There was a time when the Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium was holy ground for an amateur athlete living in this remote region of southwestern Japan. The most accomplished local volleyball and basketball teams, badminton and table-tennis pairs, gymnasts and practitioners of kendo and judo – they all got a taste of glory in this building, in Takamatsu city, before setting their sights on the national title. It was a place you aspired to, a crucible of ambition, talent, grit and nerves.
Not any more. Last September the Kagawa prefectural government closed the gymnasium for good, ending half a century of public service, and now there’s talk that it will be demolished. It’s a shame, not just because of the loss of a historic arena for future generations of athletes: this building also happens to be one of the country’s most striking architectural landmarks.
Designed by the late Kenzo Tange, the three-storey concrete structure was built in 1964, the same year that Tange’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium was completed for the Tokyo Olympics. The Kagawa gymnasium has a swooping roof that has been compared to the hull of a giant boat. It’s one of the legacies of former Kagawa governor Masanori Kaneko, who led the prefecture for nearly a quarter of a century and commissioned Tange and other top Japanese architects, artisans and artists to create public buildings, furniture and art.
Safety is the reason Kagawa prefecture has cited for the closure. The gymnasium went up decades before modern construction standards were put in place to make buildings more earthquake-resilient. The government had searched for a contractor that could retrofit the ageing building at a cost of around ¥800m (€5.8m) but found none. Partly it was bad timing: there was a shortage of contractors and heavy machinery and a jump in building-material costs after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan.
Not everyone is giving up. One architect in Takamatsu, Noriyuki Kawanishi, has taken matters into his own hands. Last year Kawanishi founded the Association for the Preservation of Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium. He has fond memories of the building, having competed in a regional badminton tournament there when he was 15; long before that, his mother regularly took him to the arena for her volleyball practices.
For months, Kawanishi has used a combination of social media and old-fashioned pound-the-pavement activism to mobilise public support for his cause. He has set up a website (kentaihozon.org) and a Facebook page, launched a change.org campaign and spent hours at local festivals and fairs collecting signatures for a petition that he plans to submit to the prefectural governor. There are others like him but none as resourceful.
The fate of the gym is still undecided. It might or might not be torn down, according to one government official I spoke with when I visited Takamatsu last month. Even in its current state, the gym is a tourist attraction: seeing the building for myself was one reason I dragged my family to Takamatsu for vacation.
Kawanishi’s hope is that officials won’t make a top-down decision before the public has had the chance to weigh in. He has the ear of some sympathetic officials who are planning to retrofit the foundation and rooftop of the 57-year-old Kagawa Prefectural Office East Building, another Tange-designed landmark. They have set aside ¥4.2bn (€30m), five times the amount needed for the gym. At the moment, though, they have no authority over the gym.
Let’s hope that Kawanishi succeeds in persuading Kagawa’s governor to reconsider refurbishing the gym. Too many of Japan’s modern, architectural masterpieces have been lost because property developers or government officials didn’t grasp a building’s cultural value. To lose this one to the wrecking ball is something too dispiriting to contemplate.
Kenji Hall is Monocle’s Asia editor at large.