We have regularly featured articles on local luminaries who are ‘weel kent’ to most of us. In this article we celebrate a son of Edinburgh who is perhaps not so well known to us but who made a huge impression on the people of Japan – to the extent that over one hundred years since he died people still meet annually at his graveside to lay flowers and sing Scots songs.
Burton’s father – John Hill Burton – was a lawyer and an eminent amateur historian, who had written books on economics that had received attention in Japan. His mother was the daughter of Dr Cosmo Innes, one of Scotland’s foremost amateur photographers. The Burton family resided at Old Craig and ‘Little Willie’ was also a childhood friend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
From these beginnings it might have been expected that Burton might go to university but instead, he signed up for a five-year apprenticeship with the innovative hydraulic and mechanical engineers Brown Brothers where he rose to become chief draftsman.He left the firm in 1879 to enter partnership with his uncle in London designing water systems. In 1881 he became Resident Engineer to the Londoin Sanitary Protection Association.
Perhaps as a result of good works in London and his father’s influence through his books in May 1887 he was invited by the Japanese Government to assume the post of first professor of sanitary engineering at Tokyo Imperial University at a time when Japan was dealing with several serious epidemics, notably cholera. His appointment was unusual in that Burton was largely self-educated, and did not come with the impressive educational or professional credentials that many of his contemporaries
Whatever the motivation for his appointment he set about his tasks with great gusto. He seemed to settle into Japanese society with ease – he learned to speak Japanese and later he married a Japanese woman. From the early days of his arrival, Burton was committed to providing plans and drawings for the sanitation systems and water supply of many towns and cities in Japan. With the help of young Japanese water engineers, Burton prepared plans for modern water plants for many Japanese cities. One in Shimonoseki city is still functional today and its pure water bottled with Burton’s picture on the label. Burton also designed Japan’s first skyscraper, in Tokyo. This 12-story, 225-foot tall structure was the tallest building in Tokyo at the time it opened in 1890. This octagonal building gained iconic status as a symbol of modern Japan. Unfortunately however it was damaged beyond repair in the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake.
Burton was also a noted photographer and made a substantial contribution to Japan’s photographic history. He published several technical works, and made a contribution in the introduction of Japanese culture to the West by sending his work to various London magazines. Burton co-produced a book that recorded the disastrous great Earthquake of 1891. The book illustrated the plight of the Japanese people and the impact of an earthquake on their environment.
Burton had intended to return with his family to Scotland to meet his mother, but suddenly fell ill from a liver infection and died in 1899 at the age of 43. He was only in Japan for 12 years but left a remarkable legacy. Although his life and contribution
to Japanese society is clearly valued in that country it was not until 2006 – the 150th anniversary of his birth that a memorial marking his achievements was unveiled in Edinburgh at Craighouse. Poignantly there is also a bench close-by in the garden which Little Willie Burton would have played in before setting off on his remarkable journey.