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Registered as World Heritage at Last! National Museum of Western Art

National Museum of Western Art, located inside Ueno Park within a short distance from JR Ueno Station, is one of the oldest museums in Japan. Here you can mainly enjoy the Western artworks from around the 14th to 20th century. This popular museum attracts a few hundred thousands of visitors to each of its special exhibitions and always provides hot topics for art fans. The museum is known not only as one of Japan’s most prestigious museums but as the only architecture by Le Corbusier existing in Japan. Recently registered as a World Heritage site, the museum will surely attract more avid attention from the art world and beyond. Photo:

Here we are going to take a close look at the museum on the rise.


About National Museum of Western Art


The museum, boasting Matsukata Collection as its main collection, which mainly consists of articles of French art, along with many other Western artworks, opened in 1959. Besides the main building, the museum also has an annex which opened in 1979 and the special exhibition hall built in 1997. The museum is dedicated to organizing exhibitions from its collections, conservation of artworks, researches and educational projects relating to Western art.

The number of artworks in the museum’s collection started from around 370 pieces and has developed to about 5,500 now, including paintings, sculptures, crafts, prints and others works of various art genres.

The museum has been managed by an independent administrative agency since 2001 and its main building was designated as an important cultural property in 2007. Then in July, 2016, the museum was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites as one of the representative works by Le Corbusier and has since been gaining an increasing amount of attention.


Now let us learn about some of the best features of the museum.

Main Building Designed by the Internationally Renowned Architect, Le Corbusier


As has been mentioned already, the main building of the museum is the only architecture by Le Corbusier in Japan, which alone can be one of the greatest highlights of the museum. The building, one of the facilities of National Museum of Western Art, was registered as a World Heritage site along with Le Corbusier’s 17 other architectures in 7 countries, collectively titled “The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement.”

So, what features characterize the building?

One of the key features is the concept on which the architecture is based. The building is the actualization of Le Corbusier’s concept of “Museum of Unlimited Extension.” In this concept, exhibition rooms are laid along a rectangular spiral so that a new room can be added to the end of the spiral and the building can be extended outwards whenever the collection increases. As literally suggested by the name of the concept, Le Corbusier’s intention is said to have been to design a museum that can be extended without limit.

The building also has other features showcasing Le Corbusier’s architectural and conceptual genius such as “modulor,” in which the size of an architecture is to be based on the size of people using the architecture, as well as Le Corbusier’s 5 essential points of modern architecture; pilotis, roof garden, free design of the ground plan, horizontal windows and free design of the façade, which all characterize Le Corbusier’s works.

The master design for the museum by Le Corbusier, which was based on all such well-thought-out concepts, was finalized by three of his Japanese disciples; Kunio Maekawa, Junzo Sakakura and Takamasa Yoshizaka and the construction was completed in 1959.


Matsukata Collection; Rodin’s Sculptures and Other Artworks


Matsukata Collection is the artworks collected by the successful businessman, Kojiro Matsukata, and makes up the nucleus of the museum’s whole collection. The preservation and exhibition of Matsukata Collection was the foremost purpose of founding the museum.

Kojiro Matsukata was a businessman who successfully turned his ship-building company in Kobe into a global enterprise with his outstanding managerial talent and spent a great portion of the riches he earned on collecting pieces of Western art. But he sometimes had to give up some pieces from his collection when the financial situation of his company worsened and even had many of his collections confiscated by the French government as the enemy property during the Second World War. Many of the confiscated pieces were returned to the Japanese government after the war and today belong to the museum as Matsukata Collection.



Rodin was one of Matsukata’s favorite artists and the collection contains many of his sculptures. The museum exhibits quite a few works by Rodin, among which are field sculptures such as “The Gates of Hell” and “The Burghers of Calais,” both found at the front yard.

Besides Rodin, the museum also collects many works by Monet, whom Matsukata is said to have befriended and frequently visited at his house in the suburbs of Paris.


National Museum of Western Art has been attracting an increasing number of visitors since the World Heritage registration and gained renewed attention. With its own restaurant and museum shop, the museum provides great options when you want to take a break off of your art appreciation tour or look for some fancy goods themed on your favorite works of art.

With not only its rich collection of artworks but also the building of great architectural value, the museum is really worth admiring in its every nook and corner. If you want to learn more about the museum, free-of-charge lectures and architecture study tours are among other recommendable programs offered here. Information: MapOfficial Website

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About the author

I'm interested in general in all things related to culture and fine arts with a focus on movies, art, and design. I hope to introduce to many people all the different sides to Japan in regards to Japanese culture.

View all articles by KAWATA