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Memorial for pioneer who transformed Japan skyline

AN engineer who designed Japan's first skyscraper and helped transform the country into a leading industrial nation has had a plaque unveiled in his memory in his home town of Edinburgh.

William Kinninmond Burton is still remembered at an annual ceremony in Tokyo, where people lay flowers and sing Scottish folk songs at his tomb at Aoyama Cemetery.

He designed a modern, clean water system for major Japanese cities, helping to eradicate the disease that ravaged huge swathes of the population there.

On Saturday, a memorial was unveiled in his home city to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth. Edinburgh Lord Provost Lesley Hinds unveiled a plaque at Burton's family home of Craig House, now part of the Craighouse Campus at Napier University.

William Burton was born in Edinburgh in 1856 and studied at Edinburgh Collegiate School before serving a five-year apprenticeship with the city's innovative hydraulic and mechanical engineers, Brown Brothers, at their Rosebank Ironworks.

After a spell as resident engineer to the London Sanitary Protection Association, Burton was invited by the Meiji government of Japan to become the first Professor of Sanitary Engineering and lecturer in Rivers, Docks and Harbours at the Imperial University of Tokyo in 1887.

After moving to the Japanese capital, he designed new water and drainage systems for Tokyo, which at the time had a population of one and a half million, as well as devising similar systems for 23 other towns and cities in Japan.

His ingenuity is credited with saving hundreds of thousands of lives every year by greatly reducing the risk of deadly water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery.

In the late 1880s he was commissioned to design Japan's first skyscraper, "Ryounkaku" - meaning "Cloud-Surpassing Pavilion". Two hundred and twenty feet high and octagonal in shape, the building boasted the first elevator ever installed in a Japanese building.

When it opened in 1890, Burton's creation was the tallest building in Tokyo, but it was badly damaged in the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and had to be demolished.

A man of diverse talents, he also helped to introduce modern photography to Japan, and established the Japanese Photographic Society.

William Burton died in Tokyo in 1899, aged just 43, his engineering works having transformed many aspects of life in Japan in just 12 years.

Saturday's commemoration was chaired by David Paton OBE, Chair of the Aberdeen Harbour Board, and a descendant of Burton's Aberdeenshire family.

He said: "William Kinninmond Burton is honoured to this day in Japan for his role in its transformation from an inward-looking, relatively undeveloped country into a leading industrial nation. His work transformed the face of Japan and, by eliminating annual outbreaks of dysentery and cholera, saved hundreds of thousands of lives every year. He was a great Scottish engineer and pioneer in an age when we excelled at producing both."

"This memorial is a fitting reminder of the man in his birthplace, but it should also be an inspiration to young people at Napier University today and stand as a mark of the friendship between Japan and Scotland."

Along with local figures including the Lord Provost and Scottish descendents of Burton, the ceremony was attended by a delegation from Japan, which included one of Burton's descendants, Kevin Masaya Kmetz, who played the tsugaru shamisen - a traditional Japanese instrument.

A commemorative lecture on Burton's work was delivered by Mr Yasuhiko Kobayashi, director general of the Japan Environmental Sanitation Centre.

A spokesperson for the university added: "Napier University is delighted to play its part in ensuring this great Scottish engineer is recognised in his home city through this memorial at his birth place."

 
 
 

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