Hanok in Japan, Korean Architecture Abroad

Over the course of Korea’s colonization, the construction of thousands of machiya and other Japanese clapboard buildings altered Korea’s traditional cityscapes. Some believe this transfer of culture was one way, that Korea left little to no imprint on the Japanese who lived there and in the metropole during colonization. However, colonization was a shared and varied experience that resulted in aspects of Korean culture sometimes being fused with Japanese culture. At other times, each culture was strictly divided, operating separately. This was true of architecture as well, where some Japanese buildings adopted Korean characteristics and some hanok took on Japanese characteristics. The mixture of architectural styles from all over the globe is an important part of Korea’s early modern story, the physical and visible manifestation of change. As we look at how Japanese and Korean aesthetics were sometimes blended together, we can see that such an architectural interchange only happened on the Korean peninsula. And while quite a bit of Japanese architecture was brought to Korea, we are left wondering: did the hanok ever make its way to Japan?

To begin with, I looked to the Korean diaspora in Japan (and elsewhere) hoping to find communities that might have held tightly to their architectural roots, but there was nothing to be found. Indeed, it may have been unusual for any such individual from during or after colonization to want to purposely stick out among their Japanese peers even if they had the money to do so.  I then searched for modern versions of the hanok. Perhaps a Korean chaebol CEO residing in Japan, for example, wished to live in an abode resembling something from their homeland? Yet again I found nothing (unsurprising since general interest in hanok has only taken off in roughly the last decade).

As it turns out, Joseon architecture did appear in Japan . . . more than a hundred years ago. The first hanok styled buildings in Japan may have been the ones found at an exhibit in Tokyo. Following the example set by true world’s fairs, the spectacle of the 1914 Taisho Exhibition held in Ueno Park was used to display the progress and development of Imperial Japan. Self-conscious of both internal and external eyes, Japan was able to use exhibitions like these to internally reinforce its national narrative and to externally demonstrate its modernity, with, for example, some 5717 pieces of machinery meant to showcase its industrial growth.1 Included in the Taisho Exhibition were several displays of its colonial territories. Some seven million visitors were exposed to the “exotic” places and people that fell under the Japanese empire – a curious, living display complete with Bonin islanders serving coffee and guidebooks that spread notions of Japanese and non-Japanese being able to get along well despite internal/local differences.2

There were then these three Korean buildings that took on the appearance of lesser royal palace buildings (pictured above), yet their origins are unclear. With all the royal buildings in Gyeongbokgung being moved or demolished during this time, it might be tempting to make grand speculations as to how these buildings got to Ueno Park. Photos of these buildings show it be convincingly authentic as the proportions all seem correct, including the roof concavity. However, it’s likely that these buildings were copies meant for the wrecking ball after the exhibition’s finish. By this point, as made evident by their adoption of Western architecture, Japanese architects had become quite good at mimicking and using styles that were not native to (pre-Meiji) Japan. This was true of the Taiwanese pavilion at the exhibition as well. The result was perhaps an impressive display of empire.

If the Korean exhibit at Ueno Park is curious, even more so is the Joseon architecture found at the 1937 Nagoya Pan-Pacific Peace Exposition (pictured below). Resembling something not too far removed from the film set of Metropolis, the exposition was a world’s fair situated near the harbor in the port city of Nagoya (Aichi Prefecture) that promoted everything from industry to education, from architecture to the arts. With some twenty eight participating countries, of note is the number of Latin American countries that Japan then had immigrant ties with. (With China as one of the participating countries, there is a great irony in Japan hosting an expo under the name of peace only to go to war with China again a couple of months later).

Since the colonies were considered to be part of Japan and their people subjects of the Japanese empire, Korea would not have been able to host its own pavilion. Like the Taisho Exhibition, a Japanese-made exhibit of Korea was meant as a display of empire – not as a Korea-centered representation of Korean culture. This was true for the expo at Nagoya, where just along the riverside we can see a large three-story Joseon-styled structure (pictured below, unfortunately with a stamp right on top of it). Complete with japsang figures spaced across the roof lines, the top half of the building every-bit resembles a royal palace gate. Like the palace styled Korean buildings at Ueno Park, Nagoya’s Joseon gate was probably a copied mock up. Indeed, the bottom “stone” section could be a wooden frame covered in staff, plaster, or cement. There is also the weird square section attached (see where the flags are) that, speculatively, may have been an exhibit room or something, making the building less convincing than had there been a gate/arch there. It should be noted that the juxtaposition of such a structure next to Art Deco and Facist influenced buildings (pictured above and below) is quite striking, if not intentional. The Nagoya expo exoticized Korean architecture, offering Japanese visitors a lens through which they could see their unmodern selves as they were not too long ago.

As was often the case regarding other world’s fairs that were hosted in various countries, the exhibits in Tokyo and Nagoya were eventually demolished, leaving nothing behind. However, it seems these were not the only Korean, or Korean-styled, structures to make it to this side of the East Sea/Sea of Japan. Stuck in a theme park in a rural section of Aichi Prefecture lie the remains of two colonial era Korean buildings that were transported here in the 1960s; presumably after Korea-Japan diplomatic relations were re-established in 1965, but also probably before the theme park was established in 1970. The first is a chogajip dating to the 1920s from Yongmun-myeon, a village in northern Gyeongsangbuk-do that has in recent years taken to restoring and preserving some of its remaining chogajip. Clearly much of this home is unoriginal, as is often the case with chogajip anyway, and the theme park has taken a few liberties in its maintenance and reconstruction, but we can still see sections of its original frame here and there – particularly the floor of the main room. It may not be the best example of a chogajip, yet it is still interesting to find an even semi-intact one in Japan.3

Also from Gyeongsangbuk-do, perhaps from the same village, is a giwajip that reportedly dates to 1937. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to even find a name for whom the home belonged to. Like the chogajip, this place is rather inauthentic in some sections. Some of the framing materials used near the front toenmaru seem to be new (they have a different color than the rest of the hanok‘s wood), meaning that parts of the frame may date to the time when it was moved to Japan. The most glaring inaccuracy is a series of ceramic Japanese sewage/drainage pipes (the kind that Tokoname is famous for) that were put in place of real chimneys along the rear of the house. Despite its shortcomings, the structure has a certain charm due to its dated furnishings and decorations. The furniture itself mostly appears to be of an industrialization-era vintage (1960s-1970s), though the tables may be older. The folded screen also appears to be from this time as, through the tears in the painting, old newspapers dating to 1973 can be found stuffed underneath. Interestingly, the wooden beams making up the giwajip’s frame still retain the Hangul labeling that was used to identify each piece for reconstruction of the home in Japan.4

For the sake of comparison, a look at hanok in Japan also merits a look at Korean architecture built elsewhere in the world. Indeed, the first known Korean styled structure abroad was not in Japan, but in France. The 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris put Korean architecture and culture up for display next to European Classicism, Art Nouveau, talking films, the first magnetic audio recording device, and even the first Olympic games held outside of Greece (hosted there during the summer months). In its original plan, the exhibit was meant to be made up of a twin-winged structure (which did not even look very Korean) and a lively mock-up of a Chemulpo (Incheon) street corner.5

This plan belonged entirely to its original benefactor, Baron Alphonse Leopold Marie Delort de Gléon, a Frenchman who apparently had a penchant for recreating “exotic” locations. Delort de Gléon had his hand in waterworks, roadworks, financial institutions, and schools during his twenty something years of living in Egypt.6 After his success in recreating an Egyptian bazaar for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, Delort de Gléon was prepared to spend some 87,000 francs on the Korean pavilion at the eastern border of the Champs de Mars and another 54,000 francs for the recreation of Chemulpo that would be placed along the Seine River.7 Like the Egyptian bazaar, the immersive display of Chemulpo was one to be filled with native goods and people, a bustling scene and exciting spectacle.

A map of the Universal Exposition, published on August 19, 1900. From the BnF.*

Delort de Gléon’s idea for the Korean exhibit seemed to have been part of a trend, for there were other live-action, perhaps what we would now call Disney-esque, exhibits of French colonies (Madagascar, Senegal, etc) that involved bringing people, animals, and plant life across the African continent and Mediterranean Sea to Paris. (Indeed, later Japanese exhibitions, such as in 1914 Tokyo where the aforementioned Bonin people were used to serve coffee, surely got some ideas from previous Western exhibitions).

It was in the spring of 1899, roughly one year before the exposition’s opening, that the baron then sent a man named Tremoulet to Seoul in search of local items and tradesmen that could be brought back to France for the exhibit.8 It’s unclear what became of Tremoulet and any of the Koreans that he may have found, for by November of that year, Baron Delort de Gléon had died, leaving the Korean pavilion to an uncertain future. Motivated by mining interests, a lawyer known as Count August Mimerel IV, whose father had connections to Napoleon III, soon after picked up the Korean project in the hopes that he would gain Gojong’s favor – and with it, access to parts of Korea.9

The plan for the Korean pavilion was whittled down from the two exciting exhibits to a single audience hall (click here for blueprints), similar to something that could be found in Gyeongbokgung. The count commissioned architect Eugene Ferret, a man whose two most noteworthy buildings are the Saigon Theater in present day Vietnam and the Casino San Remo in Italy. After its completion, the pavilion was then filled with Korean artifacts (see interior photo here) that mostly came from the personal collections of the French minister to Korea, Collin de Plancy, and doctor-scholar-art collector Edouard Mene.10

The final result was surprisingly authentic, arguably capturing the essence of royal Joseon buildings and quite representative of true Korean structures. Ferret went so far as to try to recreate the elaborately carved eaves and blocky geometric fencing commonly found in such architecture. Indeed, when we consider that many of the Western pavilions were likely using cheap imitation materials (exhibitions like this one were almost always temporary affairs that wouldn’t often use high quality materials), it’s possible that constructing the Korean pavilion was a relatively difficult affair as it was reportedly only made of wood. While the pavilion looks convincing in photographs, one wonders what the quality of the woodwork truly looked like when viewed up close. The outcome of the structure is perhaps even more impressive considering that Ferret seemed to have only previously worked in the Neo-classical style. How does one go from pure European building design to an East Asian style – particularly one so obscure at the time – and come out with such a great product? There may be more to the story than we will ever know.

As the very last pavilion to be featured in Le Petite Journal’s coverage of the expo (the publication ran an illustration of each nation’s pavilion one by one throughout the year), the Korean exhibit got a stylized illustration in the December 16, 1900 issue more than a month after the expo’s closing. It’s been argued that this image shows how little the West understood Korea due to the mixed Korean, Chinese, Manchurian, and Mongolian clothing (not to mention the Japanese fish flag). However, as a thought experiment, perhaps the illustrator had been well informed of the situation in Seoul. The counter-argument would be that it is possible s/he purposefully stayed away from drawing a traditional Joseon Korea with the knowledge that King Gojong wanted to modernize. In this way, the illustration would then become an attempt at depicting an increasingly international Korea – or at least one with growing outside influence. In any case, though the representation of Korea in this image is debatable, the illustration of the building itself was fairly accurate (compare the illustration below to a photo of the pavilion here).

An illustration from the December 16, 1900 issue of Le Petite Journal. From the BnF.*

While it is enjoyably interesting to see that hanok were found outside of Korea so long ago, the socio-political environment surrounding their constructions were often somewhat negative. The first (royal) hanok in Ueno Park were built to make an exhibit of the “other” – to show Japan’s development and modernity as it related to its colonies and nearby “uncivilized” Asian countries. This was true of the 1910 Japan-British Exhibition held in London as well. Built as another temporary world’s fair styled event, there was at least one small hanok-like Joseon-styled gate featured inside the foreign display pavilion, away from the meticulously landscaped Japanese gardens. Yet, like the exhibitions held in Japan, the goal here was to show how Korea had changed since becoming a protectorate of Japan and, by August of that year, a colony of the Japanese Empire.

The 1900 palace hall built in Paris then stands out among the other Joseon buildings found abroad for, from the Korean standpoint, it would have been intended as a display of an independent Korean state – at least more so than the tiny Korean exhibit at the 1893 exposition in Chicago. It would be tempting to argue that the construction of this pavilion was a product of equal French-Korean cooperation, but the details of how it came about reveal that it was arguably largely a French effort. The building was of French design, funded by French money, and filled by French art collectors.

Gojong did devote some attention to the preparation of this event. However, obstacles and mishaps, such as issues with maintaining a Korean representative for the exhibition, hindered what he was able to do. Having supposedly committed to the 1900 Paris expo as early as 1893, it would be easy to criticize Gojong for not having put more effort into something that the Korean government had years to prepare for. Yet his preoccupation with political matters in the decade leading up to the exposition (matters like the Sino-Japanese War and Queen Min’s assassination) surely made it difficult to devote time and resources to something that was less important than the events happening in Korea.

Ultimately, the hanok has been mostly confined to the Korean peninsula. The ondol did make it to Japan, and to other parts of the Western world, but even today there are few cases of Korean architecture being found abroad despite recent foreign interest in the style. Yet we can look back to the early modern period to discover that Korean architecture did in fact make it to other parts of the world . . . even if it wasn’t always Korean made.


Citations and Footnotes

1 Takafusa Nakamura and Konosuke Odaka, Economic History of Japan 1914-1955: A Dual Structure (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 3.

David Chapman, The Bonin Islanders, 1830 to the Present: Narrating Japanese Nationality, (Maryland: Lexington Books, 2017), 108.

This information is taken from the actual exhibit at Little World theme park outside of Nagoya. Unfortunately, it is the only information I’ve been able to find about these two hanok.

This information is taken from the actual exhibit at Little World theme park outside of Nagoya. Unfortunately, it is the only information I’ve been able to find about these two hanok.

5Daniel Kane, “Display at Empire ’s End: Korea’s Participation in the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition,” Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies. Vol. 4, No. 2 (2004), 55.

6P. Lemonnier, “Baron Alphonse Leopold Marie DELORT de GLÉON (1843-1899),” Les Anneles de Mines.

7Daniel Kane, “Display at Empire ’s End: Korea’s Participation in the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition,” Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies. Vol. 4, No. 2 (2004), 55.

8Daniel Kane, “Display at Empire ’s End: Korea’s Participation in the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition,” Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies. Vol. 4, No. 2 (2004), 56.

9Daniel Kane, “Display at Empire ’s End: Korea’s Participation in the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition,” Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies. Vol. 4, No. 2 (2004), 57.

10Daniel Kane, “Display at Empire ’s End: Korea’s Participation in the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition,” Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies. Vol. 4, No. 2 (2004), 58.

*The images from Le Petit Journal are taken from the online digital collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF). In using these images, Colonial Korea complies with the BnF’s policy of free, non-commercial use. Colonial Korea does not, nor does it have the ability to, grant license to use these images should you attempt to download them from here and reproduce them elsewhere. Please consult the BnF policy on commercial, non-commercial, and professional use.

**There are little Korean pavilions abroad, like the Korean Friendship Bell in Los Angeles, CA (and the tiny town of Killeen, TX, might get a little outdoor pavilion soon due to interest from the city of Osan). It’s likely there are other cases of Korean architecture abroad, though these are the ones I’ve found. I suspect someone in recent years has built a hanok somewhere given its new popularity.

***The giwajip and chogajip imported from Korea in the 1960s can be found at Little World, a theme park outside of Nagoya, Japan.

Please do not copy, reproduce, or redistribute any of the images found here without permission.

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