Kyoto’s cultural treasures at mercy of Fukui reactors

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Each spring, thousands of tourists visit the ancient capital of Kyoto to enjoy what, for many, is the quintessential Japanese experience of viewing cherry blossoms in the cradle of the nation’s traditional culture.

During this time, as well as when the leaves turn in the autumn and at New Year’s, Kyoto’s 17 World Heritage properties, 207 nationally designated national treasures and more than 1,800 important cultural properties draw huge crowds.

This officially recognized cultural heritage includes ancient temples and shrines, traditional homes and brick buildings erected from the late 19th century onward, as well as paintings, scrolls, ancient manuscripts and folding screens.

Amid such riches, it’s easy to forget that roughly 60 km from central Kyoto and only about 50 km from such internationally known sites as Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion), lies Fukui Prefecture, home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of nuclear power plants. In the event of a severe accident resulting in substantial amounts of radioactive fallout in the surrounding area, Kyoto faces at least partial evacuation and both the prefecture and the city have put plans in place.

The proximity of Fukui’s nuclear power plants to Kyoto Prefecture’s 2.6 million residents, including the nearly 1.5 million who live in the city of Kyoto, means priorities are naturally focused on evacuation plans that save the maximum number of lives, especially in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

But while prefectural and municipal documents show an awareness of the importance of protecting delicate artwork and religious objects in the event of major quakes, fires and floods, none address the question of what — if anything — can be done at an official level to save at least some of Kyoto’s cultural treasures from radioactive contamination.

“There has been no official discussion, not even at the national level, about how to protect our cultural properties from contamination after a nuclear power plant accident has occurred. Kyoto Prefecture is concentrating first and foremost on the issue of evacuating residents,” said the prefectural government’s assistant chief of atomic energy safety, Hideki Takahashi.

“Nor has the city (of Kyoto) had any specific talks with prefectural authorities, the Cultural Affairs Agency or UNESCO about protecting Kyoto’s World Heritage sites from radiation,” added Tetsuji Nonoguchi, head of the city’s nuclear disaster response office.

Many of these World Heritage sites, designated by UNESCO, and numerous important cultural properties are buildings or large objects that can’t be moved. Some of the temples and shrines have concrete storage facilities for smaller works of art, old scrolls and manuscripts, and officials say these facilities could offer reasonably secure protection from radioactive contamination.

Kyoto Prefecture’s plan in the event of the Fukui plants suffering a critical accident, revised earlier this year, assumes the “calm” evacuation of nearly 130,000 people on the Kyoto side of the border but still within 30 km of the Takahama plant in Fukui. It also assumes that up to 600 buses could be secured to evacuate prefectural residents living in rural areas, and that those nearest the plants fleeing into Kyoto by car would take the most logical routes.

The prefectural government further assumes that around 12,000 evacuees would enter from neighboring Fukui, a figure some Kyoto residents and officials say is far too low.

The prefecture estimates it would take around 15 to 25 hours to evacuate everyone, depending on time of day, weather conditions, number of cars on the main roads, whether or not at least some train services are available and the number of buses that can be dispatched to pick up those living in remote areas.

On the other hand, the Kyoto Municipal Government has plans in place to rescue and protect cultural assets from fire. It involves the city’s temples and shrines, police and fire departments, and local volunteers.

The Kyoto Cultural Properties Rescue system consists of 237 teams located throughout the city. Residents living near important cultural properties, as well as those in charge of them, would work together in the event of a natural disaster and can make decisions on whether to remove a property or if possible store it on the premises.

“Most volunteers live close to the cultural property they’ll help protect, and disaster drills involving the teams are held twice a year. Area residents, including foreign residents, can participate if they want,” said Kenji Kishimoto, a municipal official in charge of cultural properties protection.

Plans to save at least some of these assets from radiation-related damage are also hampered by the fact that, while Kyoto’s temples and shrines are in charge of many of them, others are managed by the Cultural Affairs Agency or the Imperial Household Agency — not the city or prefecture. Coordination between local officials and these agencies on what to do if a nuclear disaster threatens to ruin cultural properties is an issue yet to be addressed, and it has gotten virtually no local political attention.

Given the importance of such cultural assets not only to the history of Kyoto and Japan, but also to the local economy, this is somewhat surprising. In 2011, the city drew more than 10 million visitors who spent at least one night in town. Of these, around 515,000 were foreign tourists.

A survey conducted by the city indicated its temples, shrines, natural surroundings and traditional culture ranked highest among both domestic and overseas visitors in terms of satisfaction.

In December 2011, concerned by the quake and tsunami that wrecked Tohoku and sparked the world’s worst nuclear crisis in a generation, Kyoto called for strengthened measures to guard its cultural heritage in the event of natural disasters, noting that “it’s not too much to say that Kyoto, without the existence of those properties, cannot be imagined.” The report did not include any advice on what to do in the midst of an atomic calamity.

Last November, however, the World Heritage Convention, meeting in Kyoto, had some advice for local governments hosting World Heritage sites that, while too late for Kyoto given the presence of the Fukui plants, served as a warning to others.

“Nuclear power plants should not be built near World Heritage properties,” said World Heritage Center Director Kishore Rao.

  • CdD Semi sotto la neve

    Happy to read this article. If anyone feels like it, they can sign a petition on this very topic Safeguard Kyoto @ Change.org:

    http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/safeguard-kyoto-stop-ooi-nuclear-power-plants

  • Starviking

    What is the point of this story? It does not even quantify what radiation damage would do to these “priceless artefacts”. With a background in science I think UV from the sun and air pollution are far greater hazards to these artefacts.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Coordination between local officials and these agencies on what to do if a nuclear disaster threatens to ruin cultural properties is an issue yet to be addressed, and it has gotten virtually no local political attention.

    Unfortunately, the local government in Kyoto is unreliable for addressing even local problems, let alone regional problems.The article mentions “traditional homes” (machiya) and the like, but these continue to be torn down in the heart of the city, which is being commercialized by profit seeking investors with no interest in culture.

    It is only within the last couple of years that the government, under pressure from neighborhood preservation groups, was forced to put a law on the books limited building heights and preserving traditional aspects of the older parts of the city.

    In Europe such things have been standard procedure for many years, and even in Japan, lesser cities (e.g., Kanazawa) have had much stronger preservation policies enacted long before Kyoto even embarked on such efforts.

    It’s good to see this issue being addressed in any form, but has been negligence and corruption more than the threat of nuclear disaster that has brought about the destruction of many valuable cultural assets and much of the ambiance of the 1200 year-old city of Kyoto.

  • Ivar

    This is somewhat nonsensical, partly because no effort is made to distinguish properly between the prefecture and the city. Maybe because making that distinction voids the story.

    The author laments the lack of plans to save cultural assets in Kyoto from radiation while describing the plans that do exist for the evacuation of people from rural parts of Kyoto Prefecture INTO Kyoto City – incontrovertibly implying that such plans (most likely correctly) are based on the assumption that Kyoto City is at a safe distance from the Fukui reactors.