Japanese city struggles as its World Heritage sheen fades

by Aoi Kobayashi


Five years ago, residents of Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture, believed that the registration of a local historical landmark as a World Heritage site would reinvigorate the typical Japanese regional city facing a constant decline in population.

But such optimism has now waned, with the site’s popularity as a tourist destination now fading.

In June 2014, when the UNESCO World Heritage Committee added the Tomioka Silk Mill and related sites on the World Heritage list, crowds of people in the city shouted “Banzai! Banzai!” and paraded on streets around the former silk yarn-reeling factory, which was originally established by the Meiji government in 1872.

The number of visitors to the landmark site of Japan’s industrialization in the final quarter of the 19th century peaked at 1,337,720 in fiscal 2014, thanks to the World Heritage designation. Since then, however, the city has seen the visitor count dropping by more than 100,000 each year. In fiscal 2018, the figure stood at 519,070, well under half of the peak level.

“After the World Heritage designation, outsiders rushed to open shops near the silk mill complex to attract tourists,” a local coffee shop waiter recalls. “But many of them have already been shuttered.”

Though the number of visitors still meets the Tomioka government’s target, Masae Okano of the city’s world heritage tourism division says that a further fall to around 400,000 would not be good from a conservation viewpoint, noting that maintaining a World Heritage site is also costly.

Following the heritage listing, the city started to work on repairing the buildings and facilities at the site. The project is expected to take around 30 years, costing more than ¥1 billion each year —a cost that has to be covered solely by admission fees. Expecting many people to come by car, the municipal government also spent funds to expand parking space.

“Visitors may find the industrial structure unattractive unless they know the historical background,” says Hirofumi Kiuchi, another city official, who has witnessed a decline in tourists, many of whom he says appear to have no particular interest in the defunct silk mill complex.

A Meiji Era (1868-1912) Ichiyosai Kuniteru ukiyo-e print of women at work at the Tomioka Silk Mill. | C1815 (CC0) VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (PUBLIC DOMAIN)
A Meiji Era (1868-1912) Ichiyosai Kuniteru ukiyo-e print of women at work at the Tomioka Silk Mill. | C1815 (CC0) VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (PUBLIC DOMAIN)

A large portion of the visitors, Kiuchi also notes, seem more interested in the lives of Meiji Era (1868-1912) female silk workers, many of whom were teenagers, at silk-reeling mills. This, he notes could be thanks to the 1979 movie “Ah! Nomugi Toge” (“Oh! The Nomugi Pass”), a film based on Shigemi Yamamoto’s nonfiction novel that depicts women living and working in harsh conditions at a privately run silk plant in Nagano Prefecture.

Unlike the female workers featured in the movie, the live-in workers at state-run Tomioka Silk Mill, known as “Tomioka factory girls,” were relatively well paid. Experts have pointed out that they were even allowed to study at a school within the plant premises and learn cultural affairs after work. Medical services were also provided free of charge.

Seeking a way to entice more visitors, the city government in April set up displays at the site houses where workers lived with family members.

“Highlighting facilities and items that help visitors understand workers’ lives at the time is a first step,” Okano says.

A cocoon storage house now under repair may, in the future, also be used for promotional events, such as fashion shows.

Chiaki Matsubara, secretary-general of the Tomioka Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says he had expected the heritage boom to be short-lived.

“After the heritage site registration, I received a phone call of congratulations that also suggested the registration’s positive effects would last only three years,” says Matsubara, who realized the importance of working out a strategy to promote Tomioka as a tourist destination, not just the heritage site.

Citing a survey by a local shinkin (credit) bank, which shows that tourists to Tomioka spent only ¥2,500 on average, Matsubara stressed the need to implement measures to tempt visitors into staying in the city longer and spending more.

“Without such measures, we will be stuck,” he says.

Efforts to attract long-stay tourists, including those from overseas, have already started. One such endeavor is a machiyado (town lodging) project, for which a group of citizens borrowed finances from a local bank to set up a company that remodels vacant Taisho Era (1912-26) town houses into guest houses.

The lodgings purposely do not offer meals or drinks as the project sees the whole of Tomioka as a single hotel and commercial complex, and the group cooperates with local businesses. With restaurants, izakaya taverns and retail stores in the city viewed as the dining rooms, bars and shops of the lodgings, guests are encouraged to walk around and experience the city.

“The machiyado houses have yet to be profitable,” says Matsubara, “but we hope the project will expand.”

In an opinion survey recently conducted by the city, one resident, who noted that the silk mill adopted cutting-edge technology of its time, put forward the idea of the “construction of facilities to showcase the city’s technical advantages” to attract tourists.

The resident also referred to the Japanese asteroid probe Hayabusa’s re-entry capsule, which was made at the Tomioka plant of IHI Aerospace Co., a unit of Japanese heavy machinery maker IHI Corp.

Tomioka is not the only Japanese city hosting UNESCO World Heritage sites facing problems.

According to the municipal government of Oda in Shimane Prefecture, the number of visitors to Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine fell to 246,300 in fiscal 2018 from a peak level of 810,000 in fiscal 2008. The mine was inscribed on the heritage list with its cultural landscape in 2007.

A city official for tourism promotion says that few people repeatedly visit industrial landmarks because such places, unlike natural heritage sites, for example, Mount Fuji, lack attractions that can be understood instantly.

The Oda government, which aims to have visitor numbers recover up to 400,000 to 500,000 a year, is now promoting “walking tourism” in the mine area, including within a district where a historical townscape is preserved. It limits access by car in order to allow tourists to enjoy wandering around the area at a leisurely pace. The initiative is also aimed at helping local residents by reducing noise pollution caused by the increased traffic volume since the heritage registration.

“But the walking tourism program has made it difficult for the elderly and other people not confident in their physical strength to come here,” the official says, acknowledging that there are still issues. “We want to work out measures to resolve this problem.”

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