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The birth of modern Japan in ten masterpieces: II. The Kosuge Prison

Discovering the buildings that shaped 20th-century Japan with an exceptional guide.

After the Katsura Imperial Villa, the ideal reference for Japanese modernists, following the selection outlined by photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, the journey continues with a very particular building.

II. The Kosuge Prison (1929)

Modernism's abandonment of the conventional and decorative styles of the time for greater freedom of expression finds a fascinating synthesis in this building which, paradoxically, has a design in the shape of a bird (a theme which seems to recall the complex of Katsura buildings, arranged as a “flock of geese in flight”) almost as if it were about to soar in the sky, although in reality it is the exact opposite of the concept it wants to express, being a place destined for segregation and isolation.

It is possible that the intent was to express the prospect of redemption through atonement, so much so that its very construction was completed by those sentenced to forced labour.

The same positioning of two clocks - the eyes of the crane - on top of the central tower, used at the same time as a watchtower to keep any escape attempts under control, continues in this sort of dichotomy between warning and wish that is difficult to decipher completely.

An architecture finally free from the past, for residents deprived of elementary freedoms, who will hardly have appreciated the creative impulse of its barely twenty-four-year-old designer, Shigeo Kamahara, who died just as young shortly after its completion, in 1932, due to tuberculosis.
An architecture that is also hard and sharp, in reinforced concrete, as if to represent the new that wants to make its way among the old architectures of the Meiji era.

What remains today of the entire structure, built on the same area where the previous prisons stood - the Tokyo Shujikan, destroyed in 1923 by the great Kantō earthquake - is the most spectacular portion, which seems destined to be preserved and which every year, in winter, is open to the public, for a peculiar fair where, in addition to visiting the building, still located next to the new Tokyo Detention House, it is possible to buy many products made by prisoners from all over Japan, get a ride on some police vehicles, as well as, further irony not so easy to understand, having a meal with a "prison bento", which reproduces the meal of prisoners.