Shining a light on lighthouses

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Four lighthouses that include one in Choshi, Chiba Prefecture, were designated national important cultural properties in December. This marks the first time active lighthouses, which serve as guides for maritime traffic, have been designated as an important cultural property.

Despite waves of technological advances, such as global positioning systems, lighthouses have recently been put in the spotlight for their historical value and tourism resources.

Modern heritage

Inubosaki Lighthouse towers over the eastern end of the Choshi Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture. Built in 1874, the government recognized its value in navigation history beyond being the first lighthouse on the North Pacific route. The lighthouse also has architectural value for being an early tower-like brick building designed to survive in earthquake-prone Japan.

The local Inubosaki Brunton Association visited Britain, home of engineer Richard Henry Brunton, who contributed to the lighthouse’s construction. The association studied the blueprint and letters Brunton had made at the time. The study served as a reference for a national survey on the designation.

“I think we were able to help make the lighthouse a national treasure,” said Hiroshi Nakata, 72, who represents the association.

The other three lighthouses — in Mutsureshima and Tsunoshima, both in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, and Hesaki in Kitakyushu — were constructed in the early Meiji era (1868-1912) under the instructions of Brunton as well. They all convey a modern heritage built with Western technology.

At first glance, the designation of the four lighthouses appears to be a matter of course, but a series of challenges stood in the way of them becoming national important cultural properties.

Under the Protection of Cultural Properties Law, government approval is now required to “change the status” of the structures so as not to undermine their value as important cultural properties. Lighthouse owners must consult with the Cultural Affairs Agency whenever renovating the exteriors and elsewhere, on top of maintaining functions such as their light sources.

On the other hand, a registered tangible cultural property means owners can make moderate renovations by simply notifying authorities, and currently 15 lighthouses have this status. Strict conditions stipulated under the law had kept active lighthouses from gaining a higher status as national important cultural properties for a long time.

This time, the Japan Coast Guard, the owner of the four lighthouses, and the cultural agency came to an understanding that the lighthouses would be designated as an important property as long as they are “maintained and managed to the degree of not damaging the value of the cultural properties.”

This was spurred by a need to help lighthouses survive.


The Navigational Aids Law states the role of beacons, including lighthouses, is to ensure traffic safety and improve ship operation efficiency. Lighthouses are indispensable for areas that rely on ships to transport people and goods, and such areas across the nation have long promoted the conservation of lighthouses.

In recent years, however, the development of GPS and radar has allowed crews to measure the positions of their ships in relation to ports. This has diminished the role of visual aids like a lighthouse, which illuminates routes to ensure safe navigation, and 117 lighthouses in the nation have been abolished over the last decade.

Many municipalities, however, hope to revitalize the role of lighthouses as their local symbol.

The Japan Coast Guard, for its part, does not want to force the abolition of lighthouses unless they must be dismantled due to port maintenance or other reasons.

“Just as a car navigation system alone cannot prevent car accidents, the role of a lighthouse that can visually ensure safe navigation remains unchanged,” a coast guard official said.

Movie locations

In 2018, the Japan Coast Guard began promoting lighthouse tourism. The guidelines compiled by an agency’s experts panel suggest using the structures for movies and TV shows or on online video streaming. Defunct lighthouses are sometimes sold to local governments to be used in parks and restaurants.

One attempt to promote tourism is to shed light on their value as a cultural asset.

The public interest incorporated association, Aids to Navigation (or Tokokai) advertises lighthouses. It has held lighthouse viewings, though participation has fallen from about 1.7 million people in the peak of the 1970s to 700,000 in recent years.

“I hope the cultural value of the lighthouse will attract more visitors,” said Tetsuo Ishida, head of the secretariat.

Mayu Fudo, a publisher of a free paper on lighthouses “Todai Dodai?” (How about lighthouses?) said: “I hope the designation of the lighthouses as important cultural properties will spur more ideas on how to use these historical values and become the leaders of lighthouses nationwide.”