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.