What price is heritage?

by Rob Gilhooly

Landmark one day, parking lot the next — that is the fate that seems about to befall an early 20th-century stone building in the heart of historic Shimoda, Shizuoka Prefecture.

Nanzu Seihyojo — thought to be the last ice-making plant of its kind in Japan — is slated for demolition next month unless funds amounting to no more than the cost of a small central Tokyo apartment are raised to save it.

The impressive structure, which has stood on the port city’s waterfront for some 85 years, and which supplied its fishermen with the means to preserve their catches until April 2004, has now outlived its working life. Refrigerators have replaced its ingenious 48-hour process in which, because of the different freezing points of freshwater and saltwater, electrically chilled seawater turned freshwater into ice.

However, its owner — a city union of commercial enterprises — did give a group of local businesspeople protesting the move until the end of this month to raise some 40 million yen to save the site from becoming a parking lot. Up to now, though, Yutaka Tanaka, who heads the group — known as Shimoda Town Management Organization — says only about 8 million yen has been raised despite efforts to promote the building as both an important cultural asset and a viable business opportunity.

Concerned students

“This is a mini-culinary hub, and a seafood-lovers’ paradise, so we envisaged from the start that it could be easily converted into an eatery located right at the heart of the city,” Tanaka said. “Sadly, we have failed to get the adrenaline pumping at a local level.”

Projects aimed at raising awareness have included presentations, seminars and tours of the building. During the city’s recent Black Ships Festival, small yatai food stalls were set up outside to lure visitors. Meanwhile, concerned research students at Meiji University’s department of science and engineering — which has a focus group devoted to research on the preservation of Shimoda’s historical sites — have penned elaborate theses on the renovation of the building.

In addition, a symposium in the city on June 25 was presented by officials and students at Tokyo University who are keen to protect the city’s cultural heritage, including Nanzu, said Naoko Shimizu, a local hotel owner and supporter of STMO’s cause.

So far, though, all these efforts have largely fallen on deaf ears.

“One of the problems is that the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology does not have a section devoted to the preservation of buildings such as Nanzu,” Shimizu said. “What’s more, the continuing trend of the Japanese government to cut funding for such cultural protection projects is a sign that other similarly important buildings will fall prey to what are considered more viable projects,” she added.

“It is difficult to persuade people that an old building can be an asset that deserves — no demands — our serious consideration,” she said. “That’s an enormous mental shift for many people in our consumer society, but I hoped an historically significant place such as Shimoda might be different.”

Located at the southern end of the Izu Peninsula about 170 km from Tokyo, Shimoda was the first place in Japan to open up to the outside world in 1853 following two centuries of self-imposed isolation. Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the return of the so-called Black Ships commanded by U.S. Cmdr. Matthew Calbraith Perry, who in 1854 brokered an agreement allowing foreign vessels to enter Shimoda’s port.

In addition, Shimoda is also famed for its black-and-white namako-kabe (slug-wall) buildings and other Western influenced structures made from local stone, which once dominated the city but have now largely been demolished in a money-making trend that has seen the demise of so many similar cultural assets across the land.

Nonetheless, thousands of visitors walk the city’s narrow streets annually, primarily to seek out the few remaining namako-kabe buildings and other stone structures, such as Nanzu. And, as Tanaka observed, “If Shimoda is to continue to promote itself as an historic center boasting such fine structures, we surely cannot afford to start knocking them down.

“But sadly, in our society, structures such as Nanzu are missed only after they have already gone.”