Photo/IllutrationA Western-style building of the villa built by Saburosuke Mitsui in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, with its Japanese-style building seen in the back (Provided by Karuizawa Bunkaisan Hozonkai)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

KARUIZAWA, Nagano Prefecture--A turn-of-the-century villa here that served as a summer residence for notable personalities appears to be in danger of demolition.

But local fans of the property are doing everything they can to save it.

Residents, including an aesthetics expert, have launched a campaign to preserve the villa built around 1900 by Saburosuke Mitsui, a Meiji Era (1868-1912) industrialist and heir of former Mitsui zaibatsu conglomerate.

Among other figures, Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel laureate poet from India, spent time at the residence and taught female college students housed at a dormitory nearby.

In January this year, ownership of the villa was taken over by Regal Honest Ltd., a corporation based in the British Virgin Islands--a tax haven territory.

During the Meiji Era, Karuizawa was developed as a summer retreat, and missionaries and foreign nationals built many villas.

After the end of World War II, it grew to become a popular destination for Japanese, but many of the historic villas have been dismantled and rebuilt or left dilapidated.

The Mitsui property is now the second-oldest villa owned by a Japanese in Karuizawa, following Hatta Besso, built in 1893 by top naval official-turned-Lower House member Yujiro Hatta.

According to Soichi Masubuchi, an aesthetician and professor emeritus of Japan Women’s University who has researched the cultural history of resort villas, the villa comprises a Western-style two-story, white-walled wooden house of 144 square meters and a Japanese-style house of 140 square meters.

Masubuchi, a frequent visitor to Karuizawa and seasonal resident, said that the villa has remained in good condition after standing almost 120 years in the town's Kyu-Karuizawa district.

The villa represents an architectural style of the Meiji Era. Some of its original Western-style accommodations, such as a flush toilet, washstand and installation parts for gas lamps, are still intact.

Mitsui (1850-1912) was a brother-in-law of Asako Hirooka (1849-1919), a famous industrialist and pioneer of higher education for women, who committed to the founding of Japan Women’s University.

Hirooka, who served as a model for the blockbuster TV drama series “Asa ga kita,” aired on the Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) in 2015, frequently stayed at the villa.

Other prominent figures, such as Kinmochi Saionji, a court noble and two-time prime minister in the Meiji Era, stayed at the villa and socialized there.

It continued to serve as an accommodation for special guests after World War II, such as Elizabeth Vining, who tutored Emperor Emeritus Akihito in English when he was a crown prince.

“The villa is a valuable structure that provides insight into the upper-class lifestyle of the time,” Masubuchi said. “It is also highly valued as a place where many historical episodes occurred."

In recent years, the villa has rarely been used except when it opens for tours and special occasions.

The villa and the land, at about 5,000 square meters, had long been in the hands of people involved in the Mitsui family, and Masubuchi and others learned about the change in the villa's ownership in May.

Rumors then started floating around that the villa would be demolished and replaced by rental vacation homes.

Residents including Masubuchi therefore founded a group called Karuizawa Bunkaisan Hozonkai to preserve the cultural heritage of the town, which is still beloved by many Japanese and foreign nationals as a summer retreat.

In early July, the group sent a letter to the corporation asking it to preserve the villa.

Karuizawa's education board also sent a document detailing the cultural value of the property to the corporation through a third-party intermediary.

The corporation has yet to respond to either of them.

Hozonkai launched a signature-collecting campaign in July, asking the town to purchase the villa and relocate it for use as a cultural facility.

The group is expected to submit the signatures to the town at the end of August.