By Natalie B. Compton and Julia Mio Inuma
Last week, a teenage tourist inscribed his name on an eighth-century temple in Japan’s Nara prefecture, the latest example of tourist misbehavior this summer, police said.
The 17-year-old Canadian used his fingernails to carve “J” and “Julian” into a pillar at the Toshodai Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, according to police.
The carvings — one about an inch and a half long and two inches high, and a second about an inch long and four inches wide — were found in the temple’s main hall, or “golden hall.”
It is said that a Japanese male tourist witnessed the teenager’s crime at around 1:10 pm on July 7 and reported his behavior to Toshodaiji staff.
When the teenager was questioned by authorities, police said he admitted to the offence, saying he did it to pass the time.
The next day, a sign in Japanese and English was posted at the entrance of the temple, which read: “Please do not damage the main hall. Violation of the cultural property protection law will result in punishment.”
Under the law, the penalty for vandalizing items deemed “important cultural property” can be up to five years in prison or a fine of up to 1 million yen (roughly R130,000).
A temple spokesman described the incident as unfortunate and sad, but not an act of malice.
The incident comes as inbound tourism is starting to pick up and there are fears something similar could happen again. In the future, they will post etiquette signs in different languages.
The Golden Hall is described on its website as “the greatest surviving Tenpyo period building (8th century) in Japan today” and “recorded in many famous ancient poems”.
Plus, “its row of columns is reminiscent of the Parthenon in Greece.” It reopened in 2009 after being closed for about a decade for restoration work.
Catherine Heald, chief executive of the Asia-focused luxury brand, said that unlike the common tourist etiquette mistakes in Japan, such as not knowing when to take off your shoes or when to bow, “desecrating an important temple or shrine is another A level of disrespect.” Tour operator Remote Lands. “It’s like writing nasty graffiti on a church.”
The incident comes after a tourist carved a love letter at the Colosseum after another Unesco site was vandalized.
Ivan Danailov Dimitrov, 27, wrote in a letter to the city’s prosecutor and mayor last week that he did not understand the significance of the monument, and apologize for the damage caused.
Naomi Mano, president and chief executive of Tokyo-based luxury travel company Luxurique, said vandalism is not a problem unique to Japan, nor is it unique to foreign tourists. She thought it was unfair to slander the suspect, given his age.
“I’m raising two teenage boys,” she said. “While I wish I had taught them respect, sometimes these things happen.”
Located on the outskirts of Nara City, Toshodaiji Temple is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan after Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.
The city is known for its Buddhist temples, shrines, and the abundance of deer that roam freely in city parks and historic sites.
The company, which is just an hour’s drive from Kyoto, sends “a large number of customers” to the city for day trips or one- or two-night stays, Hield said.
Since Japan reopened its borders to tourism in October 2022, the country has had to remind tourists of its etiquette norms through public service announcements.
While Hield said most of her clients tend to behave well in Japan, “we also have some qualified people who don’t want to play by the rules,” she said. “The bottom line is, if we don’t want to play by the rules, we shouldn’t be going.”