How Ueno became a museum mecca

Few places in the world have so many museums and art galleries as Ueno. Here are eighteen milestones that made Ueno the museum mecca it is today.

By Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Kochoro Kunisada, View of Ueno and the National Exposition (1890). Illustration courtesy of the National Diet Library

Edo Kiriezu (Ohariya version) Shimotani Ezu: From the National Diet LibraryUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Ueno becomes a special place under the Tokugawa shoguns

Any account of Ueno’s history must begin with the Kaneiji temple. This Buddhist sanctuary was founded in 1625 northeast of Edo Castle, to guard against evil spirits believed to enter from that quarter. Its extensive precincts occupied the entire area that is now Ueno Park. It was a very special place. Along with the Zojoji temple, it housed the mausoleums of the Tokugawa shoguns. The temple was unfortunately reduced to ashes during the civil war of 1868, and the new Meiji government planned to build a university hospital on the site. But the Dutch army surgeon Dr. A.F. Bauduin famously recommended that it be made a park instead. And so, in 1873, Japan’s first public park was established in Ueno.

Mid-19th map of Shitaya, Edo (Tokyo). Published by Owariya. Illustration courtesy of the National Diet Library

1872 Ministry of Education ExpoUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Japan’s first expo, where Tokyo National Museum began

In 1872, the year before Ueno Park was completed, the Meiji government held an exposition for the first time. This event, which took place in the main hall of the Yushima Seido, a Confucian temple, not far from Ueno, is considered to mark the founding of Tokyo National Museum. In the same year, the Shojakukan library also opened at the Yushima Seido temple. (It moved to Asakusa two years later and was renamed the Asakusa Bunko library.) The next year Hisanari Machida, who later became the Museum’s first director, submitted a recommendation calling for the establishment of a major museum in Ueno. He envisaged a comprehensive institution with galleries devoted to history, art, natural history, and industry, as well as its own zoo, botanical garden, and library. The blueprint for Ueno’s transformation into a cultural hub was now in place.

Shosai Ikkei, Exposition at the Former Shoheizaka Temple. Illustration courtesy of Nomura Co., Ltd.

Exhibition view of Yushima Seido Taiseiden Nishiki-e "A collection of ancient and modern rare things" written by Kuniteru Ichiyosai, Tokyo National MuseumUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

The expo’s twin inspirations: Promoting industry, protecting culture

The Yushima Seido Exposition featured mineral and animal specimens. It also featured what would now be called cultural artifacts: paintings, calligraphy, musical instruments, copperware, ceramics,, and archeological finds. These were displayed the next year at the World’s Fair in Vienna. Many religious artworks had been destroyed in the wave of Anti-Buddhist movement that swept Japan after the Meiji Restoration, and there were growing calls to  protect such antique objects. In 1872, a survey was carried out of cultural properties held by centuries-old religious institutions like the Shosoin Repository in Nara. The Meiji government, which sought to enrich the encouragement of industries under the slogan “Civilization and Enlightenment,” saw the exposition as an effective way to raise Japan’s profile at home and abroad. 

Ichiyosai Kuniteru, Kokon chinbutsu shuran (Curios of all themes) (1872), showing the expo’s displays. Tokyo National Museum Collection

Red Brick Building No. 1Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Ueno’s first “museum,” devoted to education

The first museum to open in Ueno was the Museum of Education. It was inspired by the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia, on the theme of scientific progress and promoting education. It later became the National Museum of Nature and Science. Tsunetami Sano, a member of the Chamber of Elders who contributed significantly to Japan’s modernization, argued that museums were of educational value: viewing the displays enhanced people’s knowledge. He made the case for the educational benefits of museums and expositions. Thus both came to be seen as an effective means of underpinning the Meiji government’s policy of modernizing Japan by developing industry, enriching the country, and strengthening the military.

Old Brick Building I,  once the Museum of Education's book depository and now part of Tokyo University of the Arts. Photo courtesy of the University.

1877 1st National Industrial ExhibitionUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

The success of the National Industrial Exhibition in Ueno

The “Ministry of Education Museum” established on the occasion of the Yushima Seido Exposition moved to Uchiyamashita-cho (where the Imperial Hotel is now located) in 1873, having merged with the Exposition Bureau and the Shojakukan library. Then, beginning in 1877, three National Industrial Exhibitions were held in Ueno. These were state projects dedicated to promoting industrial development. The First National Industrial Exhibition, lasting 102 days,  was an industrial showcase featuring more than 16,000 exhibitors and attracting over 450,000 visitors. This exhibition became the model for future such events. It had an immense impact on Japan’s industrial development. It also transformed Ueno into a cultural center.

Shinsai, Opening of the First National Industrial Exposition at Ueno Park. Illustration courtesy of Nomura Co., Ltd.

Museum (Meiji 10th National Industrial Exhibition Photo Album)Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

The exposition features Japan’s first “art gallery”

The site of the First National Industrial Exposition, which covered some 100,000 square meters, housed an agriculture pavilion, a machinery pavilion, a horticulture pavilion, and an animal pavilion. In the center was an “art pavilion,” which in Japanese also means “art gallery.” This was the first building to be so called in Japan. It was the only pavilion made of brick; the others were temporary wooden structures. Western-style oil painting and sculpture had recently appeared in Japan. The industrial arts, too, were at a crossroads as mechanization and other new technologies were adopted. The art pavilion, or art gallery, received pride of place because arts and crafts were considered a promising export. After all, Japonisme was then all the rage in the West.

The art pavilion (art gallery) at the First National Industrial Exposition. Photo courtesy of Amagasaki City Museum of History

Einari Kobayashi "Ueno Park Nite, former President of the United States Grant's Art Tour Map"Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

General Grant’s visit makes Ueno the site of national celebrations

In 1879, former American president and Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant visited Japan on his post-retirement world tour. A reception was held in his honor in Ueno Park. Organized by entrepreneur Eiichi Shibusawa, this was attended by Emperor Meiji himself. Since then, Ueno has often become the site of many a national celebration. Japan’s victories in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars were celebrated in Ueno Park. Parades typically ended in Ueno a  after starting out from Hibiya. A plaque marking the spot where General Grant and his wife each planted a tree can still be seen behind the statue of Prince Komatsu near Ueno Zoological Gardens (Ueno Zoo).

Kobayashi Eisei, Former President of the United States, Mr. Grant, Watching a Lance Training Exhibition at Ueno Park

National Museum at the time of opening in 1882 (J. Conder brush Ueno Museum distant view)Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

A museum of Japanese culture — designed by an English architect

At the time of the Second National Industrial Exhibition in 1881, a two-story brick building was built in Ueno. Designed by English architect Josiah Conder, who had been hired by the Meiji government, this was in roughly the same spot as the Honkan (Japanese gallery) of today’s Tokyo National Museum. In 1882, after the exhibition, the museum moved from Uchiyamashita-cho to Ueno. Jurisdiction over the museum kept changing hands depending on the role it was expected to fulfill. First it was overseen by the Ministry of Education, then the Home Ministry, then the Ministry of Agriculture and Trade, then the Imperial Household Ministry. Renamed the Imperial Museum in 1889 and the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum in 1900, it was a showcase for imperial Japan’s cultural glories.

The main building of the museum in Ueno (now Tokyo National Museum) at the time of its opening. It remained in use until it was severely damaged in the 1923 earthquake. Josiah Conder, Distant View of the Ueno Museum (Meiji era, 19th century). Tokyo National Museum Collection

Ueno Park Zoo MapUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

A zoo opens with the museum. Now visiting Ueno is an all-round experience

The idea was to endow Ueno with a museum that was all-embracing — one that also housed a library and a zoo. In keeping with that concept, the new museum built in 1882 had Japan’s first zoo when it opened. Meanwhile the Asakusa Bunko library, Japan’s first public library, was transferred to the museum and became the book department. Thus the vision of establishing a truly great museum conceived by Japanese intellectuals in the 1870s came to fruition.  Ueno now began to evolve as a place for the public to experience culture.

The zoo in Ueno Park, from the Dec. 20, 1896 issue of Fuzoku gaho. Illustration courtesy of Yumani Shobo

Tokyo University of the ArtsUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Opening of Tokyo Fine Arts School: Ueno as a center of modern art

Japan’s first government-run art academy, Tokyo Fine Arts School (which later became the Faculty of Fine Arts of Tokyo University of the Arts), was founded in Ueno in 1887. Two men played the primary role in setting up the new institution. One was Tenshin Okakura, the first head of the school, who was then conducting a survey of Japanese art as a member of a Ministry of Education research team. The other was his mentor, East Asian art historian Ernest Fenollosa. Originally, when classes began in 1889, the school was dedicated to reviving the traditional Japanese arts. Hence at first it offered programs only in Japanese painting, sculpture (wood carving), and arts and crafts (metalworking and lacquerware). Western painting and design were added to the curriculum in 1896. The first cohort of students to enroll included Taikan Yokoyama and Kanzan Shimomura, who later achieved fame as painters.

Tokyo Fine Arts School at the time of its establishment. Photo courtesy of Tokyo University of the Arts

Imperial Library in the Meiji eraUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Construction of the Renaissance-inspired Imperial Library building

The Shojakukan library established at the Yushima Seido temple in 1872 moved to Ueno when it merged with the[ndl1]  Tokyo Education Museum in 1885. It then became the Imperial Library in 1897. A new building to house the library was completed in Ueno Park in 1906, which still exists today. Because of budgetary constraints due to a military buildup policy by the government, it was a mere quarter the size of the structure originally planned. The brick  building constructed in the Meiji period was enlarged with two glass boxes when it became in 2000 the International Library of Children’s Literature of the National Diet Library. Designed by architect Tadao Ando, these boxes pass through the existing structure.

The Imperial Library. Photo courtesy of the International Library of Children’s Literature, National Diet Library

Takenodai Exhibition HallUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

The Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition is inaugurated in Ueno

In the early decades of the twentieth century, there was a building called Takenodai Exhibition Hall around what is now the plaza with the Grand Fountain in Ueno Park. This served as a place for artists to show their work, and it hosted many an exhibition by artists’ associations like the Hakubakai. In 1907, the Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition, generally known as the Bunten, was inaugurated. Modeled on the French Salon, this was Japan’s first government-sponsored art exhibition open to all artists. It originally had three categories: Japanese painting, Western painting, and sculpture. In 1927, the arts and crafts category was added. The Bunten exhibition was held each autumn. It was so popular that autumn has come to be the season for art lovers in Japan.

A Hakubakai exhibition at Takenodai Exhibition Hall. Photo courtesy of the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo

Exterior view of Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (daytime)Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Tokyo Prefectural Art Museum, where Ueno’s fledgling artists show their work

Takenodai Exhibition Hall, originally built as a pavilion for the Third National Industrial Exposition, was rented out to artists’ associations as an exhibition venue. But despite its imposing Western façade, it had only earthen floors inside, and the roof leaked to boot. Eventually calls grew for construction of a decent art gallery. In 1926, Tokyo Prefectural Art Museum (now Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum) was established with a donation of yen (four billion yen in today’s money) from businessman Keitaro Sato, a native of Fukuoka. It was Japan’s first publicly run museum of art.

The current building, designed by Kunio Mayekawa, opened in 1975. Photo courtesy of Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum

National Museum of Western ArtUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Completing The Museum of Western Art designed by Le Corbusier: The postwar cultural renaissance starts from Ueno

The National Museum of Western Art was opened in Ueno in 1959. It was established to house what is known as the Matsukata collection, which had seized by the French government at the end of World War II and later returned to Japan. The Matsukata collection consists of paintings, sculptures, and other artworks acquired all over Europe by Kojiro Matsukata, first president of Kawasaki Dockyard Co., Ltd. (now Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Ltd), in about a decade from 1916. He started the collection while in London during World War I. The French government returned the collection under condition of establishing a museum in Japan to display it. The arrival of the modernist architecture, designed by Le Corbusier, testifies to Ueno’s role as the hub of Japan’s postwar cultural renaissance.

The National Museum of Western Art soon after it opened. It was registered as a World Heritage Site in 2016. Photo courtesy of The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Inokuma muralUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Genichiro Inokuma’s postwar mural Freedom symbolizes Ueno’s artistic rebirth

In 1951, the mural Freedom by Genichiro Inokuma was installed above the Central Gate of Ueno Station. Inokuma had learned to paint in the Western style at Tokyo Fine Arts School, and the mural bears witness to postwar Ueno’s cultural renaissance. It incorporates motifs inspired by the products, traditions, and landscapes of the Tohoku region in northeast Honshu and the Hokuriku region on the Japan Sea. Ueno was the starting point for travelers to the  Tohoku region. It was also where migrant laborers from that region got off the train when they came to work in Tokyo. This uplifting artwork, painted in bright pastels, constantly kept watch over the ordinary people of Japan as the country recovered from defeat and became an economic powerhouse.

Genichiro Inokuma’s mural Freedom. 485.9×2,665.0 cm. East Japan Railway Company Collection

Tokyo Bunka KaikanUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Ueno gets its own concert hall: Tokyo Bunka Kaikan designed by Kunio  Mayekawa

Ueno was already home to several museums and art galleries, a library, and Tokyo University of the Arts. In 1961, it also got its own concert hall when Tokyo Bunka Kaikan was completed. This was a full-fledged concert venue capable of hosting opera and ballet performances. It was built to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Tokyo’s foundation. This dynamic-looking building was designed by one of Japan’s leading proponents of modernist  architecture, Kunio  Mayekawa. It faces the National Museum of Western Art designed by his mentor, Le Corbusier. Certain of its features pay architectural homage to the master: the building’s height and the materials used, the canopy at the entrance, and the spacing of the verticals of the window frames.

Photo by Fumitaka Miyoshi

Grand staircase in the Tokyo National MuseumUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

A showcase of changing architectural styles, from Meiji to mid-century

Ueno’s museum architecture mirrors each era’s expectations of what a museum should be. Take the Honkan (Japanesegallery) of Tokyo National Museum, which was rebuilt on a design by Jin Watanabe after the catastrophic 1923 earthquake and opened in 1938. The massive staircase at the entrance is where you leave behind the everyday world to enter a temple of art. The Hyokeikan designed by Tōkuma Katayama, which opened in 1909, is a palatial Western-style structure. The Toyokan (Asian gallery) designed by Yoshiro Taniguchi, which opened in 1968, has a split-level floor plan, with a massive Japanese-style colonnade facing the central courtyard. Each repays careful examination, for it reflects the spirit of its day.

Main entrance of the Honkan (Japanese gallery) of Tokyo National Museum. Photo courtesy of the Museum

Horyuji Treasures MuseumUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

The Gallery of Horyuji Treasures: A reminder of the museum’s beginnings

In 1999, a new building opened on the Tokyo National Museum grounds, the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures. This stores and exhibits 300 priceless artifacts donated to the Imperial Household by the Horyuji temple in Nara in 1878 (the collection was taken over by the Japanese government after the war). It is the only building on the grounds to be styled a “gallery of treasures.” That is of special significance in understanding the museum’s beginnings. So indeed is the very fact the Horyuji’s treasures are now in Ueno at all. It was calls to protect such cultural properties in the aftermath of a wave of Anti-Buddhist movement that, in the Meiji period, led to the museum’s establishment and the subsequent enactment of the Act on Protection of Cultural Properties. The Gallery was designed by Yoshio Taniguchi. In contrast to the Honkan (Japanesegallery), it is a modernist building dominated by straight lines — making it instantly recognizable as the latest addition to the museum mecca that is Ueno.

Gallery of Horyuji Treasures. Photo courtesy of Tokyo National Museum

Credits: Story

Courtesy of Implementation Committee for New Concept "Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture” (Ueno Cultural Park) 
Editorial supervision:
Naoyuki Kinoshita, Director, Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, and Professor Emeritus, University of Tokyo
Amagasaki City Museum of History
National Diet Library
National Diet Library International Library of Children’s Literature
The National Museum of Western Art
Tokyo University of the Arts
Tokyo National Museum
Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum
National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo
Nomura Co., Ltd.
East Japan Railway Company
Yumani Shobo
Written by Miho Sauser

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps