The embattled mayor of Toyosato, Shiga Prefecture, visited the education ministry Thursday and asked the national government to designate a historical school building he recently tried to raze as a nationally important cultural property, ministry officials said.

Mayor Wasaburo Ono asked senior vice minister Takeo Kawamura for help in light of the town’s tight financial situation and the large costs involved in repairing Toyosato Elementary School.

Back in Toyosato, Ono faces a referendum in March on whether he should be ousted following a heated standoff with residents over his aborted plan to tear down the school.

Since last year, the town has been embroiled in controversy over the art deco school, which was designed in 1937 by American architect William Merrell Vories (1880-1964), who was also a prominent missionary and entrepreneur.

Town authorities had planned to demolish the old school and build a new one, raising concerns about the building, including that the old structure may no longer be able to withstand a major earthquake. But residents fiercely opposed this, citing its historic significance.

In Thursday’s meeting at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in Tokyo, Kawamura said he understood Ono’s concerns, but cautioned it could be difficult to classify the school under the current system used to designate important cultural properties, according to ministry officials.

Kawamura also said the school has not yet gained enough recognition in Japan to allow it to be designated as an important cultural property, the officials said.

After their meeting, Ono told reporters he will continue to seek financial aid from the national government.

“My stance to preserve (the building) remains unchanged,” even if it cannot be designated as an important cultural property, he said.

The controversy over the school came to a head Dec. 19 when a district court issued an injunction against demolition following a request by some residents. Ono went ahead with efforts to tear down the building the next day, resulting in scuffles between demolition workers and residents.

On Dec. 24, residents filed a criminal complaint against Ono for allegedly damaging the building. That was when Ono said he had decided to preserve the building but added that it would not be used.

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