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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

Fighting for Kyoto: Tradition, Democracy and the Townscape in the Former Imperial Capital

4. Dezember 2001 / 18.30

Christoph Brumann, Cologne University

The fact that Kyoto was not bombed during the war did not only save the famous temples, shrines and palaces from destruction, it preserved an entire city built out of wood. Since the 1960s, however, Kyoto’s townscape has been greatly transformed, with high-rise construction shooting up particularly during the Bubble Period. Many citizens complain about this, and the ceaseless townscape debates – the so-called keikan ronsou – are one of the most remarkable features of contemporary social life in Kyoto. And while the protests against the new railway station complex and the rebuilding of Kyoto Hotel around 1990 failed to reach their objective, citizen protest led to the withdrawal of the plan to copy a Parisian footbridge – the Pont the Arts – over the Kamogawa in 1998. At present, the city is more divided than ever: on the one hand, high-rise “manshon” construction profits from government incentives and falling land prices, and the new apartment buildings grow even taller and more controversial. On the other hand, the efforts of the countless citizens‘ action groups, expert comitees, public meetings, proposals and publications start to bear fruit, with particulary the remaining traditional wooden town houses having become the object of a veritable boom. These so-called machiya are renovated into trendy galleries, coffeeshops or restaurants, appear in almost every Kyoto tourism feature right now, and are also increasingly sought after as residences.

After describing these developments in some more detail, I will attempt to give an explanation for this polarization, based on 17 months of ethnographic fieldwork in 1998/99 and another two months right now. Aesthetic discord is not an issue – the preference for old and Japanese-style architecture is almost universal. More momentous is the power of the big players in Japan’s construction business. These huge corporations have little reason to change their uniform nation-wide strategies just for Kyoto, interested as they are in new construction instead of preservation. In this, however, they also build on a deeply entrenched and widely shared expectation that land and buildings are private property and therefore not to be interfered with by the public. Here, the conceptions of old-time residents of the centre (the people most likely to own machiya or plots of land suited for manshon construction) diverge more widely than often acknowledged from those of the citizens‘ action groups and experts (who often have grown up in the suburbs of Kyoto or entirely elsewhere). Still, it appears that the renewed interest in Kyoto’s traditional architecture and townscape is more than just a simple case of quote;invented traditionquote; or quote;retoroquote;-style nostalgia; rather, there is a substantial quest towards making the city a really public place.

Christoph Brumann is a Lecturer at the Department of Anthropology, University of Cologne, Germany, where he also obtained his doctorate in 1997. Other than on Kyoto, he has published on gift-giving customs and utopian communities in Japan, as well as on the concept of culture, globalization and the survival conditions of utopian communities world-wide

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