Historical buildings evoke era of ‘devil governor’

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Old Saiseikan Hospital Building

By Yoshihisa Watanabe / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterYAMAGATA — A serialized novel published in the evening edition of The Yomiuri Shimbun, “Hashiru Otoko,” (A wild runner) depicts the story of Shiso Kanakuri, a pioneer marathoner in Japan. Kanakuri competed in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, the very first Games in which Japan appeared.

There was one other Japanese athlete in Stockholm, sprinter Yahiko Mishima. His father, Michitsune Mishima, served as a superintendent general at the Metropolitan Police Department, and in other important posts. For six years from 1876 Michitsune served as Yamagata Prefecture’s first “kenrei,” the equivalent of a prefectural governor today. He shaped a town of modernization and Westernization in Yamagata.

The prefectural government building in central Yamagata was completed in 1877. On both sides of the street running from the main entrance of the building, various other structures were erected over slightly less than three years, including a silk mill, teachers’ school, industrial museum, county office, police station and hospital.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    People walk in the Nanokamachi Gotenzeki area.

These buildings were examples of “gi-yofu” (imitative Western-style) architecture. A British woman named Isabella Bird who visited the city in 1878 wrote in her book “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan” that the prefectural government, the court, the teachers’ school with an advanced attached school, and the police station were all in harmony with the fine-looking road and the prosperous town.

Mishima’s sense of mission

The Old Saiseikan Hospital Building, which was completed in 1878, is also mentioned in Bird’s book. She said the building had a cupola, could accommodate 150 patients and was slated to become a medical school. Built by local shrine carpenters and others, it is said to be a masterpiece of gi-yofu architecture in the early Meiji era (1868-1912). It is a national important cultural property and was relocated to Kajo Park near JR Yamagata Station, where it is open to the public as the Yamagata City Local History Museum.

The outer appearance of the old hospital building is a three-story tower. Beneath the tower, there is a cloistered building that was used as an examination room. The building has spiral stairs and stained glass, and its eaves are decorated with cloud-shape motifs that remind people of temples. “Saisei” means saving a life, a name chosen by then Dajo Daijin (grand minister) Sanetomi Sanjo.

Mishima invited an Austrian doctor to the building and made it the first edifice of German medicine in the Tohoku region.

Mishima was able to accomplish these things mainly because he was from Satsuma, now Kagoshima Prefecture, as was Meiji government heavyweight Toshimichi Okubo, and was trusted by Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s first prime minister.

“Mishima was a visionary politician with a sense of mission to spread the centralized administrative framework to regional cities,” said Toshihiko Ogata, 71, a former researcher at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences of Nihon University.

The prefectural government building constructed at Mishima’s direction was destroyed in a massive fire. Today, there are the former prefectural government building and the former prefectural assembly hall, both of which were constructed in 1916. These buildings are open to the public as the Old Prefectural Office Bunshokan. From the balcony on the third floor, one can see the urban areas spreading on both sides of the main street.

The main building of the former teachers’ college, the Yamagata School of Education, which was rebuilt in a new location in 1901, stands about a 10-minute walk from the museum. The building is now called the Educational Resources Museum. Both of the museum buildings are designated as national important cultural properties.

The Gotenzeki water channel built about 400 years ago runs through the central part of Yamagata, where the Old Saiseikan Hospital Building was located. It is one of the Yamagata five channels, the network of water channels running through the city of Yamagata.

One section along the main street was developed as a commercial area called Mizu no Machiya Nanokamachi Gotenzeki, where restaurants and other shops operate in warehouses from the Meiji era and replicas of old-fashioned houses.

“Under the rule of Mishima, town development meant creating something new. Now, being aware of genuine things that have existed for many years and restoring them to their original state will be the key to succeeding in town development,” said Yasuzo Yuki, owner of the Yuki-ya kimono shop and who worked on the revitalization of the Gotenzeki channel.

Road, railway projects

Mishima also constructed roads leading to Tokyo, Sendai and other cities. He pushed residents to shoulder the cost and labor requirements involved, leading him to be called “Oni Kenrei” (Devil governor).

“Mishima used to say that achievements would be judged by people 100 years in the future. The Yamagata road network is in line with Mishima’s grand design,” Ogata said. It’s been 130 years since the death of Mishima, and now is the time to reevaluate the devil governor.


It takes about 2 hours and 40 minutes by JR Yamagata Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Yamagata Station. It is about 15 minutes on foot from there to the Yamagata City Local History Museum (the Old Saiseikan Hospital Building).

Information: Yamagata city tourism information center (023) 647-2266; Yamagata city government’s tourism strategy section (023) 641-1212.

To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit

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