the picture

SoKo and Japan 130

Himeji Castle, also known as the White Heron in 2009. The castle keep (shown here) is a National Treasure

When I visited Japan in early 2009, I was new to the study of historic preservation.  Having only wrapped up my first semester of grad school the month before, my eyes and ears were naturally hyper-aware of preservation efforts in the cities we visited.  One of the most interesting challenges I learned about is the conflict between the Japanese worldview known as wabi-sabi and preservation. Wabi-sabi , the belief in the death and renewal of nature and the impermanence of all things, is often practiced by systematically demolishing and rebuilding structures, like the Ise Grand Shrine.  The Shinto shrine, originally constructed around 4 BC is taken apart and rebuilt every 20 years.  It is currently on its 60th iteration, and one of the buildings, Naikū, is due to be rebuilt this year.  Though the structures are rebuilt using traditional building methods and materials and in the same footprint, Wabi-sabi is antithetical to traditional preservation principles.

On the other hand, Japan was an early adopter of historic preservation legislation. It enacted its first preservation law in 1897. Only a handful of other countries had similar laws at the time!  Since then, Japan has consistently added to and extended their preservation legislation, which brings me to the photo above. Himeji Castle (ca. 1333), became a National Treasure in 1933 under the National Treasures Preservation Law of 1929.  It is regarded as the finest surviving example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture from the feudal period.  It is comprised of a network of 83 buildings with advanced defensive systems and has earned the nickname White Heron thanks to its bright white exterior and its supposed resemblance to a bird taking flight.  In 1993, it became the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Japan (a designation denied Ise Grand Shrine due to its repeated reconstruction).

What do you think of the conflict between wabi-sabi and preservation? Should Ise Grand Shrine be a World Heritage Site?




    In the words of Kipling, “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”

    Maybe it’s okay for Eastern and Western ideals to not integrate. The cycle of rebirth could be argued to preserve cultural traditions more than a single building could.

  2. sunnystewart5

    Wow, a friend of mine from Japan who’s getting his master’s in planning at UNCG is writing his thesis on this! We had a class together, and then I worked with him several times a week in the spring at the writing center (I can’t imagine writing a thesis in a foreign language). It is super interesting! He included a summary of the westernization of Japanese architecture and development of preservation in the country, then used the Ise temple, the Tokyo train station, and the Meiji Mura ( as case studies, and concluded with his own assessment of the future of preservation in Japan. Cool post! 🙂

    • bricksandmortarpreservation

      His thesis sounds fascinating! Do you think he’ll publish it in the future? (Or maybe he could do a guest post on your blog?!) I’d be interested in learning more. Thank you for the link to the Meiji Mura. I’d never heard of it before. It reminds me of The Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village!

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