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SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Plans by U.S. military and Japanese officials to renovate an Imperial Japanese Navy building is drawing the ire of some citizens in Sasebo.

Last May, a U.S.-Japan joint committee approved the gutting of the 125-year-old Building 311 to make way for the installation of communications gear as Sasebo Naval Base expands its telephone switchboard operation. Building 311 is one of 15 landmark red brick buildings on base and a holdover from when the base was stalked by the likes of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto. Besides being the base’s oldest building, it is also the oldest Western-style building in the city.

City officials and members of the community were stunned when they learned about the plan in October. On Monday, they sent a letter of protest to Capt. Charles Rock, the base commander, asking him to preserve the building as is.

“I have heard that Building 311 is planning to be largely remodeled in the near future,” wrote Sasebo Mayor Norio Tomonaga. “I would like to ask you Captain Rock for your consideration, to preserve appropriately its value by way of remaining the brick walls, roof truss, joists and window frames as things are, considering the value as cultural property.”

Work is slated to begin in July, according to Kyushu Defense Bureau officials.

The work calls for a facelift to the exterior walls of the building, bureau officials said. In addition, the deteriorating windows and doors will be replaced with ones that look like the originals. Workers will also redo the roof. Inside, they will take out all of the wooden joists and poles and redo them with steel beams to enhance strength.

Base officials said some of the work has begun.

“Work is already under way on the installation of telecommunications gear into Bldg. 311,” base spokesman Charles Howard wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes.

Howard added that the exterior integrity of the building would be maintained.

“None of the red brick buildings [in Sasebo] are in the national registry of historic buildings,” Howard wrote. “Still, we’re immensely proud of our stewardship of the buildings. They are collectively a landmark of the base.”

Plans for the renovation were drawn up by base officials, discussed and agreed upon by U.S. Forces Japan and the government of Japan, bureau officials said. Contracts for the work have been signed and will be paid for by the Japanese government at a cost of about $17 million. Work is scheduled to be completed by 2015.

Building 311 was built in 1888 and served as an Imperial Navy warehouse, said Atsushi Kawachino, the Sasebo city official in charge of cultural assets. The building saw a flurry of activity throughout Japan’s history of wars, first with the Chinese, then with the Russians, then saw its entry into World War II.

Building 311 survived American bombing runs during the war where much of the city did not as the base was attractive to American war planners.

Sasebo city officials said Building 311 is the only circa-1880-1890 red brick building in Japan that has been kept in good shape. Others in Yokosuka and Kure have been destroyed by earthquakes. They said the building is older than similar buildings designated historical properties elsewhere and afforded the proper protections.

Akihisa Murata, a professor at Nagasaki Institute of Applied Science who inspected Building 311 in October, said red brick warehouses on the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force base in Maizuru have been listed as important national cultural assets and sites of modern industry heritage. He wrote that Building 311 is just as valuable as he was unable to find any signs of work or upgrades done to the inside of the building.

Building 311 has not been designated a historical property because it is on a U.S. military facility, Kawachino said. There is no precedent for such a move that he is aware of.

City officials and community members have long lauded Sasebo Naval Base’s stewardship of the red brick buildings. The base has re-purposed the buildings into everything from a garden shop to a uniform store over the years, yet base officials retained their structural integrity by building walls inside the walls for example, said Kazunori Tomonaga, who leads Aka Renga Tantedan, or Red Brick Detectives, a group dedicated to investigating and preserving Sasebo’s red brick buildings.

Kazunori Tomonaga said they are going too far with Building 311. His group is also drafting a letter of protest.

“I don’t understand why they decided to renovate so drastically when it was all going well until now,” Kazunori Tomonaga said. “I ask them not to put too much work into it, especially the inside. … It is the [Sasebo] residents’ asset.”

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.
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