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De Rijke guided country’s modernization along with dams and ports

Unlicensed engineer Deputy Minister in Japan

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

Dutch engineers, who were invited by the Meiji government in the nineteenth century, assisted in building and developing Japan’s ports and various other water-control projects throughout this mountainous country. C.J. van Doorn was the first to arrive but Johannis de Rijke earned the most praise for his 30-year long career in the land of the Rising Sun.

Upon request of the Japanese authorities, Van Doorn invited more engineers to join him, including Johannis de Rijke, who did not have an academic degree but who had learned his trade on the job, and G.A. Escher, the father of artist M.C. Escher, known worldwide for his intriguing drawings. (It is thought that M.C. Escher was strongly influenced by the so-called ukiyoe prints his father brought home from Japan.).

Van Doorn’s choice of Johannis de Rijke turned out to be excellent. He stayed in Japan for more than 30 years and eventually was appointed Deputy Minister - probably the only foreigner ever to reach such high rank.


De Rijke’s impressive achievements included riverbank improvements of the Yodogawa river in the Osaka district, and the Kiso Sansen in central Japan - an area in which three rivers with different flows converged and regularly caused extensive flooding. De Rijke used techniques such as groynes, debris barriers and planting trees to reduce run-off erosion, even though the exclusively flat terrain in the Netherlands had denied him the experience of building a ‘corrosion’ dam. He also designed many of Japan's modern ports, including those of Osaka, Nagasaki and Yokohama, and an irrigation canal in the Fukushima district, which later earned him a bronze statue of recognition.

In total, twelve Dutch hydraulic engineers worked in Japan during this period to help ensure that local people were able to keep their feet dry.


As well, the Meiji government sent Japanese scholars to the Netherlands. Nishi Amane and Tsuda Mamichi were sent to Leiden University while Fukuzawa Yukichi also visited the Netherlands for orientation.

In the period following the opening of Japan, diplomatic contacts were formalized. The first Dutch Consulate was opened in 1859 in Yokohama, followed by a legation in Tokyo and a consulate in Kobe in 1868. Notwithstanding the contacts across many different fields and the long history of mutual cooperation, these were unfortunately unable to avoid war from breaking out between the two countries in the Dutch East Indies in 1941 when officials there declared war following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Ties between the Dutch Republic and Japan, began with the colonial Dutch presence on Deshima Island, in the Nagasaki harbour, dates from 1609, the only place in Japan open to foreigners from 1639, where only the Dutch were permitted to stay until 1959.