Interview with Nobuko Inaba by Built Heritage and Heritage Architecture

The study of heritage conservation and management in Japan is of particular interest for the references it offers to the development of new paradigms of sustainability based on closer ties between culture and nature. With the aim to reflect on this rich Japanese experience, the Editorial Teams of Built Heritage and Heritage Architecture held a conversation with one of the leading voices in heritage conservation in Japan, Professor Nobuko Inaba, who is also member of the Editorial Board of the journal Built Heritage.

 

Trained as a conservation architect and architectural historian, Professor Inaba received her doctoral degree from the Tokyo Institute of Technology. She gained practical knowledge and experience on heritage policy-development and management while serving in the Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs and its affiliated research institute from 1991 to 2008, including the period from 2000 to 2002 while she worked for ICCROM seconded by Japan. From 2008 to 2020, she held the position of Professor of World Heritage Studies at the University of Tsukuba. Continuing her domestic and international advisory role in heritage conservation, she is now Professor Emeritus at the University of Tsukuba and a Visiting Professor at the Open University of Japan. She is also a Special Advisor to the Director-General of ICCROM.

Shanghai-Tokyo, May 28, 2020


[Plácido González]:


What are the greatest challenges that Japan is experiencing for the conservation of its built heritage?


[Nobuko Inaba]:

I would highlight how the domestic context is related to political demands coming from national authorities, which have multiplied in the recent years. Heritage is not only a matter of the ministry in charge of culture. Other ministries of economy / trade / industry, land / infrastructure / transport / tourism and agriculture / forestry / fisheries are demanding the utilization of heritage sites to contribute to economic development.

 

This trend started from the economic recession starting in the 1990s. The exploitation of heritage resources is a concern on one hand, but on the other hand this has some advantages. The decentralization of the administration of the local available resources is promoted and the municipal governments are given the possibility to think by themselves what to do. The main downside may be that the government's call to think about heritage is focusing on it mainly as an asset to cater to the tourism industry.

[Plácido González]:

Recent discussions about heritage management in a post-crisis scenario are bringing up the need for heightened citizen participation as a key for a sustainable future. As a characteristic approach to urban heritage conservation, do you think the Japanese experience of machizukuri could serve as an example, and be transferable to other cultural contexts?

[Nobuko Inaba]:

Machizukuri is based on people’s participation and the interaction between architects, planners, scholars and local communities. Machi means town and zukuri means making. The word contains broad meaning beyond physical planning. It started in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, when local communities started to show concern about their historic built environment. This happened in the context of widespread destruction of historic built environments in the first massive wave of development in the postwar era.

 

I understand that similar movements concerning the protection of historic areas and landscapes were also observed in major European countries in the same period and legal instruments were being introduced there. In Japan the national priority was given to development and the planning legislation was not favorable for the protection of the historic built environment. The land use control in Japan is divided among two ministries, split between urban and agricultural areas, and in both ministries’ development policies there was no room for historic built environment protection in those days. Therefore, in Japan machizukuri or people’s initiatives emerged as significant movements. The legal system for the protection of historic towns and villages was introduced not into the planning system but into the cultural heritage law in 1975 known as denken as an abbreviation in Japanese or the Preservation Districts of Historic Buildings.

 

Since the 1990s, machizukuri or local initiatives with people’s participation became a subject of Japanese authorities’ interests and gained a new meaning, as the overall economic and social circumstances changed and more and more institutions became interested in this system. Destruction and renewal was no longer an option for urban development as Japan’s economy was declining, so Japanese society and the political sphere realized the need to reuse the available urban and rural resources. These local bottom-up development initiatives are also known as machiokoshi (okoshi = raising). People may also use murazukuri or muraokoshi for smaller rural communities as mura means villages instead of machi or towns.

 

Machizukuri has indeed been widespread in a regional context thanks to academic cooperation. In the 1980s and 1990s many Asian students came to Japan and studied machizukuri, and learned about the Japanese experience of community participation. Later on, these researchers returned to their home countries -- Thailand, Indonesia, China, Singapore and others -- where they now have the role of professors, advocating for the implementation of participation processes and their sustainability.


[Plácido González]:


You connect it to a global consciousness, but what are the intrinsic Japanese roots of machizukuri?

[Nobuko Inaba]:

People might tend to say that It is rooted in a particular understanding of culture and nature in Japan, the reason for which may be the fact that in Japan, culture and nature are intertwined. In general, any societies before the modern period had to live with close linkage to nature, but the Japanese cultural identity may have stronger associations to nature than others. We learn this from ancient Japanese literature including works such as Genji monogatari or Makura no soshi from the 11th century. People also explain this as having come from shinto belief developed from nature worship.

 

There are also historical reasons. During the Edo Period, local residents were divided into groups for control purposes, continuing into the Meiji period as a way to manage residents’ group activities. Later on, it became an important basis for people’s cooperation during the modernization of Japan. When there was no Internet, the municipal office would prepare clipboards or folders for the dissemination of notices that circulated from one neighbor to the other, or arrange communal work tasks to clean the streets; manage garbage disposal, etc. This way of cooperation became part of the life of Japanese communities. This continues today in the celebration of festivals, especially at harvest time. I live in a highly urbanized area in Tokyo and this aspect of local culture still articulates community life. It is mainly practiced by small businesses, shop and restaurant owners who participate and give their support. The authorities know who the people are that are heading these groups and they connect with them, so this becomes a very important means of social articulation. These non-regulated autonomous community groups are a fundamental basis for the later functioning of machizukuri.


[Plácido González]:

Do new technologies enable a better practice of machizukuri?

[Nobuko Inaba]:

If this means SNS or similar ways of communication, I don’t think so, because Japan is an aging society, and the elderly are not so familiar with these technologies. Researchers and scholars may be using new technologies, but this is not the case for a significant number of citizens. We may envision some different dynamics in the solution of the problem of depopulation in Japan.

 

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications is offering opportunities to younger people to settle in rural areas. These younger generations may be more connected to promote their products among city residents in other areas of Japan utilizing new technologies, and this is an important impulse to enable them to lead this recovery and develop a new awareness.

[Plácido González]:

You refer to de-population, aging society and tourism, which are all factors that greatly influence heritage from a wide perspective. What are the similarities or differences between the challenges that heritage conservation is facing in Japan and in China?

[Nobuko Inaba]:

In my opinion, the situation in Japan is different from big countries like China and the US. Japan is a country composed of small aging societies. In that sense the Japanese system in general may be similar to those of smaller countries in Europe facing the same situations.

 

I don’t know the situation in China well enough to be able to compare with Japan. However, at least in the case of the Japanese system I can point to an important factor: that to support the smaller rural communities, national tax revenues are allocated to local governments, playing an important role by providing subsidies, and their distribution from urban to rural areas is fundamental to compensate for differences in financial situations. Communities in rural environments in Japan, for example, could not survive without such support through municipal offices. I have been emphasizing the importance of the role of municipal administrations and their capacity building achievements.

 

As for the machizukuri way of supporting community participation, there are recent experiences of participatory area conservation in China. Professors from Tongji University introduced me to some projects recently, where they were experimenting with the use of mobile phones to help citizens contribute to the planning process, asking them for their opinions, and enabling them to participate in workshops. But at the same time, we have a situation in China where there is a widespread type of heritage commercialization; the development of fake towns and the like, so it is difficult for me to evaluate the relative weight and impact of these initiatives.

[Plácido González]:

You are mentioning this very important issue in China, which is part of a debate that relates to theory of heritage: what are your feelings as a scholar about this process? What would be the means to assess heritage authenticity?

[Nobuko Inaba]:

In archaeological sites in Japan, the reconstruction of structures lost by fires and other causes in the past is an issue under continuous discussion as our main building material is wood and in some ancient sites nothing is remaining above the ground and only flat land is left. As desired by the public sometimes we construct full-scale replicas of those lost ancient structures. As I understand that reconstruction is getting more widespread as either disaster/war damage recovery efforts or nation identity recovery symbols in many parts of the world, it is a good time to discuss the role of authenticity in heritage conservation beyond material authenticity. The question is: do we consider them heritage buildings, fake imitations, or replicas?

 

Having said this, avoiding further misunderstanding, let me emphasize the fact that the policy for the conservation of existing protected historic buildings in Japan has been developed based on material authenticity since the 19th century, respecting the original materials following the same principles as in conservation theories developed in Europe.

[Plácido González]:

To what extent do you believe in the existence of cultural differences in the notion of authenticity between the West and the rest of the World?

[Nobuko Inaba]:

I don’t think there is any difference. The notion of authenticity exists everywhere from prehistoric times, and the process of authentication is necessary for societies. Otherwise societies do not exist; you should authenticate that the sources of power; i.e. the emperor, the king, are authentic; the same way you would verify the content of gold in a coin. If you refer to the notion of authenticity as it emerged in the 19th century, it results from materialism and was developed simultaneously in Europe and in Japan. It is part of pragmatic, rational programmatic thinking, which is a philosophy of modern science that already existed in Japan and China, a rational way to deal with the material world.

[Plácido González]:

What happens when you apply this notion to intangible heritage?

[Nobuko Inaba]:

Authenticity should not be defined exclusively as a concept. The word 'authenticity' used in heritage conservation should be clearly defined as a practical word that is understandable and usable by people living in any language area. The main purpose of the Nara Conference on Authenticity held in 1994 in which I participated as a member of the host organization, was actually to revisit and redefine the meaning and role of authenticity in heritage conservation. In the Nara Document it says that authenticity “appears as the essential qualifying factor concerning values”. As I understand authenticity is a tool for the control of quality. Then we can discuss together at all levels, including tangible and intangible heritage, between different cultural approaches: what are the quality control principles that we need? What tools do we apply to define quality? Maybe when we acknowledge this approach we will be able to discuss it together.

[Plácido González]:

This is a very inspiring reflection. Chinese language has two words for authenticity; I don’t know if this is also the case in Japanese language.

[Nobuko Inaba]:

We share these concepts with China, but unfortunately we use only the European word in the international discussions. All in all, there are also important language issues in Europe, as the notions of authenticity and integrity are very similar. Indeed, the National Park Service in the US also uses integrity with the same definition as authenticity, and they are equivalent terms in practice.

[Plácido González]:

This may not only be a matter of differences in language, but of who speaks about authenticity: the heritage field has a specific definition that competes with the tourism or the creative city fields, and so on. Should we claim for an exclusive definition from the perspective of heritage, or could heritage benefit from the influence of other fields?

[Nobuko Inaba]:

The state of development of heritage throughout the world is so varied that I think we should go beyond materiality and promote participation as a form of democracy. In other instances we will need to go back to the original notion of material conservation. This would basically depend on the goal of conservation: is our goal to achieve an ideal sustainable society, or to keep, to transfer the idea of materiality? We cannot forget how preservationists started protesting against demolition and how we now have integrated heritage in public policies, so, objectively, a great advancement has been achieved. Once heritage has been acknowledged, maybe the key question to solve would be: how do we utilize it?

For those interested in the practice of machizukuri in Japan, Built Heritage recommends the articles by Professor Hidenobu Jinnai and Professor Takashi Ariga, published in Built Heritage Vol. 1(3):

Evolutional Steps toward the Post-Western/ Non-Western Movement in Japan
 

Contemporary Currents in Japanese Machizukuri (Citizens Collaborative Community Improvements and Management) and Their Socio-Cultural Meanings
 

Co-sponsored by

Tongji Architectural Design (Group) Co., Ltd.
Shanghai Tongji Urban Planning and Design Institute Co., Ltd.
Arcplus Group PLC
World Heritage Institute of Training and Research for the Asia and the Pacific Region under the Auspices of UNESCO (WHITRAP)
Shanghai Construction No.4 (Group) Co., Ltd.

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