Johannis de Rijke a Dutch engineer in Japan (1873-1903)

Harvard Library, Cambridge MA, Hollis Images, access Widener Library EGS21, inventory-number EGS21.04, ‘Enoura, Numadzu’.

Japanese water management, the Dutch way

On the 24th of September of the year 1873 the paddle steamer Oregonian passed through the strait of Shimonoseki and steamed into the Seto Inland Sea.[1] George Arnold Escher (1843-1939), a passenger on the Oregonian, noted the following in his diary: ‘A beautiful route with picturesque islands with villages and temples in the folds of the mountains, which are planted with forests, terraces of rice paddies and other field crops, many lighthouses and countless fishing vessels.’[2] At half past five in the evening the Oregonian dropped its anchors in the port of Kobe and from thereon engineer Johannis de Rijke (1842-1913) and G.A. Escher travelled by ship across the bay to the city of Osaka.[3]

De Rijke arrived in Osaka 20 years after the end of the 214-year long isolationist period of Japan and just five years after the Meiji Restoration of 1868[4], a political revolution that led to the restoration of the emperor.[5] Soon after the Meiji Restoration Japan embarked on a modernisation mission. This mission is characterised by the need to strengthen and enrich the country, Japanese statesmen feared Western interference in the same way as in China. This is the reason why Japanese statesmen worked hard to develop their military and economic strength and in order to achieve this, the foundation had to be strengthened. This modernisation mission relied on looking for knowledge outside the borders of Japan in Western nations, in Western books and they also invited and hired Western advisors.[6]

The policy of hiring Western advisors was called o-yatoi gaikokujin and as many as 3.000 Westerner foreigners were employed by the Meiji government.[7] A small number of them were Dutch advisors hired for their expertise in water management and civil engineering. There they worked under the lead of Chief Engineer Cornelis van Doorn (1837-1906). In total six Dutch hydraulic engineers and another four workmen came to Japan, between 1872 and 1903, to work on civil engineering projects.[8]

One of them was engineer Johannis de Rijke and this paper will be focusing on ‘what the contributions of Johannis de Rijke were to the water management and civil engineering in Meiji Japan during the period 1873-1903’. To answer this question this essay will look into what De Rijke did on the subject of river improvement, dam construction and harbour designing during his stay in Japan.

This essay will be focussing on De Rijke because he is a fairly unknown person in the Netherlands, but a well known figure in Japan.[9] The average length of a service contract for a foreign advisor was around five years, so it is quite remarkable that De Rijke stayed there for 30 years.[10] There are also statues of him in Sendohira River Park in Asai and Hanedanidandan Park in Kaizu, and there is even a museum in Kaizu that is dedicated to him and his work. So that is why this essay will bring attention to what De Rijke did in order to become such a giant in Japan and why they still honour him today.[11]

Johannis de Rijke ca. 1908 (

Rivers and polders

De Rijke, as an advisor on the subject of water management, was involved with river improvement. One of these projects is located in the lower Kiso delta area. Here the waters of the Kiso, Nagara and Ibi rivers join each other by Nagoya and drain into the sea by. These rivers regularly overflowed because of irregular water heights. So, during the Tokugawa era (1603-1868) a project was started in the Kiso delta to control the rivers by separating them, this project started in 1754 but was not finished when Japan opened up in 1853.[12]

It would be during the Meiji era (1868-1912) that the Kiso-project would be finished. De Rijke worked on this project and his plan succeeded in splitting the rivers and his work gave the rivers the shape they still have today. He achieved this by building and strengthening the dikes and digging out the riverbeds in the lower Kiso delta, he also constructed a lock gate so that ships could navigate between the Kiso and Nagara river. To this day his work on flood control continues to protect the polder lands.[13] This tract of lowland was a reclaimed body of water and these lowlands are located alongside the three rivers.[14] This project started in 1887, costed 9.74 million yen and was completed in 1912.[15] The way of dealing with floods by securing flow quantity using spur levees in river channels is called ‘Low water flood management’ and it is based on Dutch models.[16]

Another problem that De Rijke solved was the floods caused by the overflow of Jyouganji river. Here De Rijke came up with a plan to build a dike breakthrough buffer in the form of a double dike system, downstream river flow adjustment and the widening of the river. When the Rijke left in 1903 the work had started but it would not be finished until 1926.[17]

This project was a ‘High-water works for flood protection’ because they dealt with directing flood flow to the sea as soon as possible. This could be achieved by straightening river channels, constructing breakwaters and building high banks.[18]

In juli 1891 torrential rains caused the flooding of the Djōnganji river in Toyama province and De Rijke was tasked with making a recovery plan. He analysed the area and made a report, in the end he decided that mismanagement and neglect that was mainly caused by poverty and overpopulation. It was also noted that the river flowed fast and at some point, resembled rapids. He passed this report on to the Ministry of the Interior.[19]

It therefore can be stated that his projects changed the landscape and introduced new methods. Furthermore, the work plans and inspection reports De Rijke made gave the Ministry of the Interior insight into the problems, their origins and possible solutions. And therefore De Rijke can be credited with passing new techniques and methods of survey to the Japanese.


De Rijke also build a couple of dams to stop erosion from silting up the rivers. One of these anti-erosion dams, De Rijke dam, is located at the Otani river. This dam was designed and build solely by De Rijke between 1886-1887 and is a stepped spillway dam. This type of dam reduces the energy dissipation of the water. This is one of many of these dams, but it is also the last remaining one.[20] He also supervised the building of one anti-erosion dam in Otsu-Cho (1889) and two in Kaizu-shi (1891).[21]

The methods that De Rijke used for the construction of anti-erosion dams were based on mathematical calculations and physics. This scientific method of dam construction could be adapted to multiple situations at the same time. So, it was not necessary for De Rijke to be at every construction site, this made it possible for the Japanese to construct anti-erosion dam without the direct involvement of De Rijke.[22]

Osaka harbour

De Rijke, as a civil engineer, worked on the improvement of several harbours, this was necessary because they were severely neglected during the isolationist period (1639-1853) of the Tokugawa era.[23] He for example improved the seaport of Osaka in 1874.[24] Osaka harbour was the economic centre of Japan.[25] This harbour is located near Kyoto, the old capital city, at the mouth of the river Yodo and this river causes silt to build up in the harbour. As a result, the harbour slowly silted up and this made it harder for bigger ships to enter the harbour and thus ships went to other ports. This is why the Meiji government hired De Rijke and another Dutch engineer called G.A. Escher to develop a new harbour design. The main goal of this project was to make the harbour more accessible to ocean-going steamships.[26]

In order to transform the harbour and to create a steamship accessible harbour Escher and De Rijke decided that upstream soil erosion had to be stopped. This they hoped could be achieved by building a dam further upstream in the mountains. They also advised the Japanese government that deforestation should be stopped at mount Kabatayama.[27] Furthermore, De Rijke advised that the Bureau of Civil Engineering should plant new trees alongside mountain slopes and hillsides so that their roots would keep the sand in place. He also tried to strengthen the hillsides through the construction of nets that prevented landslides.[28]

Escher and De Rijke furthermore worked on creating a canal at the bottom of Yodo river, by doing this they would create a by steamship navigable passage between the cities of Osaka and Kyoto. This canal would be 44 km long and they also came up with a plan to strengthen the riverbanks with mattresses made from bundles of rice-straw.[29]

Eventually in 1884 De Rijke drafted another plan for the creation of a new harbour for Osaka. This plan revolved around two parts, the first part focused on creating new flood flow paths at the mouth of Yodo river and part two focussed on the widening and deepening of the harbour.[30] The second part also contained a plan for the creation of a new set of docks and the removal of sandbanks.[31]

However, the Yodo river improvement proved to be a more difficult task than anticipated. De Rijke had warned his employer the Ministry of Interior that threat of flooding was high, unauthorised work by locals had weakened some parts of the dikes, but in 1885 a shortage of funds caused work on the river to be stopped. That same year, in the summer of 1885, torrential rain caused the dikes to break at Hirakata. The breech and the loss of life landed De Rijke the task to construct high-water works for flood protection and a dam at Kema, ultimately this would create a new flow pattern.[32] The construction plans De Rijke made were studied, copied and applied by Japanese engineers.[33]


De Rijke reconstructed these rivers, dams and harbours with simple math and physics and the works he designed to this day still protect people. The rivers that he renovated have rarely overflown since his works were finished.[34] At Nagoya the river has only overflown once in 1976, but this was caused by an abnormal natural phenomenon and not because of design error.[35] He also advised and taught Japanese people how to construct anti-erosion dams according to a scientific design. More advise can be found in the reports he wrote for the Ministry of Civil Work. These noted his scientific observations about the construction projects and how he would be conducting these projects. So, in a way De Rijke gave the Japanese insight into modern civil engineering.[36]

De Rijke furthermore reconstructed the harbour of Osaka around 1884 and from 1885 to 1913 Japanese gross national product grew at an average rate of 2.6% to 3.6%. The economic growth was partly created through heavy investment in infrastructure, thus it can be argued that De Rijke contributed to the economic growth of Japan by the reconstruction of harbours like the one at Osaka.[37] This can be argued because De Rijke made Osaka accessible for steamships and this might have caused the economic revival of Osaka, one of the three major cities of Japan.[38]

These contributions have not gone unnoticed, in 1884 De Rijke was appointed to the Central Board of Health, an advisory organ for the department of Healthcare a subdivision of the Ministry of the Interior.[39]

For his services he was in 1889 rewarded with the Order of the Sacred Treasure fourth class, he would be rewarded the second class in 1903.[40] This honour is bestowed on ‘Those who have been engaged in public affairs for many years and have achieved good results.’[41] He gained this because ‘Employed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, during the past fifteen years, engineer De Rijke […], with great dedication, has carried out meritorious work and laid the foundations for scientific water management in our country.’[42]

Later in 1891 De Rijke would be appointed as chokuninkan (senior-bureaucrat) for the Ministry of the Interior, this was the second highest post in the Japanese hierarchy and is comparable to deputy minister.[43]

He was even invited by the Imperial family in 1896 to see the Hama-rikyū-gyoen palace gardens and in 1900 he attended a state banquet to celebrate the wedding of the crown prince.[44]


On the 20th of June 1903 De Rijke said goodbye to his friends and acquaintances in Kobe before embarking at 9 p.m. on the s.s. Annam to Shanghai,[45] when he steamed away into the darkness, he left behind thirty years of work.

During his stay he in the first instance left behind a new and improved harbour at Osaka that was connected through a canal with Kyoto. By doing this he ensured that steamship could enter the harbour and that the smaller ones could reach Kyoto. This might have caused the economic revival of Osaka.

He furthermore improved the Yodo river and the Kiso-delta, his work still stands to this day and his work still protect the people and their belongings in these area’s. De Rijke also constructed some dams, these dams slowed down rivers and reduced the amount of sediment that caused obstruction and the silting up of rivers and harbours.

In the second instance De Rijke taught Japanese engineers how to reproduce his work, he taught them to use scientific methods of construction and analysing. His work on the projects and his methods of construction were passed on to the Japanese. Afterwards the Japanese used his techniques and survey methods to d o the same work De Rijke did, but on their own. In this way he helped the Japanese people to become more self reliant.

In the end this essay has shown what De Rijke did during his stay in Japan and what his influence on Japanese water management was. He mainly improved and build, but he also taught the Japanese to be more self reliant. De Rijke also improved the economic situation by improving harbours and making the rivers safer so that costly natural disasters became rarer.

This essay has also shed light on the remarkable career of a, in the Netherlands, largely unknown figure. That is why this essay will make people more aware of the contributions of a Dutch engineer named Johannis de Rijke to the water management and civil engineering of Meiji Japan.

Further research into the lives and times of people, like De Rijke, can give us more insight into what the contributions and influence of Dutch civil engineers and advisors were during the Meiji era on the Japanese way of life or day to day management. This could also lead to more understanding of cross-cultural exchange of ideas and technologies. 

[1] Yoshiyuki Kamibayashi, Johannis de Rijke: De ingenieur die de Japanse rivieren weer tot leven bracht (Zutphen 1999) 43.

[2] Ibid., 43.

[3] Ibid., 43.

[4] Mikiso Hane, and Louis G. Perez, Modern Japan: a historical survey (Colorado 2012) 84.

[5] Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Meiji Restoration’, (26-3-2021).

[6] Hane, Modern Japan, 84.

[7] Graeme J. N. Gooday, and Morris F. Low. “Technology Transfer and Cultural Exchange: Western Scientists and Engineers Encounter Late Tokugawa and Meiji Japan.” Osiris 13 (1998), 99-128 there 105.

[8] Marike Klos and Leon Derksen, Shared cultural heritage of Japan and the Netherlands (Amersfoort 2016) 14.

[9] Kamibayashi, Johannis de Rijke, 12.

[10] Gooday, “Technology Transfer and Cultural Exchange”, 105.

[11] Klos, Shared cultural heritage of Japan and the Netherlands, 58.

[12] Pradyumna P. Karan, Japan in the 21st Century: Environment, Economy, and Society (Lexington 2010) 136.

[13] Ibid., 136-137.

[14] Karan, Japan in the 21st Century, 136-137; Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Polder’, (26-3-2021).

[15] Klos, Shared cultural heritage of Japan and the Netherlands, 60 and 63.

[16] Luo Pingping a.o., ‘Historical assessment of Chinese and Japanese flood management policies and implications for managing future floods.’ Environmental Science & Policy 48 (2015), 265-277, there 271.

[17] Klos, Shared cultural heritage of Japan and the Netherlands, 66.

[18] Pingping, ‘Historical assessment of Chinese and Japanese flood management policies’, 271

[19] Kamibayashi, Johannis de Rijke, 201-204.

[20] Klos, Shared cultural heritage of Japan and the Netherlands, 65.

[22] Kamibayashi, Johannis de Rijke, 58.

[21] Ibid., 66.

[23] Ibid., 33.

[24] Klos, Shared cultural heritage of Japan and the Netherlands, 62-623.

[25] Shigeki Matsuura, “The process of establishing the modern Osaka port construction plan; from Brunton to De Rijke”, Japan Society of Civil Engineers, 425 (1991) IV, 203-211, there 203.

[26] Klos, Shared cultural heritage of Japan and the Netherlands, 62-623.

[27] Ibid., 62-63.

[28] Yoshiyuki Uebayashi, “Rivers and sabo, port administration and its social background in the early Meiji era, written by Dutch civil engineer De Rijke”, Civil engineering history research 13 (1993), 363-374 there 369.

[29] Klos, Shared cultural heritage of Japan and the Netherlands, 62-62.

[30] Kamibayashi, Johannis de Rijke, 164-165.

[31] Uebayashi, “Rivers and sabo”, 370.

[32] Kamibayashi, Johannis de Rijke, 18-182 and 205.

[33] Ibid., 217.

[34] Ibid., 12.

[35] Ibid., 12.

[36] Ibid., 92-93.

[37] Peter Duus, The Cambridge History of Japan; Volume 6: The Twentieth Century (Cambridge 2008) 391.

[38] Kanji ISHII, “The Mercantile Response in the Meiji Period: Capital Accumulation by Merchants and the Government’s Rejection of Foreign Capital.” Social Science Japan Journal 12 (2009) 2, 211-25, there 214- 216 and 221.

[39] Kamibayashi, Johannis de Rijke, 173 and 210.

[40] Ibid, 198-199 and 217.

[41] Cabinet Office, ‘Types of medals (Order of the Sacred Treasure)’, (4-4-2021).

[42] Kamibayashi, Johannis de Rijke, 216-217.

[43] Ibid., 211.

[44] Ibid., 217.

[45] Ibid., 226.

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