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Battling Sign Pollution

Aya Takenaka

Dec. 13, 2016

The town of Ine on the Sea of Japan coast wants to preserve its charm by curbing the use of billboards.

Japanese cities are flooded with brightly colored signs but many people think they're a blot on the landscape, a form of visual pollution.

Ine has a population of about 2,200 and its waterfront features “funaya,” or boathouses, which have space for a fishing boat on the first floor and a living space on the second floor.

The oldest ones were built during the 19th century, back when Ine was a flourishing fishing port. But that industry has been declining for decades, so the town has turned to tourism as a source of income, and the funaya are a key attraction. The town received around 250,000 visitors last year -- more than 100 times Ine's population.

"We watched the Funaya on TV and wanted to see them with our own eyes," says one visitor from Yamanashi Prefecture.

Funaya are now Ine’s largest tourist draw, but the town is concerned about preserving local character.

"Prefectural regulations limit sign heights to 1 meter," says Shinji Koyama, an official with the town's planning and tourism division.

Recently, the number of signs has been increasing and this year, the town began surveying all of the signs in the area. Town officials soon decided that they needed stricter signage regulations, and decided to establish their own.

Earlier this month, 2 draft regulations were submitted to the Ine town council.

"By promoting policies that take advantage of the community’s distinctive features and characteristics, we will improve the lives of residents, the local economy and the development of the community," said Ine Mayor Hideki Yoshimoto at the town council hearing.

The 2 regulations passed unanimously. The first one requires the town to implement comprehensive measures to support a rich and attractive landscape, and seek cooperation from townspeople and business owners. The second limits the size of signs near the funaya and requires that all signs there receive direct approval from the mayor.

Draft design guidelines are now being considered that would require signs to be made of wood and painted in neutral colors, and that would ban the use of blinking lights.

But opinions vary among the residents.

"I think it’s an important rule, to preserve the scenery here," says one local resident.

"I definitely think getting rid of these signs will affect businesses. I’m worried that the whole town will lose its livelihood," says another.

The mayor hopes that the new rules will make people appreciate the beauty of the funaya even more.

"I don't think we need signs to draw visitors. Ine already has a spectacular view of the waterfront with the funaya. We should attract people with this beautiful scenery. I hope this will lead to a situation in which everyone contributes to making the rules, and to enforcing them,” Yoshimoto says.

NHK World's Aya Takenaka joins anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: Aya, please tell us more about these new regulations.

Takenaka: Sure. The idea is to preserve the town's look and atmosphere. One of the new rules restricts the size of signs. Anyone who violates it faces a fine of up to about 450 dollars. Local officials will inspect all the signs in the town after the new regulation goes into effect in April. But they won't enforce it strictly for the next 5 years. A rule to ban brightly colored signs is also being considered.

Beppu: We understand the town's aim, but the report also mentioned that some local businesspeople are worried. And there are signs that it's actually helpful for tourists, so how are they going to balance this?

Takenaka: When I visited Ine, some people said they wanted to advertise their businesses. They said their signs had been up for generations, and have a special meaning for them. But not all the details have been settled, so it might be possible for people who want to keep their signs to negotiate with the town. I hope people on all sides of the debate will share their ideas on how to preserve the community’s beautiful views while revitalizing the area.

Shibuya: One last question: Many people in Japan tend to overlook the value of their local scenery. What do you think of Ine's efforts?

Takenaka: Ine's main industry is fishing. It's famous for yellowtail and squid. But the size of the catches has dropped off as the population ages. The town has turned to tourism as a last resort. Many of the people I talked to hope that preserving its scenery will allow Ine to be a tourist attraction for a long time. I really hope they can succeed.