Early Twentieth Century Architecture in Tsukiji

World Monuments Watch
Tokyo, Japan

2016 World Monuments Watch

In 1923, the Great Kantō Earthquake devastated central Tokyo. The ensuing reconstruction led to the redevelopment of the commercial district of Tsukiji, which became home to the city’s wholesale fish market, the largest and busiest in the world. Tsukiji was laid out on a modern network of roads based around roji or narrow pedestrian streets. The architecture that developed in the period that followed the earthquake consisted of small wooden buildings, of two or three stories, for mixed residential and commercial use. Some buildings followed the traditional machiya style with tiled roofs, while others are examples of kanban kenchiku, or signboard architecture, with nontraditional, decorative façades. This mix of styles embraced modernity while also respecting the building traditions of the past.

Although sustained and intense bombing during World War II destroyed much of what had been rebuilt in the rest of Tokyo, Tsukiji remained relatively undamaged. However, rapid economic development in the post-war period led to the destruction of much of the remaining pre-war architecture in Tsukiji and throughout Tokyo. Much-needed economic growth creates new opportunity for the residents of Tsukiji, but makes it necessary to carefully manage change to the historic character of the area. The planned relocation of the fish market ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics, currently scheduled for late 2018, is likely to result in increased land values and create an incentive to raze existing buildings. Even though the Tsukiji historic district received national designation in 2014, most of the individual buildings remain without legal protections. At the same time, necessary seismic retrofits come at a prohibitive cost for property owners.

Tsukiji’s early twentieth century architecture was included on the 2016 World Monuments Watch to lend international support to the efforts of local architects and property owners to advocate for preservation-minded planning for the protection of the city’s heritage. For example, development rights from sites with existing buildings could be sold to neighboring development sites—a system that was used recently in the Marunouchi area around Tokyo Station—yielding funds for seismic repairs and maintenance.

Nurturing stewardship and revitalization of the city’s historic resources

With support from American Express, WMF collaborated with local partners on a series of Watch Day activities in November 2017 to promote local stewardship and investment in Tsukiji’s cultural heritage. Over thirty students, residents, and conservation specialists gathered at the Honganji Temple, a national landmark in the heart of Tsukiji, for a symposium about the history of development in Tsukiji, with special focus on the historic fabric that remains today. Conservation specialists shared their vision for the future rehabilitation of historic Tsukiji and later led a guided tour of the historic buildings, pointing out areas of opportunities for revitalization through preservation.

Since the Watch

In December 2015, two months after the announcement of the 2016 Watch, Chuo City organized its first symposium about the Tsukiji historic buildings, and the event’s success is an indication of a positive future dialogue between the city and local preservation enthusiasts. However, threats to the historic district remain as one of its early twentieth-century buildings was demolished in the same month. In June 2017, Tokyo government declared plans to redevelop the market in Tsukiji into a new market with a food theme park after the current functions are relocated.

Last updated: February 2019.

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