Social Body Week

Kyoto: The City as Social Body

By Minh Vu


  • What is the “keikan ronso” or “landscape debate” in Kyoto?
  • What is the public-private relationship in Kyoto’s public space? How is public space contested in Kyoto? How does the landscape debate illustrate this relationship?  


Kyoto has been considered a gateway to the past for Japan, which makes the preservation versus development discussion in the urban setting more unique and particular to the city compared to other cities, even in Japan. The history of modern Kyoto, dating back to 1868, when Emperor Meiji left the city for good and relocated the capital of Japan to Tokyo, has witnessed a series of protests and disputes over construction projects in the city, known as “keikan ronso” or “landscape debates.” This report will explore this concept in the context of the larger discourse of contested public space in urban centers by examining the actors contesting and the features being contested.

Before diving deeper into the concept, it is worth reviewing the timeline of major disputes and prominent projects in Kyoto. Tseng (2018) and Santini and Taji (2019) asserted that modern Kyoto began with the departure of the Emperor to Tokyo. The departure of the Emperor also marked the beginning of the balancing act between preserving cultural and historic heritage or developing the local economy. Initially, with the Emperor moving the capital, the city of Kyoto suffered an economic decline. Early renovation and construction of the city was in the interest of developing the city economically, beginning with the renovation of Lake Biwa Canal in 1868 (Santini and Taji 2019). Other than economic development, Tseng contends that the city’s connection to history and the Emperor provided the reason for public space development, providing the space for Emperor-related ceremonies. The period from 1869 to the early 1940s, the height of the Pacific War, saw a series of projects related to the Emperor. Some examples include the Kyoto Imperial Palace and the Heian Shrine linked to the 1,100th anniversary of Kyoto being designated the capital by Emperor Kanmu; Okazaki Park, which was the city’s first planned public park, built in celebration of the wedding of Crown Prince Yoshihito in 1900; and a large-scale urban transformation of Kyoto catalyzed by Emperor Taisho’s enthronement ceremony in 1915, which also renovated Kyoto Station, and further renovations tied to Emperor Showa’s enthronement in 1928. Tseng also asserts that the urban landscape following Emperor Showa’s enthronement in 1928 became the permanent form of the city that would serve as the foundation on which postwar academics, architects, and developers continued the preservation vs. development discourse after the war (Tseng 2018, Chapter 4).

World War II ravaged Japan but left Kyoto untouched, making the city an important historical gateway and a haven of tradition (Brumann 2012). The reconstruction of Japan put Kyoto in a rather unique position. Whereas Tokyo and other urban centers were devastated by the war but also emptied to be rebuilt and modernized, Kyoto had to weigh preservation of heritage against economic development, which would require the destruction of those public spaces. This is the dilemma that would characterize the “keikan ronso” or landscape disputes, in the city from the 1960s to 2000. A series of projects during this time became prominent in the public discourse, including Kyoto Tower, planned in the early 1960s and opened to the public in 1964 for the Tokyo Summer Olympics hosted the same year; Kyoto Station, burned and replaced by a utilitarian concrete facility in 1952, a site of dispute during its 1997 renovation; and a scrapped project for a pedestrian bridge over the Kamo River (Kamogawa) modeled after the Parisian bridge Pont des Arts that was disputed during a mayoral election in 1998.

It is during this period that the discourse became most prominent and visible to the public, culminating in a series of laws to reflect the sentiment and intention of the city regarding the preservation of heritage. On the one hand, the economic pressure never let up, pushing private developers and even municipal authorities and local residents to encroach on the city historical landscape (Baba 2010, 115). On the other hand, as a response to loss of heritage, academics and architects pushed back, organizing civil society to raise awareness and culminating in authorities passing laws to preserve the landscape (Figure 1).

The landscape debate in Kyoto perhaps is unique to the city, not only because of the depth of history and tradition embedded in the city, but also because of who is leading the debate. Baba (2010) studied the disputes around Kyoto Tower and Kyoto Station to point out that it was foreign academics and Tokyo architects who first led the charge against private developers, published on the subject, and organized coalitions against high-rise development. The first written protest against Kyoto Tower was published in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in April 1964 by a French scholar, Jean-Pierre Gaston Hauchecorne. The coalition soon included other opinions published in newspapers, magazines, and even books by foreign architects, Japanese novelists, professors, and civil society groups. Christoph Brumann in Brumann and Schulz (2012) corroborated this in his own case studies. He asserted that despite the social actors’ contention, the shared premise in the city is that any urban space is predominantly private, either through legal ownership or through moral authority attributed to next-door neighbors. Moral authority attributed to next-door neighbors referred to the mutual agreement by the city’s population that the local residents closest to, and thus most likely the only users of, a specific public space should have the most say in how the space is used. Consequently, local residents and government surprisingly sided with private developers, understanding the property on the basis of economic benefits, embodied in the statement “Kyoto cannot survive on old things alone” (Baba 2010, 115). Indeed, it was actors from outside of the city, foreign academics and architects, who framed the debate differently and led the argument against high-rise buildings. The Pont des Arts (Brumann 2012) dispute in 1998 highlighted this social dynamic further. It was one of the disputes in which Kyoto residents protested against the project mainly because they were opposed to the idea of something so foreign (a bridge modeled after a French bridge) being in Kyoto. When the French element was addressed, the wider public protest subsided, yielding to the input from local neighbors who would be affected the most if the project took place. In addition, the moral authority concept was also highlighted, as the wider public agreed that as long as the local residents, the would-be main users of the bridge, agreed to its constructions, the wider public should not have more authority on the construction of the bridge.

Ishida Yorifusa in Hein and Pelletier (2009) added another actor in this contested space. In his examination of political decentralization in Japan, he revealed the tension between the central government in Tokyo and the municipal government of Kyoto over who managed the city skyline. Baba (2010) corroborates this assertion, providing the example of the 1950 Building Standard Act, which replaced pre-war laws and took away municipal government’s right to control new construction. Initially, the Act was aimed at rebuilding Japan with fire-proof cities as Japan was still haunted by the recently devastation of World War II. Japanese politics were predominantly concerned with reconstruction, not conservation (Baba 2010, 116). But the Act also limited the Kyoto municipal authority’s ability to enforce and draw up their own development plan.

But what was being contested in this discourse between preservation and development? The precise factor at play was height. Although there are laws concerning different urban characteristics, such as zoning and design of the buildings, height became a focal point. Santini and Taji (2019) explain that the protection of landscape in Kyoto is meant to preserve the illusion of continuity in the landscape, harmonizing the interaction of different layers of the landscape against a distant natural background (Kyoto is surrounded by mountains). The intrusion of unwanted objects, such as high-rises, disturbs this illusion of harmony. Baba (2010) and Brumann (2012) contend that the issue of height related to the visual representation of the past. The 1968 City Planning Act, which emerged out of the Kyoto Tower dispute, limited the height of buildings in Kyoto center to 31 meters, simply because most existing buildings were lower than 30 meters.  

The turn of the millennium added one more page to this landscape discourse. Hinted at during the 1980s, when land prices surged and caused an increase in population density in Kyoto, the early 2000s once again submitted Kyoto to the pressure of economic development and modernization. The pressure culminated in the 2007 Kyoto City Landscape Policy, which introduces five factors to regulate new building designs (Kyoto City Official Website 2012). Nonetheless, the discourse seems to settle on the side of development, as local residents and authorities accommodate more modern complexes. The Kyoto Aquarium near Umekoji Park, built in 2010 and first opened to public in 2012, was one such example when foreign academic again led the charge against private developers. Christian Dimmer, an urban designer and Tokyo University research associate, published an opinion against the planned Aquarium in 2010, echoing what Jean-Pierre Gaston Hauchecorne did in 1964. But the Aquarium pressed on to completion and became a popular tourist and local attraction, while Dimmer’s effort failed to ignite a public debate (Dimmer 2010).


Baba, Yoshihiko. “Modern or ‘Unmodern’? Understanding the Landscape Disputes of Kyoto Tower and Kyoto Station”. Czasopismo Techniczne. Architektura 107, no. 4-A (2010): 113-126.

Brumann, Christoph and Evelyn Schulz, eds. Urban Spaces in Japan: Cultural and Social Perspectives, 1st edition. Routledge, 2012.

Brumann, Christoph. Tradition, Democracy and The Townscape of Kyoto. Routledge, 2012.

Dimmer, Christian. “Plans for public space need the public’s input”. The Japan Times. (Accessed 03/29/2020).

Hein, Carola, and Philippe Pelletier, ed. Cities, Autonomy, and Decentralization in Japan. London & New York: Routledge, 2009.

Kyoto City Official Website. “Conservation, Revitalization and Creation of Kyoto Landscape,” The Landscape of Kyoto (2012), 41-84. (Accessed 03/29/2020).

Kyoto City Official Website. “Formless Timeless and Radiant Kyoto Landscapes”, Kyoto City Landscape Policy (2007). (Accessed 03/29/2020).

Santini, Tyana and Takahiro Taji. “Natural Urban Heritage and Preservation Policies: The Case of Kyoto’s Waterways”, Environmental Science and Sustainable Development (2019), 95-106.

Tseng, Alice Y. Modern Kyoto: Building for Ceremony and Commemoration, 1868-1940. UH Press Book Previews Vol. 27, 2018.

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