Kyoto has never been more popular, which is a source of both local pride and local consternation. Like hot spots around the globe, the city has been weighing the pros and cons of its growing tourism economy and considering what steps to take towards building a sustainable future for all involved. Like the rest of Japan, Kyoto is also faced with a shrinking population and a slow-growth economy. But could a new era be on the horizon?
Kyoto Welcomes (For the Most Part) the World
The number of overseas visitors to Kyoto topped three million for the first time in 2016 and hasn't backed down since. Many see the upward trend as an economic boon and welcome the interest in Japan's traditional heritage; without the global attention, they say, Kyoto might not have had the motivation and means to preserve many of its old structures and customs. Others worry that the numbers might have climbed too high: in 2017 major media outlets ran stories that gave voice to local complaints about city buses clogged with oversized suitcases and tour groups taking up sidewalks. (Here's the rub though: foreign tourists make up only a small fraction of the number of annual visitors to Kyoto.)
Much of the debate has centred around the topic of vacation rentals, called minpaku in Japanese. (They're legal, under certain circumstances, though most are operated without proper authorisation.) Before the advent of apartment sharing sites created a workaround, the limited number of rooms naturally kept numbers down; now, some complain, the city is flooded with visitors. Rentals are also sometimes located in communities that until now had no connection to tourism – bringing the outside world a little too close to home for some.
Towards A Sustainable City
Though Kyoto once hurried to replace its old, traditional buildings with modern concrete ones, the city now sees its restrictions on building heights and signage as a source of pride. This shift is emblematic of Kyoto's new attitude and approach to urban planning: it's a wish to see the city develop on its own terms and in its own image. The city has encouraged architects to design modern, energy-efficient homes that wouldn't look out of place next to a row of century-old wooden townhouses. It wants to reduce car traffic in favour of clean buses and expanded pedestrian walkways. And it's keen to go greener: Kyoto is a 'Model Eco-City' under the federal government's Future Cities Initiative with an ambitious plan to cut carbon emissions by 40% of 1990 levels by 2030 and 60% by 2050. If Kyoto is successful, it could be a model for other cities in Japan.
A New Era Begins
It caught everyone off guard when Emperor Akihito announced abruptly in 2016 – on TV no less – that he wished to abdicate. No emperor had abdicated since 1817, which was back in the days of the shogun. The modern constitution had no provision for what to do in this situation. For over a year, lawmakers debated whether or not Akihito, Japan's 125th emperor (according to the Imperial House Agency's record-keeping), should even be allowed to abdicate. On this, the public came down decisively in favour of letting the emperor do as he pleases; he's in his mid-80s after all. Finally, a bill was passed that would allow the sitting emperor, just this once, to retire. The date is set for the end of April 2019.
What he will do afterwards remains a mystery. Some have hoped he will become a stronger voice for pacifism at a time when Japan's political leaders are becoming increasingly hawkish. The son of Japan's wartime emperor, Hirohito, Akihito has often expressed regret for Japan's actions during the war. And where will Akihito and his wife live? Kyoto has begun a campaign to bring them back to their ancestral home, the old capital. Nara, too, has expressed interest in hosting them – going so far as to promise a new palace. The Imperial Household Agency's reply so far? No comment.
When Crown Prince Naruhito ascends the chrysanthemum throne, the Heisei era will end and a new one will begin. Of course, the starts and ends of Japan's historic periods – in modern times determined by the passing of emperors – are left to nature; and yet, they really do seem to effectively bracket the culture's shifting moods. The Heisei era began in 1989, as Japan's bubble economy was collapsing. A whole generation now has come of age in a Japan where lifelong employment is no longer a guarantee and where Japan's place in the world seems increasingly uncertain. In the current, unstable global climate, everyone can't help but wonder, what changes will the new era bring?