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  • Tradition, Democracy and the Townscape of Kyoto: Claiming a Right to the Past by Christoph Brumann
  • Martin Dusinberre (bio)
Tradition, Democracy and the Townscape of Kyoto: Claiming a Right to the Past. By Christoph Brumann. Routledge, London, 2012. xiv, 423 pages. $200.00, cloth; $48.95, paper; $200.00, E-book.

Wet behind the ears as I was when I first visited Kyoto, in December 1998, my reaction to the gargantuan station building was one of boyish excitement. I was there to exploit the largesse of my older brother for a few days, staying with him in the luxurious station hotel: this, no doubt, had something to do with my reaction. The fact that I had been swept into the station on a Nozomi [End Page 127] 500 bullet train—my first such journey—and that I was coming from rural Yamaguchi, whose delights were of a distinctly bucolic variety, may equally have affected my judgment. Nevertheless, as I took in the towering entrance hall, with escalators gliding up into the promised land of shops and restaurants, I thought: glamor! modernity! authentic pizza!

Not for the first time in Japan and certainly not for the last, I quickly realized that I knew nothing about the history of the structure in front of me, especially about the controversy it had engendered. Perhaps my suspicions should have been aroused by one explanatory sign that compared the station design to a gate and, more bizarrely, to a womb. “The northern façade,” it concluded, “the primary face of the gate, often appears to lie in shadow when viewed from plaza [sic]. Glass is generously used to brighten this façade. As a result the building may disaapear [sic] or appear to float in the air.” That some people might consider the station an eyesore became evident the next day, as I looked over the city from the hillside Kiyomizu temple: the building was definitely there and it was not floating. But I had no idea that some people “deplored the wall effect that the structure has, with its enormous length of 478 m[eters] effectively cutting the city in two and separating the often rather drab south with its burakumin quarters from the beautiful north” (p. 61): this was something I only recently learned from Christoph Brumann’s fascinating new book, Tradition, Democracy and the Townscape of Kyoto.

Nor did I realize, walking around the city, that I had happened to come to Kyoto as another architectural controversy was dying down—the Pont des Arts pedestrian footbridge plan, aborted in August 1998 (chapter 1)—and as two apparently contradictory booms were proceeding full speed ahead. The first was the rush to build manshon apartments that stretched city building regulations to their legal limits and sometimes beyond, especially in terms of height (chapter 3); the second was the movement to restore Kyoto’s traditional townhouses (kyō-machiya), a movement exemplified and arguably stimulated by the first general survey of machiya stock in 1998 (chapter 4). Both booms are described in meticulous detail by Brumann as he explores the complex debates over the management of Kyoto’s cityscape at the turn of the twenty-first century. There is much material in these chapters—which, together with a succinct survey of Kyoto’s history and an account of the well-known Gion matsuri, comprise the case studies in part 1 of the book—that will interest not only Brumann’s fellow anthropologists but also historians and other scholars in the social sciences and humanities. Readers learn, for example, of the perfidy of (alas unnamed) major construction companies, their headquarters in Tokyo, who bulldoze local objections to their high-rise proposals and who are equally inflexible in departing from nationally uniform designs (such as the placing of the balcony on the building’s south side, p. 82). Thus, neighbors are deprived of light and air while buyers are deprived of Kyoto’s best views to the north. Ever alert to [End Page 128] the unfortunate ironies of his fieldwork site, Brumann also points out that one boom feeds the other, as “the machiya shops, restaurants and cafes and other revitalised historic architecture … add to the...