Museum Secrets

Soaring Above the Clouds

April 23, 2021 Ashmolean Museum / Lucie Dawkins / Clare Pollard Season 2 Episode 5
Museum Secrets
Soaring Above the Clouds
Show Notes Transcript

Join Clare Pollard, the Curator of Japanese Art, as she gives us a tour of Japan’s first skyscraper, through a vibrant and intriguing print, with some hidden surprises. It tells a story of a turning point in Japanese history, and also doubles as a board game. 

Ryōunkaku Tower Game – Find out more

If you want to take a closer look at the woodblock print in this episode, you can view it at the link above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website:

Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Presenters: Lucie Dawkins and Clare Pollard

About Museum Secrets: Welcome to season 2 of Museum Secrets. Every week Lucie Dawkins will  take you behind the scenes at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. There are a million objects here in the Museum, each with its own hidden story. Come on in, as we track down the weird and wonderful among them, to give us a bitesized pick-me-up in these challenging times. Join us every week for a daily dose of cheer.


Welcome to Season Two of Museum Secrets. I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every week I’ll be taking you behind the scenes at the Ashmolean. There are a million objects here in the museum, each with its own hidden story. Come on in, as we track down the weird and wonderful among them, to give us a bitesized pick-me-up in these challenging times. 

Today we are heading into the Japanese collections, where we find curator Clare Pollard with a huge woodblock print spread out over a table. We are looking at a tall, octagonal red-brick skyscraper, meticulously depicted over two sheets of paper, arranged one above the other, to show off the impressive height of the tower  It’s a riot of colour. The upper storeys stand out against a vivid red background; at its foot the tiny figures of visitors dressed in bright yellow, purple and green can be seen queuing up to enter the building, beneath festively fluttering flags. And when we look closer, we discover that there is more to the print than meets the eye.  

 Over to Clare, to give us a tour of this intriguing building. 


 With its unusual subject, intense colours and bold composition, we’re looking at a striking example of a late ukiyo-e print – the popular woodblock prints that were published in Japan in their thousands from the 18th century onwards. But this print is a bit special. For a start, it can tell us an awful lot about Japan at the time it was published, when the country was in the throes of an extraordinary transformation from pre-industrial feudal state to modern world power. But there’s also more going on behind the scenes, quite literally – a closer look at the print reveals that there are collage elements on its surface – paper flaps that open to reveal the secrets of the building’s interior.


The building is Japan’s first western-style skyscraper, opened to great fanfare in the bustling Asakusa district of downtown Tokyo on 12 November 1890. Japan was no stranger to tall buildings; it had a long history of massive stone castles and towering wooden temple buildings. But this was different – the new skyscraper symbolized a brand-new and thoroughly modern face of Japan, a kind of Eiffel Tower for Tokyo. 

At 12 storeys high and nearly 69 metres tall, the tower was only slightly shorter than the tallest building in the world at the time, the Pulitzer World Building in New York, and it towered over the low-rise skyline of the surrounding city. The wooden viewing platform at the top gave a panoramic view of the whole of Tokyo and on a clear day you could even see Mount Fuji. To be so high up in a building you can look down on your surroundings from above is something we take completely for granted today, but in the 1890s it was a new and enormously exciting experience. The tower was given the fitting name of ‘Ryōunkaku’, which means ‘The Pavilion that Soars above the Clouds’, although to locals it was known affectionately as ‘Twelve Storeys’. Within its first month of opening, fifty-three thousand nine-hundred and thirty-nine visitors flocked through the doors of the Ryōunkaku. The building generated so much excitement that publishers rushed to run off postcards and prints for a public eager for images and souvenirs. It’s one of these prints that is now in the Ashmolean’s collection. 

The new skyscraper was designed by the Scottish engineer William Kinnimond Burton, one of many foreign experts hired by the Japanese government in the late 1800s to help transform the country into a modern industrial nation. For seven centuries, from the late-12th century onwards, Japan had been ruled by elite samurai warriors. But after aggressive foreign powers forced Japan to sign a raft of trade and diplomatic treaties in the 1850s, internal unrest led to the overthrow of the military rulers and the establishment of a new government. This new government was determined not to become a victim of the expansionist policies of the US and the European powers, and committed Japan to a policy of what they called bunmei kaika, or ‘civilization and enlightenment’ – a programme of rapid industrialization and so-called ‘Westernization’, intended to enable Japan to emerge as a global power in its own right. 

The Japanese government took every means possible to help Japan modernize its way onto the world stage: they sent Japanese diplomats, scholars and manufacturers abroad to observe the latest practices, they established new technical colleges and universities, and they hired foreign experts – scientists, teachers, engineers and architects like William Burton. Almost every aspect of life was affected; there was a new constitution, new laws, new schools and new clothes. Steam ships and steam trains, gas lights, cast-iron bridges and brick structures became symbols of modern Japan and its emerging position in the world. 

Of all these icons of modernity, it was the skyscraper that represented the pinnacle of scientific and technological achievement. Across the millennia, people have always tried to build towards the heavens – from the ziggurats of Mesopotamia to the pyramids of Ancient Egypt and the cathedrals of medieval Europe. In the late 1800s, this drive was galvanized by the new building technologies offered by industrialisation. And this is where the Ryōunkaku comes in – the Pavilion that Soars above the Clouds was Japan’s architectural advertisement to the world that it was a force to be contended with on the international stage.

Ironically, the 12 Storeys wasn’t in fact as technologically advanced as it looked. Unlike other contemporary skyscrapers – New York’s World Tower or the Eiffel Tower in Paris for instance – it didn’t have a state-of-the-art iron or steel framework. All its foundations, its pillars and its floors were constructed from traditional wood, and the red bricks that made it look so modern were built around a support of wooden beams that were later removed. But the Ryōunkaku was made to look as up-to-date and as ‘Western’ as possible, with its bright red brick walls, its 176 long glass windows and electric lights on every floor. Newspapers described how the brilliant light from the tower illuminated the night sky, casting a layer of brilliance over the entire surrounding area. 

The contents of the building were as modern as its facade. The whole place was designed as a leisure attraction, full of shops selling luxury goods from around the world, a smart lounge and café and exhibition spaces: one of the first displays to be held there was a photo exhibition of fashionable geisha. The tower soon became the most popular attraction in Tokyo and a visual icon of the city, its presence vividly captured in colourful woodblock prints like the Ashmolean’s. Our diptych, by the print designer Utagawa Kunimasa IV, was published in November 1890, just after the building was opened, and it belongs to a genre of prints called kaika-e, or ‘enlightenment pictures’, that specifically depicted aspects of the rapidly modernizing Japan – its machines and buildings, new Western fashions and customs. The bright red that dominates this print, as well as the green, pink, purple and yellow, are made from imported aniline dyes that matched the confident spirit of the age – these new pigments were known as the ‘colours of progress’, symbolizing the new era.

Some of the artists working for other publishers were so excited by the opening of the 12 Storeys they allowed their imaginations to run a little wild, emphasizing the great height of the tower by showing figures parachuting off the top, or added kites and hot air balloons flying in the background. While Kunimasa doesn’t take such artistic license, he has found a clever way of highlighting the building’s special features. His version is designed as a board game, with ingenious flaps that open up to expose the intriguing interior of the building. 

Snakes-and-ladders type board games, known as ‘sugoroku’, had been popular in Japan since the 1200s, when they were used as Buddhist teaching tools. From the 17th century onwards, pictorial sugoroku had been produced on a much wider variety of themes, from classical literature, to the kabuki theatre or flower arranging; there were even some erotic board games. As Japan opened up in the late 19th century, innovations such as the new railways and the brand new postal service began to appear too. 

In the 12 Storeys Kunimasa found the perfect subject for a sugoroku board game. Players began at the ticket booth at the bottom and rolled dice to make their way through the entrance, up each of the 12 floors of the building to the viewing platform at the very top. The game would have been quite cheap to buy, and was sold folded up inside a paper envelope. Amazingly, this paper sleeve still survives, enticingly illustrated with just the top floors of the tower, viewed as if from one of those hot air balloons, the electric lights blazing. Players would have unfolded the flimsy paper board inside to reveal the tower in all its red-brick glory. 

On each floor, flaps open to reveal detailed internal views of the tower and a glimpse of some of the fancy shops – rice cracker stores on the 4th floor, a stall on the 5th floor selling sachets of perfume and face powder, a jeweller’s on the 7th floor, fabric suppliers on the 8th floor, a relaxation area on the 9th floor and a spiral staircase on the 11th floor leading up to the 12th floor observation decks at the top.

Just like snakes and ladders, progress wasn’t entirely straightforward. Instructions by the 1st-floor entrance tell players ‘if you throw a one, proceed directly to the 8th floor’. But even those lucky players catapulted to the 8th floor needed to beware – if you threw a 6 here you had to return to the entrance. And players landing at the 10th floor were told ‘to have a rest and a bite to eat’ – which sounds like the equivalent of ‘miss a turn’.

Another secret lies behind the luxury shops: a further set of flaps opens to reveal the Ryōunkaku’s greatest novelty of all – Japan's first ever electric lift. The lift – consisting of two cars each carrying up to ten passengers – operated all the way up to the 8th floor. Not surprisingly, the lift, described at the time as an ‘ascending and descending room’, was the subject of great fascination: the print shows carriages like cable cars, packed with passengers. Over the first weekend after the lift opened, more than 5,000 people flocked to the building to see the elevators for themselves. Those interviewed about their experience found the ‘rooms’ ‘strange, yet magical’. Unfortunately, though, the magical experience was short-lived: the lift had to be taken out of service after just six months for health & safety reasons.

The ill-fated lift was perhaps an omen of things to come: sadly, the story of the Ryounkaku doesn’t end well. According to newspaper reports, visitor numbers fell steadily after 1895. Once the novelty of the place had worn off, shop revenues fell. The final blow was struck in 1923, when the Great Kantō earthquake devastated the whole city of Tokyo. The Asakusa district was razed to the ground, and the upper floors of the Ryōunkaku were so badly damaged that the tower had to be completely demolished. After just 33 years, the great skyscraper of the age, Tokyo’s tallest symbol of progress and modernity, was no more.

How lucky, then, that this splendid print survives as testimony to what had been such a spectacular beacon of progress – and all the more fortunate considering that, as a board game, it was designed for use and could so easily have ended up in tatters. 

The print will be on display in the Ashmolean’s forthcoming exhibition Tokyo – Art & Photography, which opens at the end of July, so please do come and have a look at this remarkable survivor from a remarkable chapter of Japan’s past.


Thank you to Clare. And if you want to take a look at this board game, with all its little paper windows, just follow the link in the podcast notes. I hope you've enjoyed this episode, and if you did please do rate, review and share it – it helps other listeners to find us.