October 31, 2005


Community Planning Based on History: Kawagoe City, Saitama Prefecture

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.38 (October 2005)
"Initiatives and Achievements of Local Governments in Japan" Article Series No.11

When it comes to environmental issues, the first things many people think of are probably global warming, chemical pollution, and nature conservation. But the concept of the "environment" also includes the quality and comfort of the space that surrounds us. Awareness about the quality of this living environment is growing in Japan, which is entering a more stable and mature phase of society after decades of rapid economic growth. Among the various aspects of the local environment, landscape conservation has become one of the most important issues for local communities, as historical architecture, beautiful streetscapes and natural landscapes are increasingly seen as key factors of a good living environment.

Many municipalities in Japan have formulated landscape conservation ordinances for the local community from historical, cultural, natural and environmental perspectives. As one example, we introduce Kawagoe City (pronounced "kawa-go-ay"), Saitama Prefecture, which today tackles city-planning with an eye on its past.

Kawagoe City, located in the south-west part of Saitama Prefecture, is one of the major cities in the prefecture, with a population of 330,000 and land area of 109.16 square kilometers. As the city is about 30 kilometers away from central Tokyo, it serves as a bedroom community for commuters to Tokyo during weekdays, while it also attracts many tourists on holidays to its many historical sites, including the famous "kura-zukuri," or traditional merchant houses.

Kawagoe has about 400 years of history as a castle town from the "Sengoku Era" (the Warring States Period, 1467 - 1573), and flourished thanks to its strategic location, connecting Edo (now Tokyo), Kamakura, and Joshu. During the Edo Period (1603 - 1867), it became so prosperous as to be called Ko-Edo (Little Edo) for its active transportation industry that carried crops by boat via the Shingashi River. After the Great Kawagoe Conflagration devastated one third of the area in 1893, fireproof kura-zukuri shops were constructed, and still remain as a historic cityscape to the present day. A Quick Tour of Kawagoe

History of City Conservation

Today, Kawagoe is famous for its historical scenes of kura-zukuri merchant houses at Ichiban-gai Market Street. Now, let's look at how residents, the local government and experts have worked on together over the years for Kawagoe's beautiful streetscape conservation.

After the late 1960s, Ichiban-gai Market Street started to fall into decline because the commercial heart of the area shifted to the convenient area around train stations. Meanwhile, the Osawa House, an old merchant house built in 1792, was designated as an important cultural asset in 1971, which raised awareness about kura-zukuri's cultural value among residents. This was the start of local conservation initiatives for cultural assets, followed by the refurbishment of one kura-zukuri house that was threatened with demolition, and its rebirth as the Kawagoe City Museum. The Kawagoe City Museum

In 1975, the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties was revised to introduce a scheme of Traditional Architectures Preservation Districts. Municipalities began to promote the preservation of their existing historical buildings and streetscapes such as castle towns, post towns and temple towns throughout the country.

Kawagoe City conducted a survey prior to application for the designation of Ichiban-gai Market Street as a Traditional Architectures Preservation District, but Ichiban-gai failed to be listed due to the lack of consensus by local shop owners. They were afraid of losing the freedom to remodel their buildings by the designation for the purpose of preservation. In those days they were very negative about the idea of attracting tourists to kura-zukuri merchant houses in the city.

When "Kawagoe Kura No Kai," a non-profit organization to preserve kura-zukuri buildings, was established in 1983, the conservation initiatives began to accelerate. The organization, consisting of former members of the Kawagoe Junior Chamber and young shop-owners in the city as core members, as well as researchers and citizens who love the city, launched a campaign for townscape conservation by revitalizing regional commerce.

Taking advice of the Kura No Kai, Ichiban-gai Market Street finally got started on a town planning based on its historical assets. In 1987, shops, researchers, experts, and the city administration together formed a Townscape Committee, and next year the committee enacted a Townscape Ordinance for town planning as a voluntary agreement among the shops at Ichiban-gai.

The ordinance is kind of a rulebook that stipulates a total of 67 guidelines in plain language, ranging from the concept of the city to ideal building construction and signboards. The guidelines are not restrictions but recommendations, such as ensuring that building heights fit in with the neighborhood, ensuring that the city's major architectural sites stand out, and using natural, locally-produced materials. For shop remodeling at Ichiban-gai, the Townscape Committee established a system to give advice and guidance on building plans in accordance with the ordinance. A non-profit organization "Kawagoe Kura No Kai" (Japanese only)

In 1993, 11 residents' associations (now 12) in the old castle town district of the city organized a town-planning study group named "Jikkacho Kai" and held workshops over several years. After reviewing important issues, including condominium construction, the group came to the conclusion that it is essential to be designated as a Traditional Architectures Preservation District under the Law for the Protection of Culture Properties, in order to protect the townscape around the Ichiban-gai Area.

At last, a 7.8-hectare area mainly at Ichiban-gai Market Street in Kawagoe thus obtained the designation in 1999 after more than 20 years of effort. Subsequently, in addition to Ichiban-gai, two more historical areas have been kept in good condition: Taisho Roman Yume Street which is reminiscent of the Taisho Era (1912-1926) and Kashiya Yokocho (Candy Alley) which has had shops that make and deal with traditional Japanese sweets since the early Showa Period (1926-1989). The annual number of the tourists visiting Kawagoe City dramatically increased from 2.6 million in the 1980s to 4.6 million today.

In parallel with the citizens' movement, Kawagoe City has boosted townscape management, enacting the Urban Landscape Ordinance in 1989 and burying power lines underground in 1992. Moreover, remodeling of downtown shops was subsidized by Saitama Prefecture and Kawagoe City from 1989 to 1993, and by the city from 1994 to 1998.

Despite the importance of government efforts, Kawagoe City regards residents as the main decision-makers for the town. If the local government one-sidedly makes any regulations, residents will not accept them with full consent. The rules they really need will be formed only after spending adequate time for discussions based on opinions from experts and the administration. Through this process, they deepen their sense of attachment to the town they live in and raise their pride in the process of considering the town-planning rules.

Kawagoe Festival

Every October, the "Kawagoe Festival" is held on the third Saturday and Sunday of the month. The festival, with some 350 years of tradition, is said to be a revival of the Tenka Matsuri of Edo, or a traditional big festival in Tokyo. People parade on streets lined with kura-zukuri houses, carrying elaborately-decorated floats, surrounded with Japanese traditional festival sounds.

This festival is also a very good chance to strengthen the relationships between old residents and newcomers. The number of participating neighborhood associations has continued to increase, and now 29 of them put their floats into the parade. Although it is expensive to maintain and repair floats, people in the neighborhoods have drawn together and cooperate in order to continue the Kawagoe Festival.
(Japanese Only)

Sumikazu Aramaki, manager of the urban landscape division, the city planning department of Kawagoe City, says, "I'm the second generation and my child is the third in my family to live in Kawagoe. An old saying said that a person was only a true "Edoite" after his family was there three generations. I believe the a person in the third generation living in Kawagoe becomes a true "Kawagoeite."

It is essential that we improve our cities and towns to make them attractive places to live, so that our children and grandchildren will feel they want to stay. The people of Kawagoe have been creating ideas to work together and activate the economy and culture, with the aim of keeping the sight of traditional kura-zukuri architecture as part of their hometown's landscape. Efforts like theirs, to preserve historical townscapes so they can be enjoyed by future generations, could also be seen as one important way to make society more sustainable.

(Staff Writer Ichie Tsunoda)