An Interview with Prof. Keiji Yano, Deputy Director of the ARC, on Digitizing the Historical City of Kyoto and Preserving Cultural Heritage
Prof. Yano, thank you for your time today. As an expert in the field of human geography and geographical information science, your research comprises digitally archiving the historical city of Kyoto. Can you tell us about your motivation and how it all started?
Prof. Yano: The rapid advancement in ICT technology and the development of Internet-based GIS (geographic information system) in the past decades have eased the digitization of cultural assets and their distribution via the Internet.
In the early 2000s, the Department of Geography at Ritsumeikan University had accumulated an enormous amount of geospatial information on the historical city of Kyoto including paper maps, digital maps, and national land information, while the Art Research Center (ARC) had been proactive in using cutting-edge information technologies.
Our joint application and successful adoption of the "Kyoto Art Entertainment Innovation Research" for the 21st Century COE (Center of Excellence) program and subsequent Global COE program funded by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) facilitated the integration of a couple of institutions at Ritsumeikan University.
In 2002, we started the Virtual Kyoto project as part of the "Kyoto Art Entertainment Innovation Research". A similar project called Virtual London - considered as a frontier project of 3D GIS - was run by CASA (Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis) at the University College London, UK, which we had been collaborating.
Our primary objective for Virtual Kyoto was to reconstruct and visualize the historical landscapes of the city that has been mostly unaffected by wars on a web-based platform. Kyoto boasts unique features such as a myriad of world heritage-listed temples and shrines, Kyo-machiya townhouses, the Kamo River, and its geographic location of a basin surrounded by mountains on three sides.
The distinctive feature of Virtual Kyoto is the additional time dimension we added to the conventional 3D GIS models to highlight the urban development and transformation of the city. We leverage 4D GIS and VR (Virtual Reality) technologies to enable users to switch from the present time to the early Showa or Heian era as they walk through the streets of Kyoto virtually and browse georeferenced historical materials of cultures and arts from the ARC databases.
Recently, you have launched the Gion Festival Digital Museum. On this web platform, you are sharing a large collection of tangible and intangible cultural resources that you have been accumulating since the early days of the Virtual Kyoto project.
Prof. Yano: Yes, we have publicized our research results related to the festival and the city of Kyoto in a digital museum as part of the Art Research Center's outreach activities. Due to COVID-19, the scale of the Gion Festival had been drastically reduced this year, resulting in the cancellation of the main procession of decorated floats, Yamahoko Junkō, amongst other events. Therefore, I hope that both the local community and people around the world can explore and enjoy this festival virtually.
This platform covers a variety of contents that have been digitally archived by the ARC over the years, including 2D and 3D maps of Kyoto, old photographs of the Gion Festival during the Showa era, audio-visual materials of the Yamahoko parade, and ukiyo-e paintings on the festival.
However, it took us some time to build the Gion Festival Digital Museum because of the intangible nature of the festival. As the festival takes place only once a year, there is a time constraint to research as compared with tangible assets.
The Gion Festival Digital Museum's bilingual websites have been well-received with the Japanese site reaching more than 40,000 page views from 41 countries within a month while the English website has been accessed from 57 countries. Furthermore, the platform was featured by various Japanese media outlets. What are your thoughts about this project?
Prof. Yano: I am delighted that the Gion Festival Digital Museum has been able to attract interest both locally and internationally.
The Gion Festival is not only one of the three biggest festivals in Japan but has also been designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage by the UNESCO. Since it is our mission at the Art Research Center to preserve and promote traditional Japanese culture and arts, I hope that researchers of Japanese studies and digital humanities around the world could benefit from our resources. Through the media, our research has also been made more accessible to the broader public.
Furthermore, new educational guidelines are being introduced to the school system in Japan. With changes in the national curriculum, computer programming and geography will soon become compulsory subjects at high schools. As I consider the databases and contents of the Art Research Center suitable for high schools, we have submitted a proposal to the Japanese Science Council to promote the use of our digital archives in high school geography classes (refer to http://www.scj.go.jp/ja/info/kohyo/kohyo-24-t295-1-abstract.html).
Is the Gion Festival Digital Museum going to remain accessible to the public in the future?
Prof. Yano: Yes. The Gion Festival Digital Museum website is going to remain online as part of the Art Research Center's Virtual Institute and will be expanded in the future.
What kind of challenges have you experienced with digitally archiving the city of Kyoto?
For instance, I have been collaborating with Prof. Satoshi Tanaka from the College of Information Science and Engineering. His expertise and innovative approach to laser measurement have enabled us to create precise three-dimensional see-through visualization models of the festival's decorated floats with new perspectives otherwise invisible to the human eye.
Therefore, I would like to advocate for more interdisciplinary collaboration, especially at the graduate level. With the advancement in technology, the need for humanities researchers who also possess a relatively strong background in information science and computing is likely to increase. Fostering such young researchers is an important task.
Besides the Gion Festival Digital Museum, can you tell us about some other projects you are involved in?
Prof. Yano: In another project, we have created a surname map. With access to spatial big data of circa 45 million surnames and addresses from the telephone directories and large-scale residential maps, we have visualized the geographic distribution of these surnames. By mapping them, it is possible to trace the origins, ancestry, and outcomes of migration in Japan and the world.
As a member of the Institute of Disaster Mitigation for Urban Cultural Heritage (DMUCH), which is closely related to the ARC, I am involved in the development of a sustainability plan for the preservation of the urban cultural heritage of Alexandria, Egypt. The city is not only a main seaport and center of economic and industrial activity but a place of tremendous cultural and historical significance. Leveraging on our previous research insights on Kyoto, we are devising sustainable ways of managing and accommodating new urban development in Alexandria while taking the various stakeholders and local community into account.
Furthermore, I have been collaborating with the Kyoto city government that uses our Kyo-machiya GIS database for the mitigation of disasters as well as identifying and promoting the preservation of these traditional wooden townhouses by turning them into accommodation facilities.
Kyo-machiyas are considered an important architectural and cultural heritage of Kyoto. Despite this, your research has visualized their rapid decrease in numbers over the last decades.
The preservation of Kyo-machiyas should be considered as a crucial task since they have historically shaped the city's urban landscape. However, many Kyo-machiyas have already vanished over the past century due to urban development, dilapidation, or lack of inheritance.
We have been collaborating with the Kyoto city government on three Kyo-machiya Community Building Surveys and built a GIS database to visualize their distribution and historical transition, and compare their temporal changes. Our data have been used for policy planning as well as seminars support local community-building activities.
A practical example for preserving a Kyo-machiya and its traditional lifestyle is the restored Nagae Family Residence that used to belong to a merchant family of kimono fabric and is designated a tangible cultural property by Kyoto city.
While digitally archiving a collection of items from the residence donated to Ritsumeikan University, we have also created a virtual tour of the residence that is accessible from the Gion Festival Digital Museum. The ARC has also been managing the byobu matsuri (folding screen festival) at the residence that is usually held during the Gion Festival to keep traditions alive.
Finally, could you tell us about your personal favorite or recommended spot in the city of Kyoto, and why?
I enjoy sentos (public bathhouses) and I usually go there 2-3 times a week. Kyoto is renowned for its many sentos. They are not only a good place to relax but also provide a good opportunity to socialize and connect with the local community.
Prof. Yano, thank you very much for your time. We are very much looking forward to the further development of your projects.
(This interview was conducted by Yinzi Emily Li.)