1. Home
  2. Embassy
  3. History of the Russian Diplomatic Missions in Japan
  4. Tokyo

Embassy

History of the Russian Diplomatic Missions in Japan

Embassy in Tokyo

Prior to the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Edo, present day Tokyo, as well as the rest of Japan, had been closed to foreigners for centuries. A very few diplomatic and trade missions managed to obtain the right to visit the Shogun's Palace but this was only after a difficult months long process of obtaining approval.

 

In 1858, Count E. V. Putyatin became the first official representative of Russia in Japan. Along with the officers accompanying him he travelled the Tokaido road from Yokohama to Edo stopping at the Shimpukuji temple along the way. On August 8, 1858 the Russian-Japanese treaty was signed, the articles of which specified the establishment of a Russian representation in Edo.

 

Governor General N. N. Muraviyov visited the Japanese capital in 1859; the first Russian consul I. A. Goshkevich, who resided in Hakodate visited twice, first in 1861 and the second time in 1862; and Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich visited in 1872. During his visit, the Grand Duke met personally with Emperor Meiji, and permission was granted for the allocation of land on which to build a Russian Orthodox mission and the embassy.

 

On August 7, 1872, the Russian envoy, E. K. Byutsov, sent a letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan T. Soeshima stating that "….for the purpose of accommodating some imperial servants from my mission, I have purchased, on the account of my government, buildings in the capital, from a Japanese citizen named Watanabe Shusai." The letter was referring to the purchase of land in the area of Surugadai.

 

Although not unusual for the Japanese bureaucracy of the time, correspondence was slow. On September 5, 1873, Mr. Byutsov once again approached the local authorities seeking permission to acquire a piece of land " on the account of my government, for the construction of houses for the Russian diplomatic mission and its officials," this time in the Toranomon area.

 

In the middle of 1873, K. V. Struve became Russian ambassador to Japan and he made great efforts to ensure the construction of a Russian embassy in Tokyo (it had had until that time, the status of a consulate).

 

Following the signing of a treaty between Russia and Japan in St. Petersburg, in 1875, relations between the two countries became more trusting and friendly and this provided the impetus for the construction of a building to house the Russian Embassy.

 

Construction began in 1876. Several preliminary designs in the "Russian style" survived, and these featured typical ancient towers and tower chambers. The architects I. P. Roppet and F. S. Harlamov had worked on these and the well-known art critic, V. V. Stasov observed: "as for the stone building of Mr. Ropett - the house of our embassy in Japan - it is not enough to call it a house, it is a real palace, and nothing could be more appropriate in properly representing us here, in architectural terms, in the Far East region - it can be only this ably created beautiful Moscow style tower with an eagle at the top. This building, with its stately stretched arcade double windows ... this wonderful harmony of the masses and frequencies, noble, calm and at the same time Asian and Russian." However, despite the high regard held for the artistic qualities of the design, in the end it was not destined to be implemented.

As it happened, it was the Australian architect, John Smedley, who had been taking part in the construction of central Tokyo, at the request of the Japanese government, who was put in charge, in 1876, of construction of the building that would house the Russian diplomatic mission.

 

He built a bright two-story mansion in Ura Kasumigaseki, with two side bay windows, with an upper torus, where a double-headed eagle was placed; on the upper ledge of the house a white balustrade was set, the facade decorated with twin pillars. The entrance gate with a graceful pattern of grids and streetlights on top of the gateposts was very beautiful. In Tokyo in the 1870s, there were few European-style mansions, and the building of the Russian mission stood out architecturally.

 

The painter V.V.Vereschagin, who visited Tokyo in 1904 wrote that "It may be noted, by the way, that the house of the Russian Legation in Tokyo is very good-looking, probably, a little inferior to the Embassies of the other powers. It ... carries the banner of the Russian Ministry with honor."

 

A short time later though, Russian diplomats were force to leave the building. In 1904 the Russian-Japanese war had started, and the Russian mission in Tokyo was closed.

 

After the conclusion of the Portsmouth Peace Treaty in 1905, the Russian mission once again took up its functions, and in 1907 was finally granted the status of embassy. That year, N. A. Malevich was nominated as Russian ambassador to Tokyo and in the seventh year of his stay he decided to expand the building and add an annex. In late 1914, before the visit of the Grand Duke Georgy Mikhailovich, a two-story great reception hall, beautifully decorated inside, was built near the end wall of the Embassy.

 

The construction was carried out with great care, which clearly explains the striking fact that in the course of the devastating earthquake that struck on September 1, 1923, the Russian embassy suffered only slightly. In those tragic days, in the courtyard of the Embassy, tents were set up, where Russian residents of Tokyo and nearby regions found temporary shelter, food and medical assistance.

 

It was perhaps only natural, but inevitably, the storms of political change blew against the walls of the Russian mission. Until 1925, diplomats loyal to the Russian Tsar occupied the building. It was only following the conclusion of a treaty between Soviet Russia and Japan that the official representatives of the Russian Foreign Office, led by G. V. Chicherin, arrived in Tokyo.

  Shortly afterwards, they were asked to move to a new building being constructed on Mamiana hill. The reason for the transfer of the residence was the construction of a new city road through the mission's land.

 

In 1928 a new building was erected for the Soviet Russian Embassy. S. L. Tikhvinskiy, the head of the USSR mission in Tokyo from 1956-1957 observed "the Soviet Embassy building was located near the center of Tokyo on the Mamiana hill. The elongated two-story white concrete building with large windows looked like a white steamship, set in lush greenery, with a tall chimney, which rose above the building. To the rear side of the building, a small garden adjoined, and two small wooden two-story houses, in which lived the staff, were on the right side of the entrance to the mission territory. The Embassy building was built in the early 30's during the period of service of Alexander Antonovich Troyanovsky and rested on a massive earthquake-resistant concrete pad, which absorbed the tremors that often shook Tokyo."

 

The period from 1941 to 1945, was one of hardship for the USSR Embassy. Following the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, the Americans unleashed a massive bombing campaign on Tokyo and other Japanese cities. In fact, one of the first targets of the air raids was the American embassy itself. Incendiary bombs also fell on the land occupied by the Soviet mission. One witness recalled, "Fire enveloped the residential and office buildings of the embassy, as well as the trees in the garden, and any cars that were not inside the garage." As it was clear that no one was safe from the ongoing bombing raids, Ambassador K. A. Smetanin made an appeal to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, urgently demanding the construction of a bomb shelter. An engineer was even brought in from Moscow and work, which took almost two years, was started. Today the bomb shelter has been turned into an underground garage.

The most devastating U.S. air raids took place on March 9 and May 25, 1945. Most of the embassy buildings were burned, and only the main office building survived.

 

Following Japan's surrender, the Soviet Embassy was demolished. Soviet representatives at the Allied Council for Japan and the Far Easter Commission stayed at temporary facilities during this time. Because the Soviet delegation to the negotiations in San Francisco in September 1951 refused to sign the text for the Peace Treaty with Japan, Japanese authorities, with American support, considered themselves entitled to demand the expulsion of the Soviet mission from Tokyo. Immediately following the entry into force of the San Francisco Treaty, the head of the Protocol Department of the Japanese Foreign Ministry visited the office of the Soviet diplomats in Tokyo, where he verbally stated that as of April 28, 1952, he was ceasing the function of the Soviet mission, and that as Japan refused to recognize the diplomatic status of its staff, demanded that they be reduced to 10 persons. Until 1956 the Japanese Foreign Ministry repeatedly refused to accept all incoming messages and materials from the Mission of the USSR.

 

It was only in 1956 that the Japanese Foreign Ministry started to recognize the official status of the Soviet embassy, ​​but initially referred to it as "the Representation of the Soviet Union for Implementation of the Fisheries and Rescue in the North-Western Part of the Pacific Agreement."

 

However, as time gradually passed, outright hostility in bilateral relations gave way to self-restraint. In October 1956, diplomatic relations between the USSR and Japan, as well as the high status of the Soviet mission in Tokyo were restored. The diplomats arriving in Japan had to begin restoration of the old and dilapidated buildings that had endured the bombing raids during the war, as well as construction of new ones. Thus, in 1960, the construction of the Russian Trade Representation in Japan in Shinagawa was started.

 

10 years later, it was decided to build an entirely new embassy building instead of restoring the old one. S. L. Tikhvinsky mentioned that "in the early 70's during the period in which Oleg Alexandrovich Troyanovsky served as Soviet Ambassador to Japan, the old two story building was demolished and in its place a modern high-rise building was erected to house the embassy. At the same time, where the old wooden houses had once stood, a high-rise apartment building was constructed to house the embassy staff." The new building for the embassy was constructed in 1976 by the Japanese construction firm Obayashi Gumi working together with the Russian architects V. Klimov and M. Arutyan. The designers of the new building tried to fit them into the existing structure without destroying the integrity of the landscape.

Based on the book
Russia - Japan: A Historical Path to Trust
From the Moscow publisher, Japan Today, 2008

Top of page

Note: Russian Embassy in Japan is not responsible for the content of external websites.