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?