Category Archives: Ruins

Spike: Some FAQs

A heartfelt thank you for all your kind messages of support; truly I would not have kept writing as long as I have without the encouragement of feedback. Here are my answers to some frequently (or infrequently or only once) asked questions.

 1)    Will Spike remain up for the time being, or do I have to start saving my favorite posts?

That’s an easy one to answer, yes, it stays up. And as WordPress in their munificence charge hardly anything for upkeep (how do they pay their bills?), it will remain up for the foreseeable future—not that there’s such a thing, of course.

 2)    Can’t you turn Spike into a real book, or even an e-book? I’d pay.

That’s also an easy one to answer, no. First, there’s the economics. The last Spike post generated about a thousand hits above the baseline noise over three days. Let’s make a series of what I think are fairly heroic assumptions: that half of all those hitters buy the book, that a publisher is able to drum up interest so that three times that number, 1,500 people, eventually buy the book, and that the book is priced at a hefty $30 or so. That’s $45,000 in gross revenue. Then subtract the cost of printing, especially in the anti-coffee-table book format to which Spike would best be suited, the cost of running down all the dozens of academics, songwriters, and critics, to name but a few, from whom I’ve so liberally quoted, for copyright permission, and numerous other costs that I needn’t detail. It’s never going to be a winning proposition. There’s an even more formidable obstacle, though, one which I simply cannot discuss. Anything permanent, anything with an ISBN, is out of the question.

 3)    What about the pieces you didn’t think were worth salvaging? Where can I find them?

Well, the pieces I thought not worth salvaging really are the scrapings off the bottom of a sad barrel. There are only about a dozen, and they fall into three broad categories: Minispikes about arcane subjects such as the economics of tobacco in Japan, odd assays at macroeconomics, such as the case for a consumption tax hike, and last but by no means least, the Spiked series of venom-laced attacks on ignorant, bloviating hacks (I left one example, the one that I most enjoyed researching and writing, at the table of contents). You can find these pieces, if you must, by clicking randomly on something at the table of contents and following the arrows—Spike as labyrinth, one of my favourite metaphors.

 4)    Will you not keep writing, please?

I would love to set up another blog—“Campaign for a Slow Internet” as a title appeals in its forlorn hopelessness—but I’d find myself muzzled. The itch to write may prove beyond my powers of self-control not to scratch, though. If there is a new blog, I’ll let you know. I will, at some point in the next few months, pen a Spike Preface, explaining the genesis of the blog, taking a gander at the writings of some Eminent Japan Hands (The Two Donalds in particular), and musing over the future of letters in the Age of AGFA—more rambling, in other words.

 5)    Was there ever a definitive answer to what the spike sticking out from the guardrail was for?

(Readers who do not understand to what this question refers, please see “About” on the top bar).
Yes, they serve no purpose whatsoever (a perfect metaphor for Spike): they’re the legacies of accidents in which vehicles collide with the central reservation or side guardrails, popping out the bolts, which then tear metal triangles off the vehicles that have collided with them. I just popped down to see if “my” spike was still there, still overlooked, four years on. It is.

 6)    Could I trouble you for a list of books that should be on our own literary bucket list?

Here are a dozen what I think are relatively overlooked goodies, ancient and modern, in print and very out of print, culled at near-random from the bookcase nearest me:
The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter
Tokyo Style by Kyoichi Tsuzuki
Japan in the Passing Lane: An Insider’s Account of Life in a Japanese Auto Factory by Satoshi Kamata
Unbeaten Tracks in Japan by Isabella Bird
Vermillion Sands by J.G. Ballard
Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? And Other Reflections on Being Human by Jesse Bering
The Lost Wolves of Japan by Brett L. Walker
Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain by Stefan Collini (disclosure: a former lecturer of mine)
Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago by Douglas H. Erwin
Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow
and of course:
Digby Grand by George John Whyte Melville

 7)    Can I have your car?

No. The rustmobile stays with me.

“Wherever structure is to be conjured from disorder, it must be driven by the generation of greater disorder elsewhere, so that there is a net increase in the disorder of the universe.” The Second Law, in The Laws of Thermodynamics, Peter Atkins

All photos taken in the towns of Furubira and Shakotan on the Shakotan Peninsula, Hokkaido, September 2012. Rust, like death, never sleeps.

Tama no Yu public baths, Furubira

Shinya Sushi, Furubira

 Oasis activity, Furubira

 Hauling fish on cannery row, Furubira

 Warehouse flank, Furubira

Shiny chimney, Furubira

Fashion Shop Umeno, Furubira

All fall down, Furubira

Rust begets rust, Furubira

Rust ghost doorway, Furubira

Gas stand, Furubira

Waiting for the bus, Furubira

Converging, Furubira

White panel in rust, Furubira

Buttresses, Furubira

Cracks, tiles, and string, Furubira

Cracks and a peek, Furubira

Little bluff, Furubira

Fine old house and warehouse complex, Furubira (2)

Fine old house and warehouse complex, Furubira (1)

Doorway, Bikuni port, Shakotan

Squid boat lights and harbour activity, Shakotan

Squid boat and old warehouse, Shakotan

Squid boat lights, Shakotan

Squid boat lights and winches, Shakotan

 No illegal fishing, between Furubira and Shakotan

Seascape around Horonaifu, Shakotan

Waiting for the bus, Shakotan

Cycling marsupials, Shakotan

Rusty corner, Furubira

Ironmonger's, Shakotan

Vote for Hachiro

Superb doorway, Shakotan

Doorway from the side, Shakotan

 Old meets new, Furubira

 Cannery row, Furubira


Kiyosato: High plains drifter

Hey, I can hear it, the Eros of Mozart
The romantic breeze is the violin
Wait for the Eros of Mozart to touch you
When it pulls the strings of your heart
A gorgeous September
Pink no Mozart, Seiko Matsuda (1984)

I got an inkling of the pastel troubles in store when I left the Chuo Expressway at the Sutama interchange in the northernmost Yamanashi city of Hokuto, an artificial 2004-2006 amalgam of eight towns and villages provoked by ruinous local government finances, and turned right up Rte 141, only to find that the very first roadside structure was an abandoned gas station,

which fell in combat so recently it remains on the latest maps, followed in immediate succession by an abandoned ramen noodle and gyoza potsticker place, fronted by a Merry Land ice-cream stand,

next to which reposed an abandoned yakiniku grilled meat eatery, Tomato.

A couple of hundred yards further up, a sweetly smiling blue-and-white concrete cow with a mysterious pastel-pink door in her chest lured me, Alice-like, down a sideroad to an abandoned karaoke parlor, Moon River 69, its name an unholy collision between Hank Mancini and Sonic Youth,

which jutted out over a nameless sun-dappled stream and moldered on next to an abandoned high-Bubble wedding hall.

Another couple of hundred yards further up, and right on cue, came the abandoned pachinko parlor.

All that was missing from this concatenation of desolation was an abandoned convenience store—but there’d be a few of them to be found over the next couple of days, I wagered.

Back in the eighties, there were three summer retreats (避暑地, “escape-heat-land”) of choice for sweltering plains-dwellers: Karuizawa in Nagano, which has thrived thanks to its bullet-train link to Tokyo, Nasu in Tochigi, which has survived thanks to the luster thrown off by the presence of an Imperial villa, and Kiyosato, which is in its last death throes.

A wreath for your dreams, I muttered to myself on entering town. Odd and crumbling edifices not to be found in the lowlands, such as a rotting mock-up of a Wild West wagon that might have once served as a putting-course ticket-booth, were strewn across the sides of Rte 141, but the first truly Olympian ruin was One Happy Park, a cyclorama of despair.

A man with a brush-cutter scythed tidily away at weeds that pushed up with irrepressible life through the cracks in the paving. It must have been sweaty work, as he was clad in boots, gloves, a face-mask, and a neck-flap hat, for late-summer insects do not take kindly to having their late-summer abodes destroyed, and after a while the reaper rested.

“When was this place built?”
“It must’ve been on the border of the Showa and Heisei eras, I suppose.”
“So that would be around 1989,” I ventured, but he had no concept of the Western calendar and merely shrugged.
“And when did it close down?”
“I guess it was about four years ago the last shop shut.”

I wondered about the precision of his recall—there was a dormant crêperie (who can forget the eighties crêpe boom) that appeared to form part of the complex and which bore a sign “Since 1979”—but even if the pastel palette of the fake windows above the gift shops dates us to the early rather than the late eighties, the miserable brevity of One Happy Park’s life is testament to the spectacular ephemerality of the Kiyosato boom and bust.

I strolled along the rusting colonnade, admiring the signs.

Oh yes, Petit (pronounced “puchi”) Road—we were all so high and mightily French back in the eighties, weren’t we? It was “puchi” this and “puchi” that and “puchi” the other. Impressionable and affected youth went so far as to append an honorific prefix to the name of the honorable country—“Ofuransu”. Japan, you see, was going to become a lifestyle superpower, just like France. Crêpes, it was rumored, if ingested frequently enough and in sufficient quantity, would turn your very blood and bones French—and you would then have no compunctions about loafing around at the beach for the whole of August. A wistful backward glance at One Happy Land is enough to show just how that dream turned out.

It struck me that One Happy Land would make the perfect stage for a performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, rescored with glutinous idol melodies of the eighties, starring Seiko Matsuda as Brünnhilde, Hiromi Go as Siegfried, and Onyanko Club as the Rhinemaidens. I could already hear a parade of what I dub Seiko Matsuda’s “no” hits streaming through the mind’s speakers: “Tengoku no Kiss” (A Heavenly Kiss), “Tenshi no Wink” (An Angel’s Wink), “Boy no Kisestsu” (A Season for Boys), and my favorite, “Pink no Mozart”, to name but a few. A more fitting backdrop could scarcely be imagined, as it was the legions of Seiko-worshipping burikko airheads with their Seiko-chan haircuts that decamped to Kiyosato in droves to stay at meruhentic pensions and plunder cute goodies by the designer bagful that were responsible for the boom, the irony being that the career of Seiko Matsuda, known as the “Everlasting Idol” (and also, curiously, as the “King of Idols”) has outlasted that of the town to which her idolatrous fans—now, like her, pushing fifty—once thronged.

The main street of Kiyosato forms a hind dogleg with the station at its knee. Up the foot arch, an old hotel was held together with string and hope and glue.

I parked up at the top end of town in the municipal car park, which had space for a couple of hundred vehicles; I was the second car in at three in the afternoon (and I suspect the other one belonged to the car park attendant). Yes, it’s a weekday, I told myself, yes, high season is only a memory, but even so… Strolling back into town, I crossed the tracks of the Koumi line, the cause of at least some of the travails of Kiyosato.

A lovely little line, to be sure, the Koumi, with all sorts of records (including nine of the ten highest stations on the Japan Railways network) to get train geek tickers beating faster, but despite all the fanfare that attended its 2007 debut of a hybrid train, not a line that can deliver swarms of pleasure-seekers to resorts at any speed, and in a nation that pays everlasting homage to the deities of convenience, it chugs and ambles and puffs its way across the mountains with inconsiderate leisure; indeed, its neck would have been on the chopper years ago if, post-privatization, East Japan Railways had really been run, to the delight of its shareholders but to the misery of the rural elderly, as a profit-maximizing private-sector enterprise, as the line loses roughly Y200 for every Y100 it takes in.

Just over the crossing, the One Happy family took me to its bosom again, this time with a plaza rather than a park.

Freeze-thaw in spring and autumn, the deep freeze of winter, and the deep heat of summer are exacting a swift and brutal toll on gimcrack and neglected Bubble-era construction. Never have I seen so many uri bukken property-for-sale and kashi tempo store-for-lease signs clustered together; this one, desperately delusional in its bid to flog off one of the shops in the One Happy Plaza complex, Norwegian Blue dead and far beyond the most heroic cardiopulmonary resuscitation efforts, is framed by a backdrop of local milk bottles.

Architecturally, the predominant Kiyosato style might be described as Rococo fairy-tale whimsy; in the case of the enigmatically named and very defunct Green Prab, with a dash of salty Victorian seaside thrown in for good measure.

This trio—jolly tree ogre, toadstool, and cheery snail—have become, in death, the symbol of the whimsical mayfly life of Kiyosato. That fly agaric, the toadstool that inspired the design, is both poisonous and psychoactive and hence a humbling metaphor for toxic Bubble-era hallucinations, of which Kiyosato is one of the most delirious, was an irony not lost on this observer.

As the mountain shadows deepened, I strolled the length of the main street, crossing paths only with a couple in early retirement, struggling with words for each other. Half of everything was definitively shuttered; some businesses, in the shame of defeat, carried somber signs protesting that they were readying to open or that this was their weekly day off, but returning later or the next day, the same signs were still in place. Could Kiyosato really once have been known as the “Harajuku of the highlands”, after the impeccably coiffed Tokyo fashion mecca?

At the junction of Rte 141 and the Kiyosato turn-off, the world had ground to a halt: inky shadows consumed a pachinko parlor, gone nigh on a decade by my reckoning, brush reclaimed a karaoke joint clad in white clapboard, restaurants and museums and hotels of every hue lay felled like giants slain by a horde of Jacks.

Writing in the commendably eccentric Wonder Japan magazine of one hotel, the Sunpark Hotel Kiyosato, whose ruination is most advanced and whose entranceway is pictured above, author and haikyoist Toru Kurihara relates how Kiyosato, like some Impressionist painting or Italian sports car, was enmeshed in the net of the Bubble:

Other tourist spots had genuine tourist assets—hot springs, historical buildings, giant waterfalls—but the attraction of Kiyosato was largely status. The very act of going there was the objective: young women would snap up armfuls of gifts as proof of their visit and brag of their trip while doling them out to friends and family.
“I went to Kiyosato at the weekend!”
“Wow, cool! I wanna go too!”
Just to be able to utter these words imbued a sense of superiority—the trip’s mission was accomplished.
But then there came a time when no one felt jealous any longer.
“I went to Kiyosato at the weekend!”
“Eh? To do what?!?”
Naturally the objective couldn’t be attained if there was no sense of superiority to be gained. There was no lingering sense of comfort and ease you get from a hot-spring resort, no sense of being moved by a giant waterfall. Western food that you could get in Tokyo—it didn’t even taste good, it was just pricey. And then there were the trashy souvenirs you bought at the shop of some has-been celebrity or over-the-hill idol, for which you had no use when you got home. Asked if you wanted to go there again, the answer was naturally “no”.
So disappeared the crowds of people so thick they made walking hard, and the shuttered streets that make the town so quiet now tell of how the illusory values of the Bubble have vanished and things have returned to their normal state, just the way they were before. Sun Hotel Kiyosato embodies the waxing and waning of that era.

This being statistics-drenched Japan, it was easy enough to dredge up the data in which to drape the decay: by 1998 visitor numbers in the Yatsugatake area, the jewel in the crown of which was once Kiyosato, were down 60% from their peak just a decade earlier in 1988 (the year Seiko Matsuda notched up the last of her twenty-four consecutive number ones), and have continued to slide, albeit at a gentler pace, dropping to 5.1mn in 2009 from 5.9mn in 2002. Most shocking of late, though, has been the collapse in overnighters, to 550,000 in 2009 from 935,000 in 2002, a slump of 40%, as purse-strings have been pulled ever tighter.   

As darkness fell, the fey apparitions of the Bubble took on more ghastly demeanors: the lamp-lit milk-pot was a distended bladder, full to bursting, ready to spray noxious liquid on passersby

and the exoskeletal church, an innocuous pastel-pink by day, was now a monstrous robot arthropod programmed to kill and primed to attack.

Later, though, I was to learn of some sunnier microclimates in the otherworldly biosphere of Kiyosato…
(to be continued)

Shimo Nita: When you’re old…

…your thoughts can turn funereal

An ad, burned still more soot-blackened by a recent fire than when I first encountered it, for butsudan family altars and funerary services, the now desperately faded late 1950s to early 1960s Cadillac hearse straight from a scene in Harold and Maude, decked out with elaborately customized bodywork inspired by the gaudiest of Shinto shrines; these miya-gata reikyusha (宮型霊柩車, shrine-style spirit-coffin-vehicle) hearses are falling out of favor, perhaps because of their perceived vulgarity—some crematoria refuse to let them in—and perhaps because of their expense—around $250,000—and are being supplanted by plainer, duller and Western-inspired landau “funeral coaches”.  

…you take on a faded, dusty air 


A cornucopia of departing words and defunct characters adorn this sign for Mayamaya Shoten (馬山屋商店, Mayamaya Store, lower center): reading right to left across the top, 小間物 (komabutsu, sundries), 化粧品, (keshohin, cosmetics), 日用品 (nichiyohin, daily goods), 雑貨ゑ (zakka e, sundries, etc.) The first word for sundries, komabutsu, is being gently pushed aside by the second, zakka, while the mysterious ゑ (“e”) is a made-in-Japan hiragana character with a history of close to a millennium, variously pronounced as “we”, “e”, and “ye” in its long life, and which has officially been discarded since 1946, supplanted by え (“e”), although it must have lingered longer in the countryside, as this signboard is unlikely to be more than half-a-century old. The question of what it was doing there had me perplexed—it should have no intrinsic meaning, as hiragana is a syllabary—and the only conjecture I could manage to come up with, given its location, was that it is serving as an “etcetera”, a conjecture supported, although without complete conviction, by the literate native-speaker colleague to whom I showed it. Lovely character, though—looks just like a る (“ru”) being roasted on an open fire.

On the right we have 良品 (ryohin, good-quality items), which presents no difficulties, as it’s half of the name behind the Muji brand of furniture and sundries—I refuse to call them lifestyle goods—whose full and (indigestible to Western palates) name is Mujirushi Ryohin (無印良品, no-label good things, to be doggedly literal). But below it is what proved to be a real puzzler, 康賣 (yasu’uri, low prices). First, the simple part: 賣, I knew anyway, is the now dead-in-Japan character for 売, (“sell”), so dead that my made-in-Japan PC refuses to conjure it forth and I had to hand-draw it at a special website for obsessives to bring it to you. The much harder part was 康, now most commonly encountered as the “kō” of “kenkō” (健康, “health”). Context strongly suggests that it should be read “yasu[i]” (cheap), but Henshall’s 700-odd page guide to the kanji doesn’t offer that as an option, nor does Spahn and Hadamitzky’s 1,750-page kanji dictionary, although it does helpfully offer 安 (which is common), 廉 (which is uncommon), 靖 (only really found in the name of the shrine we all love to hate, Yasukuni), and 易 (here it means “easy”) as other ways of writing “yasu” (as well as a variant of 靖 so arcane I can’t even draw it). The mighty Canon Wordtank of a colleague, however, proclaimed that 康 for “yasu” was acceptable, even though it garners almost no hits. So confirmation came, after about two hours of investigation, that 良品康賣 (“quality goods sold cheaply”) in essence means little more than Wal-Mart’s slogan, “Everyday low prices”. Sometimes, I swear, decoding even moderately antique Nihongo feels like being a British archaeologist trying to decipher Linear B or a Japanese cryptographer trying to break the Navajo codetalkers.

At one time at least, the burghers of Shimo Nita were keen on their cosmetics.


Rolled firehoses in the warehouse district.

Tabako Arahiko, and another sobering lesson in the hardships apprentices like me in the language must endure. It’s clear that the store name, unusually, is the given name of the male proprietor, as the lower character, 彦 (hiko, “fine young man”), is almost exclusively reserved for boys’ names, but in combination with the upper character, 新 (shin, atara[shii], ara[ta], nii, “new”), how was it all read? As a given name, it’s vanishingly rare, not to be found for instance in an online dictionary of half-a-million names, and it took half-an-hour of hunting before I had an answer. 


Weather-worn dragons at Ryuseiji (龍栖寺, “the temple where dragons abide”), in the center of Shimo Nita. 

…you may prove resistant to the latest technology 


Being a professional photographer, Juergen has an observant eye for the photographic past in the present. Fuji is still in the silver-halide film business, but this brand, Super HG, has long been pensioned off and seems to have reached its apogee around the height of the Bubble, if this screechy 1990 TV ad starring then-idol Miyuki Imori and its cartoonishly supersaturated colors is any clue.

Konica’s Sakura Color lost out to the might of Fuji in the 1970s film wars and Konica Minolta had withdrawn from film cameras and film by early 2007. Shilling here for Konica is comedian Kin’ichi Hagimoto, (萩本欽一), universally known as Kin chan (欽ちゃん), whose greatest contribution to the lexicon is the expression “ten’nen boke” (天然ボケ, “a natural simpleton”), an undesirable trait for a comic, who should be the sophisticate playing the fool. He is shown here, chest turned hairy by rust, in the long hair he wore at the start of his career, which dates the ad to the late 1970s. He reminds me that “ronge” (ロン毛, “long hair”) is one of my favorite expressions, being an unholy collision between the English “long” and the Japanese “ke”, (“hair”, “coat”, or “fur”), one that will forever be partnered in my mind with another fashion statement beloved of the high-schoolers I once taught, “koshipan” (腰パン), another unholy collision, this time between the Japanese 腰 (koshi, “hips”) and an abbreviation of the English “pants” (パンツ), referring to the wearing of hideous nylon regulation-issue blue uniform trousers in as low-slung and slovenly a manner as possible on the hips rather than the waist.


A vintage rice-cooker, AM/FM radio and cassette deck, and a CD beatbox of the now dormant Sony-owned Aiwa brand in the window of Sonobe Denki, center of Shimo Nita. 

…the temptation to just let things go can prove irresistible






…your young ones grow up so fast



On this faltering gateway to a house no longer there, we came across a campaign sticker for a then aspiring Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politician, Hirofumi Nakasone, and the committee to nurture his political career. The sticker I would guess dates back to around 1986, when he first—and successfully—ran for election to the House of Councillors (the upper house of the bicameral legislature), a victory he followed up with four more straight electoral trounces of the opposition, most recently in June 2010, when he routed the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) candidate, winning 61% of the vote to the DPJ’s 31%. (The Communists, in their quaint never-say-die way, insist on contesting the incontestable, and picked up 8% of the vote.)

In the hallowed cloisters of the unlovely, now demolished, and unlamented Acton Crown Court in one of London’s grimier western neighborhoods, The Right Honorable “today Brent South, tomorrow Soweto” the Lord Boateng, once quipped to me about the routine election landslides of the Labour Party in the Welsh valleys, saying, “they don’t count the Labour votes down there, they weigh ’em”. So it so nearly is with Gunma Prefecture—which is where we are—and the LDP. In the five House of Representatives lower house elections since the modern single-seat constituencies were introduced, the LDP won four of the five seats in 1996, all five in 2000, all five in 2003, and all five in 2005, only to surrender three of the five in the unprecedented and crushing DPJ victory of 2009—but in keeping 40% of the seats (and running the DPJ reasonably close in the other three) the LDP still fared better than it did in the nation at large, when it was reduced to a rump of 119 seats out of 480, or 25%, and rest assured it will return sooner or later in customary style. Back in the LDP glory days of the old multi-member constituencies, the victories were even more stable and assured:

In Gunma No. 1, the LDP won two of the three seats in all 12 general elections between 1960 and 1993 except one (when a conservative independent snuck in but soon hooked up with the LDP);
In Gunma No. 2, the LDP won two or all three of the three seats in all seven general elections between 1979 and 1993;
And in Gunma No. 3, the LDP won three of the four seats in all 11 general elections between 1963 and 1993 except one (when Yasuhiro Nakasone perversely shed his LDP allegiance and stood as independent). 

What accounts for the perennial Gunma dominance of the center-right to ultra-right LDP (which largely remains, as the hackneyed but still mostly accurate aside has it, “neither liberal, nor democratic, nor a party”)? Well, this is heartland Japan, a place with no city of even close to half-a-million people, a more than averagely prosperous place that did very well for itself in the long boom from 1950 to 1990, a place where the ties of loyalty, patronage, and obligation bind tight.

Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted the recurrence of the surname Nakasone above, and that’s no coincidence, for Hirofumi is a political chip off the old block of his father Yasuhiro, who served as prime minister for what seems in these days of revolving-door PMs an implausible five years between 1982 and 1987 (he remains the third longest-serving post-war PM), who was the “Yasu” in the much-ballyhooed “Ron-Yasu” relationship with US President Ronald Regan, and who remains chipper at a sprightly 93.

Shimo Nita is part of the legendary (well, in my mind at least—you won’t find another reference to it on the English-language Internet) Gunma No. 3 multimember constituency, a fortress redoubt of the LDP even in its Gunma bastions, and its psephological records are simply astounding: at the last multimember election in July 1993, the three LDP returnees were former PM Nakasone, who had been elected and reelected a staggering 18 straight times since 1947; future PM Yasuo Fukuda, whose hapless reign lasted 365 days, one shy of a full (leap) year, in 2007 and 2008, and who was only on his second outing, having inherited the seat on the retirement of his father, Takeo Fukuda, who himself had been prime minister, this time for a fortnight or so shy of two years between 1976 and 1978 and who romped home on 14 consecutive occasions from 1952 until 1986, when he was 81; and future PM Keizo Obuchi, who served for nigh on two years between 1998 and 2000 before being felled by a fatal stroke, who notched up 11 straight wins between 1963 and 1993, and who inherited the seat from his father, Mitsuhei Obuchi, who had won it only twice, in 1948 and again in 1959.

No other constituency in the postwar multimember era comes close to the Gunma No. 3 record of having four former, incumbent, or future prime ministers represent it, as it did for three decades from 1963 to 1993; only one other constituency has produced more than one prime minister since the “1955 solution” of unending LDP rule, that being Yamaguchi No. 1, home turf to class A war crimes suspect Nobusuke Kishi, prime minister from 1957 to 1960, and his nephew Shinzo Abe, prime minister for 365 ill-starred days in 2006 and 2007.  

Gimlet-eyed readers will have spotted a certain nepotism afoot, and Gunma No. 3, with its Fukudas, father and son both prime ministers, Nakasones, père prime minister and fils rising to become (briefly) foreign minister, and Obuchis, pater still a backwoods politico but filius reaching the highest elective office in the land, exemplifies this nepotism better than any other constituency in Japan.

I’m far from the first, of course, to draw attention to the issues of hereditary politics (世襲政治), and the second-generation lawmakers (二世議員) and third-generation ones (三世議員) that it spawns. This is an issue that first surfaced in the 1970s and has been simmering ever since, although it has intensified in recent decades, with an interesting fault-line to be found in 1991 with the ascension of Kiichi Miyazawa to the office of prime minister; between May 1947, when the current constitution came into effect and that point, there had only been one hereditary prime minister, Ichiro Hatoyama (1954-1956), whose father was the leader of the lower house (1896-1897) and whose grandson, Yukio, was the last prime minister (2009-2010). Since 1991, hereditary prime ministers have become the rule, rather than the exception:

Kiichi Miyazawa (1991-1993): HEREDITARY. Inherited the Hiroshima No. 3 constituency of his father, who first won it in 1928
Morohiro Hosokawa (1993-1994): Not strictly hereditary, but one of the last true bluebloods in politics, who would be the 18th Baron Hosokawa of Higo if the aristocracy still existed. Father was secretary to wartime prime minister Fumimaro Konoe (1940-1941)
Tsutomu Hata (1994): HEREDITARY. Inherited the Nagano No. 2 constituency of his father, who first won it in 1937
Tomiichi Murayama (1994-1996): Born one of the 11 offspring of a fishing family. Definitely not hereditary and not coincidentally a socialist
Ryutaro Hashimoto (1996-1998): HEREDITARY. Inherited the Okayama No. 2 constituency from his father, who first won it in 1949
Keizo Obuchi (1998-2000): HEREDITARY, see above
Yoshiro Mori (2000-2001): Not strictly hereditary, but his father and grandfather were the mayors of the Ishikawa Prefecture town, Neagari, where he was born, and which formed part of the Ishikawa No. 1 multimember constituency he represented from 1969 to 1993 and forms part of the Ishikawa No. 2 single-seat constituency he has represented since 1996
Jun’ichiro Koizumi (2001-2006): HEREDITARY. Inherited the Kanagawa No. 2 constituency from his father, who had represented it from 1952 until his death in 1969, and bequeathed it to his son in 2009
Shinzo Abe (2006-2007): HEREDITARY, see above
Yasuo Fukuda (2007-2008): HEREDITARY, see above
Taro Aso (2008-2009): HEREDITARY. Inherited the Fukuoka No. 2 constituency from his father, who won it on three occasions, the first in 1949. While there was a long interval without an Aso representing the constituency, the Aso family—coal and cement magnates—were so well known that the younger Aso had no trouble romping home on his first outing in 1979
Yukio Hatoyama (2009-2010): Not strictly hereditary, but the Hatoyama family have deep ties to the Hokkaido No. 4 multimember constituency from which he was first elected, about which I wrote here
Naoto Kan (2010-): Not hereditary. His father was an executive director and auditor of a mid-sized glassmaker, Central Glass. His lack of a hereditary gene may help to explain his recent unwillingness to commit political seppuku, samurai style, in the way that Hatoyama, Abe, and Fukuda did when the going got tough.

The hereditary phenomenon reached its zenith (or nadir, depending on your perspective) with the last LDP cabinet of Taro Aso, when at one stage 11 of the 17 cabinet members were hereditary politicians, a factlet to which I am indebted (as I am to a little of the above and some of the below) to an essay by political scientist Sota Kato, Hereditary lawmakers in an era of politically led policymaking, but the issue has again faded from the headlines, perhaps in part because of the lamentable inability of the DPJ, like many a center-left party that lacks the ruthless will-to-power of those on the right, to press home the momentum handed to it by a landslide victory, but perhaps mostly because former PM Hatoyama, who bankrolls the party with his Bridgestone tire fortune, is not entirely undefiled by the hereditary taint himself and because éminence grise Ichiro Ozawa is unambiguously a hereditary politician, having slipped seamlessly into Iwate No. 2 in 1969, aged 27, on the death of his father.

Dynastic politics and political dynasties are not the exclusive province of Japan, of course—think of the Kennedys and Bushes in the US or the Nehrus and Gandhis in India—but their manifestation here is particularly acute. Search the Internet for “hereditary politicians” and almost all references are to Japan. I’d put this down to a combination of two developments: the professionalization of politics across the developed world in the last half-century, which has resulted in the emergence of a professional political class with few achievements outside of politics, and the infection of politics in Japan with the ideology of the shokunin artisan, which is perhaps taken to its most extreme degree in kabuki, where most leading actors can trace their blood-roots in the art (aside from the occasional adoptee intervention) back to the seventeenth century. Politics as kabuki indeed…

It’s a slightly misleading synecdoche to talk about the inheritance of “seats”, for what the sons (and a very few daughters) inherit are not the seats themselves but rather the three “ban” of politics, the kaban (鞄, “bag” [stuffed with cash], the fundraising apparatus), the kanban (看板, “signboard”, the name recognition), and the jiban (地盤 “turf”, the constituency itself), which make victory such a cakewalk. The political scions naturally have to be put through the electoral sieve and defenders of the status quo would—and do—argue that any attempt to interfere with their rightful inheritance would infringe on their constitutional rights:

All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.
Article 14, Constitution of Japan

Although we could easily enough turn that argument on its head and say that the selection of these scions as candidates, a process largely free from democratic niceties, especially in the LDP, is tantamount to discrimination against those with an equal right to run, as democratic legitimacy must surely involve not only the right to elect but also the right to be elected, as Kato points out.

What does the future hold for the hereditary caste? Roughly half of the rump LDP left in the lower house after the drubbing of 2009 are hereditarians, with party leader Sadakazu Tanigaki a consummate hereditary politician, having taken over in Kyoto No. 2 (1983-1993) on the death of his father Sen’ichi, who represented it from 1960 to 1983. Were Tanigaki to lead the LDP back to the reins of government in the next general election, a new influx of hereditarian lawmakers would be all but bound to ensue. The only hope for a withering away of the hereditarians would seem to lie in a period of extended rule by the DPJ, an implausible scenario to be sure, and the emergence and persistence of this priestly political clique is one of many reasons I fear that the roots of democracy in Japan, while deep, are brittle.

But we have strayed a long way from the campaign sticker for Hirofumi Nakasone, who has aged and grayed to look like this and of whose year-long stint as Minister for Foreign Affairs (September 2008 to September 2009) I regret to say I recall nothing, not being the most assiduous follower of the ins and outs of Nagatacho, the Tokyo district where the Diet is located.   

…it’s not always easy to hold everything together



…you want a broom to sweep all your troubles away



…at times you feel like you’ve reached the end of the line



The 34km Joshin line runs out of rail in Shimo Nita, although there were once plans, derailed by the Great Depression, to push it through to neighboring Nagano Prefecture. It is owned and operated by Joshin Dentetsu, a tiny and nominally private-sector firm that aside from this line, runs a few buses and dabbles in real estate. Like almost all provincial railway lines, its statistics are sobering: passenger numbers down from 8.2mn in 1966 to 2.2mn in 2006, freight operations ceased in 1994, and revenue down from Y1.17bn (about $14.5mn at the current exchange rate) in 1983 to Y655mn ($8mn) in 2006. It is being kept on life-support by dollops of subsidies split between the state, the prefecture and the municipalities along the line: Y2.0bn ($25mn) from 2000-2009 and Y920mn ($11.5mn) from 2009-2014. Not huge sums, to be sure, but a time may come, perhaps a couple of decades hence, when patience wears thin as budgets grow threadbare, although the Joshin line has one ace in its deck—it’s politically very well connected, as former PM Nakasone’s father, Matsugoro (1889-1969), a leading lumber merchant, served as its president in the 1950s…

…the lights are not as bright as they once were  





In what was once the main shopping drag leading off the station, too narrow for much more than a moped,  stands a pachinko parlor, Fuji Hall, whose lolly-licking candy girls date its demise to the early 1970s. “Ach, wonderful, wonderful,” exclaimed Juergen to no one in particular and a woman with wispy ash-gray hair, hearing a commotion in a foreign tongue, leaned out of her window opposite to investigate. “When did it close?” I asked, thumbing the parlor. “Ooh, when I was a little girl, it must have been. With the coming of the car. Not much left here now.” She shrank back inside with a stifled sigh. 

…you feel like eating pufferfish just to flirt with death


The fugu pufferfish are merely a promotional in-joke: konnyaku devil’s tongue sliced thin and served as if it were sashimi is known as “mountain pufferfish” (“yamafugu”, 山フグ, 山河豚, or even やまふぐ, as here) for its resemblance to chalky-white and chewy pufferfish sashimi. While it offers two advantages over its pelagic cousin—it’s far cheaper and it won’t kill you should the chef have been negligent in its preparation—it has one fatal drawback for the gourmand—it tastes of nothing at all.

We motored on, up into the forbidding mountains.

Shimo Nita: When you’re old…

Words: Spike Japan
Photos: Juergen Specht 

In the metaphysical streets, the profoundest forms
Go with the walker subtly walking there.
These he destroys with wafts of wakening

An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, Wallace Stevens

Step off the expressway a couple of hours north-northwest of Tokyo, just as the blue haze parts across the mountains, their cragged contours taking on more certain shape, and the tempo of time the traveler is duty-bound to carry from the city in the barrage of traffic slows to a somber adagio on the half-deserted streets of Shimo Nita, streets where time slinks down the dooryard gardens between houses and curls up to catnap in some sunny spot.

Save for one brief moment, Shimo Nita (“Lower Goodfield”, perhaps) has always been on the margins of history: it grew up as the last post town before the mountains on a path for princesses in eras when the only way around the country for most was to walk, an alternative to the main inland route west to Kyoto. These paths for princesses were quieter, less frequented by bandits, had gentler inclines than the major thoroughfares and were hence, it was thought, more suited to the fairer sex. Along this princess path goods were trafficked, too: rice, silk and hemp, mulberry for paper and silkworms, tobacco and lacquer, even whetstones for the Imperial family.

In 1864, Shimo Nita was thrust into the spotlight, giving its name to a war—more of a skirmish, truth be told, one that lasted just a day and left just forty dead—between the pro-emperor, anti-foreigner Goblin Party, who won the battle but lost the war, and the forces of the shogunate, but it soon returned to somnolent obscurity. While not left unsmirched by the modern world—the railway arrived in 1897, to be electrified as early as 1924—the town’s subdued heyday came in the middle of the last century, when the encircling mountains yielded lumber and, still, silk and whetstones, but mountain living was tough and as the mountains emptied, so the town lost its role as an entrepôt. Artisanal sericulture died a long, slow death as woolen suits and cotton skirts saw off kimono for everyday attire; forestry a short, sharp death as the exigencies of post-war reconstruction dictated the use of cheaper timber than could be felled in homegrown forests.

In 1960, Shimo Nita was home to nearly 21,000 folk, today fewer than 9,000, in another quarter century maybe only 5,000. It’s a town now of no consequence, one that will never feature on the breathless pages of the fashionable travel guides, never be nominated for World Heritage Site status, never be the source of gossip in the salons of worldly-wise cities, but I love it just the same: I love its ducks that dabble neath the dappling boughs on a vacillating river caught between the furies of its youth and silty torpidity, I love its clouds of tiny daylight moths that drifted down one autumn afternoon to alight on bench and car and tile, I love its stone pathways, crudely hewn from mossy riverbank boulders, but which remain so much a part of them, too.

Shimo Nita’s a venerable town now, with two in five of its residents pensioners—the same ratio that’s projected for the nation as a whole these forty years’ hence—and if it has one thing left to teach the world, it’s how to embrace the indignities and infirmities of old age, the aching joints and the shuffling gait, the slapstick and the pratfalls, the jammed jar-lid that refuses to open and the loft-door to the attic of memory that refuses to budge.

Like many a railhead, Shimo Nita feels like a waystation en route to somewhere else, and so it has been for me in my visits over the last couple of years, as it’s served as a gateway to a magical place in the mountains that will star in a later post. Nevertheless, I’ve never failed to tarry too long in its zelkova-shaded temples, never failed to malinger in its drowsy afternoons grown bluebottle fat and sated by the sun. What follows, then, is an encomium to its genus loci, the tale of a random tour taken around a town that dares to wear its trousers rolled one noon hour late in the tenth month by me and my shutterbug friend Juergen, who has sadly vanished from these shores in a puff of strontium-laced smoke and whose photo surtitle ellipses are all preceded by the unspoken “When you’re old…”   

…you no longer have time for the games of youth


Arcade machines under a Buzz Lightyear flag left behind in a not-long abandoned game center on the fringes of town. While most high schools have a few hundred students in each academic year, Shimo Nita High, whose wards are reputed to have brought down the convenience store nearest the school gates with the ferocity of their pick–pocketing, struggles to fill two classes of forty most years, and will struggle still harder in the coming decades, for while the town witnessed nearly 150 births in 1989, it could only muster 55 in 1999 and 33 in 2004.

you forget from time to time if you’re coming or going


The severely skeletal rectilinearity of this house, its Mondrian geometries muted into burnt umbers, whisky browns, and sour creams, has made it a favorite port of whistle-stop tours, and I had paid no heed to whether it was coming or going. Juergen pointed to the newness of the windows and the sacks of cement on the floor; it had been coming and now was going, and will henceforth only be the home of golden silk orb-weavers (Nephila clavata, ジョロウグモ[Jorō Spider] 女郎蜘蛛 [“harlot spider”], 上臈蜘蛛 [“duchess spider”]), whose females—far more deadly than the males—with their bumblebee black-and-yellow legs and distended, egg-filled, striped candy lime and dirty cyan abdomens, made circumnavigation a challenge. No drab and puny males were to be found; they had all been devoured by the females, quite likely within moments of mating.

sometimes good luck doesn’t come your way, however hard you pray 


This brace of mournsome maneki neko beckoning-cat good luck charms hadn’t been enough to save their riverside restaurant and karaoke bar, which might have been too adventurously French in inspiration, if the battered multivolume Larousse Gastronomique left on a shelf by the door was any clue. The last utility bill in the letterbox was five years old.  


A pair of oily, owly Daruma dolls—with both eyes painted in, so someone’s wishes must have come true—on the greasy shelves of the decrepit warehouse of a long defunct trucking outfit, now keeping oily, owly watch on the bats and swifts that make these rafters home. 

you live more in hope than expectation  

“Looking for a tenant” wails a forlorn signboard outside the French restaurant. “Property for lease” plead notices in the windows of a lorry-dented Fujimart supermarket, which shut down back in spring 2004. It would be a brave restaurateur or fruit and veg entrepreneur that took the signs up on their solicitations. 

you have to put up with the indignities of the modern age


A kura storehouse sheathed long after its erection in now peeling and rusting steel sheets, the last vestige of the estate of which it once formed a part, looks down with rheumy condescension on the Tonka excavator as it awaits its fate. 

you can get wrapped up in memories of the past 


“Stylish necessities” promises the sign on the front of this dry-goods retailer, Juichiya (“number eleven shop”), in the center of Shimo Nita, whose interior has been left undisturbed since, well, since when? One clue was furnished by the ad on the back wall for Pomgee Cosmetics (ポンジー化粧品), which later research revealed had gone bankrupt—in 1967. The doors to the store had never been ajar on my previous visits, and I pressed Juergen forward to document the dusty time-capsule, with its Bakelite telephones and ancient choba dansu merchant’s chest, but a rustling emanated from within and we fled cackling like a couple of scrumper kids caught in the act of pilfering apples, for as the satellite dish on its ramshackle flanks attests, Juichiya is still possessed of a human pulse.

“Ach, wonderful, this is a wonderful town,” Juergen exclaimed to a woman minding her hardware store opposite, who reacted with naked bemusement. Sparked by a poster for her daughter’s school festival, we fell to chatting for a moment before she fluttered, “But look at me, I’m talking in Japanese!” for all the world as if she had gone to bed the night before a monoglot native speaker of Inuktitut, and we wandered on. 

you can close your eyes to newfangled things 


The provenance and purpose of the stone warehouse above has eluded my grasp, much to my chagrin, but the warehouse below, the Number Two Warehouse, dates from 1926, three years’ after the Great Kanto Earthquake, and is one of the very last brick structures ever put up in this earthquake nation. Built to store silkworm cocoons and raw silk, it served after the demise of silk for a couple of postwar decades as a transit house for the flour of konnyakukonjac or devil’s tongue—a local specialty, before lapsing into quiescent desuetude.

Now you might ask—and I’d ask with you—why these magnificent edifices—and there’s no dearth of them in Shimo Nita—are not being hawked off to Tokyoite moneybags as besso holiday homes and restored to within an inch of their precious lives, to which the only—elliptical and anecdotal—answer I can offer is to recount a recent tale, when I doughtily sallied forth with the other half to lose my flat-pack virginity at Ikea—possibly the last adult in the developed world to do so—in the grittily edgeville Tokyo exurb of Misato, all thudding elevated superhighways, cacophony of sodium and neon, and gargantuan retail parks. We took a wrong turn on the road to flat-pack paradise and I executed a crunchy youey down an admittedly lumpy and gravelly industrial estate driveway, at which my partner in time shuddered, “God, this really is the countryside, isn’t it? Why does anyone live here?”

(Concerned readers might care to learn that we eventually penetrated the cavernous orifices of Ikea, although we were so browbeaten and bludgeoned by its catastrophic blandness and smug Swedishness that we rebelled and walked out without releasing a yen of the jism in our wallets to the blue-and-yellow spider, without adding an öre to Ingvar Kamprad’s fortune, and without surrendering so much as a nibble of our körsbär, resolving in future to allot furniture funds only to totems of good taste—zebra-skin rugs, stuffed moose-heads, and rouge-lipped sofas—although I concede that in immediate evolutionary terms, our stratagem was a failure, our fungible money-sperm anyway only as good—or bad—as anyone else’s. But as so often I digress.) 

your skills can get a little rusty


A no-entry sign by the station; rust grows like lichen on this rusty orb, an image of a rusted Earth from a latter-day Apollo 11. Is that Japan, streaked with blue, off to the east?


One for the rail buffs: the slab side of an all-steel covered goods wagon (鉄製有蓋車), one of six left in the nation, all of which are to be found on the Joshin line to Shimo Nita, and which once upon a time transported quicklime, indispensible in the preparation of devil’s tongue. These watertight boxcars had to be made wholly of steel as quicklime reacts with water vigorously enough to ignite combustible material.


The sign of a Tokio Marine insurance agent (no, I don’t know why they spell it with an “i”, either), in the warehouse district by the station.


A wryly smiling padlock in the warehouse district.


The Number One Warehouse (1921). 


An ad for the Pelican-bin delivery services of Nippon Express, the nation’s largest cargo hauler, in the warehouse district, whose emptinesses carry with them all the mystery and melancholy of Giorgio de Chirico’s streets.


Initially I thought this prayer, which is generally rendered as “May peace prevail on earth” but which in Japanese says something slightly different—“May the people of the earth be at peace” (世界人類が平和でありますように) was an offering from Nichiren Buddhism, but it turns out to be the call to arms of one of Japan’s myriad new religions, Byakko Shinkokai (白光真宏会, “White Light Association”), generally known in English simply as Byakko, which its website misleadingly claims is a Japanese word meaning “white light”—while there is a Japanese word for “white light” written in the same way (白光), it is pronounced “hakkō” (the macron over the “o” lengthens the vowel sound) and not “byakko” or “byakkō”, so it would seem that this religion’s dissimulations start with its very name, inspired, the website informs us, by “the clear and free-flowing light emitted from the deepest and highest state of a human being”.  

Byakko was founded in 1955—coincidentally the year of the birth of Shoko Asahara, the fanatical leader of the murderous Aum Shinrikyo cult responsible for the March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system—by one Masahisa Goi (1916-1980), who, we are told, “at the age of thirty three … attained oneness with his divine self”. There are other uncanny parallels with Asahara and Aum: like Asahara, Goi was one of nine children, like Asahara, Goi was born into poverty, and as Aum once did, Byakko maintains a complex in the foothills of Mount Fuji, about which the website wants us to know that “the highly evolved Fuji Sanctuary is overflowing with a spiritual energy”. I suspect, too, that when the Byakko website alludes to Goi’s “fragile physical condition” and “health problems” that “led him to various esoteric studies in spiritual healing”, Goi is guilty of passing off mental illness as divine inspiration—a psychopathological foible common enough, to be sure, in the early days of the three great and atrocious monotheisms.

As far as I am prepared to investigate, the belief system of Byakko is deafeningly simple: that the recitation of the prayer “May peace prevail on earth”, with sufficient ardor, will cause it to come true, and that this pacific state will have to substitute for the afterlife, on which Byakko seems to be silent. Again the website: “Masahisa Goi believed that if we put all our efforts in this prayer for peace, it would have a uniting and positive effect on all humanity, as the words themselves carry a high positive vibration.”

The English-language prayer in full reads thus:

May peace prevail on Earth
May peace be in our homes and countries
May our missions be accomplished
We thank thee, guardian deities and spirits

The Japanese-language prayer in full reads thus:


Which more faithfully translated reads thus:

May the people of the earth be at peace
May Japan be at peace
May we fulfill our divine mission
Thank you, guardian spirits
Thank you, guardian deities

In its pared-down focus on a single incantation, Byakko resembles Nichiren Buddhism (and its sinister offshoot sect, Soka Gakkai), which accords the chanters of namu myōhō renge kyō (南無妙法蓮華經, “I devote myself to the wonderful law of the Lotus Flower Sutra”) a passport to enlightenment.  

As a religion, Byakko doesn’t appear to have been a rousing success; it greatest accomplishment, perhaps, has been the “peace pole”, on which the first line of the prayer, “May peace prevail on earth”, is inscribed. The World Peace Prayer Society claims that more than 100,000 of these peace poles have been planted worldwide—perhaps there’s one in your neighborhood.

Whoever dreamt up that five-word rendition, “May peace prevail on earth”, of the original Japanese was a genius of interpretation, of that there can be no doubt, for who could possibly be opposed to peace—it would be like taking arms against applehood and mother pie, would it not? Except this utopian peace, unencumbered as it is by any philosophical underpinnings, untrammeled as it is even by any qualifying adjective, would leave no room for Dante, or Shakespeare, or Goethe; noh, or kabuki, or bunraku; jazz, or blues, or hip-hop; and in a world of finite resources and infinite desires, no room for competition, aspiration, or possessions of any kind, for this is not a peace which homo sapiens, after just ten millennia of domestication, can reasonably attain, but the peace of the grave.

It’s easy enough, of course, to mock the charlatanry of new religions (although just because something is easy doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done), especially one as flimsy and flaky as Byakko, but the only properties established religions have that the new ones lack are the encrustations of complexity that give the scribes and the exegetes and the chiliasts something to argue over, and the polish on the veneer of their age that buffs up their chatoyancy.  

But again I digress.


Talking of quackery, here’s an ad, whose graphic design dates it to no later than the mid-1970s, for the Nishida slimming method (lose five kilos in ten days), as promoted by the Japan Corpulence Consultants Society. Searches uncover no trace of either, although the pharmacy at which it was available, Amiya Yakkokyu, still exists.



Dashing out into the road
Is dangerous
Cars can’t stop quickly

I was drawn to the taxi’s amateurish lack of perspective and the cap popping off the boy’s straw-yellow hair. Signwriters are so much more dutifully and dully professional these days. The sign speaks of the coming of the car—road traffic accident deaths peaked in 1970 at nearly 17,000, with many of the victims child pedestrians, and fell below 5,000 in 2009, with many of the victims elderly drivers, but the signage hasn’t quite kept pace, and these tobidashi signs are still everywhere.

An anzen daiichi safety first sign featuring the archaic “dai” as the third character from the left, rather than the current one (第); the “safety first” slogan was seemingly coined around 1900 by US jurist, steel magnate, and industrial safety pioneer Elbert Henry Gary (who gave his name to the steeltown of Gary, Indiana, whence Michael and Janet and all the other Jacksons hailed) and soon after imported into Japan, where the green cross was added by another industrial safety pioneer, Toshibumi Gamo, in 1919, and where it is now utterly ubiquitous, if the custom that it preaches is sometimes, as at Fukushima Daiichi, more honored in the breach than the observance. It is also the slogan under which the Tories of Stanley Baldwin campaigned in the UK general election of May 1929 (they lost) and the slogan parodied in the “safety fast” 1930s ads for the MG sports cars of Morris Garages—but again, reprehensibly, I digress. 

you may still feel like throwing open your shutters every once in a while


Kura storehouses are the unheralded glories of demotic architecture, and Shimo Nita has no shortage of fine examples, although this one may have had its thick white shikui slaked-lime fireproof windows replaced with metal ones at some point down the years. 

you don’t always use the politically correct expression


A pendant delivery box for “homo” milk from Morinaga Milk, made by the “ultra process”, presided over by the Morinaga angel. Milk delivery, once the province of the hordes of samurai left destitute by the Meiji Restoration, has for most gone the way of the milk bottle. 

it’s often more comfortable in the shade


Only one character, the almost obsolete one for iron and steel (鐵 has been forced out by the easier 鉄), remains legible above this disused foundry.

you may have to rely on other people’s cast-offs


One more for the rail buffs: the two-carriage EMU on the left, with its pasty white-bread face, rolled out of Seibu Railway’s Tokorozawa Works on the outskirts of Tokyo in December 1964, was retrofitted with air-conditioning in August 1978, and was flogged off to the perennially cash-strapped operator of the Joshin line in May 1992, where it remains, now just a few years shy of its fiftieth birthday, to this day. 

some days you forget what year it is


A calendar from 1981, which began with the entry of Greece into the European Union on January 1 and ended with Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings’ coup d’état in Ghana on December 31, in the living-room of a deserted house in the center of town.

(to be continued)

Huis ten Bosch: Only Miffy can save us now

(part three of three)

The gardens of the real Paleis Huis ten Bosch were never finished; obviously that would not do for the hyperreal Paleis Huis ten Bosch. The hyperreal sent Professor Treib into rapture: “a magnificent tunnelo encircles the principal parterre, itself kept in eloquent trim.”

A gilt plaque at the entrance to the gardens carries the words of Yumi Katsura, bridal mother since 2006, who would like you to know that:

Here I declare this land as “Lover’s Sanctuary” to impart the joy and the magic of encounters, blissful marriages, and raising a happy home. I send my blessings to your encounters and wish you a wonderful future.

Belonging only to a single lover, the gardens must be a solitary sanctuary.

Much of the Paleis is open to the public; while once its exhibits may have served to educate, today they came across, bereft of explanation, as a folkloric freakshow.

More cutouts, these two to inform you that a modern Dutchman, at 184cm, is considerably taller than his 17th century forebear, at 160cm.

In many rooms, either the inspiration of ideas or the perspiration of money had run out.

Then suddenly, breathtakingly, in the midst of kitsch there was art, art that had somehow snuck past the sullen sentries of bad taste guarding the perimeter of the park. The room equates to the Orangezaal (Orange Hall) in the real Huis ten Bosch, which looked like this in a 1650 painting by Caesar Van Everdingen:

Huis ten Bosch was built in the mid-17th century for Princess Amalia of Solms-Braunfels, a grandmother, incidentally, of King William III of England, who after the death in 1647 of her husband, Stadtholder Frederik Hendrik, the freer of the Republic from the Spanish boot, had the central hall of the palace converted into a mausoleum in his memory, covered with allegorical murals glorifying the triumph over the Spanish by a dozen of the most celebrated artists of the day.

Queen Beatrix baulked at a reproduction of the Orangezaal in Japan, perhaps feeling that it was too private, perhaps feeling that it was too martial. Thwarted, Kamichika and company turned to a former director of the Rijksmuseum, Simon Levie, to commission a contemporary Dutch artist, and he chose Rob Scholte, known in some quarters as the Dutch Andy Warhol, who had recently gained notoriety for a parody of Manet’s Olympia in which the recumbent woman is replaced by a wooden puppet.

Scholte’s reaction, as Levie explained what the Huis ten Bosch of the east entailed, was one of someone grounded in fashionable critical theory:

I immediately thought: this seems absurd, this is postmodernism in its purest form.
(Ik dacht meteen: dit lijkt me absurd, dit is postmodernisme in zijn zuiverste vorm.)

The massive 1,200m2 mural, Après nous le Déluge, took four years, 1991-1995, to complete, the project delayed by a hand grenade that exploded under Scholte’s car outside his Amsterdam studio in November 1994 and resulted in the amputation of both his legs in a case of mistaken identity, a bombing which ironically prevented the mural from being unveiled, as intended, on August 9, 1995, the 50th anniversary of another bombing, that of Nagasaki. 

Après nous le Déluge is at once provocative and playful: provocative in its stridently apocalyptic vision of warfare in an Orangezaal for an anti-war age, playful in the way it toys with reproduction—in its appropriation of Golden Age painters—and originality, with its Dutch traffic light chandeliers and its bicycle pump cordon posts, topped by a marvelous trompe l’oeil cupola which serves to submerge the naval battles on the walls, and by so submerging them, consigns them to history. In its interplay of reproduction and originality it stands as a commentary, half-amused perhaps, perhaps half-affectionate, on the theme park in which it finds itself.

All realist art, in which the Dutch Golden Age excelled, aspires to be a trompe l’oeil. In his 1642 pamphlet, Praise of Painting, Dutch painter Philips Angel recounts approvingly the Greek legend, as told Pliny the Elder, of the rivalry between two painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis painted grapes so real that birds would peck at them, while Parrhasius, determined to outdo his rival, invited Zeuxis to inspect one of his paintings, covered with a curtain. Zeuxis asked Parrhasius to draw the curtain aside, but the curtain was the painting, and Zeuxis confessed himself vanquished, exclaiming, “Zeuxis has deceived birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis himself!”

Theme parks, too, aspire to be a trompe l’oeil, escapist landscapes deceiving the consenting visitor into a willing suspension of disbelief in both space and time. Strolling around Huis ten Bosch, I found it easy enough to summon up the mental elisions necessary to gloss over the asynchronous putter of the internal combustion engine and the anachronous cha-ching of the cash register, to drift in and out of a 17th century, albeit one scrubbed neatly clean of pox and pestilence, disastrous inundation and public execution, war and art. Space was a different matter, though, as an un-Dutch world made endless intrusion. At one moment, the intrusion took the shape of a too elegantly Oriental arrangement of fronds and fenceposts outside a Japanese restaurant.

At another, it was the view from the Domtoren over grim military housing for the local US naval base, Fleet Activities Sasebo.

The grinding heat and humidity, coupled with the backdrop of mountains, were constant reminders that we weren’t in Groningen anymore. When dawn came the next day, the sky was so low and the rain came down in sheets so thick that it was hard to tell if night had left off and day had begun, as islands reared up in Omura Bay like the backs of giant prehistoric crocodiles and billows of cloud hugged the mountains around the bay as if emanations from some undousable subterranean fire destined to burn forever. No, this definitely wasn’t Groningen anymore.

While I’ve scarcely set an adult foot in the Netherlands, I was weaned on Golden Age art, courtesy of the local picture gallery, and above all the landscapes of long-forgotten artists like Aelbert Cuyp, Philips Wouwerman, and Meindert Hobbema, where for instance windmills are not charming scenic adornments, their phony sails electric powered, but mighty instruments of dominion over water, as in The Mill at Wijk by Jacob van Ruysdael in the Rijksmuseum,

and this was a huge hindrance to the suspension of disbelief.

Before I set out for Kyushu and Huis ten Bosch, I told a female colleague not known for mincing words where I was going. “Eeeh, yada! Norimono bakari.” Ew, yuck! It’s just rides. How wrong she was. There are almost no rides, indeed very little for kids to do at all, and that was Kamichika’s intention, for Huis ten Bosch was meant to be a theme park for adults, and especially perhaps for what the Japanese, torturing a noun out of a French preposition, call “avec”, young courting couples. At some point, though, someone had realized the error of this but, lacking funds, tacked on a feeble funfair that has now been stilled.

In what a state of delightful innocence the creator of Corky must dwell.

Huis ten Bosch has been beset from the outset by three great failings: the failure of geography, the failure of underinvestment, and the failure of conception. The failure of geography we’ve dealt with: tucked away in a hard-to-access corner of Kyushu, its catchment area shrank hard and fast once the Bubble fashion for extravagant airborne weekends of indulgence gave way to the sobering realities of the hangover. The failure of underinvestment was a necessary consequence of the extortionate amount Huis ten Bosch cost to build. Without unending investment in novelty, theme parks cannot attract the repeat visitor, and in Japan, still the land of shinhatsubai, the freshest and newest on sale, novelty matters. Most grievous of all, though, has been the failure of conception: while I adore the humility in riches of the Dutch Golden Age—surely no other place and time has scripted its history so diligently and beautifully in its art—and abhor the vacuity and disingenuity of Disney’s “The Happiest Place on Earth”, I realize that most people are not like me, and Huis ten Bosch has always lacked a compelling theme and the characters to go with it. While Disneylands have Mickey and Minnie and a cast of thousands, while Universal Studios has Spiderman and Shrek and Sesame Street, to name but a few, Huis ten Bosch has, well, Miffy.

Not that Miffy is a bad little rabbit to have on your side. In a 2008 interview in UK newspaper The Telegraph with Miffy’s creator, Dutch artist and illustrator Dick Bruna, journalist Horatia Harrod reports that Japan is home to Miffy’s most ardent fans and her most lavish consumers:

In Bruna’s studio there are gifts from children all around the world, but most numerous are the cards artfully crafted from patterned paper, and flocks of origami birds which are sent for good luck. When Bruna goes for his morning coffee, he says, ‘there are often Japanese people waiting there—they know’. And when he toured Britain on Miffy’s 50th anniversary, he was followed from venue to venue by a middle-aged Japanese woman who sported a Miffy painted on each cheek.

It’s just that Huis ten Bosch seems incompletely capable of exploiting the Miffyverse, with its 118 picture books, to the full, to say nothing of Miffy’s friends, Boris and Barbara Bear and Poppy Pig, who are nowhere to be found. Where were the Miffy rides? Where were the adults dressed as Miffy ready to pose for snapshots with excited children (and middle-aged women)? Where was the Miffy experience?

Travel agency H.I.S. took over Huis ten Bosch in April 2010, and here and there were signs of investment.

An encouragingly quadrilingual hoarding announced that a haunted house was about to open.

An exhibit, running for three months, replicating famous scenes from the long-running TV anime One Piece, was also about to open.

At the February 2010 news conference announcing the takeover, H.I.S. Chairman Hideo Sawada exuded a breezy confidence: “We aim to take the firm into the black in as early as two years. We are 99% sure we will succeed.” Plans include an H.I.S. call center, enabling the company to cut its own costs, an outlet mall, and a business center. In an August 2010 interview with The Nikkei Weekly, Sawada offered an incisive enough analysis of the problems of Huis ten Bosch:

I think it is essential for a successful theme park to have not only a good location but also characters and content attractive enough to make visitors want to come again. The old Huis ten Bosch was just a rehash of good old Dutch streets. A single visit was enough for people. For the newborn Huis ten Bosch, we plan to lure a diverse range of companies, making use of its vast stretch of land.

There have been early glimmers of success: visitor numbers leapt 24% on the year in the Golden Week holidays in late April and early May and 38% over the summer. But before we break out the champagne to celebrate the rebirth of the phoenix of Huis ten Bosch from the ashes of insolvency, some words of caution are warranted. In its FY10/10 results, H.I.S. crowed:

Therefore, the company [Huis ten Bosch], which was included in the scope of the consolidation this year, recorded Y5,570mn [$67.8mn] in sales but an operating loss of Y113mn [$1.38mn] for the period from April 1, 2010 to September 30, 2010. However, the company recorded a recurring profit of Y429mn [$5.22mn] for the period, for the first time ever since its establishment, and was able to form a base of profitability.

What H.I.S. doesn’t deign to tell us is what caused the remarkable turnaround from the loss at the operating line to the profit at the recurring line. My bet is that it was almost certainly the subsidies from Sasebo. Far from having “a base of profitability”, Huis ten Bosch remains effectively in the red, even with the jump in visitor numbers.

H.I.S. said in February 2010 it planned to invest only Y2bn ($22.2mn), with local worthies such as Kyushu Electric Power stumping up another Y1bn, altogether less than a third committed back in 2003 by Nomura, which also enjoyed a dead cat bounce in visitor numbers when it took over, and although H.I.S. has Y46.3bn ($564mn) in cash stashed away, its pockets will not be bottomlessly deep. As early as September there was a hint in the Nikkei that its budget for investment is already being whittled down. 

If Huis ten Bosch presented a desolate spectacle by day, then by night, with the day-trippers gone, it gave off a still more despondent air. A lugubrious rain came on, and I bought a made-in-China Huis ten Bosch umbrella whose spokes broke at the first gust of wind. Muzak, of which there were at least half a dozen types, from jauntily fluty to accordion schmaltzy, noodled on and on. Being at Huis ten Bosch was like being put on hold by a corporate call center—for eternity. There was live muzak to be had, too. 

A pair of Frenchmen sawed and crooned their way through Maurice Chevalier’s Sous les Toits de Paris to the faintest smattering of applause. These were the only foreign entertainers I came across, the rest having been dismissed—like many hundreds of the Japanese staff—long ago. As Elvis felt with his New Amsterdam, so I felt with mine: it had all become much too much, and I had to step on the brakes to get out of her clutches. 

I retreated to the wholly deserted Bar Astral at the ANA Hotel to make some acerbic, gin-sodden notes, one of which reads, “Huis ten Bosch is an idea so monumentally and catastrophically bizarre that it can hold its head high in the exalted company of the greatest delusional fantasies of all time—Operation Barbarossa, say, or Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

Softened by the passage of time and the accumulation of research, Huis ten Bosch is now in retrospect my most beloved example of a favorite kind of place, one like Seagaia that clings tenaciously by its fingertips to the cliff of life, against all odds. Of one thing we can be certain, though: until Huis ten Bosch, the greatest artifact by far of those crazy eighties years, finally fails or flourishes, the boil of the Bubble will not have been lanced from the body of Japan for good.

What chances of survival for Huis ten Bosch, still very much in the intensive care unit? As a fan from childhood of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I’d put them at worse than even, but only time, envious time, fortune’s Ferris-wheel, and the efforts and the wallets of all now involved will tell. I fear, though, that the plans of H.I.S. are incoherent, no better than the heavy application of lipstick on a pig. I fear that the shackles of the Bubble fetter escape from the miasmas of the past. I fear, Huis ten Bosch, that only Miffy—and Jude the Apostle—can save you now.

Postscript: There remains one loose end that needs to be tied. Whatever happened to the creator of Huis ten Bosch, Yoshikuni Kamichika? He’s still around. Runs his own management consultancy. Shouldn’t that be “mismanagement consultancy”? Calls it the Eco Research Institute, trading on Huis ten Bosch’s largely spurious green credentials. Looks like every other salaryman pushing seventy. If you met him on the street, you’d have no idea of the joy he brought and the trouble he caused.

Huis ten Bosch: Only Miffy can save us now

(part two of three)

The first sign on the squally Sunday on which I visited that something was still rotten in the state of Huis ten Bosch came at the admission gates: of the 22, just two were staffed.

Since birth, Huis ten Bosch has been hamstrung by its location on the westernmost fringe of mainland Japan, but the plan now—as it has been since the Nomura days—is to turn that to its advantage by playing the China card. As the crow flies, Sasebo is closer to Shanghai (800km) than it is to Tokyo (960km). With the Boston Consulting Group forecasting in November 2010 that “the population of China’s middle-class consumers will increase from 150mn to more than 400mn over the next decade”, the China card seems a promising one to play—indeed, the entire Japanese tourism industry is trying to play it—and on the day I visited, maybe a quarter of the visitors were from the Sinosphere.

The Chinese were easy to spot: they foraged in larger flocks than the Japanese, in much the way for which Japanese tourists were mocked a couple of decades ago. They seemed contented enough, taking endless group portraits in front of the Domtoren, but will they rave about their experiences to friends? China Daily reported recently that China has 2,500 theme parks already, with Shanghai Disneyland due to open in 2014, adding that only a quarter are profitable—a sign that the lessons of Huis ten Bosch have not been learned.

While the ostensible theme of Huis ten Bosch is the Netherlands of the good old days—though some say it is Europe as a whole—it has been muddied down the years, as was evident by the presence of a North American interloper, the teddy bear. There were teds everywhere: concrete bondage teds,

XXL teds sporting suggestive leers,

out and proud teds,

and horseback-mounted teds clinging on for dear life.

In the cheese farm, Boerenkaas, with its little cheese clogs, hung little cheese people.

But wasn’t Huis ten Bosch one gigantic farm of cheese?

Outside the cheese farm, I ran into a hitherto unsuspected evolutionary development in bovine sexual dimorphism, with the sorely chipped adult Friesian bull half the size of the udderless heifer.

WINS Sasebo was not your granddad’s betting shop, old men enshrouded in plumes of smoke, licking stubs of pencils and crackling newspapers, pinning their hopes on She’s A Goer in the 3.30 at Chepstow.

A sprinkling of punters watched a giant screen of thoroughbreds being paraded in a paddock.

In the foyer, posters thundered against the evils of nomiya, unlicensed—and therefore illegal—bookies, many—maybe most—with links to the mob, who graft a dishonest living by being a little less greedy with their margins than the whopping 25% pari-mutuel take of the Japan Racing Association. House WINS again. Like monopolists the world over, the association is fervent in the protection of its monopoly.

At a very generous guesstimate, there were 10,000 fellow visitors with me on the day I was there but they are soon swallowed up in a place the size of Huis ten Bosch, and away from the tourist honeypot of the Domtoren, the streets were deserted—the theme park as ghost town, an edited cityscape that has expunged human tumult just as surely as the primacy given to architectural draughtsmanship in the Dutch Golden Era paintings of Jan van der Hayden (1637-1712) did.

How very different Huis ten Bosch must have been in its mid-1990s heyday, when ex-Python Michael Palin paid a visit in the course of making a TV travelogue, Full Circle:

I walk around, one of the four million annual visitors, and marvel for a while at the thoroughness of it all. Architectural detail is precise and well-crafted. There are occasional glimpses of actual Dutch people mainly engaged in ethnic activities, such as the cheese carriers or the bicycle band. The bicycle band is worth the price of admission alone. There is something almost transcendentally surreal about seeing a woman dressed in a large white bonnet, dirndl, black stockings and clogs riding a bicycle and at the same time playing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on a trombone.

At its apogee, Huis ten Bosch employed more than 100 Dutch denizens to engage “in ethnic activities”, and tidbits like this might encourage the uncharitable observer to view the theme park as an unparalleled exercise in Occidentalism, not dissimilar in kind to the kowtows before Tsunayoshi (1646-1709), the “dog shogun”, that German naturalist Englebert Kaempfer (1651-1716) reported the Dutch residents of Dejima were obliged to undergo on 20 April, 1692, almost three centuries to the day before Huis ten Bosch opened:

The shogun asked [the translator] to welcome us, have us sit upright, take off our coats, state our name and age, get up and walk, first act and dance, and then sing a song and pay compliments to each other, punish each other, get angry, prevail upon a guest, and hold a conversation. …

We had to play husband and wife, and the women laughed heartily about the kiss. Then we had to show how we saluted people of lesser rank, women, nobles, a king. After that, they said I was to sing another piece by myself, and I did this to their satisfaction by singing two, which all liked so much that they asked whether one had to learn this as an art. Then we had to take off our coats, and one after the other step in front of the blinds and bid farewell in the most exuberant fashion, as we would to a king in Europe, and after that we left. Judging from people’s expressions and laughter, they were all very pleased.

Except that in this demotic age, the obeisance was not to the shogun but to the masses, the inhabitants of a nation that had recently been crowned the wealthiest in the history of humankind, from one that had once held the title.

This exercise in Occidentalism, if that is what Huis ten Bosch is, was willed into being with the full complicity of those being objectified, from Queen Beatrix—who tops a very short list of celebrity visitors that unsurprisingly includes Michael Jackson—on down.

This cartoon pastiche decal of the Groot Rijkswapen, the coat of arms of the Netherlands, was created with the full permission of the Dutch royal family.

Not only were the canal streets devoid of life; so were most of the houses that lined them. One of Huis ten Bosch’s innovations was to have the theme park run entirely from the inside—unlike a Disneyland, say, there is no backstage, everything is mise en scène—so a few of the houses are given over to the nuts and bolts of the operations, but most are empty, their net curtains rustling behind leaded windows an attempt to conceal the purloined sham of the Potemkin village, a Potemkin village more immaculate and elaborate than any purportedly built to deceive Catherine the Great.

The lifeless neatness of Huis ten Bosch was beginning to gnaw and grate, and I could feel myself succumbing to a drowsy dullness of spirit that had me recalling some choice lines of William Gibson, that lover of the interstitial and the ill-at-ease, from his 1993 essay on Singapore, Disneyland with the Death Penalty:

But still. And after all. It’s boring here. And somehow it’s the same ennui that lies in wait in any theme park, but particularly in those that are somehow in too aggressively spiffy a state of repair.

As the ennui swept over me, I grew consumed by an irrational hatred, not of Kamichika and his vision, but of the stolid worthiness of the Dutch that had been his inspiration.

Such liberal people, the Dutch, a little blunt in their forthrightness perhaps, but really a beacon of hope for humanity. Why, some of my best friends are Dutch. Some of my relatives even, although only by marriage, I hasten to add. Everyone loves the Dutch, don’t they?

Not in the 17th century they didn’t. To the citrus-enriched seafarers among their Spanish overlords, scurvy, long before natural gas, was the original Dutch disease. To the Chinese, the Dutch were the terrifying hongmao Red Hairs, feared even more than the Japanese wokou Dwarf Pirates, more shocking than the—at least decently black-haired—Portuguese aoyi, the Macanese foreigners, and only one rung up the racial ladder from African slaves, known as heigui, Black Ghosts. The French weren’t all fans, either: a hack, Pierre le Jolle, writing for the Marquis de Louvois (1639-1691), the French Secretary of State for War, six years before 1672—the Dutch rampjaar, the annus horribilis of the French invasion in which the Marquis was instrumental, the year that marked the end of Dutch exceptionalism—dismissed the wonders of its capital, wonders that another Frenchman, René Descartes, in exile in 1631, had described as “an inventory of the possible”, with contempt:

Amsterdam, quoi qu’on loue
Est faite de merde et de boue
(Amsterdam, where’er you look,
Is made of shit and mud)

But no one hated the Dutch more than the English. The English fought three almost wholly naval wars against the Dutch between 1652 and 1674, winning the first, losing the second and the third, but as often happens, winning the peace. As England, a nation mad for war, readied in 1665 for the second encounter, the cry of “No clogs!” went up among English yeomen, supposing themselves freeborn and the Dutch peasantry to be enserfed. After a few hours at Huis ten Bosch, the cry began to resonate.

Andrew Marvell recycled a poem, The Character of Holland, written in the English republican interregnum, to serve the now royalist English cause:

Holland, that scarce deserves the name of land,
As but th’ off-scouring of the British sand;
And so much earth as was contributed
By English pilots when they heav’d the lead;
Or what by th’ ocean’s slow alluvion fell,
Of shipwrack’d cockle and the mussel-shell;
This indigested vomit of the sea
Fell to the Dutch by just propriety. 

Glad then, as miners that have found the ore,
They with mad labour fish’d the land to shore;
And div’d as desperately for each piece
Of earth, as if’t had been of ambergris;
Collecting anxiously small loads of clay,
Less than what building swallows bear away;
Or than those pills which sordid beetles roll,
Transfusing into them their dunghill soul.

The Dutch, long before the French, were the frogs to the English, as historian Simon Schama relates in his interpretation of Dutch Golden Age culture, The Embarrassment of Riches:

In the bestiary of popular xenophobia, the Dutchman was still the gross and comical Nick Frog, the “son of mud who worships mammon” and who needed a periodic drubbing to be reminded of his lowly station among the mighty of the world.

Some of the fear the Dutch inspired was due to the Republic’s tolerance—encouragement even—of religious heterodoxy.

“Is there a mongrel sect in Christendom,” complained another of Cromwell’s propagandists, “which does not croak and spawn and flourish in their Sooterkin bogs?”

[The republic] was, then, an organic menace, the “pestiduct of Europe” through whose conduits the poison of individualist skepticism might infiltrate the body politic of the European monarchies. Just as with the later, analogous anti-Semitism, Hollandophobia was possessed by a liquid terror. Commerce was the vector by it supposed the toxins of unbelief to be carried through an infinity of ducts and waterways, canals and capillaries: unstoppable, formless and lethal. 

Reeling in my—wholly synthetic—anti-Dutch sentiment, I began to notice how grievously Huis ten Bosch was fraying at the edges. Accounts from the mid-1990s zenith speak variously of 58 or 60 restaurants; by my count, from the guide map, there were only 22 left.

The still purring escalator at the World Food Plaza in Utrecht carries the unsuspecting promenader to a second floor on which not a single restaurant of the dozen or so once there remained in business: Korean Restaurant Seoul had served its last bibimbap, French Restaurant Bistro la Tour had poured its last vin rouge, and Viking Restaurant Omoyai had laid out its last buffet. Outside Tea Shop Naka no Chaya, an apologetic sign claimed that this was a temporary closure, for the purpose of refurbishment, but the gathering dust told a different story.

Another apologetic sign: this one says the Great Voyage Theater closed at the end of June, but neglects to mention the year—2008. The theater was described—and damned—by Professor Treib thus:

A nod in the direction of children is the Great Voyage Theater, large-screen film presentation of the sea voyage from Holland to Japan in the 17th century. The audience is set within a boxed area, which can jerk, shake, and shimmy in accord with the roughness of the seas and the severity of the perceived storm. These presentations are, for the most part, neither interesting nor impressive…

Down at the marina, still more restaurants had gone under, including Paella Restaurant Nueva Cataluña—poetic justice that the dish now most symbolic of the despised Spanish oppressors was no longer available (even though in the 17th century it had not yet been created). 

Yet another apologetic sign, this one in the vestibule of the Hotel Den Haag, informs passers-by that the hotel will be taking a break for a while, as if it were a resting actor between engagements, from July 1. On this occasion, the omitted year is 2009. Surely, I mused, surely the tourists can smell the must of the mildew, the stink of putrescence, the fear of failure?

As with the restaurants, so it was with the museums, which numbered around a dozen at the mid-1990s zenith and which by my measure were down to two.

The Porcelain Museum was not one of the survivors, although in this case the only way to tell was to tug at the doors. Porcelain, of course, is as Dutch as tea isn’t English, but it was the great prize of the East Asia trade in the 17th century—not initially the early Japanese porcelains, which only began to be fired years after the capture of Korean potters in the 1592-1598 invasions of the peninsula, but Chinese porcelains from the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen, and especially the blue-and-white, with its brilliantly vivid colors, hard and lustrous glazes, and the walls of the finest pieces so thin they were translucent when held up to the light. Between 1600 and 1650, Timothy Brook imparts in Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, the ships of the VOC ferried some three million pieces of porcelain to Europe—roughly ten for every Dutch household of the day.

Kamichika chose to ignore the Dutch preference for Chinese porcelain over Japanese. A credulous Chicago Tribune correspondent, Merrill Goozner, reported on his extravagant buying sprees, reminiscent of Citizen Kane for San Simeon, in 1993:

Company President Yoshikuni Kamichika, a connoisseur of Kyushu ceramics, scoured Europe to repurchase dozens of the world’s finest examples of Imari pottery, manufactured in nearby Arita and exported to Europe from the 17th through 19th centuries.

Langedijk, a Dutch auction house, had seen its last hammer go down. It was then I realized, in an irony so beautiful that if it could take human form, it would be a catwalk model, that Huis ten Bosch, the finest efflorescence of the most massive speculative mania in history, was a tribute to the nation and the era that was home to the mother of all bubbles, the Tulipmania of 1634-1637.

Disciples of the religion of the efficient market hypothesis and followers of its Christ, homo economicus, would have you believe that Tulipmania “was no more than a meaningless winter drinking game, played by a plague-ridden population that made use of the vibrant tulip market”, as Peter Garber writes in Famous First Bubbles: The Fundamentals of Early Manias, but something strange and new to the world must have been in the air in Haarlem and the other loci of the tulip trade in the plague-wracked and fear-drenched winter of 1636-1637 to drive the price of even common or garden bulbs such as the Witte Croonen from 64 florins for half a pound in January 1637 to 1,668 florins on February 5, the very last day of the mania, and then back down to 37.5 florins in 1642.

That the world’s first bubble should have been in the humble tulip strikes the modern eye as ridiculous, but tulips were still an exotic novelty in 1637, having arrived in Europe from Turkey only in 1559 and in the United Provinces only in 1593. At first the tulip was an aristocrat among flowers, the most prized cultivars being multihued “breaks”, the result of infection with an aphid-spread tulip-specific mosaic virus not then understood at all, with the prince among them the fabled Semper Augustus,

already selling for 1,000 florins a bulb by 1623, when a skilled artisan might hope to take home 200 florins a year. Soon the tulip was being associated with worldly folly: Amsterdam merchant and moralist Roemer Visscher used tulips to illustrate the epigram “a fool and his money are soon parted” in his Sinepoppen (Dolls for the Spirit) as early as 1614.

A confluence of factors conspired to cause Tulipmania, chief among them perhaps the advent of the world’s first sophisticated financial markets. Almost as soon as the Amsterdam Stock Exchange had been established, speculators were conducting organized bear raids, short selling the stock and spreading malicious rumors about the health of the company, and dealing in shares not in the possession of the seller, an act known as windhandel or “trading the wind”. Tulip bulbs themselves are only out of the ground between June and October; Tulipmania revolved largely around contracts for future delivery in what was one of the first formalized futures markets. With tulips needing seven years from seed to flowering bulb, there had been time for six tulip harvests between 1593 and 1634, increasing supply and variety, abetted in the early 1630s, narrates Simon Schama, by a “second generation of horticulturalists [with] aggressively entrepreneurial ambitions”. Trading innovations in the tulip market such as bulk weight contracts severed the link between prices and specific bulbs, reducing the level of expertise required to participate. More generally, trade was flourishing and there had been a huge increase in the supply of coin and bullion in the years leading up to the mania. Bubonic plague may have played a walk-on role, too, by spreading indifference to fate in the face of death: the plague took a third of the population of Leiden in 1635 and a fifth of the population in Haarlem between August and November 1636, just as tulip prices began their astronomical ascent.

As with many subsequent bubbles, a premonitory crash occurred in October 1636, which Earl Thompson, in Tulipmania, Fact or Artifact, ascribes to the victory of the Swedish alliance over the Imperial alliance at Wittstock October 4, 1636, in the Thirty Years’ War, reversing the fortunes of the German states, important tulip consumers—but perhaps it was merely due to the Mark Twain effect

Soon tulip prices were setting fresh highs, though, with a Semper Augustus now fetching 4,600 florins and a coach and dapple gray pair, worth around 2,000 florins alone.

A. Maurits van der Veen, in The Dutch Tulip Mania: The Social Politics of a Financial Bubble, tells of the auguries of collapse:

Things went sour in Haarlem first, on February 3. … Members of a college [groups of traders who met at taverns] decided to test market confidence by putting up for sale amongst themselves bulk quantities of common tulips—Switsers or Croonen. Just one buyer made any bids in three successive sales, and each of the sellers accepted his offer, even though the sum he offered was successively 15% below, 25% below, and finally 35% below recent prices for comparable bulbs. News of this precipitous drop in prices spread like wildfire throughout town, and the next day trading came to a complete halt, with traders simply staring at one another in stunned silence.

By the weekend of February 7-8, 1637, Tulipmania was over: the dearth of price data for the following weeks and months suggests that much of the market had simply evaporated. That the crash did not cause general suffering was due to the localized nature of the mania, which only involved a few hundred collegians, and an orderly resolution in which the futures contracts were converted to options contracts, relieving buyers of the unconditional obligation to buy the future tulips, with the option price eventually set at 3.5% for November 30, 1636 onward.

Inevitably, Tulipmania was followed by tulip-phobia. Anna Pavord, in The Tulip, writes of an unnamed professor of botany at Leiden, who “grew so to loathe them that he attacked them savagely wherever they stood, thwacking them with his cane”. Satirists of every stripe, from pamphleteer to printmaker, went swiftly to work.

In painter Hendrik Pots’ Floraes Mallewagen (Flora’s Car of Fools), Flora, dressed as a courtesan, clasps a cornucopia of tulips in one hand and three prized blooms, Semper Augustus, General Bol, and Admiral van Hoorn, in her other. Attending her are a trio of florists in jester’s costumes festooned with tulips, one brandishing his moneybags and another drinking to the gullible. A jester’s cap decorates the flag at the back of wind-chariot, while tacked to the mast of the chariot is the flag of the kermis festival, the verkeerde wereld, the world turned upside down, with an inverted cross attached to a globe. One woman weighs bulbs as the other, dubbed on a later print Idle Hope, releases a bird, Idle Hope Flown Away, while at the rear of the chariot burgers trample their looms, symbols of honest toil, and beg to be let on board as out in the shallows the wreck of the mania is foretold by a crew deserting their foundering chariot.

But we have strayed, I am well aware, far from Huis ten Bosch. Somehow I found myself down at the dockside, not thinking of the old days of Liverpool and Rotherhithe, but of the even older days of Bakumatsu end-of-shogunate hero Ryoma Sakamoto (1836-1867)—for it was he in the cutout. Japan was going through one of its episodic infatuations with all things Ryoma, this time occasioned by Ryomaden (The Legend of Ryoma), the 49th Sunday night Taiga Drama serial on state-run TV broadcaster NHK that ran through most of 2010, and Huis ten Bosch was piggybacking the boom, with an exhibition for which they wanted an additional Y500 ($6.50) on top of the Y4,700 ($57) I had already forked out for my tokutoku special value ticket. The tenuous connection between Ryoma and Huis ten Bosch is the ship in the background: Ryoma is considered the founder of the Imperial Japanese Navy and the ship, a three-mast paddlewheel schooner, is a 1987 replica of Japan’s first steam warship, Soembing, gifted by the Dutch in 1855 and renamed Kanko Maru (観光丸) after a line in the I Ching, kankoku shi ko (觀國之光, to view the light of the country), which also happens to be the origin of the word tourism (kanko, 観光) in Japanese, although not, oddly enough, in Chinese. Ryoma, visionary modernizer and unifier though he may have been, cuts too parochial a figure to be the savior of Huis ten Bosch: whatever could the Chinese tourists have made of the cutout?

(to be continued)

Huis ten Bosch: Only Miffy can save us now

(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…)