Disappearing valuable structures in Japan

JAPAN - Nearly 100 architectural structures registered as tangible cultural properties by the central government have been lost, either because they were destroyed in disasters or demolished. Their registration is meant to preserve them as historical heritage sites open for public viewing, but the regulations for maintaining these structures are looser than those for national treasures and important cultural properties. Also, many owners have been forced to relinquish ownership of the buildings for financial reasons.

To help prevent further loss of these culturally significant buildings, the Cultural Affairs Agency launched a programme to provide financial support to owners this fiscal year, such as providing subsidies for making the buildings quake-resistant and constructing toilet facilities if they are open to the public.

One such building in Higashi-Nada Ward, Kobe, is on the verge of being demolished. To stop the move, local citizens have launched a signature collection campaign.

The building is owned by a sake brewer in Nadagogo, which refers to the five areas known for manufacturing quality sake in Kobe and Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture. It was built in the late Edo period (1603-1867) in the "kasanegura" (double breweries) style as it is a combination of a sake-brewing facility and a facility for other works.

The two-story wooden building, which features classic architecture and covers about 1,000 square meters, was registered as a tangible cultural property in 2010.

However, as the brewer failed to repay loans, the building was seized. At an auction at the Kobe District Court in March, it was won by a housing developer in the prefecture for about ¥220 million.

According to the Nadagogo Brewers Association and other industry members, the kasanegura structure is one of tens of wooden sake manufacturing facilities hit in the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. It was the only one repaired and kept in use.

If it is demolished, the registration will be nullified. So in June, local citizens requested that the developer hold off on demolition while they began a signature collection drive in July to ask the Kobe municipal government to buy the building.

Fukuo Fujisawa, chairman of the Mikage district urban planning association, said: "[The building] is a precious asset that tells the history of Nadagogo. As it survived the disaster, I hope it'll be preserved."

Meanwhile, in the Naramachi district in Nara, which still features an Edo-period townscape, the Ida family residence and its storehouse, both built around the end of the Edo period, were demolished in November.

In Tachikawa, Tokyo, the old Umeda clinic building, built in 1929, was demolished in December. Thanks to its classic architecture, the clinic building had served as a location for filming movies and TV dramas. After its removal, an apartment complex for elderly people was built in its place.

In both of the above cases, the owners were forced to give up ownership due to high maintenance costs.

Natural disasters have only worsened the situation.

In Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture, the Takahashi family residence's main building, which was built in 1922 and is the only registered tangible cultural property in the city, was damaged in the tsunami caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. After the owner realised the damage was too great to repair, the building was demolished in October 2011.

The central government set up the registration programme in 1996 to help protect historical assets from urban development. The programme covers structures that are 50 years old or older in principle if, for example, the design illustrates characteristics of the time when they were built, and they would be difficult to reconstruct.

Tokyo Tower and the former Toyosato Primary School building in Toyosato, Shiga Prefecture, are among the registered buildings.

According to the Cultural Affairs Agency, the number of registered structures is 9,250 as of July 1. In December, the number of structures with cancelled registrations had reached 312. Of them, about 100 were either demolished or destroyed in disasters. Meanwhile, 92 were upgraded to important cultural properties.

Important cultural properties are free from real-estate tax and up to 85 per cent of their repair costs are paid by the government. Meanwhile, structures registered under the tangible cultural property programme are eligible for only 50 per cent of real-estate tax exemption and a 50 per cent subsidy toward their repair costs.

Prof. Yasuo Nagai at Yamagata University, who has made efforts to reconstruct cultural properties hit in the 2011 disaster, said: "The registration programme is largely supported by building owners' goodwill. The whole community surrounding a registered building needs to be aware that the structure contributes to beautifying the townscape and therefore support the building's maintenance."