Local residents fight to save historic school buildings in Tokyo's Chuo Ward

By Simon Scott

It is testament to the power of the makers of war that a single person can, with the flick of a pen, erase or save history. Case in point: the great temples of Kyoto are still standing today because an American scholar named Langdon Warner, who took a fancy to Japanese art and culture, suggested to the U.S. Command that they test their new atomic bombs on different cities.

Likewise, Chuo and Chiyoda wards in central Tokyo largely escaped the horrendous carpet-bombing of the city in 1945—although for more pragmatic reasons. Late in the war and confident of victory, U.S. commanders planned for the occupation of Japan and the establishment of their General Headquarters in Tokyo. Neighborhoods such as Ginza and Hibiya were deliberately spared because they held a number of strong, modern buildings that the U.S. eyed as future administrative centers.

The best-known of these is the Dai-Ichi Seimei Building near the Imperial Palace, where Douglas MacArthur sat smoking his corncob pipe from 1945 until the end of the Occupation. The Tsukiji neighborhood also survived because it was near St Luke’s Hospital, one of the few Western-style medical facilities in Tokyo at the time. (The Americans wanted to use the hospital to treat their own wounded soldiers.) St Luke’s still stands on the same site today, just a stone’s throw from a pair of elementary schools—named Chuo and Akashi—which, by virtue of their close proximity to the hospital, avoided destruction in the war.

These two schools remain in use today, with a combined enrollment of 300 students. Yet even though they survived one of the most intensive bombing campaigns in history, nothing can save them from the hammer-happy hands of modern-day Japanese bureaucrats.

A full 84 years after it was built, Akashi Elementary School went under the wrecking ball on Aug 10 as part of a school-building spree undertaken by local officials. Nearby Chuo will be the next to go, probably in late August or September, followed by five more Chuo-ku schools over the next few years. A total of seven schools—all built in the late 1920s—will be destroyed.

Hideo Takahashi has spent almost all his 86 years living in the block between Chuo and Akashi schools. As a student at Chuo from 1930 to 1936 (when it went by its old name, Teppozu), he knew even then the school was special.

Prior to the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, most schoolhouses in Tokyo were made of wood, but after that disaster flattened virtually the whole city, the government embarked on a program to rebuild them using fortified concrete. These new structures were admired by residents because they signified modernity and safety. Of the 117 schools built in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake, only ten are left in all of Tokyo, seven of them in Chuo-ku.

After graduating from high school, Takahashi attended naval college and, at the start of World War II, was posted to Indonesia. Yet it wasn’t until returning to Tokyo early the following year that the young man felt the full effect of the war. He still clearly recalls the night of March 10, 1945, when the U.S. launched its largest single raid of the war.

“I remember looking out of the window and seeing a sky full of B29s fly overhead,” he says. "I don't know why, but I didn’t really feel afraid. I thought they would just pass by.”

Takahashi packed his belongings in a pushcart and headed over to nearby Akashi Elementary School, where residents were told to gather during an attack. Although there were many bomb shelters in the area, people were wary of using them—they were firetraps, and U.S. strategy now included using incendiary bombs. The playground at Akashi was surrounded on three sides by the ferroconcrete school building, and residents prayed it would protect them against the fire that was engulfing much of Tokyo.

“I remember standing on the school grounds and looking north towards Asakusa,” Takahashi recalls. “Although it was night, the sky was continuously filled with flashes of bright light, like when a firework first explodes. It was terrible.”

The strength and layout of the school allowed Takahashi and others to escape death and injury that night, but many of their fellow Tokyoites were not so lucky. It’s estimated that more than 100,000 people died in the March 9-10 bombing raid—a greater number than the immediate death toll of either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The damage to property was also unprecedented: an estimated 267,000 buildings, about one-quarter of the city, were razed.

Troubled by demise of two schools

After witnessing so much destruction, it’s no surprise that Takahashi is troubled by the demise of two schools that remained standing when so much else was lost. “If they demolish the schools, people can still learn about their history from photos or books, but it is not the same,” he says. “Besides, the schools are not in bad condition, so why must they be demolished?”

Takahashi’s son Yoshiaki is as passionate about saving the buildings as his father—so much so that he’s spearheading a grassroots campaign to save Chuo Elementary School and the others in the ward. However, his concerns go well beyond the loss of important historical and cultural heritage. He and his co-campaigners believe Chuo-ku’s plans to knock down the buildings and construct new schools, rather than restore the old ones, are riddled with problems, not least the massive cost.

Five billion of taxpayers’ yen—no small sum, especially in lean economic times—is already earmarked for the construction of the new Chuo school building, which is just one of seven schools in the district to be replaced. Chuo-ku has yet to announce the estimated cost of the entire project, but Yoshiaki thinks it will reach as high as 35 billion yen. He’s convinced that residents in the area would like to see that money spent elsewhere.

Toward that end, the grassroots group funded an independent, third-party survey to gauge local opinion. Participants were asked to rank, on a scale from 1 to 8, different ways the ward should spend funds. The results show that improved medical services was the highest priority, followed by an increase in daycare centers and facilities for the elderly. Building new schools ranked dead last.

The residents group accuses the Chuo Ward Board of Education of failing to properly consult with the people in the community who will be affected by the rebuilding projects. Yoshiaki says he and the other members have contacted the board to find out specifics of the plan no less than ten times, but they have either been ignored or, on the few occasions when they received a response, the answers were inadequate.

“They were just paying lip service—when we asked questions about what was happening, they wouldn’t give us straight answers,” he says. “When we finally met with Board of Education staffer Mr Endo, his answers didn’t make sense—his reasons justifying the construction of the new schools didn’t add up.”

One of these reasons was that the number of students in the area is increasing. But Yoshiaki calls this a “big lie.”

“Enrolments at [Chuo Elementary School] have actually decreased significantly over the last half century,” he says. “In 1948, there were a total of 816 pupils at the school, but in 2009, there were only 112. Even with smaller modern class sizes, the school is only at a quarter or a third of its capacity.”

The building that’s being constructed on the grounds of the former Chuo Elementary School is a massive structure in comparison to ordinary schools. It is a modern, rectangular, block-style building that will stretch to 30 meters tall. It will also incorporate a number of unusual and high-tech features, such as a top-floor playground that will be crowned by a stadium-style retractable roof. “It will look more like Keio Department Store than a school,” Yoshiaki says.

The residents group believes a building of that size and style will destroy the distinctive atmosphere of the neighborhood. On a walk around the area surrounding the school grounds, Yoshiaki points out Teppozu Park and the local Shinto shrine, Teppozu Jinja. He says that all three structures were built before the war and, together, make up the core of the district. The new school will also overshadow the surrounding residences, mostly two-story houses and small, low-lying apartment blocks.

“I was born here,” Yoshiaki says. “I went to this school. My father went to this school. A few years ago, I got married in that shrine. We have our neighborhood bon-odori festival in the park every August. This area really is a part of our life—in fact, it is our life.”

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (

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I saw a story about this school on TV the other day. The classrooms have very high ceilings and bigger than average windows so they get lots of light. The stairways and hallways were designed for quick and immediate evacuation of all students in case of earthquake so both are wider than normal. The banisters are a beautiful wood that have been polished by thousands of hands over the century. It really is a beautiful building and a quiet oasis in the middle of the city. Excellent for teaching and learning (all they need is some upgraded computer facilities). To replace this building with a crappy but high-tech box would be an artistic and humanistic disaster but another bureaucratic 'success'.

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Anyone know if it's already too late to go see this building this weekend?

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My friend who is an ALT in Chuo-ku notes that he has to pack up his gear with the other teachers and move because of the impending reconstruction of the school. For two year, the students will share a building with a Junior High school, then when the elementary school is finished, the junior high students will share the elementary school while the junior high is reconstructed. Personally, I find that there are way to many schools throughout Japan. Many towns and cities have schools only because the landowners ie rice farmers demanded that a school be built for their children. Since they are the taxpayers, the schools get built. So you have some schools with only 18 students while other schools are bursting at the seems with overcrowding. The intelligent thing would be to use the extra space some schools have to educate students and keep the old buildings for cultural halls, improved with elevators for the disabled and elderly users. Wait, I forgot, I`m in Japan, the government never does the intelligent thing.

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They ought to raze the whole ku and build a park.

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This is a perfect microcosm of Japan and could come straight from the pages of Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons.

The schools will be built, as nothing can stand in the way of the bureacrats' decision to destroy one of the few remaining parts of pre-war Tokyo.

One of the ironies of the allies' decision not to destroy the great city of Kyoto is that the Japanese did it themselves.

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Instead of putting all that effort into tearing down buildings that house cherished memories, let's tear down buildings that were defiled by the Americans beginning with the Dai-ichi seimei building right opposite the Imperial Palace.

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"Case in point: the great temples of Kyoto are still standing today because an American scholar named Langdon Warner, who took a fancy to Japanese art and culture, suggested to the U.S. Command that they test their new atomic bombs on different cities."

Not that this is the main point of the story, but this is a bit of a simplistic view of why Kyoto wasn't bombed; there was also the fact that if the ancient capital was levelled US command believed they would have had a harder time getting cooperation from the Japanese.

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Anyway, it's sad that these people's voices will most certainly go unheard except for a few apologies and "shigata ga nai"s from the school board. I'm not at all surprised that they can't give a factual account, and have NO doubt that this is a whole lot of beaureacratic back scratching. The construction company gets heaps of government money, and the company no doubt gives a 'donation' to the local BOE. Who cares about the view? Who cares about the history? Who cares about local opinion or actual student numbers (I have no doubt as well that they will force some other schools to close to increase enrollment at the new building)? All they care about is lining their pockets in the immediate future and/or having their names down as bringing about some change.

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LOL at 90 year old building being considered as 'old'.

My house in the UK is over 3 times that age.

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a school-building spree undertaken by local officials

At least THEY will go down in history. "They destroyed for gain and created nothingness"

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Not that this is the main point of the story, but this is a bit of a simplistic view of why Kyoto wasn't bombed; there was also the fact that if the ancient capital was levelled US command believed they would have had a harder time getting cooperation from the Japanese.

You cannot believe some of the US arguments FOR dropping the nukes on Kyoto: one of the points was that since the inhabitants lived in such a culturally rich urban centre, they would be the most intelligent people and Japan and hence would best understand the significance of the bombs o-O. Talking about aerial bombing, this article suggests that the Americans were able to accurately mark their targets on the ground contrary to most allied sources that the destruction of residential areas in cities were collateral damage from the inaccuracy in dropping the incendiary bombs.

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the destruction of residential areas in cities were collateral damage from the inaccuracy in dropping the incendiary bombs.

The bombing crews didn't give a s... about where they dropped their loads. And that was the attitude.

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Ah... They should just knock down all of the historical buildings like they have been doing lately and change Japan into a modern nation so the people of Japan will forget about who they are and where they came from. So sad.... Everytime this happens and no one seems to give a dam.

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The lack of architectural city planning in japanese big cities is really headshaking for me. I spent a good deal of time in Kyoto walking around in the city, and next to really beautiful old machiya-style houses there are often the worst business concrete buildings that are built totally out of sync with the older buildings. Its sad to see older buildings give way to buildings that are just functional but in generel is not considered beautiful.

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morriconelover, I agree. And I think many Japanese people would also. I got a good earful once from a taxi driver in Kyoto about how Japan has destroyed its own history and culture there. Most of those beautiful old machiya are long gone, and little or nothing has been done to try to protect them.

Whenever there is criticism of whaling or dolphin killing, the government digs their heels in to defend Japan's "history" and "food culture". Yet they are all too often the ones wrecking their own history and culture. The priorities are sometimes mystifying.


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