Seiyo-kan Buildings (西洋館)

The Japanese term "Seiyo-kan" is used to describe western-style buildings that were built in Japan from the end of the Edo period and the Meiji period onwards. These buildings were mainly used as residences. They were also called yo-kan buildings or yofu-kenchiku buildings. In Kobe, seiyo-kan buildings that were built in the Meiji period are called ijin-kan buildings (former residences of early foreign settlers), while those that were built during the Taisho period and during the Showa period prior to the start of the Second World War are called yo-kan buildings.

Various seiyo-kan buildings

Buildings in foreign settlements etc. In the foreign settlements at Nagasaki, Yokohama and Kobe, private houses (ijin-kan buildings), office buildings, schools and churches for foreigners were built, generating street landscapes different from traditional Japan. Some of them were built by foreign engineers who came to Japan, but there are others that were built by Japanese craftsmen based on designs taught by foreign engineers.

Quasi-western-style buildings
Japanese master carpenters were stimulated by buildings in foreign settlements and they built office buildings, hotels and schools mimicking the western-style design. The western-style buildings that Japanese craftsmen built based on their traditional techniques are called Gi-yofu-kenchiku (literally, "quasi-western-style buildings").

Buildings built by foreign engineers
Factories and urban buildings were built by employed foreigners. Ginza Renga-gai (bricktown or brick street) and Tomioka Seishi-jo (Tomioka Silk Mill) are typical examples.

Products by Japanese building architects
Josiah CONDOR, an employed foreigner, was the first to provide serious and systematic architecture education to Japan and trained Japanese building architects, such as Kingo TATSUNO. Architects who received formal education took the lead in building seiyo-kan buildings for government/agency offices and houses employing European building styles (strictly speaking, large-scale buildings, such as Tokyo Station, are not seiyo-kan buildings, but architecture guide books sometimes use the term more broadly).

Stimulated by the seiyo-kan buildings described above, seiyo-kan buildings began to be built by local craftsmen in various regions. Western-style designs were favored by photo studios, hospitals, clinics and schools.

Even after the Meiji period, private houses continued to be in the Japanese-style. Some politicians and businessmen built seiyo-kan buildings to willingly incorporate Western lifestyle. However, the structure of seiyo-kan buildings with its high ceilings and closed spaces was not suitable for the Japanese climate in which temperatures fluctuate considerably throughout the four seasons with frequent rains and high humidity.

In an age when traditional Japanese houses were the majority, seiyo-kan buildings had an exotic image and mysterious atmosphere, and were frequently used as a setting for detective stories.
(Stories such as Kokushikan-satsujin-jiken (literally, murder at the black-death house))

The decline of seiyo-kan buildings

Lifestyle and housing style changed drastically from the pre-war era to the post-war era of the Showa period. Although housing has been influenced by modernist architecture that deny past building styles, houses that have been designed to suit the Japanese climate have come to be more favored than traditional Japanese style houses. Things in Japan have become increasingly Westernized now and houses lacking tokonoma (the alcove in a traditional Japanese room where art or flowers are displayed) and a Japanese-style tatami room would not be called seiyo-kan buildings anymore. It is thought that the term seiyo-kan was used because these Western-style buildings were built at a time when Japanese-style buildings dominated.