A History of Japan’s Street Lights, Part II: Electric Lights and Whiz Kids

A street scene in Yokohama, Japan circa 1886. Note the street lamps in front of the main building. (Adolfo Farsari/Wikimedia Commons)
A street scene in Yokohama, Japan circa 1886. Note the street lamps in front of the main building. (Adolfo Farsari/Wikimedia Commons)

During the late 19th century, many cities and countries all around the globe started making the transition from gas to electric street lighting. Japan was one of those countries. Like most Western countries, it made the transition from gas lamps to arc lamps during the 1870s and 1880s and then to incandescent lighting as Thomas Edison and his team unveiled the world’s first incandescent light bulbs to the world.

Below is part II of my series on the history of Japan’s streetlights. In case you haven’t had the chance to check out part I of this series, you can find it here.

The First Electric Street Lamps in Japan

In 1808 the arc lamp, which would later form the basis of early electric street lighting, was created by British inventor and chemist Sir Humphry Davy. Arc lights that could light up whole city districts started popping up across Europe and the USA during the last few decades of the century after Russian inventor Pavel Yablochkov’s “Yablochkov candle” debuted in Paris in 1876.

Japan’s first arc lamp was unveiled to the public on March 25, 1878 in a hall at the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo. This arc lamp came courtesy of British physicist and engineer W.E. Ayrton (1847-1908), who was serving as chair of Natural Philosophy and Telegraphy at the university. Credit also goes to a panel of students who helped him install the lamp! This lamp marked the beginning of a new era in many different ways.

On November 1st, 1882, the first electric-powered street lamp came to Tokyo’s streets. This arc lamp, which was located in front of the Ginza-2 offices of the Okura Enterprises, was switched on at 7:30 pm and illuminated an ad on the front of the building with a whopping 4,000 candlepower light. The crowd of onlookers were very dazzled and stunned by this new development in technology!

Compared to the gas lamps which only lit up the immediate vicinity around them, the arc lamps were extremely bright and far less of a fire hazard than all the lamps of old. However, the main drawback to the arc lamps of this time were the 100 hour life span of each carbon rod that powered these lamps. After 4-6 nights of usage, the rods had to be replaced. Changing them could be a major chore for city workers to do every week! In addition, arc lamps were battery-powered as compared to the electricity-powered

After the Tokyo arc lamp made its debut, other Japanese cities quickly began bringing arc lamps to their cities.

Toshiba's co-founder Ichisuke Fujioka in 1925. (Wikimedia Commons)
Founder of Tokyo Denki and eventual co-founder of Toshiba Ichisuke Fujioka in 1925. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ichisuke Fujioka and Tokyo Denki

One of W.E. Ayrton’s students was a young man named Ichisuke Fujioka. Ichisuke realized at a young age that be was born for this new technology. He was the man who switched on the electric light in Ginza in 1882. After going on a tour of the US and meeting Edison, Ichisuke vowed he would do his part to bring electricity and all its wonders to the whole nation of Japan.

To that end, he created his own firm named Hakunetsu-sha in 1890. This firm manufactured incandescent lamps and light bulbs at the same quality but a much cheaper price than the foreign manufacturers. In 1899, this firm was renamed Tokyo Denki and remained one of Japan’s top lighting manufacturers through the early 20th century.

The Dawn of a New Era and Electricity as a Status Symbol

In 1879, Thomas Edison and his team created the first light bulb as we know it in the USA. This light bulb used carbonized filaments instead of carbon arc rods to create a more practical electric light source that lasted up to 1,200 hours rather than 100. This light bulb revolutionized electrical lighting. It did not take very long for this technology to be put to use in street lighting in cities all over the world.

During the early and mid-1880s, a number of businesses and government establishments installed electrical generators on their premises. This made it possible for them to use incandescent lamps and other electrical lighting.

In 1886, Japan took its first steps into the world of public electricity when the Tokyo Electric Power Company was born. As a byproduct of its creation, electrical lighting in homes and businesses began to become the norm across Tokyo. And of course, incandescent street lighting too. In 1890, Tepco helped form a power company in Yokohama. When this new power grid came online on October 1st of that year, 700 electric lights across the city all came on at once. That included the city’s network of streetlights.

Over the course of the decade, other Japanese cities followed suit with electrical street lamps. Kyoto received its first electric street lighting in 1883. Osaka received theirs when the power company opened in their city in 1886.

In 1887, the Imperial Palace switched to electric lighting and the Tokyo newspapers Asahi Shinbun and Jijishinpo followed suit a year later.

When the first networks of incandescent lighting were installed in Japanese cities during the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were a source of pride for the residents of the neighborhoods in which they were installed! Electric street lighting became something of a status symbol for many of these (mainly) well-off neighborhoods.

The Fifth National Industrial Exposition of 1903

In 1903, the Fifth National Industrial Exposition was held in Osaka. One of the key events of the exhibition was the illumination of parts of the city at night with electric street lamps (complete with color light bulbs). Among the landmarks and parts of the city which were illuminated included the Obayashi Tower and the Dotonbori district, which remains Japan’s “neon and electric lighting wonderland” to this very day. The illumination event was unprecedented for its time and it – along with the exposition itself – was a demonstration to the world that Japan had officially joined modern-day society.


Please stay tuned for Part III of this series, which is coming soon!



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