(part one of three)
“By God,” says he, “I think the Devil shits Dutchmen.”
Sir William Batten, Surveyor of the Navy, in response to Dutch mopping-up operations along the length of the English coast in the aftermath of the Republic’s triumphant Raid on the Medway in the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667), quoted in Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for 19th July, 1667
Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.
Charles MacKay, preface to the 1852 edition of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
Picture the scene: you’re on Family Feud (US) or Family Fortunes (UK), and the oily host summons you to go head-to-head with a member of the opposing family. “Hands on the buzzers, please. Top eight answers in this round. We asked 100 people…to name something associated with Holland.”
Suppress lewd thoughts of red-light districts, window brothels, and sex clubs—this is a family show—and quick, the buzzer!
And that, in essence, is Huis ten Bosch, a $3bn theme park answer to a quiz show question nobody asked.
Monumental in its conception, extravagant in its execution, and epic in its failure, Huis ten Bosch is the greatest by far of all of the progeny of Japan’s Bubble era dreams.
Sprawling as it does over 152 hectares (375 acres) of Omura Bay shoreline in the western Nagasaki Prefecture city of Sasebo, the park is more than three times the size of Tokyo Disneyland and still bigger than Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea combined, awing the resident-visitor of these cramped lands with its sheer scale. Add in the 250 holiday homes in the 50-hectare Wassenaar zone, named after a chic suburb of The Hague, and the entire development is roughly the size of the Principality of Monaco. A 5km stretch of highway and the administrative district Huis ten Bosch occupies have been named after it, as has a station on the Omura line, seen here with the gargantuan 330-bedroom ANA Hotel (where I stayed) in the background.
So vast are the lands on which Huis ten Bosch lies it even has its own gas station within the park precincts, to serve the fleet of archly retro vehicles that ply its streets—one model, the Subaru Sambar Classic, was developed just for the park and later offered to the public.
The best place from which to gasp in marvel at the audacity of Huis ten Bosch is the 80m high observation deck of the almost facsimile replica of the Domtoren of Utrecht, at 112.5m the tallest church tower in the Netherlands.
At 105m, Huis ten Bosch’s Domtoren was when erected the tallest building in the prefecture, and for now remains its single tallest structure.
From the Domtoren looking north, with in the foreground the 328-room Hotel Europa, the setting for director Juzo Itami’s 1992 yakuza satire, Minbo: the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion, for which he was beaten and slashed by three hoodlums just days after the movie opened and may, in 1997, have paid with his life in a mobster murder dressed as suicide. In the background to the left is the mothballed 228-room Hotel Den Haag, while in the background to the right, above the 105 low-slung grey rental villas of the Forest Park, is Paleis Huis ten Bosch (“house” “ten”, “boss”, “House in the Woods”), a near carbon copy of one of the four official residences of the Dutch monarchy and home to Her Majesty Beatrix, by the Grace of God Queen of the Netherlands.
From the Domtoren looking west into the Binnenstad district of Amsterdam, with Prince Willem Alexander Square, named after the current Prince of Orange and heir apparent to the Dutch throne, in the foreground, and the 202-room Hotel Amsterdam housed in the quadrangle to the right.
From the Domtoren looking southwest, with the shopping malls of Binnenstad in the foreground, the amusement quarter of Nieuwstad in the center, the windmills of Kinderdijk back and to the left, and in the top left corner the ANA Hotel, which lies just outside the park.
From the Domtoren looking south, with the ANA Hotel now top right. In the foreground are the ornamental flower gardens of Friesland, so named perhaps because, as with the real Friesland, there’s not much going on. Center picture is the Japan Racing Association’s off-course betting emporia, WINS Sasebo, modeled—externally at least—after the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and only opened in 2002. Back left in cream with a gray mansard roof is the 388-room Hotel Nikko, also outside the park. That completes our tour of the hotels of Huis ten Bosch, which all told have nearly 1,500 rooms.
Before we descend to earth to sample the delights of Huis ten Bosch close up, some back-story is called for. There are two back-stories, actually, the deep one and the shallow one. The deep one begins in the year 1600.
The first decade of the 17th century was a momentous one for a small waterlogged republic on the northwest fringe of continental Europe struggling to free itself from the Iberian yoke. It began with the routing of Spanish pikemen by the Dutch infantry in the Battle of Nieuwpoort on July 2, 1600, and ended with Spain’s de facto recognition of the Dutch Republic as a sovereign state in the Twelve Years’ Truce, signed in Antwerp on April 9, 1609.
Three events that were to prove pivotal in the evolution of capitalism and globalization were packed into the decade. The first was the foundation of the Dutch East India Company, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), the world’s first large joint-stock corporation and arguably its first multinational enterprise, in 1602. The second was the foundation, in the same year, by the VOC, of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, the world’s first securities bourse. The third was the world’s first formulation, by Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius in The Free Sea (Mare Liberum, 1609) of the principle of free trade, in this case on the international territory of the sea.
In Asia, the Dutch were pushing east, seizing the Spice Islands, now Maluku, from the Portuguese in 1605, and establishing their first permanent trading post in Southeast Asia at Bantam in western Java in 1609. On April 19, 1600, Dutch merchant vessel de Liefde (Charity) made landfall on Kyushu, the only one of a convoy of five ships that set sail from Rotterdam in the summer of 1598 to reach its destination, with only 24 of its crew of 110 still alive. Among the half dozen of them still able to stand were the first Dutchmen to set foot in Japan, including Jan Joosten van Lodensteijn, the second mate, who has given his (corrupted) name to the Yaesu side of Tokyo station, and Jacob Quaeckernaeck, the captain, as well as Will Adams, the English pilot, who inspired James Clavell’s Shogun.
Will Adams may have won fame, at least in the English-speaking world, as the “white samurai”, but as so often in those days, the Dutch engineered the commercial edge, establishing a trading factory on the island of Hirado to the north of Nagasaki in September 1609. In 1641, the Dutch were forced to move to an artificial fan-shaped island, Dejima, measuring just 120m by 75m, off Nagasaki, that had been reclaimed from the sea in 1636 for the Portuguese, who were expelled in 1639. And there the Dutch stayed for more than two centuries, Japan’s only window to the West.
What the Dutch wanted more than anything was the product of Japan’s silver mines, to grease the Asian trade and to compensate for the waning output of the great silver mountain, Cerro Rico, at Potosí in the Viceroyalty of Peru, and for almost three decades they got what they wanted, until the export of silver was banned by the shogunate in 1668, which was instrumental in the long, slow eclipse of the VOC in Asia. The Japan concession dwindled away into a backwater: only 600 or so Dutch ships put in at Dejima between 1641 and 1857, about the same number that could be seen dans le port d’Amsterdam on any afternoon in the mid-17th century.
Ultimately Dejima became much more significant for hosts than the hosted, as the sole conduit for Dutch Studies (Rangaku, 蘭学), the learning of the West, and I’m sure that today, Dejima occupies a far larger place in the Japanese consciousness than it does in the Dutch one. Only the other night I was flicking through the channels when I came across a docudrama about German botanist Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), who was appointed as the resident Dejima physician in 1823 and who is barely known outside these isles.
That then is the—brutally abridged—deep back-story. The shallow back-story starts in summer 1979, with a vacation taken by a man born a nobody, Yoshikuni Kamichika (神近義邦). It’s invidious to transliterate Japanese names, particularly in the back-to-front, given-name-first order in which they appear in English, but this one is too delicious to resist: “Good country, close to God”. Exactly the sentiments of a Calvinist Dutch burgher of the 17th century toward his homeland.
Kamichika was born into poverty in 1942 in Seihi, a small town just south of Sasebo, which had fewer than 10,000 souls when in 2005 it was wiped from the map through a municipal merger. After graduating in 1962 from the local agricultural high school while working to support his family, he took up a post in the town hall, where he stayed for a decade, building a chrysanthemum nursery on the side. In the early 1970s, a high-end ryotei restaurant, Ichijo, catering to politicians in Tokyo’s political nerve-center of Nagatacho, surreptitiously cornered 550,000m2 of Seihi land on which to build, among other things, a love hotel, causing consternation in the town. The ryotei, however, collapsed in the wake of the 1973 Oil Crisis and, via a plot too convoluted to detail here, Kamichika ended up its general manager, catapulted from a provincial backwater to the very epicenter of power, and succeeded in turning the restaurant around.
On a busman’s holiday in the Mediterranean in 1979, so the legend goes, Kamichika and his businessman travelling companion, the president of the real estate division of ball-bearing maker Minebea (slogan: Passion is POWER, Passion is SPEED, Passion is the FUTURE), are surveying a shimmering seascape when his companion turns to him and asks:
“Is there a sea like this in all Japan?”
So many consequences were to flow from such a simple question.
“Yes,” Kamichika is reported to have replied vehemently, “the marvelous sea of Omura Bay in Nagasaki, where I was born and raised. It’s every bit as good as the Mediterranean. Why can’t we get people to visit it, just like the Mediterranean?”
Omura Bay, in places flanked by scrubbed hillsides of citrus groves tumbling to the water’s edge, does indeed occasionally have a Mediterranean feel.
On the plane home, Kamichika scribbled away making notes, as the idea for the precursor to Huis ten Bosch took shape in his mind. Enlisting the support of a few local enterprises and architect and president of major design firm Nihon Sekkei, Takekuni Ikeda, who had fallen in love with Omura Bay in the Second World War, Kamichika refurbished and expanded a fish restaurant in his hometown of Seihi and on July 22, 1983, Nagasaki Holland Village, initially not much more than a scrawny assortment of windmills, piers, and shops on a dozen hectares that had cost perhaps $10mn to build, welcomed its first visitors. The vision, as articulated by Kamichika, was to faithfully replicate a townscape of the Netherlands, with its deep ties to Nagasaki, down to the last cobblestone. The timing was propitious: Tokyo Disneyland had opened just three months before and soon an expanded Nagasaki Holland Village was being dubbed by the media “the Disneyland of the West”.
Emboldened by success—at its 1990 peak, Nagasaki Holland Village attracted 2mn visitors—in 1988 Kamichika began planning something a tad more ambitious: Huis ten Bosch. It was the Bubble; anything was possible. Six kilometers of canals, 3.2km of underground tunnels for the communications, energy, and water infrastructure, 400,000 trees, and 300,000 flowers and shrubs—sure, why not? Kamichika took his plans to the bankers and the bankers liked what they saw.
The bankers were led by the blue-blooded, white-shoed, and blue-chip Industrial Bank of Japan (IBJ), which in the heady high growth days of 1950s and 1960s had been a key mover and shaker in the reflorescence of war-ravaged heavy industry and which chipped in a cool $1bn. This was not by any measure the rashest Bubble loan extended by the IBJ: that prize must surely go to the Y240mn ($1.7bn as of January 1990) or so it lent to Nui Onoue (尾上縫), the Bubble Lady of Osaka, whose tale, the darkest and strangest of all the Bubble threw up, deserves a brief diversion.
The story kicks off in 1987 when then 57-year old spinster Onoue walked into the IBJ Osaka branch and began buying up huge quantities of IBJ debentures. Everything about Onoue is enveloped in mystery. She may be from, or have close links with, the burakumin underclass. It seems certain she was born, like Kamichika, in poverty and worked for a while as a waitress—or was it as a hostess?—before acquiring a couple of restaurants—or was she set up in them by a shadowy backer?—in the late 1960s in a sordid Osaka entertainment district. Some say the source of her seed money for the IBJ debentures, of which she eventually amassed Y290bn (just over $2bn), was a scion of the Matsushita electronics empire, some say the mob, some say a construction magnate. By the late 1980s, she had gained notoriety as the biggest speculator on the Tokyo stock market, and late at night scores of black limousines would park up outside one of her restaurants, Egawa, disgorging bankers for séances, inspired by esoteric mikkyo Buddhism, on the fourth floor, overseen by a giant ceramic toad standing a meter tall. In Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, Alex Kerr reports (probably unreliably but undoubtedly entertainingly) the ritual thus:
Department chiefs from IBJ’s Tokyo headquarters would take the bullet train down from Tokyo to Osaka in order to attend a weekly ceremony presided over by the toad. On arriving at Nui’s house, the IBJ bankers would join elite stockbrokers from Yamaichi Securities and other trading houses in a midnight vigil. First they would pat the head of the toad. Then they would recite prayers in front of a set of Buddhist statues in Nui’s garden. Finally Madame Nui would seat herself in front of the toad, go into a trance, and deliver the oracle—which stocks to buy and which to sell. The financial markets in Tokyo trembled at the verdict. At his peak in 1990, the toad controlled more than $10bn in financial instruments, making its owner the world’s largest individual stock investor.
Onoue’s game—or that of the pullers of her puppet strings—appears to have been a house of straw built on the shifting sands of leverage and ever-rising stock prices, and as the Nikkei halved in the tumultuous first ten months of 1990, it came crashing down. By April 1991, she had resorted to using to crudely forged certificates of deposit with a face value of Y340bn ($2.4bn) from a tiny credit union, Toyo Shinkin, which had total deposits of a mere Y360bn ($2.5bn), to liberate her IBJ debentures from the bank’s own vaults so as to borrow more elsewhere. By the time of her August 1991 arrest, Onoue had stacked up a scarcely credible Y2.8trn ($19.4bn) in borrowings, eventually going bust with net debts of some Y430bn ($3bn) in the nation’s largest ever personal bankruptcy and bringing down Toyo Shinkin, another credit union, and the management of the IBJ with her. The IBJ, which at its peak was valued at $63bn, nearly twenty times the market capitalization of Wall Street’s Morgan Stanley, never recovered from its Bubble excesses and was swallowed up in 2002 in the merger that created Mizuho Financial Group—which became the main bank of Huis ten Bosch.
Onoue’s trial began in 1997, with the prosecutors baying for 15 years. Her lawyers cited an alleged IQ of 84 and claimed she could add and subtract, but not multiply or divide. She was sentenced to 12 years in 1998, a sentence not finalized by the Supreme Court until April 2003, fully 15 years after she first walked into the IBJ branch and 12 years after her arrest. Justice delayed is justice denied, and whoever spoke through the toad—my super-sleuth source believes it was the IBJ itself—we can be reasonably confident it wasn’t Onoue. It’s hard to see her as anything other than a sacrificial victim slaughtered on an altar to appease the gods of the Bubble.
While the tale of the Bubble Lady of Osaka was unfolding, the diggers, cranes, and dredgers were sculpting Huis ten Bosch out of a failed industrial park. Kamichika’s vision was breathtaking, some might say Pharonic: Huis ten Bosch was to be no ordinary theme park, but a resort city, a prototype community along the lines of Disney’s EPCOT, a future world, albeit one looking Janus-like to the past, too. Architecture professor Marc Treib, in an essay titled Theme park, themed living: The Case of Huis ten Bosch (published in 2002 but based on a 1995 visit), commented:
In fact, it is management’s hope—and intention—that when the massive construction debt has been amortized [sic] in about 20 years, the admission charge will be dropped completely. By that time, a community planned on Dutch lines will have developed incrementally around today’s theme park center; what had been a zone controlled by restrictive admission will have become the thriving city center of a new town on Omura Bay.
In an (undated) interview with photojournalist Graeme Simmons, Kamichika made it clear that Huis ten Bosch was not an end in itself, but merely the babysteps of a far grander march:
“My idea is to create a whole series of towns around Omura Bay”, he says, “Using the themes of water and greenery”. The next step, he says, is a Japanese Heritage Village, to remind visitors of their culture. Also on the agenda is a full-scale replica of Monaco itself.
In an interview with LA Times journalist Margaret Scott for a November 1993 article, The World According to Japan, the timescale on which Kamichika was dreaming was one measured not in years but decades and centuries:
As Kamichika put it, “This will not always be a country of worker bees. What will be the main industry for the next 50 years? Leisure.”
Eventually, Kamichika says, he wants Huis ten Bosch to be about more than the allure of the exotic; he wants to make the exotic familiar. His idea is to have 100,000 people living along the canals by the sea. Already, a small settlement of 250 Dutch-style houses, with shuttered windows and steep alpine [sic] roofs, has gone up.
“We are selling life here—we are introducing Japanese to a new way of living,” he says. “Kyoto was modeled on a Chinese city 1,000 years ago. And now it is considered to be the most pure, most truly Japanese of all our cities. After 1,000 years, Huis ten Bosch is going to be just like Kyoto—the standard of a typical Japanese city.”
Even the normally skeptical leftist academic, Gavan McCormack, writing in The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence (1996), was seduced by Kamichika’s vision:
Its founders claim that it is being built to last 1,000 years, and that, as the building of the city of Kyoto in the eighth century was modeled on that of T’ang China’s capital at Ch’ang-an so, in the future, Huis ten Bosch may be come to seen as the first type of postindustrial urban development, drawing upon European models but certainly no more Dutch than Kyoto is Chinese, and creating in the process a city that Dutch people can only look upon with astonishment.
What the whole project represents is still hard to say, but the claim to be pioneering ecological town planning, with emphasis on the needs of the coming “aging and leisure-oriented society of the 21st century,” is not easily dismissed. … It has been enormously expensive to build, but will leave something much more solid and interesting than other resorts. It has also been successful…
Huis ten Bosch opened, with atrociously impeccable timing, on March 25, 1992, as Japan was sliding into its first post-Bubble recession. In the LA Times article referenced above, Kunio Seiki, a managing director of IBJ, lauded Kamichika as “a visionary who also has an abacus for a brain”. If so, it was an abacus with a few beads missing. The target—never met—was for 5mn visitors a year. In its first full year of operation (the fiscal year to March 31, 1993 [FY3/93]), Huis ten Bosch pulled in only 3.75mn visitors, but it was nevertheless for a few glorious years in the middle of the decade possible to be persuaded that the theme park had been a success, as visitor numbers rose to peak at 4.25mn in FY3/97. Then the long, slow slide set in. By FY3/01, the visitor count was back to 3.76mn, where it had been the opening year, and in June 2000 Kamichika stepped down as CEO as the theme park pled for Y20bn ($187mn) in debt forgiveness from the IBJ. It retuned with cap in hand in autumn 2001, pleading for another Y33bn to be forgiven, but this was not enough and on February 26, 2003, Huis ten Bosch, never having come close to the sweet scent of black ink, applied for court protection from its creditors under the Corporate Rehabilitation Law with debts of Y229bn ($1.9bn), an event that made the national news and attracted the wistful comment of future Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, then Chief Cabinet Secretary: “I want the theme park to revive itself into a healthy company and entertain many Japanese people.” The following year, FY3/04, visitor numbers collapsed to just 2.15mn, as fickle tourists, alarmed by the bankruptcy, steered clear in droves. Kamichika’s dream was in shreds.
Nagasaki Holland Village, which had been operating in the shadow of its big brother since 1992, giving Nagasaki two Dutch theme parks a couple of dozen kilometers from each other, saw annual visitor numbers tumble to 220,000 in FY3/01 from the 2mn FY3/91 peak and closed its doors for good in October 2001. An effort was made to turn it into a food theme park, Cas Village, in 2005, but that ended in failure in just six months. By 2009, Nagasaki Holland Village was a moldering carcass savaged by termites (video here). Then in a supreme irony, one in which the story of Huis ten Bosch abounds, the city of Saiki, into which Kamichika’s birthplace of Seihi had been merged in 2005, voted in September 2009 to spend Y156mn ($1.7mn) restoring part of the park to house the Seihi municipal offices, where Kamichika had started out.
On approaching the Huis ten Bosch admission gates from the south, the visitor first passes the prototype community of Wassenaar.
Author Kyoichi Tsuzuki, in Baburu no Shozo: The Many Faces of Bubble, relates that the 250 elegant villas of Wassenaar were integral to Huis ten Bosch’s repayment of its monstrous debt. The goal was to sell all the villas, priced at a modest Y100mn-Y400mn ($1.5mn-$6mn), before the park opened, but only 10% found buyers, and by 2001, a decade after they had been erected, half remained unsold. Finally, their prices were knocked down by a half to two-thirds, and in 2004 the last one was offloaded. Tsuzuki remarks that the wasei (Japanese-made) Wassenaar looks like a movie set, and indeed it does: the set of The Truman Show. What struck this observer most, though, is an absence: the absence of the visual cacophony that is the Japanese street. Where were the half-abandoned bicycles, where were the ramshackle gantries for laundry, where, for our Pete’s sweet sake, where were the wires? While Wassenaar may have been conceived as a prototype community, most of the properties are besso holiday homes or time-shares and access is restricted to owners and their guests. By day there is barely a flicker of life and by night the few houselights that flip on and off smack of programmable timers.
Following the bankruptcy, a beauty contest was held by the courts to select a sponsor. Foreign private equity houses such as Ripplewood, dubbed chauvinistically and misleadingly in Japanese as “vulture funds”, circled the twitching corpse of the theme park, but to no one’s particular surprise, a homegrown suitor was deemed to be the most attractive, and in December 2003 Nomura Principal Finance, pledging an Y11bn ($100mn) investment, took over. Nomura tried various tricks to turn Huis ten Bosch around, among them the construction of a wedding chapel, White Symphony, and poured another Y10bn ($85mn) into the park in 2006, managing to keep visitor numbers above the 2mn mark until the financial crisis hit, when they sank to 1.87mn in FY3/09 and 1.41mn in FY3/10. In July 2009, the park still never having made a penny of profit, Nomura threw in the linen towel and a frantic quest for a new sponsor—for Huis ten Bosch should not, could not, must not be allowed to die—began, and in February 2010 travel agency H.I.S. (slogan: Love, Peace, TRAVEL), was chosen, in a very generous deal—a measure of the general desperation—that gives it Y900mn ($10mn) annually in tax breaks and the right to walk away after three years.
(to be continued…)