Edo-Tokyo Museum, Ryogoku

Mike GristArchitecture 13 Comments

The Edo-Tokyo Museum in Ryogoku is one of the ugliest and most pointless buildings I’ve yet seen in Tokyo. A giant clunky trapezoid on 4 legs in grey concrete, fissured with juts and wedges and all manner of go-faster stripes, layered with a shrine-like blocky hat, faced with a child-like mosaic paddling pool, dashed round with white umbrella-like gazebos, it adds up to precisely nothing. It’s just ugly, and pointless- in no way calling back the Edo period, or for that matter the Jomon period, or the Meiji period, or any period from any history in the world. It’s just a geometric shape festooned with other decorative shapes- totally blah.

Edo-Tokyo Museum- on stilts.

I’ll freely confess I’ve been moved recently by the writings of Alex Kerr in his eye-opening book- Dogs and Demons: the Fall of Modern Japan. I read it as a first step in educating myself on the Japanese economic Bubble of the late 80’s, so I could better understand why the haikyo I go to are so numerous and so absent of stewardship. I gobbled it up in equal parts recognition and outrage. So many of the negative things I’d thought about Japan but just accepted- the in-numerable pointless roads and bridges in the countryside, hillsides slathered in concrete, concrete-paved rivers and concrete tetrapod scattered beaches, infantilisation of culture with ‘kawaii’ as king and manga and anime the chief cultural products, zero interest rates in banks, ugly as sin cities that all look the same- so that a trip to Kyoto is much the same as a trip to any suburban area in Tokyo- homogeneity of culture and race, and on, all of those things I’d also noticed- he explicitly points out and explains, causing me to gasp with disgust at least once a chapter at all of the blind and feckless waste an immoveable bureaucracy has bestowed upon a sleeping people.

Signs to the museum, right of the JR station, blocking the view of the Kokugikan- the sumo hall. Awful.

If I’m to try and summarize Alex Kerr’s findings, which are many, I’d say there’s just something wrong with Japanese culture. Or perhaps- from my limited knowledge of the matter- that there’s something wrong with the Japanese reaction to the world, and the culture that resulted from that clash. But if we extend that back- we have to assume something is wrong with ancient Japanese culture as well because it was ancient culture that believed in and enforced isolation.


But I know I shouldn’t say that, as it’s gross cultural shortsightedness and probably remarkably naive. That’s how the book made me feel though- and how it now colors my view of some of these government-built ‘monuments’- as Kerr calls them. It’s something like the way I felt when reading the book Catch 22- a book replete with examples of insanely backwards bureaucracy justifying its own existence and corruption-rife budget by citing paradoxical rules and quotidian dogma- a con artists dreamland plenipotential in the possibilities to fleece money from people who just don’t think to ask where it’s going.

Steps up.

In that sense the way I felt on reading both books matched- and in that sense there’s something seriously wrong with that kind of culture. I won’t try and say it doesn’t exist elsewhere- if I read a book about the same thing in England or the US I’d be equally appalled. I just happen though to live in Japan, and see the evidence as Kerr explains it.

Angles- grey day.

So why do I dislike this building? Kerr mentions it in his book- so I’m probably just rehashing his ideas- but it’s totally a-contextual. Designed by Kiyonori Kikutake- who also built the Sofitel Hotel I pined after in previous posts- it could lay claim to context- as being one tier in a Japanese tree of life lightning bolt. But it doesn’t look like that, so it’s irrelevant. It’s just a big faceless granite dog with an obscene red pipe jutting down from its hindquarters. It’s shape for the sake of shape- which I can certainly appreciate sometimes- but in a building designed to commemorate the past?

Red tube jutting from the hind-quarters.

Ok then- you art Nazi- what about the Louvre? Isn’t that modern art enshrining the old? Well, yes. But that is beautiful. And it also signifies something- as anyone who’s watched the Da Vinci Code knows- it embodies ideas of the the masculine and the feminine almost touching, but never quite. And that’s a gallery for all kinds of art, ancient to modern. This was a museum for a rich and deep culture of a certain time in the past. And it looks like a horny dog.

Paddling pool in front.

Goldfish swim- so beautiful- so like the Louvre!

I’d lay off comparing it to the Louvre- but on this site the museum director actually makes that comparison himself. Also he compares it to the British Museum. On both counts is he not only dead wrong when it comes to the building itself, he’s even wronger about the contents.

Candidate city. Good luck!

Phallic escalator. I didn’t ride.

Escalator head.


Not a Swastika- a sign for a shrine.

Bits of junk on display outside.

Excavated blast furnaces. I’m surprised they didn’t just toss all these away.

So what about the inside did I dislike? Well, first off it’s poorly designed, so even in the lobby we (me and Su Young, after returning from watching some sumo) didn’t know where to go to buy a ticket- plus it felt cramped with low ceilings and shoddy lights- like some old dowdy library that was once a disco. After buying tickets we had to loop round the corner, accidentally wandering into an unrelated elevator-area. It wasn’t just us who made that mistake either- a chap followed after us moments later.

Don’t get lost, now.

We went up to the 6th floor, and beheld the big empty space inside the dog trapezoid. and it was just a big, mostly empty, cavernous grey under-lit space. The walls bare concrete, the carpet grey to match. It felt 50% empty. It felt like the old park Toshimaen near Ikebukuro- almost a haikyo in its own right, a theme park on its last legs, never popular, trying to dress its muttony stringiness up with lamb-like frivolity.

A model.

What do I mean? I mean- where was the history? How can you possibly compare this place to the British Museum, a mammoth and multi-generational facility jam-packed with the history and memorabilia of centuries of war, culture, and conquest. This place was all models. Tiny models and life-size models. Most of the empty space was filled up with a big model of a bridge we walk across (wow, a bridge!) and two full-sized buildings. They looked like something out of Disney, but not nearly as interesting in the all-pervading gloom.

Miniature models.

Scattered imbetween the big models were the little models, of old Edo streets filled with lovingly hand-painted and crafted figures right out of old Edo. Wonderful. But they’re too small to appreciate- so here are some tiny binoculars you can use to look at them more closely.Sure- go ahead.

Really. Binoculars- in the dim light, awkward to use, head-ache inducing to really try and see something up close, and ultimately unrewarding when you do. Mutton dressing itself up in tech-thrills as lamb.

Little people.

Then there were the display cases. Lining the walls, 10 feet high glass, with white backs. I’m describing the cases because that’s mostly what I saw. In those huge cases, there were a few bits and bobs of history- probably mocked up, possibly genuine. The space inside the display cases was about 80% empty.

This was maybe the best screen-painted mural.

At the bottom of the case- all white space for 9 feet above it.

A nice model of some ships.

Ships in close.

So what would I like to have seen? I don’t know- maybe some real history. Instead of a few pristine and uninteresting buildings and little models- have me walk down a few cramped and narrow wooden streets, each recreated with real shops on the inside. Bring the ceiling down so I don’t feel like I’m in a mausoleum. Get intimate. Design your display cases according to your material. Get some material! Instead of signs on the open-plan floor telling me where to go, immerse me- make me drawn by the content, limit my options or where I walk. Invest more money in sourcing decent content. Commission some paintings of old Edo in a more modern style. Enough with the models!

On the whole- I felt like I was in the Millennium Dome again. A government-conspired building with no real purpose in sight. They packed the Millennium Dome with a bunch of junk- let’s face it. I went there, and it was fun ribald junk. But they sort of knew it was junk. This place is passing itself off as real history, and has its director out there pimping it as the real thing. That’s the real tragedy. Fail.


Location – Ryogoku

Entry – 600 yen.

Facts – Completed in 1993.

Architect – Kiyonori Kikutake, the same guy who built the Sofitel Hotel.

Highlights – Leaving.


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Comments 13

  1. Yeah, reading Dogs and Demons, after just completing a 3 week tour of Japan on my motorcycle made me feel ill. So many spots, lauded for their beauty, were nice, but suddenly became magnificent in context to the landscape a kilometer or two down the road.

  2. Hm, this book really caught my attention, need to read it no matter what now
    I think many Japanese people are very well aware of the “blind and feckless waste an immoveable bureaucracy has bestowed upon” them, while you made it seem like they are not. A read that might interest you on this topic is Akumetsu – an example of “one of the chief cultural products of Japan”. The graphic novel is precisely about that corruption and pointless bureaucracy you mentioned. It is really sad to realize that despite being aware of it nobody does anything to confront it. It is that you should hate about Japanese culture

    While from your description the inside of the Museum does seem horribly ugly i kinda like the exterior look of it, there is something captivating in that ugly, out-of-place concrete weirdness. And i dont think you should judge anything by comparing it something else. The Louvre will certainly outshine any museum in the world, in its design, the art it contains, its prestige.

  3. Post

    Brian- I’d just taken a trip up into Gunma and Saitama before starting on the book, and had noticed a number of bridges and tunnels under construction that were obviously redundant and at best would shave maybe 10-20 seconds off the existing route winding round the hill-sides. 10-20 seconds on a major highway might be worth something- but not out in the absolute countryside with probably less than 100 cars a day. Seemed like inordinate waste then- and looking back on them in light of the book- understood why. Why not spend that money on something with value?

    Hachi- They may well be aware of it, as discussions with my Japanese acquaintances has often displayed. I chose the word ‘sleeping’ rather than ‘blind’ to describe the Japanese masses carefully so as not to counterdict that. They know about it, they just don’t want to do anything about it- on that we certainly agree. As for comparing to the Louvre- it wasn’t me that made comparison originally, but the director of the museum. And the weird concreteness of the building- if I wasn’t so fired up from Kerr’s book still, I’d probably think it was a bold and innovative piece of architecture. Now though- not so much.

  4. Wonderful writing Michael, this is what I want to see more of! Let the venom loose!

    Dogs to Demons certainly does force ones eyes open with a nasty bit of medical equipment and show you the real Japan; but like you say, it isn’t just Japan that is full of this kind of government funded waste – it’s simply that we are living here and therefore we care about happening.

    With regards to that particular elevator though – do you think it was actually “designed” to a giant phallus sticking into the underbelly, or was that just a pleasant coincidence? Anywhere else I’d say it was accidental, but on this monstrousity, who knows?

  5. I’ve been to Ryogoku many times and the whole area is just really ugly and industrial. I don’t think many people go there for any reason other than sumo (which is why I’ve been there a lot). I wonder if this museum is just something put there to occupy people who get up very early and wait in line for several hours for the cheap tickets that are sold in the morning on the same day of the matches. After they buy their tickets, they can go home, watch the very low division bouts for hours and hours before makuuchi is up, or wander around Ryogoku checking out the “sites”.

    I don’t think they invest much in these sorts of places because they don’t really expect many people to see them, but I could be wrong.

    Incidentally, how far is this pace from the kokugikan?

  6. I’ll have to read that book, it sounds interesting!

    I didn’t think it looked like a dog til you mentioned it…at first it reminded me of a big stone cash register! haha

    I think i have more historical relics in my washitsu than that museum does!

  7. I visited this museum back in 1995. I found it well thought out and educational. It takes you from Japan’s feudal past up to the present. You can criticize it all you want but some people may look at things and see nothing positive. I have good memories of this museum and having been my first time in Japan, it helped me better understand the people and the culture.

    As far as the architecture of the museum itself, if you look at the castles in Japan, you will notice some design elements in common. Thanks for the article. It’s always good to visit and old friend and Edo-Tokyo Museum is a place I’d like to visit again someday.

  8. Ahh I went there last year. As far as museums go…wasn’t too interesting. Funny that there was a huge billboard exibit devoted to David Bowie….I think it had to do with the fashion designer of his clothes…

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    James Bruce- Thanks, I`ll see what other venom I can stir loose- though normally I`m a pretty placid guy. The phallus, hmm, I`d wager they hadn`t considered it would look weird. It only works if you think the building looks a bit like a dog- which I do- others don`t.

    Orchid64- `See the sites`, right yeah, like the museum director says on his site- he wants this museum to be THE place tourists come to when they see Tokyo. I`d recommend against that. As for location- it`s actually directly behind the Kokugikan- sloppy placing really. The whole area just seems poorly thought out.

    Kelly- The book is fascinating, really has turned me on to lots of issues I`d been only vaguely aware of before. As for history, true, it wouldn`t be hard to beat. I have a VCR older than probably 90% of the stuff in that museum.

    Tony- Fair enough. I was definitely coming at it from a certain angle, biased against it from the start. Normally I`d be more forgiving / lower my expectations. Glad my post helped you remember your positive time there though.

    K- David Bowie? Sounds like fun, wasn`t there when I went though…

  10. The only reason I visit your website is this picture.
    I googled: tokyo, concrete. And there it was.
    Because I thought it was a marvelous building I clicked:D
    Only to see you’ve only put it up here because it’s ugly.

    Well, it IS not ugly:)
    You might find it ugly, but I think it’s beautiful.
    And it attracts people to your site, so a bit more respect:)

  11. Post

    Jip- Fair enough, and I’ll not argue with you. I was coming from reading Alex Kerr’s rampage of a book decrying this sort of thing, so was definitely fuelled by that some. Looking back now I still think it’s kind of ugly, representative of a certain cultural insensitivity, but I wouldn’t rage about it. The government of Japan has changed, and perhaps some of the culture of corrupt subsidized concretization will change too.

  12. “The government of Japan has changed, and perhaps some of the culture of corrupt subsidized concretization will change too.”


  13. Just poking around the new interface.

    This article’s category, “Structures”, doesn’t show up in the new site navigation links. Is that intentional, an oversight, or are you still in the process of migrating articles to the new style? I got to the category index by opening another category and typing “structures” over the relevant part of the URI by hand.

    Also, this article itself, which for some strange reason I seem to want to look-up every few months, seems not to be listed directly in the Structures category index. I got here by following a link I happened to find in another article.

    I miss the site search feature.

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