Osaka Prefectural Nakanoshima Library

Background to the establishment of Nakanoshima Library and profile of architect Magoichi Noguchi


Tomoito Sumitomo’s aesthetic principle: Every building reflects the client’s personality

Nakanoshima Library upon its completion in 1904 (37th year of the Meiji era)

A building’s design reflects the client’s preferences and aspirations. This is certainly true of Nakanoshima Library.

For Nakanoshima Library the client was Kichizaemon Tomoito Sumitomo, the 15th head of the Sumitomo family. Traveling through Europe and the U.S. from April to November 1897 (30th year of the Meiji era), Tomoito was struck by the evident prosperity of commerce and industry as well as the managerial revolution underway. At the same time, he deepened his understanding of art, architecture, and other aspects of culture, including the lifestyles and mores of the upper echelons of European and American society. He was particularly impressed by the philanthropy of wealthy Europeans and Americans who were so generous in their support of institutions and activities beneficial to society. These experiences and observations bore fruit in his decision to build and endow the Nakanoshima Library.

In 1900 (33rd year of the Meiji era), Tomoito proposed his philanthropic scheme to the Osaka Prefectural Government. He would build a library for the benefit of the people of Osaka, donating the library building together with an endowment of 50,000 yen to support the institution. This was a pioneering philanthropic initiative in Japan. Warmly welcomed by the prefectural assembly, Tomoito’s proposal was unanimously approved.

It is revealing that Tomoito chose to donate the library rather than simply donate the funds for its construction. Tomoito’s personal involvement in the project reflects his commitment to the creation of an enduring institution, a cultural beacon in the commercial city of Osaka. Moreover, the artistic heritage that he had encountered while traveling abroad found eloquent aesthetic expression in the splendid building he commissioned in his native city.

The construction of Nakanoshima Library took three years, making it a rather lengthy project for its scale. The construction cost of 200,000 yen greatly exceeded the initial budget of 150,000 yen, which may well have reflected Tomoito’s uncompromising pursuit of quality and meticulous attention to detail.

Chief Engineer Magoichi Noguchi’s profound understanding of Western architecture

Magoichi Noguchi

Another person who certainly claims our attention when we consider Nakanoshima Library is Magoichi Noguchi, chief engineer of the Temporary Architecture Department of Sumitomo Head Office.

An appraisal of Noguchi needs to be grounded in an understanding of the influences that shaped architecture in Japan. As a wave of Western culture broke over Japan from the mid-19th century onward, the Japanese made great efforts to embrace it. They made it their own through trial and error, inevitably encountering difficulties. These efforts were initially purely imitative. In architecture, early in Meiji era this resulted in Giyōfū, pseudo-Western-style architecture. Japanese carpenters and bureaucrats, most of whom had never seen real Western buildings, created buildings incorporating Western features such as verandas, arches, and domes. Since their flights of imagination could not compensate for their lack of knowledge, the resulting buildings were sometimes ineptly eclectic.

In 1871 (4th year of the Meiji era), the government established the Engineering Education Institute (one of the predecessors of the present-day Faculty of Engineering of The University of Tokyo) under the Engineering Board to foster a cadre of engineers as a national project. The Department of Architecture was also established to offer a systematic education in Western architecture. However, the first cohorts of students started from scratch: They tended to be fully occupied in digesting and reproducing Western architectural styles while lacking understanding and appreciation of the culture and intellectual ferment from which those styles had emerged. Those who had studied at the Engineering Education Institute became instructors and passed on what they had learned about Western architecture, including design and structural engineering, to the next generation. Only through repetition of this process did a comprehensive understanding of Western architecture eventually permeate architects and architecture in Japan.

The consensus among historians of architecture is that it was not until the early years of the twentieth century that Japanese architects achieved a good grasp of Western architecture, some 30 years after the establishment of the Engineering Education Institute. It was in the opening years of the new century that Magoichi Noguchi achieved prominence as one the first generation of Japanese architects who possessed a profound knowledge and appreciation of Western architecture.

Fruitful relationship between client and architect

Hall on the first floor upon completion of the building

Noguchi graduated with distinction from the Department of Architecture, College of Engineering, Imperial University, in 1894 (27th year of the Meiji era) and researched earthquake-resistant structures in graduate school. The well-known architect Kingo Tatsuno, whose notable commissions included the Bank of Japan building and the Marunouchi building of Tokyo Station, had high expectations of Noguchi. In 1896 (29th year of the Meiji era), Noguchi joined the Ministry of Communications where he was working as an engineer when Sumitomo recruited him.

Shortly after Noguchi started working for Sumitomo under contract, he was sent to Europe and the U.S. to familiarize himself with architectural developments. This opportunity was arranged at the urging of Tomoito, the head of the Sumitomo family, who himself attached great importance to what he had experienced during his travels in the West. Noguchi’s itinerary included visits to many buildings of architectural distinction, ranging from modern edifices to the works of classical antiquity, which surely inspired Noguchi in his subsequent career. Based in London, he traveled throughout Europe and the U.S. for about a year. His first project on returning to Japan was Osaka Library, the present-day Osaka Prefectural Nakanoshima Library.

For such a prestigious project, the first large modern library in Osaka, which was also the first authentic Western-style building to be built by Sumitomo, Tomoito and Noguchi would have had much to discuss. The concept of the library would have been progressively refined with the aid of numerous sketches and references to many Western books, and it seems likely that discussion touched on buildings that Tomoito and Noguchi had admired in Europe and the U.S.

The fusion of Japanese and Western styles exerted a powerful aesthetic appeal for Tomoito and his business philosophy was shaped by Sumitomo’s traditional preference for embracing challenges based on farsighted plans. It seems certain that these themes loomed large in the discussions between Tomoito and Noguchi that helped Western architecture flourish in Japan.

The client with his artistic sensibility and the richly talented architect with his profound understanding of Western architecture cultivated a close relationship. Nakanoshima Library, a milestone in the history of modern architecture in Japan, owed much to their encounter and fruitful collaboration.

Sumitomo donated numerous valuable books to the library

Examples of collections of poetry, kanazoshi storybooks, and Western books donated by the Sumitomo family and the Tokudaiji family (Tomoioto’s biological family)

Tomoito not only built the library but also donated numerous books to it. Prior to construction, he donated 50,000 yen to fund the purchasing of books. He donated some 80 copies of an imported encyclopedia even before the library opened and, following its opening, he donated the Sumitomo Collection, comprising around 20,000 Western books on the natural sciences. This munificence reflected Tomoito’s wish to see the people of Osaka broaden their horizons.

At the opening of the library, Tomoito also donated Western books that had been in the possession of the Sumitomo family since the 18th century. These include valuable books of great cultural significance such as Beschryving der Nederlandsche historipenningen (Description of Dutch Historical Medals), Hedendaagsche Historie of Tegenwoordige Staat van alle Volkeren (Modern History: or Present State of All Nations), and Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts), which were originally presented to the head of the Sumitomo family by the head of the Dutch Trading Post.

The collections donated by Tomoito also include illustrated scrolls, collections of poetry from the Tokudaiji family (Tomoito’s biological family), some of which date back to the late Muromachi period, kanazoshi and ukiyozoshi storybooks from the Edo period, which would likely have been popular among servants and other household retainers, and many books on foreign lands and their societies. These holdings constitute a valuable resource for scholars studying early modern Japan since they illuminate the bygone world of merchants and kuge aristocrats from the late Muromachi period to the late Edo period.

Osaka’s treasure long cherished by the people of the city

Christmas illumination of the façade.

Fulfilling Tomoito’s cherished desire, over 100 years since its completion, Nakanoshima Library still stands in all its dignity, having survived the vicissitudes of war and urban development. In the 1970s, when the library was threatened by the planned redevelopment of the Nakanoshima district, there was such opposition, including petitions, from the people of Osaka and other lovers of the city that the library was spared. In 1974 (49th year of the Showa era) the main building and the right and left wings, which are extensions to the original building, were designated national important cultural properties. With over 300,000 users a year, Nakanoshima Library is fulfilling its role as a treasury housing a cornucopia of knowledge.

The library’s external appearance evocative of a Greco-Roman temple stimulates creativity. The façade of the library has been illuminated during the Christmas season and the festive lights enchanted everyone. The portico has doubled as a stage for Noh performances. This fusion of Oriental and Western cultures would have exceeded Tomoito’s imagination and delighted him.

The large copper plaque displayed on the wall of the central hall bears a text in which Tomoito explains his intentions as a benefactor and addresses library users.

“Osaka, the largest city in Kansai, is home to one million people. In this city richly endowed with financial resources and goods, several educational institutions have been established and are engaging in friendly rivalry. However, Osaka lacked a library and the prefectural government wished to remedy this deficiency. I wished to contribute by donating a library as well as some books and an endowment. […] I encourage everyone who enters this library to consider both the bigger picture, namely, the prosperity of the nation, and the local circumstances, meaning the resources of Osaka, and to cultivate themselves, not least by pursuing study, in order to benefit and contribute in the future […].”

Editors of the articles on Osaka Prefectural Nakanoshima Library

坂本 勝比古
Katsuhiko Sakamoto
Professor emeritus of Kobe Design University. PhD in engineering. Born in Qingdao, China in 1926. He graduated from the Kobe Engineering High School (present-day Faculty of Engineering, Kobe University) and joined the Kobe City Office. Subsequently, he became a professor of Chiba University Faculty of Engineering. He was known for his study of the foreign settlement of Kobe and ijinkan Western-style houses in Kobe, which he started during his career in local government. He also investigated the damage to historical cultural assets caused by the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 and contributed to restoration. His publications include “West Meets East: The Japanese Introduction to Western Architecture in 19th and 20th Centuries, Volume 5” (Sanseido) and “Ijinkan 1858-1912: Japan’s Western Architectures in Meiji Era” (The Asahi Shimbun Company). He received the 22nd Meijimura Award in 1996. Sakamoto passed away in 2020.
Teruaki Sueoka
Teruaki Sueoka
Deputy Director of Sumitomo Historical Archives. Born in 1955 in Nagasaki Prefecture. Graduated from the Department of History, Faculty of Letters, Kokugakuin University, in 1978. Joined the predecessor of Sumitomo Historical Archives in 1978, became a Chief Researcher, and then Deputy Director. Since 1997, concurrently serving as Honorary President and Special Advisor of Hirose Memorial Museum in Niihama City. He has commented extensively on the historical significance of the former Hirose Residence, Sumitomo Kakkien, and the industrial heritage of the Besshi Copper Mines in reports on cultural assets. He is an expert on the history of Sumitomo. His numerous publications include “History of Sumitomo” (co-author, Shibunkaku), “History of Sumitomo Besshi Mine” (co-author, Sumitomo Metal Mining Co., Ltd.), and “The Environment and Development in the Early Modern Period” (co-editor, Shibunkaku).