A year ago, a ward along Kawasaki’s waterfront launched a campaign to rediscover the district’s attraction and dispel its negative image as a pollution-plagued home to smokestack industries.

At that time, Kawasaki Ward officials never imagined they had so many treasures in their community.

Facing Tokyo Bay, the ward constitutes part of the Keihin Industrial Area, the biggest heavy industry area in Japan in terms of output, stretching along the bay from southern Tokyo to Kawasaki and Yokohama.

For years, the buildings, factories, power plants, warehouses and freighters were a constant reminder of the ward’s unwelcome image of pollution and industry.

But through the campaign, the ward office came to realize that the features are in fact precious assets that testify to the history of Japan’s manufacturing industries, which played a key role in the nation’s rapid growth after World War II.

The officials also realized that the ward is beginning to lose those assets, as many businesses were closing factories and leaving the area amid the prolonged economic slump.

According to a survey conducted by the city of Kawasaki in 1999, the number of firms in Kawasaki Ward has decreased by 1,687 since 1991, to 12,656. The number of workers has fallen by 24,802 to 152,256 during the same period.

One cause for the fall is the departure of big names amid the recent wave of corporate restructuring, including the 1997 closure of the Showa Electric Wire & Cable Co. plant, which used to sit on a 120,000-sq.-meter site.

So the ward came up with the unique idea of a “network museum” in which factories and corporate buildings would open their spaces to the public, allowing people to have a firsthand look at the area’s industrial heritage.

Unlike an ordinary museum, the plan is to create a network of information on the corporate buildings and factories that open their doors to visitors.

Ward officials expect the program to raise local awareness of the area’s heritage and foster a greater attachment to the community.

They also hope to draw tourists and reinvigorate the district.

“The museum plan originated from the ward office’s effort to encourage communication between local residents and the companies located here,” said Kenzo Hozumi of the ward office.

In 1995, the ward set up an organization comprising 20 companies with local operations and 12 civic groups, calling the firms “corporate citizens.”

The group’s activities range from organizing events and symposiums to the publication of free papers about the events.

Starting in 2001 and continuing this year, the organization has been holding events under the theme “Treasure hunting in Kawasaki.”

In the first year, it conducted surveys and collected information concerning the district’s industrial heritage.

They also gave a bus tour last fall, inviting some 90 people to visit corporate facilities in the region, including the plants of the seasoning maker Ajinomoto Co. and audio maker Nippon Columbia Co.

Participants were given lectures on the history of Ajinomoto’s operations in Kawasaki since 1914, and saw the pot that was used to produce the first shipment of Ajinomoto’s seasoning, monosodium glutamate. During the visit to the Nippon Columbia plant, they saw the first gramophone to be produced in Japan.

Those treasures are precious not only because they are old or rare, but also because they represent the life, dreams, experience and wisdom of the people of those times, officials said.

“We have learned that most items of industrial heritage are normally kept away from citizens’ eyes,” and that the fate of the heritage is at the mercy of each firm’s scrap-and-build policy, Hozumi said, noting some of the treasures are disappearing from the area as the firms close their local operations.

“For instance, two early models of Isuzu Motor Ltd.’s large vehicles — a 1929 bus and a 1946 truck — that had been stored inside the automaker’s Kawasaki plant have been moved elsewhere as the company prepares to shut down local operations in a few years,” Hozumi said.

It is important that citizens, firms and the ward work together to take another look at their industrial heritage “before it is too late,” he added.

The museum program will be completed when the list itemizing the ward’s industrial heritage is compiled in a booklet with a map that will include information on participating companies, including the times they are open, what is available and the cost of admission.

Ajinomoto Co. is expected to act as a role model because its Kawasaki plant has been accepting visitors for more than 30 years. About 6,000 people visit its plant annually, according to the firm.

During a typical two-hour tour of the Ajinomoto plant, visitors watch a video showing the procedure used to make the seasonings and take a look around the complex.

Group visitors can make reservations three weeks prior to their visit, whereas the firm arranges such tours for individual visitors twice a month.

Showa Denko K.K., a major chemical manufacturer that has had its office in the area since 1931, never accepted visitors before but is now eager to do so.

Its Kawasaki plant, occupying 345,000 sq. meters, has a typical old-fashioned office complex built in the style of the early Showa Era. “We want to provide a space where visitors can experience our history,” a Showa Denko official said.

Koko Kato, a critic specializing in cityscapes and city planning who has published a book on comparable case studies of industrial heritage in the world, said, “Kawasaki has a number of interesting items of industrial heritage.”

She said Kawasaki Ward showcases the industrial equipment and technologies of the past that witnessed Japan’s modernization and industrial growth.

Welcoming the ward office’s plan, she said its success depends on whether organizers can dig up the stories behind the industrial heritage, including negative aspects of their success, such as industrial pollution in the 1960s and 1970s.

“It doesn’t mean much if people just look around the old industrial buildings and say, ‘Oh, this is great,’ ” Kato said, adding that it is more important for them to find out their meanings and the human stories behind them.

Although the companies may be reluctant to draw more attention to the pollution from their plants, she said, “Looking into those negative aspects would help people truly learn from the experiences of the past.”

According to Kato, Japanese are less aware than people in other developed countries of the importance of preserving their industrial heritage.

“Even though industrial heritage may not be very visually attractive,” she said, “it is an important cultural heritage that is most closely related to our daily lives.”

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