Ueno Park was built on a hill close to Ueno Station commonly known as “Ueno Mountain.” Since it opened in May 1876 as the first park in Japan, it has developed as the center for celebrating culture and the arts. Today it has become a location unrivaled throughout the world with countless precious cultural facilities gathered in the park, such as art and science museums, a zoo, and art universities. Unraveling the thread of history over 140 years since the park’s opening, we find that it functioned as a valuable base for the import of Western culture to Japan. Furthermore, despite being heavily damaged twice due to natural disaster and war, there were always people who loved Ueno and worked to protect the culture of the park. By learning the history of Ueno, many of your walks through the park may become more fruitful.
Since the Edo period, Ueno Mountain had been home to the spacious natural environment of the Toeizan Kan’ei-ji temple grounds. Long loved by the common people as a famous site for cherry-blossom viewing, the site was registered as the first park in Japan in May 1876. However, there were many twists and turns on the path to the park’s creation.
Distant view of Shinobazu as seen from Ueno Kiyomizu (from the collection of Kotaro Tanaka)
In 1872, the Ministry of Military chose the site of Kan’ei-ji as the location for an army hospital and cemetery. However, this was furiously opposed by Dr. Anthonius Franciscus Bauduin, a Dutch military doctor. Upon observing the beautiful nature on Ueno Mountain, he declared that, “Building a school or hospital here would be a ridiculous fallacy!” He thus petitioned the government to construct a park there. Through his efforts, the decision to build the hospital was canceled, and the Ueno Park that we continue to enjoy today was born.
A view of the Emperor’s visit to the opening ceremony of Ueno Park on May 9, 1876.
In recognition of his contributions, a bronze statue of Bauduin was constructed in the park in 1973. However, the story does not end there. Inexplicably, it was discovered long after the statue was installed that it actually featured the face of Bauduin’s brother rather than Bauduin himself. The statue was quickly redone after the discovery and replaced with the correct face in 2006.
From 1887 to 1914
With the start of the Meiji period, the wave of modernization due to the industrial revolution rapidly rushed toward Japan. In response, the First National Industrial Exhibition was held in Ueno Park in 1887 as an exhibition for domestic products and industrial development. Among the 84,000 different products gathered from throughout Japan and put on display were examples of the latest technology at the time, including water windmills, lathes, and looms. Records show that the number of attendees was counted at 460,000 people.
The First National Industrial Exhibition (from the collection of Kotaro Tanaka).
Furthermore, the second Exhibition in 1881 was attended by 820,000 people, almost twice as many than the first, while the third Exhibition held in 1890 generated great interest when the first train in Japan was operated at the Exhibition by the Tokyo Electric Light Company (currently the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO)).
The Second National Industrial Exhibition (from the collection of Heijiro Hoshino)
Operation of the first train in Tokyo at the Third National Industrial Exhibition.
While the 4th and subsequent National Industrial Exhibitions were moved locations such as as Osaka and Kyoto, Ueno Park continued to host exhibitions such as the Tokyo Industrial Exhibition in 1907 and the Tokyo Taisho Industrial Exhibition in 1914, during which time a water slide was constructed in Shinobazu Pond, and the first escalator in Japan was installed to connect the pond to the Ueno Park plateau. This proves that Ueno was the leading edge of Japan’s culture of manufacturing craftsmanship.
The water slide (boat slide) that appeared at the second venue of the Tokyo Industrial Exhibition.
The escalator that appeared at the Tokyo Taisho Industrial Exhibition
From 1877 to 1922
During the Meiji period, which was described as the time of “civilization and enlightenment,” cultural elements from throughout the world were imported to Japan. The Museum of Education was opened in 1877, followed by the relocation of the Museum, the predecessor of the Tokyo National Museum, from Uchisaiwai-cho in 1882, while the Tokyo Fine Arts School was established by Okakura Tenshin in 1887 as the precursor to the Tokyo University of the Arts, giving rise to leading Japanese artists such as Yokoyama Taikan. With the establishment of the Imperial Library in 1906, Ueno Park became a site in which the various cultural facilities needed to support a modern state were concentrated. Also during this time, attractions that still serve as symbols of Ueno today were built, including Ueno Zoo in 1882, and the statue of Saigo Takamori by Takamura Koun in 1898.
Entrance to the Ueno Zoo in the late Meiji period.
Ueno Zoo between 1892 and 1893
Bronze statue of Saigo Takamori
Ueno, where cultures had been accumulated over a period of more than 50 years since the Meiji Restoration, became the center of modernization. However, tragedy awaited this vibrant place.
A major earthquake estimated at 7.9 struck Tokyo on September 1, 1923. Massive damage was incurred by this earthquake in the downtown area of the city such as in Honjo-ku (now the Ryogoku area), Asakusa-ku, and Shitaya-ku (now the Ueno area), with total deaths from the disaster calculated at approximately 105,000 people. Ueno Park was selected by the victims escaping from collapse and fire as the location where fire was unlikely to spread.
People heading to their home town with their possessions from Ueno Station.
Without batting an eye, Saigo lent a hand in searching for the many missing people.
Immediately after the earthquake, the Statue of Saigo Takamori became plastered with leaflets by many people seeking word of their loved ones. In the park, 10,000 temporary homes were constructed and distribution centers, a day-care center, and a hospital were also established. This was the moment when everyone came to realize the importance of disaster prevention base in densely populated major cities.
From 1924 to 1940
Six years after the earthquake, Tokyo had begun to recover from the damage brought by the disaster, including the completion of the avenues of Yasukuni Dori and Meiji Dori. The Imperial Capital Recovery Festival, which was held in commemoration in 1930, featured a parade beginning at the Zojo-ji Temple in Shiba, and Ueno Park was chosen as the final destination of the parade. The people who had lost everything due to the earthquake were able to experience a true sense of the recovery by observing the throng of crowds in Ueno.
View within the city during the Imperial Capital Recovery Festival (from the collection of the Tokyo Metropolitan Library)
The early Showa period was a time of cultural maturation, with events such as the opening of Japan’s first subway connecting Ueno to Asakusa. Further, the Tokyo Prefecture Art Museum (the present Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum) was opened in 1926 in Ueno Park as Japan’s first public art museum. The Prince Shotoku Art Exhibition was the inaugural exhibition for the museum. The year 1931 saw the area strengthen its position as the center of culture by inviting the Emperor to the opening of the Tokyo Museum of Science (the present National Museum of Nature and Science) built in the Neo Renaissance style. Despite these advances, the brief period of bright hope was once again clouded in darkness by the coming of war.
The first subway in Asia opened in 1927. A modern wicket was used, which opened automatically when the train fare was inserted.
From 1941 to 1945
Without exception, Ueno Park also fell victim to the heavy atmosphere of the suffering of war. First, with the coming of air raids on Japan in 1943, the elephants, lions, tigers, bears, and leopards of Ueno Zoo were put to death in accordance with the order given to euthanize them. The tragedy became the subject of the book, Faithful Elephants, written by Yukio Tsuchiya. During the war, Ueno Park also became the headquarters of the First Antiaircraft Division, and Shinobazu Pond was converted to a series of rice paddies. Thus, culture and scenery were also lost to the war in addition to lives. Later, during the Bombing of Tokyo, many victims and refugees evacuated to the air-raid shelters and empty spaces in the park. As with the Great Kanto Earthquake, Ueno Park greatly fulfilled its role as a gathering place in time of disaster.
From 1946 to 1954
The streets of Ueno had once again fell into disrepair, this time due to the wartime air-raids. Ueno became home to a black market after the war, which later grew into the present Ameya-yokocho Market. While the number of people seeking food was on the increase, security went from bad to worse, and there were frequent incidents of violence as the streets filled with the homeless and prostitutes.
Open markets appeared in numerous locations
The organization which worked to restore Ueno to its original state as a place for relaxation was the Ueno Shosei Kai, which later became the Ueno Tourism Association. The group planted 1,250 cherry blossom trees to revive the scenery and recover the dilapidated Ueno Mountain, as well as converted Shinobazu Pond, which had been used as a series of rice paddies, to its original state. Ueno Park was able to survive the post-war turmoil only due to the efforts of the people who loved the park.
Shinobazu pond around 1888
From 1955 to 1972
During the period beginning in 1955, Ueno Station became the gateway for the people coming into the city from the Hokuriku and Tohoku regions as part of mass employment efforts. The monument with the inscription of the lyrics of “Ah, Ueno Station” located at the Hirokoji exit vividly evokes the particular atmosphere of those times. Looking down on the many travelers at the central wicket of Ueno Station was the wall painting entitled “Freedom” by the oil painter Genichiro Inokuma produced in 1951. For the many youths whose hearts were filled with nervousness and hope, this artwork was the first symbol of Tokyo that they encountered.
And this wave of art reached within the park as well. In 1954, the National Museum of Western Art was opened, designed by Le Corbusier. As of 2016, there are efforts underway to designate this building, along with many other works by Le Corbusier, as a World Heritage. In addition, a disciple of Le Corbusier, Kunio Maekawa, constructed the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan across the street from his teacher’s structure in 1961. Maekawa’s building was designed to fit harmoniously with the work of Le Corbusier across the way by matching the height of the eaves and the positioning of the window frames with the front garden of the Museum of Western Art. Some years later, the Ueno Royal Museum was opened in 1972.
It was during this period that treasures from all over the world began to gather in Ueno due to a rise in international cultural exchange associated with the economic development. The Special Exhibit of the Venus de Milo, held over 38 days at the National Museum of Western Art in 1964, was visited by 830,000 people. The line of visitors waiting to get in extended all the way to the park entrance below the statue of Saigo Takamori.
This was followed by the Tutankhamun Exhibit in 1965, which was visited by 1.29 million people, and the Mona Lisa exhibit in 1974, visited by 1.5 million people, at the Tokyo National Museum. These were the phenomena in which many people seeking art experiences rushed to Ueno.
The line for the Venus de Milo exhibit © The Asahi Shimbun Company
But the greatest event was arguably the arrival of the pandas called Lan Lan and Kang Kang at Ueno Zoo in 1972 as part of the program to commemorate the normalization of relations between China and Japan. This gave rise to a new conflation of Ueno as the place for pandas as the two pandas caused a huge panda boom throughout the country.
Panda ambassadors Lan Lan and Kang Kang visit Japan to commemorate the normalization of relations between China and Japan (photo provided by the Tokyo Zoological Park Society)
From 1998 to 2016
Ueno’s value as a cultural center has continued to increase during the current Heisei period, with the continuous opening of new facilities such as the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures in 1998, the Heiseikan of the Tokyo National Museum in 1999, the University Art Museum of the Tokyo University of the Arts in 1999, and the International Library of Children’s Literature in 2000. Further, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum was renewed in 2012 with the addition of restaurants and cafe facilities in the fountain plaza, including a Starbucks and the Park Side Cafe. Ueno Park thus continues to transform itself as a place that provides relaxation to the diverse groups of people of all ages and nationalities, who visit the place.
Furthermore, in recent years many exhibitions held in Ueno were massively successful, such as the Ashura Exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum in 2009, which attracted 950,000 visitors, and the Tutankhamun Exhibit at the Ueno Royal Museum in 2012, which attracted 1.15 million visitors, as well as exhibits such as the Last Manga Exhibition of Inoue Takehiko in 2008 and the Attack on Titan Exhibit in 2014, both of which attracted many visitors who were not regular art museum visitors.
As we retrace the 140 years of history since the opening of the park, it has become clearer that the area faced a number of crises whilst functioning and playing its role as the center for modernization and civilization. The ones who supported Ueno through those times are the people who realized the appeals of Ueno and loved its nature and culture. Why not walk through Ueno while thinking about the existence of our predecessors?
Imagining the history of the earth through the animals you meet in Ueno Park
From the great works of masters to the basics of Japanese architecture, introducing architectural sites to see.
From Edo to Meiji: Hear the sound of the opening of civilization at the first park in Japan.