Josiah Conder’s Detached Engagement with Japanese Culture

“Josiah Conder’s Detached Engagement with Japanese Culture”
Jonathan Reynolds (Barnard College and Columbia University)

The English architect Josiah Conder (1852-1920) was exceptionally successful at facilitating cultural exchange between Japan and Europe, acting as a kind of purveyor in the import/export business of technology and aesthetics. The new Meiji government hired Conder to train Japanese students in European architectural practices in order to promote architecture as a key component in its far-reaching plans for modernization based on Western models. The academic program in architecture that Conder developed at the Imperial Engineering College was an essential institution in the formation of a modern architectural profession in Japan, and he designed some of the canonical public and private buildings of the era. Yet Conder, who was invited to Tokyo to forward the government’s Westernization policies, became deeply engaged with Japanese culture. He studied and wrote extensively about Japan, and his writings were among the most sophisticated treatments of their subjects available in English at that time. He also sought a synthesis of Western and Japanese practices in some of his architectural designs. Although a great admirer of many aspects Japanese art and architecture, he recognized that the abandonment of many of these practices was necessary, and he did not share the sense of loss over the passing of these traditions that was expressed by certain contemporaries, such as Edward Sylvester Morse, Christopher Dresser, and Ernest Fenollosa. This paper explores the complexities of Conder’s position as both an official promoter of Western culture in Japan and as an interpreter of Japanese culture in Japan and in the West.

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