Plans unveiled for Japanese cultural center in West London

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo

Ambitious plans to create a Japanese center in London have been unveiled.

The development is planned for West London, which already has a sizable Japanese community. Britain has the largest population of Japanese residents of any European country and has the third-largest Japanese community outside Japan, according to the project’s backers.

Supporters of the plans envisage a center that would become the focus in the country for all kinds of Japanese cultural activities, from flower arrangement and haiku writing to martial arts.

They believe that such a project is long overdue in London, given that there are already centers in cities with fewer Japanese nationals, such as Paris, Milan, Italy, Amsterdam and Cologne, Germany.

The center is the brainchild of former British diplomat Phillida Purvis, who now runs Links Japan, a charitable organization set up in 1998 to promote exchanges between Japanese and British volunteer groups and nongovernmental organizations.

Architect Kisho Kurokawa has drawn up plans for the center, which would see the renovation of an old stable block in Gunnersbury Park, together with the addition of extra rooms, and sporting and lecture facilities. In addition, there are plans for a Japanese restaurant in the park as well as a traditional tea house.

The park, which was bought by the famous Rothschild banking family in 1835, also used to be home to a Japanese garden that was completed by the family in 1901. It is currently being restored and would also form part of the project.

The center, expected to cost between 9 million and 12 million pounds (1.71 billion yen to 2.28 billion yen) to construct, will be environmentally friendly as it will employ solar paneling and photovoltaic cell technology.

The technology envisages tiny cells being put into the ceiling to trap light rays that can be stored for the building’s energy needs.

A further 8 million pounds (1.49 billion yen) is needed to provide an endowment for the center. The building would be hired out to people to generate additional revenue.

Purvis hopes the building will be used both by the Japanese and local community. The center would be near the Japanese school in the suburb of Acton and many families live in the neighborhood.

Purvis has submitted her plans to the Hounslow and Ealing councils, which jointly own the park. The authorities are expected to make a decision at the end of September.

She said the idea has been received enthusiastically by the councils. The councils will not themselves be funding the winning scheme and all bidders will have to show how they can obtain money from outside agencies.

Purvis hopes to secure the funding mainly from British sources that promote health, education and sports. She will also approach Japanese firms for support, as well as the national federations of various Japanese sports and arts in Britain.

Various groups that have no permanent home have expressed enthusiasm for the project, and it is hoped that once up and running visiting experts or students from overseas or other parts of the country can stay at the center, which will have traditional tatami mat rooms with futon. If she succeeds, Purvis hopes the center can be in full swing by 2005.

Purvis said she first raised the idea with the Japanese Embassy back in 1989 but the concept fell by the wayside due to preparations for the Japan festival that year.

“I remain convinced that the extent of Japanese interests in this country deserves to have a physical space,” she said. “The Japanese community here needs it.”

She said that at the moment, Japanese activities are taking place at a number of locations of varying quality, and the Japan Center in Piccadilly, central London, is essentially a store.

Purvis said the Nippon Club, also in central London, only has a few rooms available and is not really equipped for the range of activities envisaged by the center.

She said the Japanese community’s relative size has inhibited the development of a center in the past.

“The Japanese interests are so big in Britain and there are so many that I think it has made cooperation more difficult than in smaller countries. The Japanese community here really does keep its head down and it doesn’t have the presence which I think its size and history justifies.”