Under pressure from
British ambassador Sir Harry Parkes to fulfil its obligations to
make the waters and harbors of Japan safe for shipping, the Japanese
government hired the Edinburgh-based firm of D. and T. Stevenson to
chart coastal waters and to build lighthouses where appropriate. The
project had already begun under French foreign advisor Léonce Verny,
but was not proceeding fast enough for the British.
Brunton was sent from Edinburgh in August 1868 to head the project
after being recommended to the Japanese government by the Stevensons,
and over seven and a half years designed and supervised the building
of 26 Japanese lighthouses in the Western style, along with two
lightvessels. (There had been Japanese lighthouses before then, but
they were short and squat buildings, such as the old Shirasu
lighthouse now in the grounds of Kokura castle in Kitakyushu.)
Brunton was accompanied by his wife and two assistants.
The old pre-Brunton Shirasu lighthouse in the grounds of Kokura
Castle Brunton also established a system of lighthouse keepers,
modeled on the Northern Lighthouse Board in Scotland.
He was consulted on other engineering projects, and significantly
contributed to the waterworks and harbour design in Yokohama, where
he is remembered by a commemorative statue. He also helped found
Japan's first school of civil engineering.
Brunton wrote a
memoir of his time in Japan, titled Pioneer Engineering in Japan: A
Record of Work in helping to Re-Lay the Foundations of Japanese
Empire (1868-1876). However, it was not published until the 1990s,
when it was printed by separate publishers under two different
names: Building Japan 1868-1876 and Schoolmaster to an Empire:
Richard Henry Brunton in Meiji Japan, 1868-1876.