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The Meiji Restoration in 1868 marks the end of the two-and-a-half centuries period when Japan’s doors remained firmly closed to the world. This period roughly coincides with the so-called Edo Period (1603-1868) when Tokugawa family established its shogunate in Edo - later Tokyo -, withdrawing all administrative power from the Emperor, and created rigid laws regulating all aspects of everyday life of everyone in the country. The society was divided in five main classes - the nobility, the military, the farmers and artisans, the merchants and the untouchables (Eta), these latter being formally excluded from social life - and the Tokugawa laws determined even the type of one’s house, its size, materials, and location in the city according to one’s class. From 1639, all Japanese ports have been forbidden to receive any foreign ship, except Nagasaki’s which was allowed to maintain trade relations with China and Holland. Believing that European Christian missionaries’ activities concealed an attempt of political conquest, the shogunate also obliged Japanese citizens to give up Christianity, prohibiting them to get out the country and banning all foreign missionaries.

However, it was during the Edo Period that Japan has started a proto-industrialisation process which is, for many scholars, one of the fondaments of the Industrial Revolution carried by the reopening of the country from 1868. Some industries was then created as those of raw silk, silk fabrics, sugar and clocks, mostly to produce substitutes for formerly imported goods. The case of the clocks production is worthy of note because it included transformations in the complicated mechanism of Western clocks, in order to adaptate them to the Japanese time-signal system1. The superior technology required to make such clocks was to be transferred to the development of machines during the course of industrialization after the Meiji Restoration. Thus Japanese people have maybe developed a high sense of time which would be precious in the later time-ordered factory system.

Such industries were established in a quite different urban environment than in Western industrializing countries. Instead of European cities which were walled, densely built cities, Japanese ones had no clear borders, making them - in most cases - a part of the nature. This deep relationship with the natural environment is easily illustrated by the presence of gardens and water canals in the urban context2, but also by the design of Japanese traditional townhouses itself. As M. Treib notes, “in Japan, one looks not upon but within a work of art. The extraction of significance lies with the perceiver, not within the object perceived. The historic house or temple within its walled setting was not itself the subject of view. It articulated space, orchestrated movement through it, and functionnally withstood the sun, snow or rain but it was not an architectural entity to be approached and confronted in the tradition of formal Western architecture. The objects of contemplation, instead, were the incidents within the space: the folded screen, the transom carving, the ceramic vessel or the flower arrangement and, after time, the garden. The dwelling thus served as a species of a roofed bridge between exterior spaces”.3

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