Tradition, Democracy and the Townscape of Kyoto

Claiming a Right to the Past

By Christoph Brumann

© 2012 – Routledge

426 pages | 179 B/W Illus.

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About the Book

As the historic capital of the country and the stronghold of the nation’s most celebrated traditions, the city of Kyoto holds a unique place in the Japanese imagination. Widely praised for the beauty of its townscape and natural environments, it is both a popular destination for tourists and home to one and a half million inhabitants. There has been a sustained, lively debate about how best to develop the city, with a large number of local government officials, citizen activists, urban planners, real-estate developers, architects, builders, proprietors, academic researchers, and ordinary Kyotoites involved in discussions, forming a highly peculiar social arena that has no match elsewhere in Japan.

This book, based on extensive fieldwork and interviews, provides an ethnographic study of this particular social field. It analyses how people in Kyoto deal with their most cherished traditions, such as the traditional town houses and the famous Gion matsuri festival, which calls into question several of the standard social scientific assumptions about the functions of cultural heritage for present-day societies. The book looks at the way concerned citizens, government bureaucrats, and other important players interact with each other over contentious modern buildings, often with the best intentions but constrained by set role expectations and by the superior power of national-level regulations and agencies. This book contributes to debates on the social uses of tradition and heritage, and the question of how to create sustainable, liveable urban environments.


"Under Brumann's gaze, the city truly comes down to earth, as the author variously introduces the reader to the interactions of unscrupulous property developers community activists, passive homeowners, consultant academics, low- and high-level bureaucrats, and even, as we come to find out, the researcher himself, as he pilots his way across a highly politicized landscape. […] The broad treatment of everything from high profile, nationally and even internationally contested initiatives, to the description of ultra-local dynamics that would be little understood outside the internal cultural logic and contexts of Kyoto situates this work as the most comprehensive investigation of how intra-cultural diversity and interaction drive the construction and maintenance of Japan's ancient capital city."Bruce White, Donisha University, in the Social Science Japan Journal, 16(2), pp.318-20.

"There are few greater conundrums than Kyoto, a city which combines what is most beautiful in Japan with what is also most ugly. Christoph Brumann’s superb ethnography of the process of town planning (and non-planning) and the interaction between the city authorities and its citizen groups explores this conundrum in a manner which has resonances not only for understanding the development of Japanese townscapes more widely but indeed the development of any modern city in the democratic world."Roger Goodman, University of Oxford, UK

"A theoretically informed, ethnographically rich and very well-written account of the tension between developing Kyoto and maintaining its unique heritage as a global historical city."Eyal Ben-Ari, Research Institute on Society, Security and Peace, Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee

"This is … good ethnography … based on substantial periods of fieldwork. … Brumann witnessed some achievements of the citizens that will ensure Kyoto's special place long into the future, during a time when some quite spectacular change was also taking place."Joy Hendry, Oxford Brookes University, UK

Table of Contents

Introduction Part 1: Case Studies 1. The Pont des Arts Controversy 2. A Place with a Past 3. The Manshon Conflicts 4. The revival of the kyô-machiya 5. The Yamaboko Junkô of the Gion Matsuri Part 2: Cross-Cutting Aspects 6. Aesthetics 7. Tradition and Heritage 8. Civil Society and the Power of Institutions 9. Public and Private Space 10. Wider Skies over Kyoto Conclusion: Healing a Wounded City

About the Author

Christoph Brumann is Head of Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, and Honorary Professor of Anthropology at Martin Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg, Germany. He is the co-editor of Making Japanese Heritage and the forthcoming Urban Spaces in Japan, both also published by Routledge.

About the Series

Japan Anthropology Workshop Series

Editorial Board:
Pamela Asquith, University of Alberta
Eyal Ben Ari, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Hirochika Nakamaki, National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka

Kirsten Refsing, University of Copenhagen
Wendy Smith, Monash University

Founder Member of the Editorial Board:
Jan van Bremen, University of Leiden

Routledge is very proud to be publishing this important series, which has already signed up a good list of high quality books on interesting topics, and has a truly international range of authors and editors.

A key aim of the series is to present studies that offer a deep understanding of aspects of Japanese society and culture to offset the impression of constant change and frivolity that so tempts the mass media around the world.  Living in Japan brings anyone into contact with the fervent mood of change, and former residents from many other countries enjoy reading about their temporary home, but there is a demand also to penetrate less obvious elements of this temporary life.  Anthropologists specialise in digging beneath the surface, in peeling off and examining layers of cultural wrapping, and in gaining an understanding of language and communication that goes beyond formal presentation and informal frolicking.  This series will help to open the eyes of readers around the world from many backgrounds to the work of these diligent anthropologists researching the social life of Japan.

Submissions from prospective authors are welcomed, and enquiries should be sent in the first instance to the series editor Professor Joy Hendry (

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
POLITICAL SCIENCE / Public Policy / Regional Planning
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Anthropology / Cultural
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Ethnic Studies / General