From the late 19th century on, Tokyo’s Asakusa Park was a park in the modern sense, an amusement park. This is where the masses went to enjoy themselves.
The park was filled with theaters, restaurants, unlicensed brothels, and once movies had reached Japan, scores of cinemas. Asakusa Park pretty much remained Tokyo’s main entertainment district until well into the 20th century, even surviving the devastation of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (Taisho 12).
The symbol of the district, actually the symbol of all of Tokyo, was Ryounkaku, Japan’s very first skyscraper, better known as Junikai, or Twelve Stories, seen at the far back of this photo.
Built in 1890 (Meiji 23) after a design by Scottish engineer William K. Burton (1856-1899), the 69 meter tall building was for decades the tallest structure in the city, twice as high as the Nikolai Cathredral. It was visible from just about anywhere in the city, and if in turn you wanted to see the city, you scaled it. Atago-yama was the only other place that rivaled it for panoramic views of Tokyo.
Junikai featured Japan’s very first elevator and was an entertainment palace in itself. There was a shop with sales assistants in Chinese dress selling Chinese goods, there were art exhibitions, and there was of course an observation floor. Actually, there were two, one on the tenth floor decked out as a lounge, complete with chairs, and another one on the twelfth floor featuring telescopes.1
In The Nightside of Japan, a book published in 1914 (Taisho 3), the Japanese author gives a wonderful description of the tower and the surroundings that brings to life the rawness of the area.2
The Great Kanto Earthquake so badly damaged the tower, that army engineers had to dynamite the remains. It was never rebuilt. But thanks to many literary works that featured it, the tower still lives as a romantic image in Japan’s collective memory.
1 Seidensticker, Edward (1983), Low City, High City. Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake: How the Shogun’s Ancient Capital became a Great Modern City, Alfred A. Knopf: 71-73
2 Fujimoto, T (1914), The Nightside of Japan, T. Werner Lauri, Ltd.: 113-121
Reference for Citations
Duits, Kjeld (). Tokyo 1880s: Asakusa Theaters, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on June 26, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/762/asakusa-theaters-junikai
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