tokyo. Some leaders believed in the importance of urban beautification, while others regarded changes in urban infrastructure and services as essential to maintenance and growth of the city. Many of the proposed changes were cloaked in the language of progress. This work examines the course taken by urban leaders of the first decades of the Meiji period in establishing planning policy. This investigation depends heavily on planning documents, transcripts of planning committees, and on architectural and urban design data from completed urban improvement projects in Meiji Tokyo. My research focuses on two issues, (1) the extent to which the efforts of Japanese leaders focused the country on the goal of modernization, and (2) the extent to which efforts to achieve bunmei kaika, or cultural enlightenment, were superficial. My aim in this study is to demonstrate how the concepts of modernity and the struggle to develop a modern urban structure altered previous notions of cities and city planning practices. In summarizing my results, I review the debates among historians in reconstructing the developments in Tokyo's planning history, and conclude that poor articulation of planning policy in the first decades of the Meiji period reflects a lack of consensus among Meiji leaders about the definition and course of modernization. Rather than reject traditional approaches to planning, urban leaders eventually incorporated these approaches into their new planning methodologies. Modernity in the Japanese context, consequently, did not require dismantling preexisting urban structures. Instead, it represented a marriage of the political motivations of the country's leaders with the modern urban needs for improved transportation networks and zoning mechanisms. Exposure of the political system to popular opinion entailed the shifting of planning discourse from the theoretical to the practical realm, as well as from the private to the public realm.

Subject Area

Urban planning|Area planning & development|History|Architecture

Recommended Citation

Phillips, David Peter, "Intersections of modernity and tradition: An urban planning history of Tokyo in the early Meiji period (1868-1888)" (1996). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9627986.