Heian Kento 1200: Overview of Kyoto’s 1200th Anniversary

1994 was a big year when Kyoto was going to celebrate “the 1200th anniversary of Heiankyo capital”, or “Heian Kento 1200”「平安建都 1200」. In about ten years around 1994, a series of projects and constructions were conducted under the theme of「伝統と創生」“Tradition and Revitalization”[1], accompanied with ordinance reform.

Critically, this two-sided celebration evoked Kyoto’s old memories and values, had become a catalyst for Kyoto to return to a culture-preservation city in the following years and run into the 21st century with its traditional identity.

To mark the 1200th anniversary, city construction programs were rolling out, including New Kyoto Station, Kyoto Hotel, Kyoto Concert Hall, Keihanna Commemorative Park, Torii at Matsunoo-Taisha and the Museum of Tokyo etc. A lot of them stimulated negative criticism, brought controversies, which reflected how Kyoto people understood the city’s spirits. Besides, Kyoto held a lot of important international cultural events, including Kyoto International movie festival and The World Conference of Historical Cities. The registration of Kyoto cultural relics into the list of World Heritage Sites positively protected cultural relics and influenced a series of landscape policies.

Details of the events and constructions mentioned above would be expanded in other posts.

(Hiro Yamagata 1994 Poster / Kyoto 1200 Year Anniversary Celebration )

(Part of the Celebrations)


The importance of 1200th-anniversary celebration could be seen from two perspectives. Firstly, the 1100th-anniversary celebration set a very high standard precedent. [2] One hundred years ago in the late 19th century, the whole Kyoto went through a spiritless period since it suffered serious decline due to the capital being transferred and the emperor’s departure for Tokyo.[3]  The remaining Kyoto People raised a large sum of money and constructed an impressive, spectacularly ornate replica of Kammu’s palace when Kyoto first became capital in the 8th century.[2] This gold-and-vermillion Shrine was intended to boost Kyoto’s image, as well as reinvigorate the city’s life.[3] Today, that building, known as Heian-Jingu Shrine, set the stage for a lot of famous Japanese literature, is successfully a symbol of Kyoto and one of Japan’s most famous attractions. It made an important part of Kyoto identity and raised Kyoto people’s expectation.

Besides, due to the social and economic background mentioned in other posts, Kyoto had lost its traditional appearance for long due to the uncontrolled commercial development and western influence. Japanese was regarded as only “copycats”, [2]

According to Yahata Satoko, the co-organizer of an event called “Nippon to Asobo” which started in 1994 to mark the “Heian Kendo 1200”, mentioned that back to 1990s, a lot of Japanese people rather tended to be obsessed with Western culture.[4]

Not only Japanese people themselves but also Western media described 1990s Kyoto totally “another Kyoto”. Here’s a piece of excerption from Los Angeles Timeson May 16, 1992:

“…Take, for example, Takoyakushi Temple in the Kawaramachi section in the city’s center. The first four floors of its ferro-concrete building are crammed with restaurants, bars and nightclubs. From the street, a pedestrian can see only the rectangular exterior, crisscrossed with a metal design and covered with advertising banners. Only from the upper floors of a department store across the street can the traditional temple be seen.

Such intrusions of the ugly into the elegant, modernity into tradition and progress into preservation have been going on for years, largely without complaint…”[5]

What Ancient Kyoto produced are national original aesthetic legacy,  a strong counterattack to Japan’s image as a tagalong.People were urgently calling for the return of tradition during its 1200-th birthday.


[1] 指定都市市長会,“都市の再生と発展のための取組「平安建都1200年記念事業」を実施(平成6年)”, accessed December 13, 2017, retrieved from: http://siteitosi.jp/about/photo/kyoto/

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

[3] “A Symbol of Kyoto: Heian Shrine.” The Kyoto Project. Accessed December 12, 2017. http://thekyotoproject.org/english/heian-shrine/.

[4] “Kyoto’s Nippon to Asobō Event Blends the Old and New.” Nippon.com. December 10, 2013. Accessed December 12, 2017. https://www.nippon.com/en/features/c00809/.

[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.

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