Japanese Colonial Architecture

by AFP, Aug 30, 2005 | Destinations: Hong Kong / Singapore / Japan / China / Korea, S / Taiwan / Tokyo / Seoul / Taipei

SEOUL, Aug 5, 2005 - Like the British, the Dutch, the Spanish and the French before them, Japanese colonists were prolific builders in their Asian empire prior to its collapse 60 years ago.

For the Japanese, however, architectural splendour came a distant second to the goal of serving the needs of empire and the war effort and although many imposing buildings were built, few had genuine architectural merit.

"Most of what the Japanese put up was shoddy and there is really only a tiny handful left," said Peter Bartholemew, a historian and expert on architecture in Korea, a colony of Japan from 1910 to 1945.

In the rapid industrialisation of Northeast and Southeast Asia in the past few decades, many Japanese buildings in places such as Hong Kong and Taiwan have been swept away by the wrecker's ball to make room for modern development.

Other buildings, like the most imposing colonial structure in South Korea that served as the Japanese occupation headquarters, were destroyed in a display of nationalist fervour.

"Frankly, the demolition of these buildings was no great loss to the world's architectural heritage," said Bartholomew, a director of the century-old Seoul branch of Britain's Royal Asiatic Society.

Japanese colonial buildings sprinkled across the Asian mainland from northern China to Singapore and on the islands of Taiwan and Hong Kong broadly fit into three categories: industrial plant to supply the war machine and the expanding empire; colonial administrative buildings to house the growing corp of colonial administrators; and private housing for officials.

Some graceful structures were erected and a few survive including temples and shrines in Taiwan, colonized by Japan from 1895-1945. An effort to preserve them began after Lee Teng-hui, a Japan-educated politician, became the president in 1988 and served as the head of state for 12 years.

The headquarters of the Japanese colonial governor has been used as Taiwan's Presidential Office Building since 1949 and a cluster of other Japanese colonial offices also survive including the Executive Yuan and the old National Taiwan University Building.

In South Korea, the Bank of Korea, Seoul City hall and the Seoul railway station are among more prominent examples of Japanese colonial architecture, which essentially aped the bulky neo-classical stone structures popular in Europe in the early 20th century.

"All of these buildings are European style and many of the architects were in fact Europeans working for the Japanese," said Bartholomew.

One of those European architects was Georg de Lalande, a German who designed the most famous Japanese structure ever built in Korea. That was the copper-domed granite monolith that served as the Japanese governor general's office. Finished in 1926, more than a decade after Lalande's death, the building blocked the front of Kyongbok Palace, the ancient residence of Korea's kings, and portions of the palace were demolished to make way for the Japanese structure.

"This was to remind the Koreans who were the real masters in their country," said Andrei Lankov, a history professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, in a recent commentary. It was also intended to block cosmic forces that Koreans believed for centuries had given them their power and energy and were thought to move from North to South through a corridor that ran through the king's palace.

"North Asian people believe in these cosmic forces, known as geomancy or feng shui in China," said Bartholomew. "The Japanese had studied geomancy maps of Korea and built the capitol to break the forces." After the war the building served as the headquarters of the US military government and then the presidential offices for several South Korean heads of state. It was pulled down in 1996 by the Korean government to restore national pride.

In China, the Japanese built a palace for the last emperor, Puyi, in the northeastern city of Changchun, which still stands and now serves as the Jilin Provincial Museum.

The infamous Unit 731, in which the Japanese conducted biological experiments on humans, was in Harbin, near the border with Russia. The entire complex consisted on 150 buildings, and some of these are open to tourists today.

Industrial buildings -- cement factories and power plants -- left by the Japanese when they fled in 1945 appear to be scattered across northeast China, and some of them are still in use.

In Hong Kong, few relics of Japan's four-and-a-half-year occupation remain. Notably, the Japanese extended the runway at the old Kai Tak Airport and built a watchtower on Government House, the home of the British governors.

Singapore was occupied by Japanese troops from 1942-45 and no significant buildings were left behind after their defeat. There is a Japanese graveyard and a chapel and a museum in the old Changi prison complex, which are dedicated to Commonwealth and other prisoners of war interned there during the Japanese occupation.

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