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Saturday, July 31, 2010

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End of an era: A cyclist passes in front of Akashi Elementary School in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, on Monday. The school's corridors boast high ceilings and arched doors. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS

Historic schools face doom

Spared by war, ward to raze '20s 'fukko' structures, despite protests


Staff writer

From August, Chuo Ward in Tokyo will start to razing two "fukko" (revival) elementary schools, and demolish a third one around two years later.

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However, architectural experts, local residents and alumni oppose the plan, claiming the buildings have high cultural value and the ward is wasting taxpayer money to build new schools in their stead.

"Akashi Elementary School . . . has an extremely high degree of perfection and density of artistic designs," read a joint statement of three subcommittees of the Architectural Institute of Japan. "It is miraculous that Akashi Elementary School has escaped war damage and postwar redevelopment and that it has been used for over 80 years as an (active) elementary school. It is a precious cultural heritage for Chuo Ward and the Tokyo metropolis," the subcommittees said.

They added that modern elementary school architecture can trace its origins to the school. "Therefore, Akashi Elementary School has high values that should be handed down to the next generations as a state-designated important cultural property," they said.

According to citizens' groups against the razing of the architectural heritage, fukko elementary schools were built of ferroconcrete after the 1923 Great Earthquake that devastated much of Tokyo and its surrounding areas. Unlike their wooden predecessors, they are highly earthquake-resistant.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government built 117 of them and 10 still stand, the groups said. They believe the Chuo Ward schools survived the war because American planners deliberately avoided bombing the area around St Luke's hospital, Tsukiji, Ginza and Hibiya because they hoped to later use those locations as occupiers.

Today, seven fukko elementary schools survive in Chuo Ward.

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According to the ward, all elementary and junior high school buildings in the area have "desirable quake resistance," which means they should survive a temblor with an intensity of around 6 on the Japanese seismic scale to 7.

"Architects say the concrete blocks made back then are very strong because the quality of concrete itself is really good," said Keiko Nakamura, 35, an alumna of Akashi Elementary School and head of the Akashi Elementary School Preservation Campaign.

However, the ward decided in 2008 to demolish three of the schools and replace them with new structures. Akashi and Chuo elementary schools are to be knocked down at a cost of around ¥5 billion each.

The groups, comprising alumni and local residents, said the decision was made without proper consultation with citizens, many of whom feel the fukko are part of their heritage.

"These buildings are a valuable and rare part of architectural heritage of both Chuo Ward and the Tokyo metropolis with close connections to the Great Earthquake and World War II, are beautiful and unique in design, still functioning and safe," the groups said in a statement.

They also oppose the plan for economic reasons: razing perfectly sound structures would waste taxpayer money.

"In the severe economic environment, around ¥5 billion in taxpayer money is far too much to spend to replace each of these two schools, which have only approximately 120 pupils (in Chuo) and 180 (in Akashi)," the groups said.

To preserve the buildings and accommodate an increase in enrollment, Nakamura's group compiled a renovation plan to construct an additional building while repairing and preserving existing portions of the old structures.

The groups are urging Chuo Ward to reconsider its plan.

"Important cultural properties are the treasures of Akashi-cho, Chuo Ward, Tokyo and Japan," Nakamura said. "I do not think Chuo Ward will demolish (the school).

"We still have a chance until a hole is drilled in the current schools and we believe this plan can be halted at any time if Chuo Ward alters its position," said Yoshiaki Takahashi, 57, an alumnus and member of the Campaign to Revise Chuo Elementary School Reconstruction Plan.

Despite opposition, the ward said it will go forward with the demolition.

"At present, we are considering proceeding with our plan," said Makoto Endo, an official of the Chuo Ward board of education.

Endo said the ward is not going to deny the opinions of the architectural institute and admitted the schools have historical and traditional value.

"Certainly since schools have been supported by the community for 80 years, we think it is important for us to inherit this history and traditions," Endo said.

But the ward argues the schools have to be eventually replaced as they are too old and in order to improve the educational environment.

Officials noted fukko school classrooms are smaller than those built afterward and gymnasiums are too small and have low ceilings. They also said the population and number of children are increasing in the area.

Endo said he disagreed with Nakamura's group's call to preserve the existing buildings while constructing additional ones and said rebuilding is necessary.

To accommodate the increasing population, the ward said it plans to increase the number and space of classrooms. "We are considering creating an environment that will match the educational environment of the modern era," Endo said.

The ward also said many residents understand and support the plan.

"All members of the PTA support (the plan). They are asking us to proceed quickly," said Norio Tano, another board of education official.

"There is no reason to oppose (the plan) because rebuilding schools will safely cope with the aging (of the current buildings) and further enhance safety. It will improve the educational environment for the sake of children and education," Endo said.

Tano said many residents are also supportive of the plan and the ward assembly approved the demolition budget.

Officials also reject claims that the ward is wasting taxpayer money for the project.

"For sure, we don't consider this a waste," Tano said, adding the new schools will be built out of necessity.

The new Akashi and Chuo elementary school buildings are scheduled to be built in July 2012 and rebuilding of Meisho Elementary School will start around August 2012, according to officials.

Some residents consider the ward's plan inevitable.

"I want to expand the opportunity for my child to learn about the history of the area that will become her hometown," said Mami Katsuyama, whose daughter is scheduled to start attending Akashi Elementary School next year. "In that sense, I feel a little regret that she will not have a chance to learn in a fukko school.

"I also feel the rebuilding is inevitable, when taking into comprehensive consideration the costs and function," Katsuyama said.



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