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Monday, Sept. 27, 2010


Preserving the past

For a country that places such importance on history and tradition, Japan can be surprisingly cavalier about preserving its historical buildings, as it tends to fatalistically accept — or positively welcome — the old making way for the new.

According to a report presented at a recent meeting of the Architectural Institute of Japan (Nihon Kenchiku Gakkai), over the past 30 years almost 75 percent of the notable examples of modern architecture built in Tokyo from the start of the Meiji Era in 1868 up to the start of World War II have been lost. Of the 2,196 such buildings listed in 1980, only 830 were still standing in 2000. Now that number has dwindled to 585.

Although there seems to be a growing consensus on the value of preserving Meiji Era brick buildings, later-era concrete or wooden buildings present a more difficult case. For example, should the remaining elementary schools built after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 be preserved? Since wooden schools did not survive the quake, 117 were constructed with the then new technology of ferro-concrete and equipped with heating and running-water toilets.

Now one of the oldest of these schools, the Akashi Elementary School completed in 1926, is being torn down by Chuo Ward over the protests of the Architectural Institute. There has been one successful restoration — the Takanawadai Elementary School in Minato Ward — but it is hard to deny the appeal to cash-strapped wards of using the land for other purposes.

Perhaps preserving the spirit of the past is more important than the original wood or brick or concrete, as in the case of Ise Shrine, which is demolished and rebuilt every 20 years. One example is the compromise arrived at for Tokyo Station: The Marunouchi side is being restored to its original appearance of 1914 while a modern commercial redevelopment is under construction on the Yaesu side.

Another such project is the attempt to revive Tokyo as a city of lively waterways. In commemoration of the centenary of the present stone bridge at Nihombashi in April next year, plans are under way for river boat cruises perhaps to Asakusa, where the Sky Tree tower will open in the spring of 2012.

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