World Heritage and Kyoto: An Interview with Muneta Yoshifumi

MUNETA YOSHIFUMI was awarded a Masters degree in landscape planning from the University of Rome, after which he worked on conservation planning in Italy and environmental impact studies in the EC. Later he was Problem Coordinator for UN conservation planning programs in Jakarta, Singapore, and China. He is now an Associate Professor in the Department of Urban Housing at Kyoto Prefectural University, and Secretary-General of the newly-formed International Society to Save Kyoto’s Historic Environment (ISSK).

It seems very strange that few Japanese draw attention to the fact that most people living in Kyoto don’t go to temples or choose to live in a traditional-style environment. Maybe we’re losing the clear idea of Japanese tradition. But I think this is a problem of understanding tradition.

Today, Kyoto has companies like Wacoal, an international lingerie manufacturer, and Kawashima, which produces most of the textiles used in Japan’s automobile industry β€” both are outgrowths of Kyoto’s traditional textile industry. We are consuming very few kimono today, but we are consuming a lot of high quality textiles. Kyocera is an international manufacturer of high-tech ceramics that evolved from Kyoto’s long history of ceramics production. These companies believe they are Kyoto traditions.

Though Kyoto was the imperial city for 1100 years, we lost the Emperor, and have no aristocratic families. After the Meiji period, only merchants remained. So almost 100 years ago, Kyoto’s governor had the aquaduct from Lake Biwa built to supply hydro-electric power to the city, and Kyoto became Japan’s first city to have an electric tram. This new energy brought industrial development, and the remaining merchants could develop Kyoto again β€” not as an imperial city but as a modern commercial and industrial city. That was a great success. As a result, these merchants could continue some traditions, like activities in Gion or Pon-tocho; these amusement areas were conserved. To preserve Kyoto’s traditions, the city needs to build up new industries.

In Europe, conservation is a recent trend: in Germany’s miracle economy in the 60s, nobody wanted to conserve historical buildings. In the 70s they started to talk about conservation, because they tired of living in an industrialized country. When we talk about conservation, we talk about participation. Participation is quite difficult to realize: when we talk in a group, we have to spend a lot of time deciding one very simple thing. And of course the effect is lessened, because the original idea is completely destroyed though compromise. But the idea has been accepted β€” and so is supported β€” by everyone.

The goal of the ISSK is to open and develop the discussion on conservation of Kyoto. Conservation is culture, and this means the way of conservation is different in each country because the cultures are different. The goal of conservation is the same: our future. When we talk about conserving Kyoto’s cultural heritage, we’re deciding our future culture: whether it will be a traditional or modern culture. This should be decided in a very democratic way. A good way to get more democracy in Kyoto is via more information. When you have good information, you want to participate in decision-making, and you can do so productively.

Many citizens groups are working here to protect Kyoto’s cultural environment, so our society needs different channels β€” not only for City Hall but also for small groups. The problem of conservation is very local. The solution cannot be so local.

The ISSK can give the people of Kyoto alternatives. Usually we Japanese believe that Westerners live in a more modern way than Japanese, but many foreigners here live in a very traditional Japanese way. Observing these Westerners’ way of life can give us a new perspective. Of course we can give some information to local people about conservation from a general or government-level perspective, but also from the perspective of living, on an individual level. The discussion on conservation needs to cover all of these.

Japan’s Cultural Affairs Agency has nominated 17 places in Kyoto for UNESCO World Heritage Site listing; the final decision will be made in December. But how can we limit the places in Kyoto to be saved as World Heritage? The Cultural Affairs Agency just chose β€” from a list β€” the temples and shrines with the greatest numbers of National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. But Kyoto people also want to conserve the environment around these sites, and other cultural environments. These need to be carefully protected through municipal planning.

One important point is that a site of World Heritage importance needs a buffer zone to preserve its landscape and its historical relationship with its surroundings. The Japanese government has special laws for Kyoto, to protect and develop tourism, including detailed buffer zones in the city’s master plan. But many people feel this is not enough. The Kyoto Hotel is in the middle of the city, where large building construction is controlled, but it is just outside the townscape preservation area. Many people opposed its construction. From such an example we can see that Kyoto’s Master Plan should be under constant discussion.

Japanese cities have no good public squares. It is said this is very dangerous in case of disaster β€” people have no place to escape to β€” and people have no squares in which to enjoy the atmosphere of the city. In 1985 the government passed a national law stipulating that, if you leave 20% of your land open to the public, then you can build higher. Kyoto Hotel left some public space on its southwest comer, so City Hall had to make an exception to the usual laws, and permit them to build higher. This is what is happening with Kyoto Station also. Application of this law is difficult, because it doesn’t address the quality or design of the public space.

The ISSK is talking about decentralization of this kind of planning and building administration. Though the national government has special laws for Kyoto, their subsidies are quite limited. Of course the Cultural Affairs Agency has spent a lot of money on Kyoto, but the/re not doing anything especially for Kyoto, they have the same system for the whole country: the government provides subsidies for maintenance of cultural properties only when the building or property is officially designated an Important Cultural Property or National Treasure. For example, of the entire Kiyomizu temple complex, only 19 buildings have that status. When they want to repair any of these designated buildings they can ask the national government for subsidies, but each intervention by Kiyomizu to repair any part of these buildings is controlled by the Cultural Affairs Agency. For the Agency, they’re Important Cultural Properties. For Kiyomizu, they’re temples. This is a dilemma.

In one case, the priest of an Important Cultural Property temple applied to repair part of it, including where the family was living. They didn’t want to follow the Agency’s suggestions, because they didn’t want to live exclusively in the traditional style,’ they wanted to remodel some parts. The carpenters followed the priest’s orders, simply because there was no Agency representative there. Later an Agency official discovered what had happened, and tried to take the money back. So the priest had to pay, but he doesn’t have the money. Now they’re struggling in the local court.

There is no solution for this kind of case in cultural properties that are still being used. Maybe a Buddhist temple wants to invite people to study Zen, so they might want to remodel some buildings. This is a very natural necessity for buildings in use. But from a cultural properties perspective, this must be controlled. So we have to continue considering every detail, looking for different solutions for each case. Preserving cultural heritage means also preserving the use of the buildings, including the ceremonies that take place inside them. We don’t want to keep them as museum pieces; we want to keep the monuments alive. Solving things case by case is the only way.

In my opinion, Kyoto’s conservation should be determined by residents’ quality of life, not for tourists. We have temples, shrines, forests, and small parks β€” we can have a good quality of life drawn from Kyoto’s traditional cultural heritage, and we can show the rest of the country what the modem Japanese way of life can be. This cannot be provided by the central government. We have to do it for ourselves. So let’s say this is a kind of turning point in developing Japan.