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Intersect Magazine

One of Japan's most conservative cities braces itself for an influx of foreigners.

Text and Photographs by Peter S. Crosby

June, 1993

"Genuine Japan," Kanazawa's tourist brochures call it, and there is plenty in this 1,200-year-old castle town to back up the claim. Arts and culture, nurtured here since the mid-sixteenth century, still thrive today. Kanazawa is noted for its hand-painted silk, and even now its 442,880 inhabitants own more kimono per person than anywhere else in Japan. They also consume more tea-ceremony cakes, and produce 99 percent of all the gold leaf used in Japan's traditional lacquerware and crafts.

For almost 300 years from the start of the sixteenth century, the Nagoya-based Maeda clan dominated the city. By avoiding military involvement with other fiefs and by lavishly patronizing the arts, the Maedas escaped the unwelcome attention of the lido-based Tokugawa shogunate, and the city experienced an era of stability. Even now, the government of Ishikawa Prefecture, of which Kanazawa is the capital, is slow to change; the present governor, Yoichi Nakanishi, is serving his eighth four-year term-the longest tenure in Japan.

But despite its rich culture, Kanazawa's remote location on the Japan Sea and lack of industrial resources have condemned it to slower-than-average economic growth for much of the last hundred years. So in an effort to exploit its most valuable asset -- its cultural heritage -- Kanazawa has been promoting itself for the last twelve years as an international center for education and conventions. "If Kanazawa's internationalization progresses, it could become a model for all Japan," Nakanishi believes.

Not everybody is enthusiastic about the process, however. There is fear, even among supporters of internationalization that too many new faces and overhasty commercial development could pave over the "genuine Japan" that foreigners are so eager to experience.

Furthermore, the city has a long tradition of suspicion of outsiders and resistance to change. As recently as the middle of the last century, merchants were imprisoned for dealing with foreigners. "Kanazawa is still closer to the values of the feudal system than other cities in Japan," says Sadaaki Ishizaki, former director of the prefecture's International Culture Exchange Center.

When Kanazawa did begin to open up to the outside world, at the end of World War II, it did so more as a result of pressure than from choice. As one of the four historic cities saved from bombing during World War 11 (Kyoto, Nara, and Kamakura being the others), Kanazawa was preserved as a living museum and as a political prop to help the Occupation forces. A Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) information center and library opened in Kanazawa in 1948 to educate the Japanese about the victors, and in 1950, this became one of Japan's eight American culture centers. By the mid-I 950s, Japanese students were being sent abroad for "homestay" visits via the nation's first Experiment in International Living (EIL) program, which was founded in the city.

But it wasn't until 1978, when a young American, Ruth Stevens, wrote a detailed English guidebook, Kanazwa: "The Other Side of Japan," that internationalization really began.

The book was a big seller, and the group that had helped coordinate it grew into the city's leading promoter of cross-cultural understanding: The Society to Introduce Kanazawa to the World.

Warm Welcome:
In 1981, the society began to organize Japanese language teachers. By 1983, it was bringing university, embassy, and business groups from overseas to Kanazawa to study in month4ong intensive Japanese language and culture courses. The society currently teaches almost 200 international students annually in classes subsidized by the prefecture. It also coordinates homestays and internationalization programs in surrounding communities, and has received several national awards for its work.

The society has indeed introduced Kanazawa to the world. Approximately 1,800 foreigners have studied with it since 1981. During the same time, the number of foreigners (not including native-born Koreans) living in Kanazawa has increased fivefold to almost 1,900. The government has responded generously to the influx. More than thirty international exchange organizations, funded privately and by city, prefectural, and national agencies, presently operate in the area. In 1990, free Japanese language classes were subsidized by the prefecture for 375 foreign residents at a cost of more than US$100 per head. And this year, Ishikawa Prefecture has earmarked Y50 million (US$357,000) as the first part of an eventual 11300 million (US$2.1 million) budget for a new international exchange foundation to support existing programs and to create new ones.

The most substantial of the recent program additions, Eurocentre, is funded by a nonprofit Swiss foundation. With twenty-six language-training centers in Europe and the United States, Eurocentre's site selection process for its first location in Japan was exhaustive. After being wooed by several cities, the organization picked Kanazawa because of its culture, its "walkable" size, its homestay capacity, and its government support. In 1989, Eurocentre programs were begun in a refurbished prefectural building with forty students taking part in a one-month intensive Japanese-language course, By 1993, Eurocentre will be bringing approximately 500 students annually to study a year-round curriculum. Governor Nakanishi has said that he would like to see a new facility constructed for the school.

The prefecture also donated an elegant traditional Japanese house for use by the International Women's Association. Over 300 women volunteers organize homestays, cultural events, and free lessons in Japanese language, tea ceremony, ikebana, dance, and music at their International Lounge. Yoshie Fukushima, explains that, "Our members have traveled a lot, so they possess a pioneer spirit."

Not to be outdone, in the spring of 1989, the city of Kanazawa created its own international exchange foundation and festooned the city hall with signs in English. Because the foundation is independently funded and nonprofit, its workers are better able to circumvent the slow municipal bureaucracy. Hello Kanazawa, a 100-page guidebook that the city distributes free to foreign residents, was conceived, written, and published in less than a year.

The business community has also been quick to take advantage of the opportunities provided by internationalization. Tourism by foreigners is said to have grown more than 650 percent since 1978. Although foreigners made up less than half of 1 percent of the 5.5 million visitors who came to the city in 19a9, such services as tourist information centers (US$300,000) annual budget. In 1989, Kanazawa hosted 49 conventions and events with 2.3 million participants.

Meanwhile, a building spree has remodeled the downtown area, increased hotel space, and brought major redevelopment in the form of a recently completed railroad station complex. A proposed Shin Kansan Line, the Hokuriku, will service Kanazawa, although the line has not yet received funding. Nevertheless, Japan Airlines is putting up a thirty-four-story hotel at the station, which, upon its completion in 1994, will be the tallest structure in the city.

The development stakes could be raised even further if the Convention Bureau's desire for a new convention hall/hotel complex next to Kenryoku-en, the city's famous hilltop garden, becomes a reality. The site, once occupied by a castle overlooking the city center, will become fifty-six acres of prime real estate when Kanazawa University, the present occupant, moves to its new campus in March 1993.

The debate about how the site should be used is beginning to echo Kyoto's fight to preserve its architectural heritage from massive development. Kanazawa's new mayor, Tamotsu Yamade, is advocating legal protection from development for many historical districts, and a competition for alternative ideas is also being considered. How Kanazawa's crown jewel of public land is used appears to be part of a larger agenda. Governor Nakanishi would like the town to become a symbol of the best way to preserve tradition while taking advantage of modern opportunities.

But there is a growing sense in the city that too many people might be jumping on the internationalization bandwagon. "When we started, people thought we were crazy," said Sonoko Matsuda, founder of the society. "Now being international, being with foreigners, is seen as a status symbol."

For instance, Kanazawa currently has not one or two, but six sister-city relationships (including one with Buffalo, New York). Locals parading of wedding gifts through town in trucks with glass walls are examples of Kanazawan's showing off. And so it is with internationalization-a new thing to show off."

As enthusiastic and successful as the government's support for internationalization has been, there is still significant reluctance by Kanazawa natives to get involved. "There is a fear that if too many people come we'll lose our identity," said Ishizaki, who has spent three years nurturing the prefecture's Homestay Bank program. "That's one reason people are reluctant --they feel this internationalization is too rapid."

Sonoko Matsuda knows as well as anyone Kanazawa's resistance to newcomers. She moved to the city from Tokyo in 1965. Despite the success of the society -- or perhaps because of it-she admits that she still feels like an outsider. Nakanishi wants the city to promote a deeper level of contact. "Internationalization isn't sightseeing or short visits, it's homestaying here, living and working here," the governor points out. So the government gives a daily subsidy of ~ 500-112,000 (US$1 1-sI 4) to families who host foreigners. But a lack of commitment is evident in some of the locals. One instructor of traditional crafts who was brought up in Kanazawa has been teaching flower arranging regularly to foreigners for ten years. Yet she has never allowed a foreigner to stay in her home because she feels she already does enough. And an overwhelming majority of families that do invite homestays have moved to Kanazawa from other parts of Japan.

Home Stay:
"Kuwazu girai [to dislike without tasting]," is what Yoshie Fukushima calls it. As director of the International Lounge, Fukushima spends a lot of time trying to persuade families to open their homes to foreign guests. Although most Women's Association members will accept a one- or two-day visitor, longer stays are more intrusive and consequently much harder to arrange. The desire or the need to present perfection is another common reason for reluctance. Bad press hasn't helped, either. By 1987, a highly publicized scandal about the embezzlement of fees to be paid to homestay host families cost a London University professor and the local board of education director their jobs, and damaged the reputation of the Society to Introduce Kanazawa to the World. In the fall of 1988, a twenty-year-old American robbed a local convenience store at knifepoint while under the surveillance of video cameras. He confessed to the crime, was also convicted of possession of illegal drugs, and was later sentenced to three years in prison. Again, media coverage was exhaustive.

Most recently, a young Australian woman who was homestaying with a Kanazawa family through the Rotary Club Exchange Program became romantically involved with a local gang member. He got into trouble; she got deported. Now the Rotary Club warns prospective host families to keep a tighter rein on their guests.

Nevertheless, an estimated 2,500 students have stayed successfully in homes in Kanazawa in the last ten years. Most rave that it's been one of their most significant and enjoyable experiences in Japan. One current resident, originally from Boston, said, "I feel more culture shock in California than I do in Kanazawa."

There is a crunch coming that will test the effects of internationalization so far, however, and perhaps reveal the true ability of Kanazawa's residents to adapt. The demand for homestay days has grown twelve fold in the last five years, but the number of families willing to host foreigners has grown at less than one-tenth of that rate. Three times as many foreigners want homestays as can be arranged, and with students being enticed by government subsidies, homestay demand is expected to double again by 1993.

The prefecture's Homestay Bank, which places about 250 students annually, is feverishly running seminars to educate residents on the joys and rewards of hosting foreigners. One of Japan's international homestay organizations, International Student Advisers of Japan, opened an office, which will send more Japanese students abroad; this, it is hoped, will open more doors at home. The prefecture's new International Exchange Foundation will also coordinate efforts to encourage the reluctant to become hosts.

But the very culture, tradition, and conservatism that draws people to Kanazawa to learn about "genuine Japan" is precisely what the internationalizers are bumping up against. Ultimately, the individual families of this ancient city will determine the rate of intercultural exchange, and just how personal it becomes. Sadaaki Ishizaki, who directed the prefectural cultural exchange program for the last three years before returning to his profession as a high school principal, knows it's an uphill battle: "Traditional things have great authority here. Kanazawans think if we change too quickly, it could be dangerous."


Peter S. Crosby is a Tokyo Editor and writer.