Japan is an island country surrounded on all sides by the sea. It's also one of the world's largest economies, with goods flowing in and out of the country by ship. That means its coasts are lined with lighthouses, which play an essential role in guiding those ships to port. Or used to, to be more precise. On this edition of Japanology Plus, we shed light on both the history of Japan's lighthouses and the way technology is changing their function in the 21st century.
For the landlubbers out there, let's start with the basics: just what are lighthouses? Simply put, they are structures that house beacon lights and guide ships by letting them know their position relative to the coast. They have existed in some form since ancient times, but the modern lighthouses we know now began to be constructed around 1700. The first lighthouse fully exposed to the open sea, a wooden tower on the Eddystone Rocks in Plymouth, England, was completed in 1699, only to be swept away by a storm four years later. Japan's first lighthouse was built in 1868, exactly 150 years ago as of 2018 (more on that in a bit!).
As we learn on the program, Japan's coastline is home to roughly 3,000 lighthouses. Japan's coastline is roughly 30,000 km, meaning about one lighthouse per 10 km! In comparison, the coastline of the United States is roughly 150,000 km, and it is estimated the country currently has about 700 lighthouses. Even keeping in mind the caveats that coastline calculation can be fuzzy and that the definition of what exactly a lighthouse is might vary, it's still clear Japan's coast has a lot of light.
Of the country's 3,000 or so lighthouses, Kannon Saki Lighthouse, located at the mouth of Tokyo Bay, is of special significance. (It should be noted that the name of the lighthouse is rendered differently from the name of the cape where it is situated: Kannonzaki.) The current building on the site was built in 1925, but the original Kannon Saki was Japan's first lighthouse. Construction began in 1868, as stipulated by a treaty signed ten years prior that established Japan's trade with the West after centuries of isolation. Built with help from Western civil engineers, the original structure was destroyed by an earthquake in 1922.
Peter Barakan visits Kannon Saki with expert guest Mayuu Fudo. To say Fudo is a serious lighthouse enthusiast would be putting it, well, lightly. This lighthouse lover, who got married at the site of one of these beacons, edits a free magazine about them. Its title, Todai Dodai?, is notable for Japanese learners (or anyone who's a fan of a good old pun). In Japanese, "todai" is lighthouse(s), and "do dai" is a colloquial expression meaning "Whaddya think?" Put them together and you've got the name of the magazine and a clever gag.
According to our punny expert guest, the greatness of Japanese lighthouses lies in their austerity. While lighthouses in other countries can be flashy, with playful designs and colors, Japanese ones place functionality over style. For true connoisseurs, posits Fudo, this stripped-down, functional aesthetic offers its own appeal.
But while Japanese lighthouses may be the workhorses of the lighthouse world, they're finding work hard to come by. That's because ships these days rely more on technologies like GPS and radar than the visual aid of a lighthouse to guide their paths. Though not all lighthouses have been rendered obsolete yet, some are being torn down. In this technological era, what is a lighthouse fan to do?
During the program, we shine a light on some of the activities Fudo and others are involved in to help preserve these historical structures. That includes, in addition to Fudo's free magazine, short films aimed at giving lighthouses a romantic image. Other projects include a website created by the Japan Coast Guard that offers 360-degree VR tours of lighthouses around Japan. This site allows those unable to make the trip to lighthouses to tour them virtually, as well as preserves them digitally in the event they may one day be torn down.
As GPS and other technologies keep improving, the original function of lighthouses will eventually be rendered completely obsolete—but if lighthouse lovers in Japan and elsewhere have anything to do with it, they'll live on as important cultural and historical beacons for a long time to come.