SAVE THE HISTORY AND CULTURE OF TEMPLE TOWN YANAKA, TOKYO’S OASIS

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The Yanaka area in Taito City, Tokyo, is home to nearly one hundred Buddhist temples. Because it largely escaped harm through both the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the U.S. firebombing of 1945, numerous buildings a century or more old survive in Yanaka. We began the magazine Yanesen (Yanaka-Nezu-Sendagi) here in 1984 with the aim to transform local memory into a lasting historical record. Through interviews with thousands of our neighbors, we drew together the many threads of the neighborhood’s history. Since publication of the final issue in 2009, we have been building a digital archive while continuing to work with neighbors young and old to solve issues facing the area today. Complete runs of Yanesen magazine can be found in the libraries of Harvard, Yale, and Oxford. Faculty and students from these and many other universities have also toured the neighborhood to learn about Tokyo’s history and observe a successful case of local revitalization through heritage.

Today the neighborhood has become popularly known as “Yanesen.” Growing numbers of people come to see a rare corner of Tokyo with surviving old buildings and a traditional community as well as an unusual amount of greenery. We now receive 1.2 million visitors annually. People come from all around the world, often repeatedly, because they love this town.

The area includes numerous nationally and locally registered cultural properties. The Yanaka Metropolitan Cemetery is rich in nature and history. Many historical and literary figures lie buried there. Indeed, the entire town is filled with historic sites, since great writers, artists, and political figures have lived here. Traces of their presence can be found in houses dotting the area. Since the real estate bubble of the 1980s, we have lost much of the traditional streetscape: the numbers of tofu and traditional confection shops have dwindled, and the number of public baths has dropped drastically. The historic environment of the neighborhood faces a crisis. And yet, a new generation of young people is boldly renovating old buildings and starting new businesses.


The Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) has announced it may rescind a plan that had been on planning office maps for decades to cut wide roads through the area. However, municipal plans that had called for set-backs whenever owners rebuilt ironically helped preserve the old streetscape. If the government simply abandons the old plans without any new provisions, disorderly high-rise development will follow. The TMG’s current policy is designed to prepare for a major earthquake by eliminating dense wood-built blocks and promoting district-wide comprehensive planning for fire prevention. However, this can only lead in the same direction: toward high-rise construction.


An approach like this threatens the irreplaceable things of cultural value that the neighborhood associations, merchants’ associations, the Buddhist temple association, and the many people who love Yanaka have protected over the years. Concerned citizens are exploring possibilities such as making Yanaka into Tokyo’s first historic district to be designated by the national Agency of Cultural Affairs or applying the historic area planning system of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. Following a hearing in late August, it appears that TMG representatives consider their explanation sufficient and are ready to go forward with their own plan. But the reality is that most residents still do not fully grasp the implications of TMG plan.


Based on thirty-five years of working on the ground together with neighbors in Yanaka, we make the following demands:


1、Temporarily freeze cancellation of the original urban plan and implementation of the comprehensive district plan. The government must spend more time before advancing plans. Planners must wait for residents to consider and discuss the issues themselves and come up with a direction that they believe is best for Yanaka.
2、In moving forward, planners must listen well to the advice of groups and individuals who have been active locally for decades.
3、The Tokyo Metropolitan Government should take responsibility itself for rebuilding the Five-Story Yanaka Pagoda, which was destroyed by arson in 1957 due to inadequate safety management by the TMG.
4、The TMG must find ways to balance disaster prevention with the preservation and adaptive reuse of cultural and historical properties. Every possible mechanism that might be used to protect Yanaka’s precious streetscapes should be considered.

Yanaka is a place of generous and warm-hearted neighbors, an easy and enjoyable place to live, and a place where, despite the concentration of wooden buildings, local know-how and care have prevented fires almost entirely. We pray from our hearts that government plans will not destroy the Yanaka we have lived in and loved. 

YANESEN KOBO


MORI Mayumi, author. Member, Japan National Trust Board of Directors; former member, Agency of Cultural Affairs Advisory Council (former editor, Yanesen).

YAMASAKI Noriko, editor, Chiikijin magazine; director, Yanaka Sawtooth Roof Society (former writer and editor, Yanesen).

OGI Hiromi, piano teacher; director, Bunkyo Council on Reuse of Historic Buildings (former writer and editor, Yanesen).

Jordan SAND, professor of history, Georgetown University (former editor, Yanesen English edition).