Mount Fuji

Monks fight 'progress' in old city


(This article was first published in the Chicago Tribune of May 10, 1991)

KYOTO, Japan — In a city where tranquil garden ponds and 1,000-year-old Buddhist sanctuaries have names like "Reflect the Moon Lake" and "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion," concessions to progress have not come easily.

Kyoto is a city of tradition. And in a place where black-robed monks spend hours each day raking cypress leaves from the stone pathways that meander through 1,700 temples and shrines, Japan's headlong rush into the 21st Century is an incongruity many find hard to accept.

Never has that been more evident or unsettling than now, as this one-time imperial capital begins preparations for its 1,200th anniversary in 1994.

One side says we must march forward, the other side says we should stand still, or even take a few steps backward," says farmer Ichiro Shigeta, whose family has worked the same small rice farm on the city's outskirts for nearly 400 years.

Like many local residents, Shigeta understands both sides of an argument that has split a city known in the 17th Century as Heian-kyo, or "Capital of Peace and Tranquility."

On one side are the forces of progress — mainly bureaucrats, planners and businessmen. On the other, carrying the banners of Kyoto's rich and storied past, is an army of Buddhist monks, conservationists and scholars.

Late last year the bureaucrats announced an ambitious facelift for this city of 1.5 million. Among the projects is the renovation of the World War II-era railroad station.

What angered the monks was that the new station would be exempt from a centuries-old height restriction of 150 feet. The restriction is meant to ensure that the 190-foot Toji Pagoda remains the dominant feature on Kyoto's horizon.

Never mind that the pagoda's 1,168-year domination of the skyline ended in 1964 when a 430-foot steel structure called the Kyoto Tower was erected and the tranquility of the shrine's gardens was shattered by the roar of the new 140 m.p.h. Bullet Train.

The Kyoto Tower and the Bullet Train were the products of a newly industrialized Japan caught up in the electric atmosphere generated by the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. The national consciousness was focused on the future, not the past.

But the tower was a concession to modernization that still makes Kyoto's tradition-bound monks bristle.

"Horrible, absolutely horrible," says Ryosuke Aikawa. "Such a monstrosity is an insult to the ancient traditions of Kyoto. Now, they want to further dishonor the past with new skyscrapers."

Aikawa and other monks fear that if the new railroad station wins the height exemption, a whole forest of Kyoto Towers, hotels with restaurants revolving in the clouds and soaring office buildings will sprout on the city's generally flat landscape.

They point to the city's decision in February to allow the nine-story Kyoto Hotel to add seven floors. That will make the the 103-year-old hostelry 200 feet high — 10 feet higher than the Toji Pagoda some 2 miles away.

Immediately after the renovation was approved, the monks placed signs at the gates of dozens of temples declaring their opposition to "skyscrapers that obliterate the ancient beauty of Kyoto."

While the destruction of the skyline may be one reason for the opposition, there is another, more fundamental explanation that dates back centuries to a time when Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines played a more powerful role in society and politics.

"If we allow people to look down on our temple compounds from tall buildings, our dignity and the sacredness of our beliefs will be diminished," says Aikawa. "Kyoto is a sacred place . . . like the Vatican or Mecca . . it should not be turned into a miniature Tokyo so a handful of greedy businessmen and politicians can become rich."

Kyoto's city officials don't take such comments lightly.

"Nobody wants to destroy the unique character of Kyoto or show disrespect for religion," said a spokesman for the city." After all, to turn Kyoto into another Tokyo would be suicidal from a tourism standpoint."

Kyoto's economy is heavily dependent on Japanese and foreign tourists — 40 million each year tour the temples, gardens, shrines, castles and museums and generate an estimated $13 billion for the local economy.

"There is a delicate balance here between the past and the present," says businessman Hiroshi Nakamura. "Nobody wants to upset that balance. But you cannot prevent progress either. We must be flexible."

Farmer Shigeta agrees, but is convinced the Buddhists also have a valid worry.

"When it comes to money, I've seen what the land speculators and developers will do, especially those from Tokyo," he says. "They would turn temples into parking lots if they thought they could make money from the venture."

Editor's noteRonald E. Yates launched his professional career with a BSJ (Bachelor of Science in Journalism) from the University of Kansas back in 1969. Apart from Japan, where he served as Tokyo bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune from 1974 to 1977, and once again from 1985 to 1992, his colorful and sometimes hazardous life as a foreign correspondent has taken him to Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, as well as Mexico, and various hot spots in Central and South America.

Besides penning something like 3,000 articles over the years, he has authored and co-authored several books, perhaps the best known of which is The Kikkoman Chronicles: A Global Company with a Japanese Soul — the fascinating story of how a centuries-old Japanese soy sauce maker steeped in tradition embraced modern technology and marketing methods in order to win success in the tough U.S. market.

From 2003 until his retirement in 2009, Prof. Yates served as Dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois, which includes the Department of Journalism he previously headed. I would like to express my sincere thanks to him for granting permission to republish the above article here in Japan Perspectives.