Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Suggested Itinerary #2

Continuing this short series where I’m putting together themed itineraries through Japan that engage with some aspect of Meiji industrial revolution architecture, I bring you Itinerary #2: Romantic Western Architecture. During the Meiji period, many corporations and government agencies imported Western Architecture for either practical reasons (building efficient factories) or more propagandistic ones (designing structures that would appeal to Western businesspeople and show Japan to be a modern, Westernized nation state). Oftentimes, the reasoning was some combination of these two. However these buildings were received at their time of construction, today they have taken on a distinctly “romantic” connotation in the Japanese imaginary. Romanticizing that which is “other” is not a new concept—Westerners tend to bring this same conceptual/emotive approach to historic Japanese gardens, for instance. What was fascinating, from the perspective of a scholar from the United States, was watching this trope be flipped around, and familiar forms of Western styling becoming exotic and exciting. I frequently witnessed couples enjoying Western architecture while out on a date, or even newly married couples taking photos in front of historic Western-style buildings. One of the seemingly most romantic and also photogenic types of Western architecture I encountered was the red brick warehouse, excellent examples of which can be seen in Hakodate and Yokohama, among many other early port cities. Something about weathered red brick perhaps appeals to the Japanese aesthetic notion of wabi sabi. The frequency with which I encountered this phenomenon spurred me to compile this itinerary that includes some of the best examples I saw of “romantic” Western architecture.

Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Suggested Itinerary #1

In my most recent monthly blog for the Society of Architectural Historians, I explored how the integrating the concept of “landscape” into the public interpretation of the UNESCO Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution (JMIR) could improve engagement with these historic places. By way of conclusion, I provided a number of practical suggestions for implementing this idea. One of these was the creation of a number of itineraries that would help potential visitors prioritize and choose the sites they visited. As I discovered, just trying to see all of the JMIR sites in one go was both exhausting and not particularly rewarding—some sites were simply more engaging or better developed. To break up the monotony of always writing, I decided to draw these ideas instead. I’ve struggled in my travels to find time for drawing and creative work, so this mini project is in part an excuse to use my sketchbook and rebuild some of the artistic skills that I’ve long neglected.

Itinerary 1: The Edo-Meiji Connection

One of the things that was most interesting to me throughout my visits to the early sites of Japan’s industrialization were the ways in which existing Japanese technologies and crafts were recruited to new means—the construction of warships, or the forging of iron cannons, for example. We tend to think of “modernity” as being a harsh break with the past. After all, “modernity” only exists insofar as we understand there to be a “pre-modern period” that preceded it. What the sites included on this 9 day tour through Tokyo and the island of Kyushu show is that this is far from the truth. In fact, many precedents for Japan’s nineteenth-century industrialization were laid earlier in the Edo period. Although the Meiji Restoration was a revolutionary historic moment in many ways, there were many aspects of Japanese culture and society that persisted into the Meiji period and through the advent of more refined technologies of energy generation and mechanisms of production. I also wanted to acknowledge with this itinerary that not everyone who is interested in industrial heritage wants to spend several hours on a series of trains and buses to reach really out-of-the-way sites, or to risk getting lost. All of the sites included here are well developed for tourism and many of them are among the more “aesthetic” industrial heritage experiences one can have in Japan. The wildest part of the trip is a two night stay on Yakushima, the UNESCO-protected island off of Kyushu’s southern coast, which is home to a completely unique cedar and cypress forest that endured dramatic logging during the Edo period. But otherwise, all of the cities are served by the Shinkansen (bullet train) and are easily accessed via walking or public transportation. Beyond the JMIR sites themselves, I’ve integrated other municipal museums and attractions that enrich and supplement the overall historical narrative.

Access and Price Structure

Today I want to tackle the first two questions I posed in my previous post, in regards to Japan’s sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution (JMIR). As a reminder, they are:

1. Getting There: What is it like to access the site as a visitor?

  • How easy is it for a visitor to actually get to the site? Can you get there via public transportation or do you have to rent a car?
  • How easy for is the visitor to figure out how to get to the site?
  • Once at or near the site, is it clear what the visitor must do to access the full site, including related intepretation?
  • Are local visitor centers or related cultural/historical institutions well informed about the UNESCO sites?

2. Price: How much does it cost to access this site?

  • What is the base cost of entry?
  • How much does it add to take public transportation?
  • Are there optional elements that can be added on to a baseline experience?

Japan has gone to a great deal of trouble to secure the JMIR UNESCO inscriptions. Although UNESCO status confers a great deal of prestige to a site, it also obligates the managing country to preserve the site and keep it up. Making sure that these sites are accessible to interested visitors is key to providing a revenue stream to support ongoing maintenance. Additionally, the system of managing admittance via paid tickets can, if well managed, can work to support site preservation efforts and the employment of staff.

It should be noted, that all of these observations are representative of my own experience only. Accessing these sites if going to be very different if you’re a Japanese-speaker or have a car. These are just the thoughts of one very determined foreign visitor on a mission of industrial heritage.

As I noted in my previous post, the primary map and website about Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution makes it seem as though all of the sites are functionally equal—they are accorded an equal amount of page space and importance regardless of where they are or the actual content of their physical remains. Once I started actually trying to get to each of the sites I visited though, I quickly discovered that this was not the lived reality at all. Some of the JMIR sites are well integrated into the tourist infrastructure of their immediate surroundings, while others really take a significant amount of effort to access. Without the motivation of a fellowship about industrial heritage, it’s easy to imagine that most visitors (particularly foreign and non-Japanese-speaking) might be unwilling to undertake the research to figure out and then execute the complicated transit necessary to reach some of the more obscure sites on the list.


These are some frequent and recurring issues I encountered when trying to access the JMIR sites:

  1. Lack of information about transportation. In some cases, the information on the main JMIR map was either out of date or insufficient. Bus schedules and bus station arrangement seem to change relatively frequently in Japan. Further, some buses are municipal and others are operated by private, local companies. GoogleMaps and AppleMaps sometimes have the correct, updated bus information, including private bus lines, but there seems to be no hard and fast rule for determining when online transit information is going to be accurate. The best bet is to find a visitor’s center and ask.
  2. Long or complicated transit. Some of the sites required several train transfers, a bus, and some walking to access. In Omuta, for instance, we transferred from the Shinkansen onto a local line, and then ended up using the city bus, walking, and taking a taxi between the component sites. In the vast majority of cases, the transit time far outweighed the amount of time I spent at the sites themselves.
  3. Site located on private property. Because many of the JMIR sites from the late 19th century and early 20th century were developed by private companies that are still around today (Mitsubishi, for example), some of them are still on company land and as such, are not accessible to the public or are accessible only by advance booking.
  4. Unexpected closures or schedule changes. Showing up to a site and discovering that it was closed has not been an infrequent feature of my time in Japan. Rarely is this information accessible in English on any kind of website.

I’ve limited the list below to sites I actually attempted to visit. Those that I skipped I mostly did so for reasons of transportation difficulty (or poor weather).


  • Shuiseikan complex, Kagoshima: Easily accessible via the main city sight-seeing bus in Kagoshima. The only tricky part was finding the Foreign Engineer’s House, which is not part of the main complex.
  • Glover Gardens, Nagasaki: Walkable from downtown Nagasaki.
  • Hashima, Nagasaki: Lots of tourist infrastructure is in place for Japan’s “battleship island”. Booking a ferry online in English is easy. The museum and ferry location are walkable from downtown Nagasaki, or via easy public transit.
The industrial sites of Shuiseikan are mostly connected to a popular imperial garden complex. Access is as easy as hopping on the main city sight-seeing bus, which runs about every half hour.


  • Hagi Reverberatory Furnace, Ebisugahana Shipyard, and Shokasonjuku Academy, and Hagi Castle Town; Hagi: Hagi is a bit off the beaten path, but once you’ve committed to going there, it’s not so hard to get to the sites, all of which are in walking distance from stops on the city sight-seeing bus.
  • Imperial Steel Works, Kitakyushu: An easy train ride from the main station, and then the site itself is easy to find thanks to ample signage.
The Hagi Reverberatory Furnace. Thanks to the prominent signage nearby, this was an easy site to find after we got off the sight-seeing bus at the Sea Port stop. Getting to Hagi in the first place is a kind of a trek, however. 


  • Mitsubishi Pattern Factory, Nagasaki: This site is on Mitsubishi property in Nagasaki. It requires an advanced reservation, which can only be done over the phone in Japanese. I had to first have a friend who reads Japanese translate the page for me, and then ask our very kind and patient hotel concierge in Nagasaki to call and make the reservation for me. A special bus picks you up at the Nagasaki bus station, and takes you onto company property. You have about an hour to see the museum before the bus takes you back.
  • Omuta Mines and Port: This one is partially on me, because Omuta’s sites are within easy biking distance from one another, and I haven’t ridden a bike since about 1995. But Omuta itself isn’t easy to get to—it’s off the path of the Shinkansen and so one must be prepared to take a local train line. Omuta seems really proud of its UNESCO sites (and hopeful that they will contribute positively to the local economy), so signage was plentiful and it was easy to get a helpful map and transit directions at the town’s train station visitor center. But the sites themselves seemed disconnected from each other—docents at one coal pit didn’t know if the other coal pit was open, for instance.
  • Takashima coal mine: Virtually no tourism infrastructure; getting here involved a local ferry and a long, hot walk around the island. There is purportedly a circulator bus that runs once an hour, but good luck finding the schedule for it. Ferries to and from Nagasaki are infrequent and a bit pricy.
  • Sekiyoshi Sluice Gate of Yoshio Leat, Kagoshima: Read my recent blog post “In the Land of the Forest Docents” for the full story on this one. There was no way I could have done this without help from the folks at the Kagoshima bus station visitor center, and even then, the experience was still a little harrowing.
The Mitsubishi Pattern Factory. After a friend translated the website, I had the hotel concierge call. A small bus picked us up from the Nagasaki bus station on a rainy Saturday and delivered us here, to the museum inside the 1898 Pattern Factory, on Mitsubishi company land.



Let’s talk dollars and yen. Right now, if you’re going to get to any of the JMIR sites listed above you’ll either pay with time or money. Generally, the more obscure the site and the more difficult to access, the lower the chance that there would be some kind of entrance fee at the site itself—most of these sights are technically “free” and open to the public. This was the case at Takashima, the Sekiyoshi Sluice Gate, the Omuta Mines, the Imperial Steel Works, and the bulk of the Hagi sites. Easy-to-access sites were also those with developed tourism infrastructure, and these often required an entrance fee. By far the most expensive JMIR experience I’ve had was Hashima. For about $60 US, you can get a ride to and from the island on the special charter ferry (though there is no guarantee the boat will be able to land on the island), a ticket to the Gunkanjima Digital Museum, and a reservation at the “HoloLens Experience,” a truly bizarre augmented reality game offered at the museum. By contrast, getting to the Hagi Reverberatory Furnace cost only about $2 of bus fare (once we were actually in Hagi, which was in itself a pretty significant time committment).

Is all of this time and money worth the effort? I’ll turn to that question in the next post when I talk about the material and architectural content of the sites themselves.

Encountering Japan’s Sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution

In preparation for my next SAH Blog Post, which will deal almost exclusively with the topic of Japan’s newest UNESCO additions, I wanted to do a little public brainstorming. This will also serve as a behind-the-scenes look at my writing process and the sort of analysis that goes into thinking about all of the sites I’ve been visiting over the last few months.

Introduction to Japan’s Sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution

In 2015, a collection of 23 separate sites in Japan was inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage list, which are grouped into 8 distinct geographic areas. Together, these Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution (JMIR) tell the remarkable story of Japan’s rapid industrialization, in (as so many site docents have told me) “just fifty years.” Most of the sites lie on the Japan’s southernmost major island, Kyushu, and relate to the country’s development of heavy industry—shipbuilding, coal mining, and iron and steel manufacturing. Chronologically, the sites have been grouped into three periods:

1. Trial and Error Experimentation, c. 1850s-1868. Before Japan officially opened its borders to trade with the advent of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the country had very little exposure to Western technology. That which they did, mainly came via the Dutch, who were allowed to trade with Japan on a limited basis via the port of Nagasaki, provided that they stayed sequestered on the small, artificial island of Dejima. Japan’s first attempts to build modern warships and cannons like those they had seen on Commodore Matthew Perry’s ships (which had first arrived in 1853) used copies of Dutch textbooks and existing Japanese craft skills. While some of these early sites were able to produce the ships and cannons they intended, many proved unsuccessful and were mostly significant as prototypes of later construction.

A model of Dejima on Dejima island in Nagasaki.

2. Direct Importation of Western Technology, 1868-c. 1900. After the Meiji Restoration, Japan sought out the expertise of Western experts, bringing in European and American engineers to teach and train a new generation of Japanese industrialists. Additionally, a small set of Japanese students traveled to the West to learn skills such as shipbuilding and factory design, skills which they then brought back and applied.

Thomas Glover was one of many Westerners who came to Japan following the Meiji Restoration to facilitate the development of Japanese industry (and get rich doing so).

3. Full-Blown Industrialization, c. 1900-c. 1920. This final period represented in the UNESCO listing marks Japan’s emergence as an industrialized nation, no longer dependent on Western outsiders. Based on the sites that I’ve visited, it is clear that those who have written the interpretation regard this period as the true realization of the modern nation-state of Japan. If technological development can be said to follow an evolutionary model (which is, of course, in itself problematic), this is the moment at which Japan “breaks free” from the supporting trunk of Western influence and begins to grow its own evolutionary branches. I discovered that interpretation at sites belonging to this period frequently claimed to have pioneered the first “wholly Japanese X” (where X is a shipyard, steel foundry, textile mill, etc.).

The Mitsubishi Pattern Factory museum is very explicit about the point at which Japan no longer has to rely on Western engineers in its naval architecture and engineering.


Significance of the JMIR Sites

The JMIR inscription is unique among UNESCO heritage sites for the following reasons:

  1. Its status as a “group nomination.” The success of the nomination largely has to do with the fact that the cumulative impact and historical significance of these sites is far greater than the sum of their parts. There is little chance, for example, that the Ebisugahana Shipyard remains in Hagi would constitute sufficient historical significance or architectural integrity to warrant a UNESCO listing on their own. However, when understood in the context of the other sites, this element becomes critical in telling the story of Japan’s rise as a naval power beginning in the late nineteenth century. The configuration of this inscription is also indicative of a gradual change that seems to be happening across new UNESCO sites more broadly—moving away from isolated, extraordinary sites and towards more inclusive “heritage landscapes.”
  2. As an indication of UNESCO’s growing interest in industrial heritage sites, and a recognition that such sites have been heretofore neglected. Over the last fifteen years or so (following a report written in 2004), UNESCO has begun to address the severe underrepresentation of industrial sites in its listings, particularly in Asia, South America, and Africa.
  3. The international controversy over Japan’s framing of these sites in the nomination document, and in particular, the lack of any acknowledgement of the role of foreign forced labor (primarily South Korean and Chinese) at 7 of the 23 sites included.

There is significant documentation and literature about these sites available online, for instance here, at the main website for Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution. At this site, there’s also a smartphone app available for download with games and articles that can be opened from anywhere, as well as exclusive content that can only be accessed when your phone’s GPS indicates that you are actually at one of the sites. But, as I discovered, reading about these sites online is hardly a substitute for making the trek out to see them. Over the course of about 3 weeks in September and October, I was able to visit about 17 out of 25 publicly sites (some of the 23 sites have sub-sites, and so I’ve counted them separately). Arranged in chronological order of my visits, and by geographic region, below are the sites I was able to visit. I’ve also included the sites in each region that I didn’t make it to, with a brief explanation of why I skipped that site.


  • Former Shuiseikan Machinery Factory (built 1865; visited September 19, 2018)
  • Shuseikan Reverberatory Furnace (built 1857; visited September 19, 2018)
  • Former Kagoshima Foreign Engineers’ Residence (built 1867; visited September 19, 2018)
  • Sekiyoshi Sluice Gate of Yoshino Leat (built 1852; visited September 24, 2018)
  • Terayama Charcoal Kiln (built 1858; skipped because public transportation was too difficult and I opted for the Sluice Gate instead.)


  • Miyanohara Pit, Miike Coal Mine (built 1898, visited September 25, 2018)
  • Manda Pit, Miike Coal Mine (built 1902, visited September 25, 2018)
  • Miike Port (built 1908, visited September 25, 2018)
  • Misumi West Port (built 1887; skipped because this one really required a rental car for transportation)


  • Takashima Coal Mine (built 1869; visited September 27, 2018)
  • Glover House and Office (built 1863; visited September 28, 2018)
  • Mitsubishi Pattern Shop (built 1898; visited September 29, 2018)
  • Hashima Coal Mine (built 1890; visited October 1, 2018)
  • Mitsubishi No. 3 Dry Dock (built 1905, not open to the public, but did see from Nagasaki harbor)
  • Mitsubishi Giant Cantilever Crane (built 1909, not open to the public, but did see from the bus on the Mitsubishi Pattern Shop tour)
  • Miutsubishi Senshokaku Guest House (built 1904, not open to the public. Mitsubishi employees get to have their retirement parties there, which seems to be its main use today!)
  • Kosuge Slip Dock (built 1869; skipped due to typhoon weather on planned date of visit)


  • The Imperial Steel Works, First Head Office (built 1899, not open to the public but visible from a viewing platform nearby, visited October 3, 2018)
  • The Imperial Steel Works, Repair Shop (built 1901, not open to the public, but did the iPad VR tour near the site, visited October 3, 2018)
  • The Imperial Steel Works, Former Forge Shop (built 1900, not open to the public, but did the iPad VR tour near the site, visited October 3, 2018)
  • Onga River Pumping Station (built 1910; too far from Kitakyushu to get there on the single day I had there)


  • Shokasonjuku Academy (built 1856; visited October 5, 2018)
  • Hagi Reverberatory Furnace (built 1856; visited October 5, 2018)
  • Ebisugahana Shipyard (built 1856; visited October 5, 2018)
  • Hagi Castle Town (17th-19th century; visited October 6, 2018)
  • Ohitayama Iron Works (built 1855; too far from Hagi to realistically get to by bus within my time constraints)

Reflections and Analysis

As I’ve been reflecting back on my rapid tour through Japan’s industrial heritage, one of the things I was most struck by was how unevenly these sites have been developed for visitor access, and the current diversity of visitor experiences they provide. Check out the map linked here, showing the full listing of the JMIR sites. The impression of this listing, based on the fact that all of the sites are presented in the same font size is that all of the sites are effectively equal. That might be technically true under the prescriptions of the UNESCO inscription, but in practice, there is significant variety along the sites, both in their development for visitors and in their interpretive infrastructures. The following are a series of evaluative criteria that I think can elucidate some of the meaningful differences between the sites I visited:


1. Getting There: What is it like to access the site as a visitor?

  • How easy is it for a visitor to actually get to the site? Can you get there via public transportation or do you have to rent a car?
  • How easy for is the visitor to figure out how to get to the site?
  • Once at or near the site, is it clear what the visitor must do to access the full site, including related intepretation?
  • Are local visitor centers or related cultural/historical institutions well informed about the UNESCO sites?
The Sekiyoshi Sluice Gate of Yoshino Leat was a place I could not have accessed without asking at the Kagoshima bus terminal visitor center. Getting there and back was still somewhat of a harrowing experience.

2. Price: How much does it cost to access this site?

  • What is the base cost of entry?
  • How much does it add to take public transportation?
  • Are there optional elements that can be added on to a baseline experience?
The Gunkanjima boat tour, plus tickets to the digital museum, plus the “HoloLens” experience came to about $60 US per person.

3. Visitor Infrastructure: What other services and amenities are available on site?

  • How has the site been developed to support visitors?
  • Are there are bathrooms, gift shops, restaurants, rest houses, etc. available on site?
  • Was the site developed for visitors before the UNESCO inscription or has the tourism infrastructure been constructed since 2015 in response to the inscription?
The ruins of the Reverberatory Furnace at Shuiseikan. This was industrial history in paradise – beautiful grounds and garden, plus one of the best museum dining experiences I’ve ever had.

4. The Site Itself: What are the physical elements of the site?

  • What is the degree to which there are physically intact remains at the site?
  • Is the site part of another historical site or is it freestanding and independent?
The Ebisugahana Shipyard is an active archaeological site. Right now though, there’s not much to see at the site besides the stone dock and the blue tarps.

5. Interaction with the Site Itself: To what degree can visitors access the actual built remains?

  • If the site includes an intact building (or buildings), can visitors enter it/them and under what conditions?
  • If archaeological remains, how close can visitors get to them?
  • In cases of restricted access, are there other means provided (photographs, VR, virtual tours, etc.) that help the visitor understand the experience of occupying that site?
  • How long does it take to interact with the site and the interpretation provided; how much time should a visitor allot for a visit to this site?
The Imperial Steel Works Office is only accessible from a viewing platform several hundred meters away. It’s also under repair right now, so I couldn’t even really see the facade.

6. Interpretation On Site: How much interpretation is available at the site and in what forms?

  • Is there a museum associated with the site?
  • What kind of signage is available?
  • Are there docents on site during business hours? A live guide who gives a tour?
  • How much of the experience is analog versus digital?
  • What multi-lingual support is provided?
Most of the interpretation for the Hagi sites is provided at a brand new museum at the center of the city.

7. Interpretive Narrative: The overarching methodological approach of the interpretation and its argument.

  • Is there an overarching narrative presented at the site, and if so, what is it?
  • How does this narrative link up with other sites in the geographic region? How much intentional coordination is there with other nearby JMIR sites?
  • How do the other interpretive materials at the site support this narrative?
  • How explicitly architectural is the architectural history included in the interpretation?
  • If the site relies on archaeological evidence, how is this interpreted or explained?
  • How does the interpretation available on the site line up with the website, app, and other JMIR materials that are accessible off-site?
You can learn a lot about Japanese industrial heritage just by paying attention to their cartoon character avatars. Here, Saigo Takamori (Kagoshima’s local hero, left) encounters Yoshida Shoin (Hagi’s local hero, right).


Over the next several days, I’ll be addressing each of these sets of questions in the course of a series of short posts. Stay tuned.

4 Lessons for Corporate Public Storytelling from the TOTO Museum

As a follow up from the Singapore installment I wrote last month, I thought I’d write another “Lessons in Public History Storytelling,” this time about the TOTO Museum. I’ve spent the last two weeks traveling north through Kyushu and southern Honshu, focused mainly on the roughly two dozen locations that comprise the UNESCO sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution. During that time it has been rewarding to step back and appreciate some of the standalone public history experiences I’ve had. While I’ve been trying to bring a critical eye to all of my explorations during this fellowship year, I also think there’s a place for identifying and analyzing institutions that are doing things well. Being able to discern what makes good museums tick is as important in the overall critical apparatus as calling out aspects that aren’t working in less-than-stellar public history experiences.

What does your plumbing say about you?

The TOTO Museum’s unequivocal answer to this question: EVERYTHING. It turns out that from the shape of the porcelain you pee on, a whole lot can be extrapolated not only about personal tastes, but also national development, vernacular architecture, and infrastructural technologies.

When John and I arrived at the TOTO Museum mid-afternoon last Wednesday, we were greeted by a crisply uniformed guard. His navy attire and white gloves seemed a throwback to another time, particularly set against the futuristic building masses behind him. The museum is comprised of two conjoined buildings, opened in 2015 (the company celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2017). The long, ovoid building and the four-story stack next to it, we later learned, are based on the shape of a water droplet and a mountain of earth. Will this look like dated blobbitecture in 10 years? Possibly. Do I really care? No. For the function of this museum, nothing but contemporary googie architecture would do. The main entrance to the complex is through the “water droplet” building, whose lobby recalls a business class airport lounge. Two motion-activated escalators take you up to the visitor center and gift shop. On our way up, we passed several dozen school children coming down. We exchanged the requisite “hellos!” (we’ve gotten very used to saying “hello” many times over to eager kiddos). A group of businesspeople were receiving a very quiet and dignified tour from a company official when we arrived—a reminder that this is very much the museum of an active and evolving corporation.

In general, I have reservations about corporate museums. A lot of my research to date has been about how technology gets sold at museums and exhibitions. I know the tricks. I know that museums like this are always part advertising and propaganda, usually layered with some “edutainment” to make the whole thing seem a bit more edifying. And while the TOTO Museum is certainly a hard sell for the brand, it also contains a surprising amount of insightful historical analysis and excellent exhibit design. Insofar as a corporate museum has no real obligation to be a tool of public history, TOTO is still doing a lot of things right in this regard. While this post is targeted towards corporate museums specifically, some of these takeaways are also applicable to a wider range of storytelling institutions.

1) Provide intuitive multi-language support.

The museums I’ve visited in Japan have dealt with non-Japanese-speaking visitors in many different ways. In some cases, a supplementary pamphlet is provided that sums up the main points of an exhibition. Others use multi-lingual audio guides to translate or provide supplemental information. Some merely have partial English translations available for the main text panels, but all of the smaller panels and artifact labels are in Japanese only. TOTO offers both an audio guide and a series of scannable QR codes that translate the exhibits in their entirety into around ten different languages. The audio guide was admittedly a bit hard to use, in part because there was a tour going on nearby, which rendered it difficult to hear, and the “speaker” on the audio guide was a computer generated voice rather than a real person. The QR code scan, on the other hand, was simple to initiate and thanks to embedded photos in the exhibit translations, easy to match up the text with physical display. As a researcher, it also made it simple for me to keep the information as a PDF after our visit. The main downside to this format, in my opinion, is that we spent a lot of time looking at our phones. But that was worth it to me, since we were able to participate and understand fully the information in the museum.

2) Keep the amount of information presented manageable.

Some of the better museums I’ve seen so far this year have been those that are doable in 75 minutes or fewer. And beyond merely being short in terms of time required, the best institutions also stay “on message.” There’s a clear narrative arc and all of the exhibits or displays build on a single, unified theme. It’s somewhat frustrating that the corporate world has internalized this lesson so much better than many academic storytellers. As I know from personal experience, when you’re passionate about your topic, it can be tempting to expound ad nauseam, embellishing with all the interesting little details. Digressions and footnotes do not translate well into the realm of public history though. By contrast, advertising professionals excel at identifying a key theme or narrative, and driving that point home. It’s how you sell a product.

This consumer-facing know-how certainly enhances the efficacy of the TOTO Museum. John and I wished we could have had a bit more time, but we were able to see pretty much everything in about an hour. In a sense, each component display could function individually as a microcosm of the greater whole. While the exhibits vary in their content and style (everything is, of course, incredibly slick and high production value), the driving themes are clear throughout. Which brings us to point 2…

3) Show how your corporate brand connects to something greater.

TOTO does this really effectively. The component displays of the museum present a threefold argument:

A. The story of TOTO is the story of Japan’s industrial revolution and modernization.

B. The development of TOTO’s products can be understood as a proxy for the changing lifestyles, work habits, and architectural culture of Japan throughout the twentieth century.

C. Contemporary TOTO is a critical contributor to global design discourse.

Model of an early kiln for firing porcelain. Things have come a long way at TOTO since then.

These intertwined theses work particularly well in the context of the museum because they highlight both the global aspects of the brand, and its specific role in the Japanese industrial revolution. Before there was a demand for mass-produced sanitary fixtures in Japan, the company’s founders built an export empire making clean, white porcelain using a combination of traditional Japanese craft methods and Western factory production (that portion of the original company is still in business today as Noritake). Once the westernization and industrialization of Japan was in full swing, suddenly porcelain flush toilets were a hot commodity. The basic assumptions behind these two original products—everyone needs to eat, and have access to adequate sanitation facilities—becomes a disarming and approachable entrée into a nuanced discussion of the impacts of industrialization and changes in the daily lives of everyday Japanese people. Although the museum still focuses on the “great man history” aspect of its founders, the thing that set it apart from other corporate museums I’ve seen was the way it also addressed social and architectural change in Japanese society more broadly.

Finally, while at the same time laying claim to a long history of hybridizing Japanese craft and Western industrial production, the museum also makes the case for the brand’s present-day status as a pioneer in the global of design. A temporary exhibition space has been set aside to feature the works of innovative architectural firms, and the company has engaged a series of well known architects to design toilets (similar to furniture companies that have commissioned architects to create one-off chair designs). It’s a smart move, because this engagement with the design profession generally, and architecture specifically, strengthens the historical narrative that TOTO is as much about craft and design as it is about engineering.

What makes these narratives so convincing, so readily communicated to the museum visitor? That has to do with the design of the exhibits themselves…

4) Vary the scale, tone, and content of the displays.

The museum building itself also contains a showroom (which we unfortunately not able to see before closing time), but the museum itself is a kind of a showroom. When showing industrial products in a museum setting, the two traps I’ve seen museums fall into are either including way too many examples of virtually identical objects (see my blog post Artifact Vomit) or falling back on a dry, taxonomic model where model versions are treated like scientific “species.” TOTO does an admirable job of showing industrial products in such a way that they appear visually interesting and varied. TOTO, of course, manufactures many products, but is best known for its toilets. Here are all of the ways I encountered toilets at the museum:

A. In a chronological line-up, from the company’s first toilets c. 1917 all the way through the latest and greatest “Neorest” model of today. This method, while often a bit reductive, is an effective way of demonstrating how a product has changed over time to meet changing cultural norms and consumer expectations.

TOTO Toilets through the ages.

B. In the context of a “visit to the factory”. This model is frequently employed by corporations as a way to demonstrate all of the expertise and behind-the-scenes engineering/design work that goes into a product. TOTO didn’t allow pictures of this area (trade secrets, I would guess), but you can get a sense of it in the area behind John in the photograph below.

John watches a video about how TOTO Toilets are designed and made. Top secret!

C. In a recreations of typical Japanese bathrooms through the ages. These “typical” bathrooms were particularly effective in showing how the changes in TOTO’s designs over time lined up with corresponding changes in architectural materials and technology. In Japan, the adjustment from the squat toilet to the Western-style seated toilet was culturally (as well as ergonomically) significant, and these period bathrooms usefully showed how TOTO helped ease the transition from the former to the latter, even at one point creating models that could be used squatting or seated.

The mid-twentieth-century toilet in all its glory. We stayed at a place that was still using this model, complete with the terry cloth seat cover.

D. In recreations of historically significant bathrooms from various periods. Notably, these weren’t just bathrooms for the rich and famous (though there were a few of those as well), these also included reconstructions of bathrooms in, for instance, the Kasumagaseki Office Building, an architecturally significant building from 1968. These were scattered through the slightly more “scientific” displays showing flush capacity and water-saving technologies, and were an effective way to break up the more engineering-focused portions with a little history.

Toilet design meets tall office building architecture? This is all pretty thrilling for me.

E. In a global comparison of TOTO’s current line. The final room of the exhibition shows the products that TOTO is currently marketing in China, Europe, the Americas, and Japan. In order to expand its market share to a global audience, the company has had to cater to different ideas about what a bathroom experience should be, and to varying plumbing systems and different urban infrastructure. I hadn’t thought about how ingrained the elevated tank toilet is in American culture until visiting this room.

The Neorest collection (AKA dream bathroom) in a room of TOTO’s current global export lines.

F. As part of a humorous and somewhat terrifying “toilet bike” that runs on “biofuel” (yes, it’s what you think it is). It even has a super-sized roll of toilet paper flailing from the rear. When we visited, it was stationed by the museum library, which is full of books on Le Corbusier and Tadao Ando. And yes, it was quite strange. But coming from the country that pioneered the Oscar Meier Weiner-mobile, I don’t think I have any right to judge.

I just don’t even know any more. Maybe this should have been my transport method for this fellowship year?

In the Land of the Forest Docents

There was a morning last week when I realized that I had left my prescription sunglasses in Hakodate Airport—the latest in a string of lost and forgotten items. As John pointed out, I’ve been firing on all cylinders for a few months now, and the strain is starting to take its toll. I cried then, in the Kagoshima Hotel MyStays, a little about the sunglasses but mostly at the feeling of being overwhelmed. It’s an experience that mirrors that of past Brooks fellows I’ve talked to—just part of acclimating to a year on the road. It’s learning to balance the desire to see everything with the acknowledgement that you can’t possibly see everything, nor should you, for the sake of your sanity and personal wellbeing (not to mention that of your travel companions). I wrote the following post to capture this kind of balancing act in real time, as well as the unique cultural alienation (benign but inescapable) of being a Westerner in Japan for the first time, one who is not following the usual, scripted tourist experience.

Yesterday I accidentally went to four museums, an unintended public history bender if you will. I spent the morning trying and failing to get to the Kagoshima Prefectural Museum of Culture Reimeikan. GoogleMaps first sent me to the Kagoshima Prefectural Museum, which is distinct from the institution listed above. The latter is a natural history museum, whose target audience is A) Japanese and B) approximately age 8. The very kind woman at the counter was clearly befuddled at what a sweaty, thirty-year old blond woman was doing there, but handled it with unrelenting chipperness and a toothpaste-ad smile. Then it was my turn to be befuddled when entrance to the museum was free, and instead of a ticket, I was handed a small Ziploc bag containing a minuscule amount of ash from the 2012 eruption of Mt. Sakurajima. We’ll see what TSA makes of that coming back into the US. I wondered up a few flights of stairs to a room where butterflies were elegantly pinned according to their taxonomic classifications, and rows of stuffed birds and mammals marched in single-file lines, a meticulous retinue of Kagoshima’s diverse fauna. A video played nearby, depicting (purportedly) the area’s harmonious interactions between nature and humankind. From the approximately five minutes I watched, this “harmony” mostly consists of beautiful women enjoying nature alone. The entire video is without Japanese or English narration, so the depictions had the exaggerated quality of a 1920s silent film. In one particularly abstruse scene, a robed young women strolls on a beach with two men in tow. The men are wearing neon jumpsuits and holding shovels. The sand on the beach burbles from what the viewer can only assume are natural hot springs or heat vents below the surface, though the visual and auditory effect is that of some malignant Star Wars creature. The men proceed to dig a hole in the sand, into which the woman climbs, smiling and demure. They then bury her up to the neck and then march off into the distance. The woman closes her eyes, head protruding serenely, absurdly from the sand. Fade to black.

Next I ended up at the Kagoshima City Museum of Art (which is listed online translated as just the “Kagoshima City Museum”). For 300 Yen, I saw exactly one Pissarro, one Cezanne, one Picasso, and bizarrely a larger number of Dalis and Ernsts. Because Surrealism is definitely what I need right now. This is the kind of museum where there’s one big, hulking, psychedelic Frank Stella on the wall, and then a row of eighteenth-century ceramic tea cups.

Convinced that I was still not where I needed to be, I continued my long, hot march down the “History and Culture Road” towards yet another institution purporting to be the “Prefectural Museum.” This was it, at last. Built into a former castle town, the museum is a steep climb from street level, past seemingly impenetrable masonry walls. Inside, some 1990s chandeliers and a gift shop. I get a glossy book in five languages from the nice woman at the counter about the history of Kagoshima. I wonder if museums are the main employer of nice, young women in Japan, women who smile and seem genuinely unperturbed by my total lack of understanding that at this museum, the tickets come out of a machine on the wall—women who would consent to being buried, smiling, in a treacherous sand pit and left to steam until medium well done.

Finally at the right museum… though from the outside not entirely welcoming.

This museum likes its dioramas. It does not like having photos of its dioramas posted on social media. There is an outside area with some thatched-roof Edo-era buildings, but you have to flag down a docent before seeing them. As my Japanese currently consists of “Hi,” “Thank you,” and “I like it,” I am not sure that I am up for explaining “I would like to see your outdoor collection of thatched-roof Edo-era buildings, please.” I take some pictures of the dioramas (which I will not post here) and go on my way.

It’s a half hour walk back to the main train station where John is waiting in a chaotic, crowded Starbucks. The air feels thick and hazy. I pass a pair of women who, having just come from the costume rental shop, are wearing full kimonos and struggling with the parking meter.

John and I eat lunch in the bus station mall food court. Tonkatsu for the win. Under any circumstances in the United States would I order a breaded pork cutlet with white rice for lunch and think that was a normal, healthy thing? No. But in this land where a Caesar salad is as elusive as the Great Forest Spirit, my conception of “normal” has shifted accordingly.

After lunch, we wander over to the Museum of the Meiji Restoration. Public history folks who create museum soundscapes worry a lot about “sound bleed,” the undesirable mix of sounds that comes from having multiple auditory installations too close, or not acoustically engineered to prevent overlap. This museum is sound bleed city, a veritable 1980s arcade of animatronics, music, and aggressive interactives. And I do mean aggressive – you can test your “sumo” strength by shoving two hand-shaped panels on a wall to measure your compressive force. The seriousness of the museum’s topic (a complex and politically fraught decision to restore imperial power and pursue a vast top-down program of modernization), is somewhat belied by the ubiquitous cartoon versions of local hero Saigo Takamori and his dog. (Takamori was a big supporter of the Meiji government until a disagreement over policy towards Korea prompted him to resign. He later helped lead a rebellion against the new government and ended up committing ritual suicide.)

Saigō Takamori, local folk hero and cartoon character.

Today, I get up and resolve to take it a little easier—fewer expectations, fewer heritage experiences. My plan is to check out one of the two other UNESCO heritage sites connected to Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution near Kagoshima. After a typically white breakfast of cheesy toast, I roll out the door and down to the bus station. Despite my best efforts and the assistance of Google Translate, I arrive with very little idea of actually how to access the site in question, the Sekiyoshi Sluice Gate of Yoshino Leat. I almost board a bus I am about 45% sure is the correct one and then quickly loose my nerve and get right back off. I stand around and watch the buses in hopes that there will be one that has an English sign that reading: “This bus takes you to the obscure UNESCO site! Hop on, foreigner!” No luck. I bring up the Japanese version of the website with the site info, and trek over to the Tourist Info booth. The man at the counter scratches his head and emits a “hmmmm” that would indicate I had just asked him how best to climb Mt. Fuji in January. He passes me off to an efficient looking woman nearby with a shrug— “She knows more.”

The woman in question nods knowingly upon reading the info on my proffered phone, and pulls out a looseleaf binder full of papers, onto which hand-written Post-it notes have been taped, an arcane analog archive of locations and directions. She briskly locates the correct sticky note with the necessary magic words and goes to work on an iPad, decoding a long list of bus time tables. She transcribes the resulting directions on a slip of paper.

“You want to go now?”


“Bus is leaving now! Hurry!”

I take the paper with the directions and sprint across the parking lot. By this time, it’s raining and I wipe out almost immediately on the slick stone. A half dozen concerned people are suddenly headed my way, speaking rapid Japanese. I pick myself up, choke out “I’m fine” (in English) and hobble over to the bus stop. I make it just in time.

Now I’m on a bus that is winding out of the city and up into the hills above Kagoshima. I have no idea how I’m getting back, which is a bit concerning. I try to reassure myself that if worse comes to worse, I can just walk back, which Google Maps says will only take two hours.

Fortunately, I see a sign for the venerable Sekiyoshi Sluice Gate of Yoshino Leat and I push the button to signal the bus driver to stop. I hop out and find myself in a sleepy farming community. There are more signs for the UNESCO site, which I follow gratefully through a valley full of rich green fields. The fields give way to trees, and even though I can’t see the sluice gate, I can hear the channel of water rushing somewhere nearby. Up I go into the hills, and around a curve in the road. I have arrived.


Amidst the trees are three chairs around a table, a sign, and a single docent. He wears an official-looking red shirt and must be about 80. We establish that I am American, I do not speak Japanese, and I am here to see the UNESCO site. He takes me up a path, narrating the history of the site in a fluent barrage of Japanese, punctuated with illustrative gestures that I assume are meant to evoke building a gate, water flowing down the mountain, etc. At the end of the short trail is the sluice gate. I haven’t visited many, but as sluice gates go, this one seems very nice. I nod vigorously to indicate my appreciation. Having executed his task of explaining/gesticulating the history of the site, my docent departs to greet another family that has arrived. I take many pictures of the rushing water, the cut stones covered in moss. I imagine the nineteenth-century stone masons who carved them, and created the narrow channel to direct spring’s water down to the site where the Satsuma clan built their metal warships on the beach of Shuiseikan.

The elusive forest docent regales a visiting family with the history of the Sekiyoshi Sluice Gate of Yoshino Leat.

There’s thankfully a bus that will take me back out of the hills and to the Kagoshima central station. I buy a chocolate cream-filled puff pastry at the little farm stand that seems to act as the de facto cafe for the sluice gate site to break a larger bill so I have return bus fare. The woman at the counter gives me a 50% discount. Maybe it’s because I am carrying the pamphlet for the UNESCO site, or maybe it’s just because I am clearly foreign and bedraggled. I sit on the bus station bench with my umbrella in one hand and the pastry in the other. Eventually the bus appears.

I’m proud of myself for persevering, for coming to this site that was clearly not designed for foreign, non-Japanese-speaking visitors. It was strange and lovely, and ultimately worth the trip. There was a brief moment, after I had just picked myself up off the pavement at Kagoshima-Chuo station, when I considered just giving up, going back to my AirBnB and having a cup of tea and not trying to do anything for the rest of the day. But I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad, in a way, that I saw all four museums the day before, too. It’s all part of the experience.

Traveling with Natural Disasters and Climate Change

We’ve been in Japan for just about a week now, and in addition to grappling with a very different culture and a pronounced dearth of English-speakers, John and I have also found ourselves navigating the vagaries of earthquake and typhoon damage. Japan has been having a rough summer, climate- and disaster-wise. Earlier in the summer, flooding and mudflows decimated much of southwestern Japan. That was followed by a devastating heat spell, and then more recently, a typhoon that affected much of Japan, but caused particular damage to the area around Osaka. Last week, the island of Hokkaido experienced a magnitude 6.7 earthquake that disrupted power and caused property damage and a few dozen casualties across the island. With our flights and lodging already booked for Sapporo and Hakodate, we were reluctant to cancel our plans. I contacted our AirBnB host, and learned that she and her family were fine, and that there was power, water, and food in local grocery stores. The ever-helpful Japan-Guide revealed that trains and bus lines were gradually coming back online, and that most roads were open. So, putting aside any trepidation about aftershocks, we boarded the plane for Sapporo earlier this week. In the part of Sapporo where we were staying, there was no obvious structural damage to the buildings. The only indications we experienced that an earthquake had taken place within the last week were slightly long lines at the grocery store, and some tourist sites with shortened evening hours to promote energy-saving as power plants come back up to their normal capacity. Well, and the occasional little tremors that jiggled the furniture a few times in our third floor AirBnB.

As unfortunate as all of the damage this summer has been, it has been interesting from a preservationist’s perspective to see how heritage sites have been handling this onslaught of natural disasters. As climate change continues to exacerbate the effects of extreme weather, disasters such as the recent typhoon and earthquake represent a kind of stress-testing of precautions already in place to protect global heritage sites. I’ve been very impressed thus far at how quickly sites were restored to at least partial operating capacity on Hokkaido following last week’s quake and the previous week’s typhoon. At Hokkaido Historical Village, most of the “streets” had reopened and visitors could access about 80% of the site. Safety inspectors were hard at work, assessing the damage to buildings. Teams were rapidly dispensing with dangerous or damaged trees, sending up a flurry of sound and wood chips amidst the otherwise pastoral quiet of the town. At Moerenuma Park, an Isamu Noguchi-designed landscape and community space on the outskirts of Sapporo, ropes had been strung around groves of fir trees uprooted by the typhoon, but most of the park still remained open to visitors.

Typhoon damage at Hokkaido Historical Village. Photo by SR.

Part of this readiness no doubt stems from the strength of ongoing efforts. At the Edo Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, which we saw earlier in the week, several of the buildings were closed as part of “earthquake-proofing” projects. In Japan, even as preservationists attempt to present visitors an accurate view into the historical built environment, there is a corresponding need to structurally reinforce these buildings (even if those reinforcements might depart from historical building techniques, or alter the material composition of a structure). Digitization efforts and extensive documentation provide further insurance against the physical destruction of buildings and artifacts. The reality of architectural impermanence, and the ultimate fragility of the human-made environment seems deeply enmeshed in this culture that has survived countless natural and manmade disasters. The whole Japanese aesthetic system of “wabi-sabi” is rooted in the transitory nature of the material world, accepting things with all of their innate imperfections and the patina created by age. It has been interesting to observe the collisions between wabi-sabi and Western approaches to the built environment. Yesterday, I spent the afternoon wandering through the historic districts of Hakodate. The Old Public Hall is a wooden building in Western style, a neoclassical confection of Victorian frippery painted in saccharine lemon and lavender hues. If this building were part of any decently funded American historical site, that paint would be immaculate, retouched continuously to maintain the illusion of 1910s grandeur. Granted, a major renovation of the building is slated for next month, but nevertheless, the paint has flaked to a state of undeniable wabi-sabi-ness. It peels picturesquely from the columns, revealing the wood beneath—a vivid reminder that Western buildings, with some exceptions, are not designed to age well. Without falling back on tired tropes of East vs. West, I think it is still fair to say that many strategies to heritage preservation in the U.S. and Europe still rest on the presumption that original built material can and should be preserved indefinitely. Here, from what I’ve seen, there seems to be less of a drive to ruthlessly and ineffectually fight the inevitability of time and decay. Battered by war, earthquakes, and typhoons, architectural destruction here seems more intrinsically bound to creation, and as inescapable as death and taxes.

Weathered paint on Hakodate’s Old Public Hall. Photo by SR.

The Japanese approach to disaster preparedness has made for a striking contrast with our last destination, Cape Town. For the past year or so, Cape Town has been battling a severe drought—the worst in one hundred years. Cape Town already had advanced water-saving measures in place before the drought, and is regarded as one of the most progressive and eco-friendly cities in Africa. So when the extent of the drought became clear, there seemed to be almost an attitude of perturbed disbelief—surely Cape Town of all places was doing all it could to prevent a water shortage! Few of the heritage sites I visited seemed greatly affected by the shortage—beyond inoperative fountains and signs in restrooms urging hand sanitizer in lieu of soap and water, most sites seemed to be operating as usual. But while the built environment went largely untouched by the drought, the human landscape in and around Cape Town has born the brunt of its force, feeling effects that are as social and economic as they are logistical and climatic.

As I’ve discussed in numerous other posts about my time in South Africa, social division and racial tension are still major features of the cultural landscape. The water crisis has become something that has both united people across class and race lines, as the need to conserve became an all-encompassing mantra. Yet, in some ways, it also serves to reinforce existing disparities. Ultimately, for tourists and the wealthy living in the “city bowl,” the need to conserve might be an inconvenience, but it was rarely more than that. As visitors, we got used to taking our two minute showers, and boiling water so that we didn’t have to run the tap for hot water to wash dishes. And, as good New Mexicans, we are well trained in the arts of showering with a bucket to catch gray water. Still, the brain space to think about conservation and hitting the “60 L a day per person” goal is fundamentally just another aspect of privilege. We tried to be conscientious travelers and do our part while we were in Cape Town, but ultimately I don’t think we really understood what the water crisis means to people living in the townships, using shared taps or refillable community water tanks. Despite these differences in lived experience, from what I saw, there was an expectation in the water-saving campaign that the individual’s responsibility for conservation was really meant to be shared evenly among everyone, regardless of situation.

Along the “Pipe Track” at Cape Town’s Table Mountain; a reminder of historic ways of bringing water to the city. In this case, the eponymous pipe brought water from the mountaintop reservoirs down to the city. Photo by SR.

We arrived just as Cape Town was getting some very welcome winter rains, which helped to significantly replenish the local reservoirs. On the day we departed, a storm was bringing sustained, gentle rain to the region. On the radio, the announcers called for a “water party,” an opportunity to leave your work, and go outside and dance in the rain. Riding with our Uber driver, who was still in the middle of a long shift, I wondered who would have the time and the freedom to take them up on that suggestion.