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Nijubashi, Imperial Palace

AMONG the most photographed spots in Tokyo is the entrance to the Imperial Palace. Every day thousands of people stand here, their backs to the castle, their legs slightly apart, to have themselves photographed. The stately stone bridge, the old castle gate, the traditional turret and the many trees make for an iconic photo.

Iconic it is. It was here that tens of thousands of people prayed when Emperor Meiji (1852–1912) laid on his deathbed, where multitudes loudly cheered when Crown Prince Yoshihito (1879–1926) got married, where tens of thousands of troops marched by in long columns or stood facing the palace during the first half of the 19th century when Japan transformed itself into a militaristic nation.

Here, after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, Japan celebrated its victory over the Russian Empire with a display of 459 artillery pieces, 70,000 rifles and 1,235 swords and lances. All of them were captured from the enemy. One British journalist called it “a spectacle altogether without precedent in the history of the world.”

This is also the place that created one of the defining images of Japan’s defeat in WWII in 1945. Photos of people kneeling on the gravel after the Japanese emperor surrendered to the Allies were shown around the world. Even though they still illustrate history books, these images are misleading. KĊichi Kido, the emperor’s closest advisor at the time, noted in his diary that some people were actually cheering. That they chose to do that here, where the emperor could hear them, shows the symbolic importance of the location.

More recently, newly minted American ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, entered the palace here in a horse-drawn carriage to present her credentials to the Japanese emperor. The Associated Press called it a “diplomatic tradition” and along with other news agencies it spread the images around the world. It symbolized a new cooperative stage in the fraught relationship between Japan and the U.S. during times of growing tension with China.



The palace entrance and the wide-open plaza overflow with symbolism. To both visitors and Japanese alike, this is traditional Japan; this is the face of the Japanese nation. But this place and its “traditions” are actually remarkably new. They have existed in their present form for just a little over one hundred years. They were deliberately manufactured to create a feeling of common identity and nationalism among Japanese citizens. As a stage for magnificent public ceremonies, this place connected the emperor with his subjects. Here they came together and saw each other.

Visually represented in woodblock prints, postcards and newspaper photographs, these “meetings” allowed people throughout the nation to see themselves as “We the Japanese People.” This notion of one community didn’t really exist when Japan opened its doors to the world in 1854. The Japanese identified themselves with their birthplace, not the nation. To most, the emperor was an unknown entity. Here, as in few other places, Japan’s feeling of nationhood was forged.

When Emperor Meiji moved from Kyoto to his new residence in Tokyo in October 1868, it was known as Edo Castle. First built in 1457, the castle had been the residence and headquarters of the Tokugawa shogunate since the early 17th century. The castle, by now run down and dilapidated, was conveniently consumed by flames on a spring night in 1873, just five years after the young emperor’s arrival.

In 1888 a brand new Imperial Palace was completed. Meanwhile, the majority of the surviving Tokugawa structures disappeared one by one. Some were torn down to make way for new structures, while others were destroyed by fire or earthquakes.

Among the structures that were replaced were two unimpressive wooden bridges at what is now the main entrance to the inner castle grounds. In 1887 and 1888, they were replaced by stone and iron bridges. They are collectively known as Nijubashi (Double Bridge), but this was actually only the name of the bridge in the back. The original wooden bridge featured two levels and is literally a double bridge.

There was little architecturally Japanese about the new stone bridge. It didn’t matter that it didn’t look Japanese; it only mattered that it looked impressive. That it did. Its design was described as German Renaissance. That also mattered. Germany was a rising power in the late 19th century; and an ambitious Japan, eager to impress Western nations, modeled many of its new institutions on German ideas. The Japanese army followed the Prussian model. Two famous German architects were creating important government buildings in the capital in German style. There was little architecturally Japanese about the new stone bridge. It didn’t matter that it didn’t look Japanese; it only mattered that it looked impressive. That it did. Its design was described as German Renaissance. That also mattered. Germany was a rising power in the late 19th century; and an ambitious Japan, eager to impress Western nations, modeled many of its new institutions on German ideas. Japan’s constitution was based on the legal structures of Prussia. Even school uniforms were inspired by Prussian cadet uniforms.

Around this time, what is now the wideopen space in front of the palace was still an integral part of the old castle and was filled with buildings. As late as the 1880s, the area featured a library, horse–training facilities, buildings of the Tokyo Garrison and Imperial Guards, the estate of statesman Iwakura Tomomi, and several other buildings and facilities. To create a space for public rituals, the Imperial Household Ministry razed them all when the new palace was completed in 1888.

This newly created public space was first used on February 11, 1889, when Emperor Meiji promulgated the new constitution – Asia’s first. The ceremonies and festivities for the promulgation created a modern style of ceremonial event that set the standard for all imperial events that followed.

The plaza was further perfected in 1906 when wider entrances were built. The old Babasaki Gate was removed and two triumphal avenues were constructed that intersected in the center. Construction was completed just in time for the Triumphal Military Review, a celebration of the victory over Russia and the largest military spectacle of the Meiji Period (1868-1912).

It was only about two decades after Emperor Meiji’s arrival in Tokyo that a place to celebrate the Japanese identity was born, and just a little over a century ago that the process was consolidated. Yet it now seems as if both the traditions and the place were always there. tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #274 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.

Written By:

Kjeld Duits

Residing in Japan for over 30 years, Dutch photojournalist Kjeld Duits is Tokyo Journal's Street Editor. In addition to managing one of the first fashion blogs on the net, and the first to cover Japanese street fashion in English, he owns a vast collection of vintage photographs, illustrations and maps of Japan between the 1860s and 1930s (Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa periods) and covers news stories and natural disasters for media organizations worldwide.



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