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Building and Street Use Codes in the Japanese Empire

Introduction by Tristan R. Grunow, Pacific University.

Japanese colonial officials arriving in Taiwan after 1895 and Korea after 1910 quickly set about transforming the urban space of colonial cities like Taipei and Seoul. By erecting monumental new buildings constructed in Western designs, installing new parks, and improving urban infrastructure like paved roads, buried sewer pipes, and sidewalks, Japanese rulers hoped to construct urban spaces that would project Japanese colonial power and convince local residents to acquiesce to Japanese rule. Often, these improvements were localized to certain sections of the city where most of the Japanese colonial government offices were located and where most Japanese residents lived. As a result of this uneven development, colonial cities fragmented into sections of improved, modern-looking “Japanese” parts of the city designed to shine like beacons promoting the benefits of Japanese rule, opposite unimproved, pre-colonial “native” parts of the city left to remind residents of what things were like before. In this way, Japanese colonialism was built directly into the physical environment of cities around the empire.

“Aerial View of Seoul” ca. 1930, vividly showing the uneven development between the southern “Japanese” half of the city (bottom half of image) and the northern “Korean” half of the city (top half). Courtesy of the Lafayette Digital Repository East Asia Image Collection. Source:

The dividing lines between Japanese and “native” zones in the city were stark: crossing from one side to the other of Jong-ro St. in Seoul or traversing the boulevards encircling the “inner city” of Taipei, for example, seemingly placed residents in a completely different world. On one side were massive Western-style granite and red brick buildings housing train stations, museums, banks, post offices, hospitals, schools, laboratories, and government offices set within lush parks. Streets were wide and straight, paved in smooth asphalt, and buzzing with the traffic of street trolleys, push carts, and vehicles of all types. Pedestrians crowded the sidewalks as they shopped for daily goods and the latest fashions from around the world under the cooling shade of verdant roadside trees and the welcoming light of street lamps. Houses were sturdily built in fireproof materials like concrete and brick, roofed in tile, and spaced apart from each other to prevent disastrous fires and to allow sunlight and fresh air to cleanse the neighborhood. There was indoor plumbing and fresh water; rooftop gutters and storm drains carried away monsoon rains.

On the “wrong” side of the street, meanwhile, neighborhoods were dark and crowded with ramshackle houses shoddily made from materials like mud, plaster, and wood, and topped with highly flammable thatch roofs. Roads were narrow and crooked, muddy, and dangerously pockmarked with puddles and potholes. Open roadside sewage gutters overflowed with refuse and waste. There were few urban amenities like parks, even fewer utilities like electricity or sewer lines. There were fewer street lamps. There was less indoor plumbing, less fresh running water, fewer storm drains. And this was all by design, so that Japanese officials could dramatically and visibly demonstrate the difference between “native” and Japanese areas, “before” and “after,” precolonial “primitiveness” and colonial modernity. As much as Japanese areas of the city were designed to make Japanese rule comfortable and enticing, they were also meant to displace the colonial population from their own cities.

Japanese rulers explained urban improvements like these in terms of “civilization.” Japan, they said, was simply introducing “civilization” to Taiwan and Korea. To them, previous rulers’ failures to modernize and develop cities and the countryside indicated a low “level of civilization” (mindo), surrendering their right to rule. In Korea, for example, Japanese authorities blamed the Korean government for “abandon[ing] public works programs” despite the fact that “public works must never be neglected even temporarily for the development of humanity and the promotion of industry” (Chōsen Sōtokufu, ed., Chōsen Doboku Jigyōshi: Shōwa 3-nen made [Keijō: Chōsen Sōtokufu, 1937], 1). Thus, Japanese rulers attempted to justify colonial rule through development (kaitaku) programs designed to introduce “civilization”: in other words, paving “culture streets” (bunka dōro) to produce “civilized cities” (bunmei toshi) as officials in Taiwan put it. Developing industries, imparting education, and improving sanitary conditions, Taiwan colonial administrator Gotō Shimpei explained, “will lead the native population to appreciate the boons of the Japanese administration and to assimilate themselves gradually to the ways of civilized life” (Shimpei Goto, “Formosa Under Japanese Administration,” The Independent 54 [1902]: 1585).

But how did Japanese officials attempt enforce their ideas of “civilization” in urban space? Below you will find selected translations of the 1913 Korea Urban Area Construction Control Codes (Chōsen shigaichi kenchiku torishimari kisoku) and the 1913 Road Control Codes (Dōro torishimari kisoku), both enacted by the Japanese Government-General of Korea. Japanese governors enacted similar laws across the empire: in Tokyo, Taipei, Seoul, and Japanese-held Dairen. These codes dictated what buildings could be built where, what they could be made out of, and what kinds of protections against fire and disease they needed to have; they delimited what kinds of activities residents could do in the street, what kind of signage storeowners could place in front of the shops, and even what side of the street people should walk or drive on. Those who failed to comply with any of these regulations risked arrest and detention, or hefty fines of up to ¥200 in Taiwan or ¥100 in Korea, at a time when colonial laborers could expect wages of less than ¥1 per day in Taiwan or ¥1.5 to ¥2 a day in Korea. To be sure, these codes were based on earlier examples in the metropole, such as fireproofing regulations in Tokyo as early as the 1870s and the Tokyo Urban Street Control Codes (gairo torishimari kisoku) issued in 1878 and revised in 1882 (see tables 1 and 2). Still, it is instructive to consider how Tokyo precedents were adjusted to local settings in Taiwan and Korea along with what these changes reveal about differing local concerns, circumstances, and goals in each location.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think Japan passed these laws? Based on what you see in the codes, what were their main concerns in each city?

  2. What major differences do you see in codes between Tokyo, Taipei, and Seoul; and what do you think explains these differences?

  3. What do the regulations tell you about the values of Japanese colonial governments? How do they reveal Japanese understandings of “civilization”?

  4. Based on what you know about the codes and Japanese colonial urban policy, how would you respond to this kind of question: “These are just building codes designed to make cities safer and cleaner, right? What is so bad about that?!?”

  5. Imagine you are a resident of Taipei or Seoul (perhaps a colonial official, storeowner, peddler, pickpocket, policeman, craftsperson, neighborhood cat, etc.), how would these regulations change your life?

Source Information:


Excerpts from Urban Area Building Codes in Colonial Korea


Kanpō no. 174; March 1, Saturday, Taisho 2 (1913).

Chōsen Sōtokufu Rei no. 11

The Urban Area Building Codes are set as Follows:

February 25, Taisho 2 (1913) Governor-General of Korea Count Terauchi Masatake

Urban Area Building Codes


Article 3: The construction and installation of buildings and structures from Article 1 shall follow the following regulations:

1) the area of the building may not exceed 8/10ths of the area of the property.

2) the foundation of the building must be set back 1 shaku 5 sun (45 cm) or more from the boundary line of public roads.

3) the eaves (nokisaki), gable rakes (keraba), pent roof awnings (hisashi), or modillions (mochiokuri) of buildings, gates, or fences must not project above public roads.

4) when houses are built on property not abutting public roads, a road of at least 4 shaku (1.2m) of width shall be built to provide access.

5) the floor of residences shall be at least 1 shaku 5 sun (45cm) above ground level, except in situations where it is deemed unnecessary, or in situations where the floor is constructed with floorboards that could be easily dismantled.

6) building lots along public roads shall be higher than the road surface.

7) proper sewage and water systems shall be installed in the lots.

8) drinking water wells must be at least 3-ken (1.8m) away from toilets, sewage pits, or sewage ditches. They must also be equipped with a device to prevent the seepage of bad water and have a height of 2 shaku 5 sun (75cm) or more.

9) all residents shall have toilets, except for longhouses equipped with a reasonable number of public toilets according to the number of rooms.

10) excrement pits and other related equipment shall be constructed in stone (including manmade stone), brick, porcelain, tile, concrete, mortar, asphalt (with plaster underneath), asbestos plasterboards, or other waterproof material, or wood in order to prevent the seepage and leaking of contaminated water.

11) in urban areas, furnaces (karo), stoves (kamado), or fireplaces (danro) that burn large amounts of charcoal (sekitan), coke (gaitan), or other fuels shall have chimneys adequate for the prevention of damage to neighboring residents and buildings.

12) chimneys shall project 3 shaku (90cm) above the roof. In brick chimneys, the flue shall be separated from any wooden parts by at least one layer of bricks laid longwise (as headers). When metal chimneys are located within 5 sun (15cm) of any wooden or other flammable objects, those areas shall be constructed in, or layered with, stone, brick, porcelain, tile, 3 sun (9cm) or more of concrete, 2 sun (6cm) or more of mortar, or asbestos plasterboard, or some other inflammable material (other than metal).

13) buildings or structures over 50 shaku (15m) tall shall have appropriate equipment to prevent damage from lightning.

14) in buildings that store or handle goods that emit bad odors, noxious fumes, or dust, doors, windows, or other openings shall not be constructed close to public roads, buildings where large numbers of people will gather, or other people's residences, except in situations where appropriate detoxication equipment is installed.

15) buildings where large numbers of people will gather shall have a proportionate number of emergency exits, stairways, and other emergency escape equipment.

Those who construct houses shall take whatever measures possible to prevent rat infestation.

Article 4: In the urban areas stipulated in Article 1, in zones specially designated by the Police Chief (in Keijo [Seoul] this means the Police Commissioner), the construction and equipment of buildings and structures shall abide by the following regulations in addition to those in the previous article:

1) building roofs shall be tiled in the inflammable materials (including metal plates) listed in Item 12 of the previous article.

2) the Police Bureau may order the construction of firewalls in buildings where it is deemed necessary based on surrounding conditions.

3) buildings may not exceed 3 stories in height.

4) wood-constructed longhouses must have a firewall of at least 1.5 bricks thick and projecting at least 1 shaku 5 sun (45cm) above the roof for every 20 ken (36m), at most, of frontage.

5) eaves of buildings along public roads shall install gutters (toi) drained by downspouts (tatedoi).

6) toilets shall not be installed along public roads, except in cases where it is enclosed by a privacy wall.


Excerpts from Street Use Codes in Colonial Korea


Kanpō no. 252; June 3, Tuesday, Taisho 2 (1913).

Chōsen Sōtokufu Rei no. 53

Street Use Codes are set as Follows:

May 29, Taisho 2(1913) Governor-General of Korea Count Terauchi Masatake

Street Use Codes:


Article 3:


For streets in urban areas, each the following must also receive police permission in addition to the above items:

1. any banners, lanterns, signs, awnings, or similar items that project into the street. Banners, lanterns, signs located 8 shaku (1.8m) or more above street level and project no more than 2 shaku (60cm) into the street are excluded.

2. whenever buildings are to be newly constructed, reformed, or demolished in properties abutting streets.

3. when putting out portable shrines (mikoshi), stalls, or decorations, or when erecting flagpoles or any other artifacts for the purpose of festivals, seller stalls, or advertising performances that cause large numbers of people to line up.


Article 7: Pedestrians should use the right edge of the street, animal-drawn vehicles and other cards should stay to the right in the middle section unless specially indicated by police or military officers.

When the road turns, those turning left should make large turns, those turning right should make small turns.


Article 9: On streets with sidewalks, other than baby carriages and water carts, no animals or vehicles shall be unnecessarily pulled onto the sidewalks. On carriageways, other than animals, vehicles, groups and lines of people, nothing shall unnecessarily block traffic.

Article 10: When walking in large groups and lines, they shall be appropriately broken up and enough spaces in-between shall be maintained. The same applies to large numbers of animals and vehicles.


Article 12: When on the street, pedestrians, carts and various vehicles shall stay to the right when passing each other; furthermore, taxis for hire (kūsha) should yield to taxis with passengers (jissha).

When passing carts or other vehicles, pass to the left.


Article 15: In urban areas, buildings along the streets shall have gutters or downspouts on their eaves upon directives of the police. Front aprons shall be placed at the drain openings of the downspouts.

Article 16: In urban areas, appropriate devices shall be placed when transporting materials that have the risk of falling, scattering, or leaking, When transporting bamboo, wood, or similar items that could cause harm to pedestrians, preventative measures shall be taken.

Article 17: In urban areas, when vehicles or other items are parked temporarily, they shall be parked on the side of the street so as not to cause traffic inconveniences. If a large item must be placed on the side of the street at night, the police station shall be notified, measures to prevent danger shall be taken, and a sign shall be attached.

Article 18: In urban areas, drivers of ox carts shall hold the leash shorter than 3 shaku (90cm) from the bridle.

Article 19: The following shall not be permitted in streets:

1) having eaves or anything sticking out into the street

2) letting cows, horses, or other animals that need leashes off-leash in the streets

3) dumping or scattering refuse, dirty mud, or sewage, or any other nightsoil-like items into the street

4) putting out, along, or on the street any distasteful advertisements or signs that disturb and harm the peace or social manners

Article 20: In urban areas, the following shall not be done in the streets:

1) playing with fire, throwing stones, or any other dangerous acts

2) allowing kids under five to walk around without a guardian

3) playing in the streets or allowing children to play in the streets after being ordered not to by the police or military officers:

4) randomly parking animals or vehicles

5) driving motor vehicles, riding bicycles, or riding horses for practice

6) carrying excreta or other dirty materials without a lid

7) singing songs or making loud noises after being told not to by the police or military officers

Excerpts from Revisions to the Street Use Codes


Kanpō no. 2,779; November 5, Saturday, Taisho 10 (1921).

Chōsen Sōtokufu Rei no. 142

The Street Use Codes are Revised as follows:

October 25, Taisho 10 (1921) Governor-General of Korea Baron Saitō Makoto

In article 7 and article 12: “right edge” shall be revised to “left edge,” and “to the right” shall be revised to “to the left”; “left turn” shall be revised to “right turn,” and “right turn” shall be revised to “left turn.”

These changes shall go into effect on December 1, Taisho 10 (1921).

(Translated by Tristan R. Grunow)

[Further Readings]

Tristan R. Grunow, “Cultivating Settler Colonial Space in Korea: Public Works and the Urban Environment under Japanese Rule,” International Journal of Korean History 25:1 (2020): 85-119.

Todd A. Henry, “Sanitizing Empire: Japanese Articulations of Korean Otherness and the Construction of Early Colonial Seoul, 1905-1919,” The Journal of Asian Studies 64:3 (2005): 639-675.

Park Chan Seung, “Colonial Modernity and the Making of Mokpo as a Dual City,” Korea Journal 48:3 (Autumn, 2008): 104-132.


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