Heian Kento 1200: Controversy Reported by Foreign Media

1200th Anniversary of Kyoto is the catalyst of a series of debates and controversy. From the bright side, all the controversial projects showed people’s position on Kyoto’s identity, arose the thinking of how it might be possible to simultaneously preserve the past and modernize for development of future.[1]

The fundamental question of what major reconstruction should be done to celebrate this event itself had brought civic controversy. Some Kyoto people proposed rebuilding the Rashomon[2], which was the south gate of Heian-Kyo for about 600 years, and was known in the Western World for Kurosawa’s movie of the same title. However, Japan is still recovering from the worst economic recession in decades, due to the shortage of money, a one-tenth scale replica of the gate was made for the celebration, displayed in the Kyoto Cultural Museum.

In 1994, the climax of the celebration, there was an article from tourists’ perspective on The New York Times described Kyoto celebrating its 1200th anniversary “showing its best face”, supplementing with the fact that most of the city’s valuable sites will be in finest repair, and the city is displaying a large number of artworks which were not usually displayed to the public.[3]

However, The Independent had been more critical. Despite all the exhibitions, plays and festivals, the whole celebration was “overshadowed by a debate over whether the city is selling its soul to Mammon”.[4] Kyoto is changing into a “stage-set for tourists” at the cost of its original refined way of life which had last for a thousand years. Meanwhile, there are also people who didn’t think  Kyoto was forgetting its past. As cited in the article, Professor Moriya held a different position:  “Kyoto is quite oppressed by its history. People are too conservative. We need to revitalize the city.”[4]

Besides, controversies were mainly on the wave of construction, which has a long-lasting effect and swept away Kyoto’s historical appearance.

In the early 1990s, there were already debates about new constructions, focusing on height restriction and city landscape. Los Angeles Times pointed out that New Kyoto Station and Kyoto Hotel will dwarf its temples and shrines, which is the symbol of Kyoto culture:

“But now the city that will celebrate its 1,200th anniversary in 1994 has been thrown into an uproar over a new challenge: Its commercial skyline–which had been limited to 149 feet, except for a single 432-foot sightseeing tower–is about to be broken.”[5]

The conflict against the construction of Kyoto Hotel and New Kyoto Station was mainly led by Kyoto Buddhist Assn. However they only succeed to post protest advertisement in The New York Times since no newspaper in Kyoto accepted it.[6]

Later, The Independent wrote an article with disappointment after the construction of the pont des arts in 1997, describing Kyoto as a “wealthy, ugly, chaotically ill-planned” city. [7]

It criticized the change of Kyoto around its 1200th birthday, fiercely and frostily, and laid the blame on the developers and the government, especially the corrupt links between city officials and the construction industry.[7]

From 1992-1997, in spite of strong local opposition in the face, the city administration still refused to give an inch to its opponents, aggressively pushed through controversial projects, which had ruined the city skyline and changed the appearance of Kyoto forever. The Independent described it as totally losing the idea of historical continuity and cultural confidence:

“……a deeper and longer-term problem – Kyoto’s inferiority complex about its own culture and its relationship with the rest of the world.” [7]




[1]Carpenter, Juliet Winters, and Sōshitsu Sen. Seeing Kyoto. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2012. 81.

[2] T.R.Reid,  “ON 1,200TH BIRTHDAY, JAPAN’S KYOTO REVELS IN ITS COLORFUL HISTORY.” The Washington Post, November 26, 1994.

[3] Sterngold, James. “WHAT’S DOING IN; Kyoto.” The New York Times, April 24, 1994.

[4] McCarthy, Terry. ” Mammon grips heart of Japan’s ancient temples: Terry McCarthy in Kyoto finds an ancient skyline of dreaming pagodas is falling victim to commercial greed.” The Independent, May 26, 1994.

[5] Jameson, Sam. “COLUMN ONE: Kyoto Losing Past to Progress: Nearing its 1,200th anniversary, Japan’s ancient capital is rent by controversy. A pair of new buildings will dwarf its temples and shrines, and preservationists feel increasingly besieged.” Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1992.

[6] Brumann, Christoph. Tradition, democracy and the townscape of Kyoto: claiming a right to the past. London: Routledge, 2013.

[7] Parry, Richard Lloyd. ” Kyoto Summit: Developers destroy the city of good intentions.” The Independent, December 8, 1997.


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