Category Archives: Kyushu

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…)

Amakusa: Islands of dread

As is commonly known, the term karayuki-san is a contraction of karahitoyuki (a person going to Kara, i.e., China, or abroad) or karankuniyuki (going to China, or a country overseas). It refers to the overseas prostitutes who, from the final stages of the Tokugawa shogunate in the mid-nineteenth century through the Meiji period (1868-1911) and until the middle of the Taisho period (1912-1925) at the end of World War I, left their native country behind and traveled north to Siberia or continental China, or south to the various countries of Southeast Asia, to sell their flesh to foreigners. These women came from all over Japan, but it is said the vast majority came from the Amakusa Islands and the Shimabara Peninsula.

 Sandakan Brothel No. 8, Tomoko Yamazaki (1972)

Some places are born cursed, while others are cursed by the whims of history. It has been Amakusa’s tragedy to suffer both fates. Amakusa’s woes began at birth, in the course of the Paleogene, 65mn-23mn years ago, as volcanoes shaped the islands over millions of years and cursed them with a thin gruel of a soil, fit for millennia only for the coarsest barley, until the arrival of the hardy sweet potato from the New World in the 16th century. Rice never made it to the islands until the advent of cheap phosphate fertilizers and improved strains in the 20th century. The convoluted currents created by the tortured ria coastline of west Kyushu conspired to keep the bounty of the ocean unfishably far from shore. Besides, Amakusa had been blessed with only one good natural harbor, at the port of Ushibuka in the remote southwestern corner. Nature’s cruelest trick, though, was to make Amakusa islands at all: the two principal and most of the eight minor islands are separated from each other by the narrowest of channels, never more than a few hundred meters wide, and the island nearest the mainland is scarcely more than a skimmed stone from it. But islands they are, and the straits and seas that engird them were to keep them isolated for centuries—and in many ways still do.

The first man-made misfortune to befall Amakusa was the arrival of proselytizing and trading Portuguese-sponsored Jesuit missionaries on Kyushu in the middle of the 16th century. Jewish-born Jesuit missionary Luis de Almeida (1525-1583) pitched up on Amakusa in 1569 and swiftly won converts to the faith, including local daimyo lord Konishi Yukinaga (小西行長, Don Agostinho, (1555-1600). Konishi made the fatal error of backing the losing side at the Battle of Sekigahara (1600), a fight that was to determine the fate of the nation for the next two-and-a-half centuries, and was executed for his pains, his demesnes being awarded to the Lord of Karatsu, Terazawa Hirotaka (寺沢広高, 1563-1633), a lapsed Christian, whose first act was to have the islands surveyed so they could be taxed to within an inch of their lives to fund the construction of his self-glorifying Karatsu Castle. Christianity, subject to intermittent prohibition from the late 16th century, was finally banned outright by the Tokugawa shogunate in 1614. Fierce persecution of recalcitrant Christians became the rage: on the Shimabara Peninsula to the north of Amakusa, the daimyo Matsukura Shigemasa (松倉重政, 1574?-1630) proved partial to boiling them alive in the scalding springs of Mount Unzen.

Stirrings of revolt began to brew among dispossessed masterless samurai, oppressed peasants, and repressed Christians, culminating in the Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion (島原天草の乱) of 1637-1638, the very last uprising of any size in pre-modern Japan. The rebellion was led by a charismatic 15-year old, Masuda Tokisada, (益田 時貞, 1621?-1638), who took as his nom de guerre Amakusa Shiro (天草四郎literally “the fourth son of Amakusa”), in tribute to the prophecy of Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier (1506-1552) that a “fourth son of heaven” would lead the conversion of Japan to Christianity. The rebellion culminated in a five-month siege of Hara Castle on the Shimabara Peninsula, defended by some 35,000 rebels, ultimately no match for the besieging forces, who came to number some 120,000 men. Every last rebel was executed and the severed head of Amakusa Shiro taken to Nagasaki, where it was displayed on a pike, in awful warning of the folly of insurrection, until the flesh fell off.

All of this is familiar enough to the history books; there is a solid account of the rebellion, albeit one narrated from a Catholic perspective, here. What is less well known is the fate of Amakusa in the wake of the revolt. The islands, deemed too overrun with malcontents for daimyo rule, were made “heavenly territory” (天領) under the direct jurisdiction of the shogunate. A new magistrate, sent to administer them, appealed for a lighter tax burden, was rebuffed, and disemboweled himself. The population of the islands had been halved by the rebellion, from around 16,000 to 8,000: Tomoko Yamazaki notes that, “in the villages close to the Shimabara Peninsula, it was unusual to see smoke rising from a human dwelling.” To repopulate Amakusa, the shogunate instituted a resettlement policy, forcing peasants to move there from elsewhere in Kyushu and using the islands as a dumping ground for unwanted convicts, ne’er-do-wells, and other undesirables.    

The result was a population explosion unparalleled anywhere else in the nation in the Edo era (1603-1868). While the population of Japan remained almost unchanged over these two-and-a-half centuries, Amakusa’s soared. It regained the level of the 1637-1638 rebellion in 1659, then swiftly doubled, doubled again, and doubled yet again.

1691: 34,357

1746: 74,650

1784: over 100,000

1794: 112,000

1818: 132,200

1832: 143,041

1868: 156,161

1924: 195,344

1955: around 240,000

So unfolded one of the world’s first encounters with a very contemporary, if barely acknowledged problem: overpopulation. By the dawn of modernity at the Meiji Restoration in 1868, more than 150,000 souls were coaxing the most impoverished of existences out of the mostly rocky, barren, and mountainous lands of an archipelago with a total area of only around 1,000km2.

It was into this world that Osaki, the child-prostitute who is the subject of Tomoko Yamazaki’s Sandakan Brothel No. 8, was born in or around the year 1900. The daughter of a farmer father who gambled his land away and died young and a mother who abandoned her three children on remarriage, Osaki was born on the very lowest rung of society:

There were days when I would have nothing to swallow but water from morning ’til night. Even when noon came around, or when the sun had set, I still hadn’t even had the neck of a sweet potato to eat. … By the time winter arrived, the barley box and the potato tub were empty, and days would go by when not only was there no barley gruel, but we couldn’t even sip potato broth.

The karayuki-san prostitutes derive their name from the girls and women of the Amakusa islands and the Shimabara Peninsula, who, once the travel restrictions of the Edo era were lifted in the 1870s, poured first into Nagasaki as the maids and mistresses of wealthy Chinese merchants, on occasion travelling to China with them as concubines. From these origins, the karayuki-san trade came to encompass much of East and Southeast Asia, extending as far as Siberia and North America. At its peak around 1910, there were perhaps some 30,000 Japanese women—almost all from Amakusa and Shimabara—working overseas as prostitutes everywhere from Rangoon to Mukden, San Francisco to Vladivostok, compared to only around 50,000 prostitutes in the home islands.

After many adventures, much exploitation, and some loving bonds forged, Osaki is discovered, now well into old age and back in the Amakusa village of her youth, by a young Tokyo ethnographer and feminist, Tomoko Yamazaki, in 1968, four years after the Tokyo Olympics and the year Japan overtook West Germany to begin its 42-year reign as the world’s second largest economy. This is how Yamazaki describes their first encounter, in a tiny restaurant in the tiny port of Sakitsu: 

She had already finished her rice and was using a toothpick as she drank tea. … She was of slight build, and about one meter and thirty or forty centimeters tall. Her entire body was thin and frail, her arms and legs no more than chicken bones. She wore a faded blue skirt with a well-laundered shirt, and on her feet were a pair of worn rubber thongs…

Withdrawing a slender pipe from a cloth bag and pulling a partly smoked cigarette out of a pack of Shinsei, she stuffed it into the pipe bowl and began smoking. As she contentedly exhaled pale purple smoke, she reached out for the three ashtrays in the small shop and, collecting the smudged out cigarette butts one by one, she knocked off the ashes and stuffed them into the Shinsei pack.

Due to an extreme tobacco shortage during World War II and shortly afterward there were a number of people who would pick up cigarette butts dropped by others, but today, no matter where you went, you would never even hear that sort of thing mentioned. Yet here, right before our eyes, was an old woman totally engrossed in collecting cigarette butts.

 A railway line was laid out up the Uto Peninsula to the now sweetly slumbering town of Misumi, the gateway to Amakusa, as early as 1899, but never extended further, and Amakusa remains about the most populous place in Japan outside Okinawa to be bereft of the pleasures of rail. Utterly deserted and overrun with grass and weeds, Misumi station had, like many a rural terminus does, a mournful end-of-the-pier feel.

The five short bridges needed to connect Amakusa to the mainland were finally built in 1966, largely depriving the railway of its raison d’être. Freight services were halted in 1982, expresses in 1986. Passenger volume fell by more than 40% between 1986 and 2007 and the line loses more than Y30 for every Y100 it generates in revenue.  

It was with some shapeless trepidation that I crossed the first of the five bridges to Amakusa.

Immediately I was stricken with the apprehension that something, somewhere, was wrong.

The shops in the strip-malls of the first island, Oyano, wore jaunty expressions. Where was the spectral gloom for which I had come in quest? And why, I wondered irritated, does a “London” bus always turn up in the unlikeliest of locations, in this case with its downstairs windows papered over with a London evening newspaper from just months before?

This Leyland Atlantean from 1981, GSC655X, once pounded the stately pavements of Edinburgh and York and as recently as February was kitted out in slate blue and white livery. But why was the URL for a Japanese restaurant in London’s West End and the phone number for an Amakusa stationer’s, neither of which were called Sophie’s Kitchen? This was not the last of the islands’ mysteries that was to prove unfathomable.

After peaking in 1955 at close to a quarter of a million, Amakusa’s population went into precipitous reverse, as youngsters flooded off the islands in search of work at lathe or till or jackhammer, falling to around 173,000 by 1980 and almost halving to below 127,000 in the summer of 2010, already back to the level of the early 19th century. From here it is poised to fall by more than a third over the next quarter century, to perhaps 80,000 in 2035, the mid-18th century level. Further out the demographic crystal ball grows murkier, but it is at least conceivable that Amakusa will return to its population level at the time of the 1637-1638 uprising by the end of this century, completing an extraordinary half-millennium of rise and decline.

While once beset by the burden of too many mouths to feed, the whole of Amakusa is now deemed by the state to be a zone of underpopulation (過疎地域), a designation that covers an astonishing 50% of the land area of Japan, if only some 6% of its people—although this is bound to rise in coming years, as the avenging angels of depopulation sweep down from the mountains to lay claim to ever larger conurbations. 

Overpopulation has a biological definition—the number of people exceeds the carrying capacity of the habitat—but underpopulation, at least in a Japanese context, is more of judgment call. The word for underpopulation (過疎) only appeared in the language in 1966, and it was initially defined as falling population densities, ageing, and a growing difficulty in maintaining established lifestyle patterns as the result of a declining population.

The population of the islands’ largest constituent municipality, Amakusa City, is falling faster than any other city of its size (50,000-100,000 people) in Japan, tumbling by more than 8% between 2005 and 2010 alone, due to a combination of continued outmigration by the young (there were 1,031 17-year olds but only 396 19-year olds in the city in 2005), a birthrate that has in recent times fallen below even the already low national average (there were 1,088 14-year olds but only 740 babies under one in the city in 2005), and a high and rising elderly ratio (nearly a third of everyone was over 65 in the city in 2005).

But where were the ruins?

It’s not that there weren’t any: this blot on the seashore landscape of a ryokan hotel had seized up some years before. In the lounge, slabs of green leatherette armchairs, as listless as caged big cats, bore the crinkled imprints of posteriors of yore and the sturdy ashtray stands beside them still held the last guests’ stubbed-out butts. Eerily, the ghost of the ryokan website still haunts the cobwebbed corners of cyberspace, not updated since at least 2004.

Ruination had not taken hold in the way I had expected, though. Ruinology—the divination and detection of ruins—is an imprecise discipline, more art than science. As populations tip lower (and the population is falling in 535 of Japan’s 786 cities, 639 of its 757 towns, and 154 of its 184 villages), the first rubble generally builds in downtown shopping districts—the dead don’t spend—followed by the humbler sort of roadside pit-stop—the dead don’t eat—and the gasoline stand—the dead don’t drive. It takes truly monumental population loss, however, for housing to fall into shell-shocked ruin.

Amakusa’s other city, Kami Amakusa, is a good illustration of this. Its population, 51,000 in 1960, had fallen to 32,500 by 2005, yet the number of households rose to 11,400 in 2005 from 10,200 in 1960, as the average number of people per household fell from over five to under three. By 2035, though, when Kami Amakusa’s population is projected to fall to around 18,000, the ruination will be general. A parallel story plays out on the national stage: although the population started its long slide in 2005, the number of households does not peak until 2015, at about 50.6mn, and even by 2030 is barely back to its 2005 level. Take heart, though, connoisseurs of ruin: in part because of the geographical mismatch between supply and demand, the total housing stock is expected to reach 60.4mn units in 2015, meaning that a staggering 9.8mn houses and condominiums, or 16% of the total stock, will lie vacant or derelict across the land (aside from a clutch of of holiday homes).  

On the shores of Shimabara Bay, I was joined for lunch by the signed poster of a singer of enka folk ballads, a local boy made good.

Born on Amakusa in 1971, Ryuji Hamasaki worked after graduation from high school as a salariman at an electrical design firm for many years before chucking it in to serve as an apprentice to a famous songsmith, Toru Funamura, and finally releasing a debut single in 2005 under the stage name Amakusa Jiro (天草二郎, “the second son of Amakusa”), in tribute to Amakusa Shiro, the leader of the Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion. Those legendary lines of William Faulkner, about a very different time and place, sprang to mind: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The moral rectitude of the balladeer’s hairstyle, which could have been cropped into its just-so contours at any time over the last half-century, is underscored by the catch-copy:


An honest fellow for times like these!!

The poster is for the debut single, Amakusa Katagi (天草かたぎ), which might be rendered, with a nod to Billy Joel, as Amakusa State of Mind. The lyrics cover familiar enka tropes, a formulaic directory of expressions and images designed to summon forth instant nostalgia for the hometown—in this case, it’s the cold comforts of sake for the sons of fisherfolk marooned in Tokyo, who recall fondly the house on the cape, the drying persimmons, and of course mother, while bewailing the impossibility of return—but it ends with an ambiguous couplet that departs from the familiar


and which could be interpreted in two ways: “Hot-bloodedness/Amakusa state of mind”, which is in all likelihood what the lyricist intended, or “Red rivers of blood/Amakusa state of mind”, in a nod to the islands’ blood-soaked past.

Crossing from Kamishima, the upper island, to Shimoshima, the lower island, I paused awhile in Hondo, the largest town on the archipelago, replete with a 24-hour drive-in McDonalds, a Uniqlo, pachinko parlors with giant LCD screens, gaudy car dealerships and all the other delights of the contemporary urban experience. This has been post-war Japan’s great genius, to spread the light of a modicum of prosperity to even the most benighted places of the land.

Downtown, however, the Gintengai shopping arcade, finished in 1973, was more exquisitely deserted than any I have ever strolled.

The entranceways to the arcades were adorned with monstrous signboards featuring collages so nightmarish they would scare the most determined shopper away.

While perhaps only a third of the stores had given up the ghost, doom hung heavy in the air for the rest.

One of the survivors was a rare combination these days, and one that might require elucidation for younger readers: an independent retailer of compact discs. Compact discs, familiarly known as “CDs”, were optical discs used to physically store digital data, often music, and independent retailers were those not affiliated to any larger chain.

Being a stick-in-the-mud technophobe, I only have a CD player in the car, and it so happened that I was after a particular CD—Lily of da Valley, an album of metal-tinged candle-in-the-air hip-hop anthems by Dragon Ash, not out of any longstanding affection for the band but because a few days earlier I’d bought a T-shirt designed by leader Kenji Furuya and in an inversion of the usual process (“You loved the songs! Now buy the T-shirt!”) wanted to hear the music.

I was in luck; it was in stock. Behind the counter stood a graying woman in a cardigan.

“This is Japanese music, you know?”

Does she, I wondered, ask the obverse of a Japanese customer buying a Beatles album.

“Yes, I know. In fact, I’m wearing a Dragon Ash T-shirt.”

She peered blankly at the T-shirt, which bears the opening line of William Blake’s Lily:

The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,
The humble sheep a threat’ning horn:
While the Lily white shall in love delight,
Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright.

Across her face, the waters of cognition receded from the shores of reason. Snapping back to the present, she mumbled, “That’ll be Y3,045 ($36.50), please.”

No wonder piracy is killing music. She entered the purchase in pencil in a ledger, as I strained to read it upside-down and tally up her sales: over Y20,000 ($240). Not bad for mid-afternoon, I thought, and then realized this was the total for the week to date. It was Thursday.

Still the nagging feeling that something was wrong was dogging me.

The real reason I had come to Amakusa was the discovery that in the January 2010 Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport land price survey, the price of residential land had fallen faster at two locations on Amakusa than anywhere else in provincial Japan—down by 16.1% and 15.8%, following declines of 14.4% and 15.2% in 2009, when they ranked third and first fastest fallers.

In the aftermath of the housing bubble across the West, drops of a third or so in couple of years might not sound exceptional, but residential—and commercial—land prices have been falling across provincial Japan without interruption since 1993, with the regional residential average down by nearly two-thirds from the peak. The situation is not so different in the big cities—Tokyo residential land prices are 40% of their 1991 peak and commercial land prices just 25%—but there were glimmers of stabilization in 2006 to 2008, hopes snuffed out for now by recession. No such hopes were sparked across provincial Japan: you don’t have to be familiar with the theory that the worth of a piece of land is the discounted present value of its future cash flows nor an expert in hedonic regression analysis to sense instinctively that land price stability remains a distant daydream across swathes of the nation.

Amakusa, though, was playing hard to get: while Hondo had the odd roped-off gas station, pumps pulled out like so many rotten teeth, and its share of shuttered curbside laundromats and patisseries and dry cleaners, the blight was not as dismal or general as I had expected. What I needed, I decided, was a real estate agent.

Half of Mori Fudosan’s window was taken up with rental apartments, priced in the Y30,000-Y50,000 a month ($350-$600) range, which would consume a fair chunk of an Amakusa salary—and you would obtain scant gratification from living in any of them. While Japan excels at food porn and fashion porn, it cannot but help falling flat on its face when it comes to property porn.

Mr Mori, in his fifties, and his comely twentysomething daughter betrayed no foreknowledge but also no trace of surprise when I told them of Amakusa’s latest claim to notoriety. To what did they ascribe the plunge in the price of land, I asked.

Immediately Mr Mori took charge and launched into a tirade against the new Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration.

“Things might be all very fine for you folk up in Tokyo, but we’ve got nothing to survive on but construction down here.”

He was clearly a fervent believer in concrete over people rather than the DPJ slogan “people over concrete”. Certainly, dotted around Amakusa were hoardings demanding more roads, including one that fancifully demanded a bridge, which would need to be at least a couple of kilometers long, to the island of Shishijima (pop. 1,050 and heading in only one direction). These hoardings often sign off with “this is the ardent desire of the people”, although as they are erected not by people but by bureaucrats, it’s hard to be sure how ardent the people’s desires are. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the DPJ had only been in power for only four months when the land price survey was conducted and that even the most ham-fisted bunch of merry incompetents could not have contrived to send the price of Amakusa land spiraling lower in such a brief spell.

“What we need is an expressway to the mainland.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the “straw phenomenon” (ストロー現象), whereby improved transport infrastructure paradoxically causes the district it was designed to invigorate instead to atrophy, as people and life are sucked away to the big city bright lights which burn with even greater luster, just as a drinker drains a glass, means that an expressway is the very last thing Amakusa needs.

“What about tourism?”

“Oh, that’s a non-starter. We’ve got nothing to see, well, nothing special anyway, nothing people elsewhere don’t have themselves.” Amakusa’s brooding past does indeed hang heavy over the islands like a malignant vapor; tales of insurrection and execution are not the stuff of holiday postcards home.

“Jumbo Ozaki [94-time Japan Golf Tour winner] was going to build a resort here, but it all came to nothing.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that was probably for the best, as Jumbo declared bankruptcy in 2005, with liabilities of over Y5bn ($60mn), due to a string of golf course development failures.

“They tried cultivating olives, too, but that didn’t work out either. The boars ate all the olives.”

I thanked the Moris for their time. They had plenty of it; in the half-hour I was with them, no phone rang and no customer darkened their door.

Changes in the price of land are best thought of as a subspecies of inflation (or deflation, which is only a subset of inflation). Large moves in either direction, like inflationary and deflationary spirals, are best avoided, as the West has learned to its great cost over the last decade.

Japan’s Bubble, though, was almost an order of magnitude greater than anything seen in all but the frothiest property markets of the West: from 1974 to 1991, the price of land essentially quadrupled in Tokyo and tripled nationwide, with the price more than doubling in Tokyo in just two years, from end-1986 to end-1988. The US median house price, by contrast, took a decade, 1997-2006, to rise to $250,000 from $150,000.

While the run-up in land prices teased some nasty creatures from the woodwork, such as the jiageya land shark mobsters who specialized in turfing folk off their land or out of their homes to make way for redevelopment projects for rapacious realtors, the achingly long descent has on balance produced more, and more enduring, pain. The one thing that can be said in its favor is that growing affordability has lured people back to city centers: the population is rising in all but one of Tokyo’s 23 wards. On the debit side, many buyers were trapped at the top and are sinking further underwater two decades on. Even those who bought on the way down must confront the ugly reality that real estate is now not in any way a store of value, but, due to falling land prices and built-in housing obsolescence, a one-way losing bet—and nowhere is it a losinger bet than on Amakusa.

Heading out of Hondo, I detoured to Amakusa Airport, which was celebrating its 10th anniversary.


Of all Japan’s provincial airports, Amakusa is in many ways the most ludicrous. It is a bastard child of the Bubble, though it wears its Bubble inheritance lightly. The idea for an airport on Amakusa first surfaced in 1982 and it was given the imprimatur of the Minister of Transport in 1990, that fateful year of imagined infallibility, with construction beginning in 1992 and services in 2000.

So marginal is it that in Japanese it is dubbed an aerodrome rather than an airport; so marginal is it that no airline could be found to fly to it, so Amakusa and the prefecture had to create their own, Amakusa Airlines, from scratch; so marginal is it that it will be forever hamstrung by its 1,000m runway, too short to accommodate the latest generations of commuter planes.

Money was seemingly still no object as late as 1999, when the nascent airline bought a brand new 39-seater Bombardier DHC8-103, which remains its only aircraft. By the fiscal year to March 2004 (FY3/04) the airline was in the red, where it has stayed ever since. Cumulative losses had already stacked up to Y350mn (about $4.2mn) by FY3/07. Because the sole aircraft is pressed into such heavy duty, with three round trips a day to Fukuoka, Kyushu’s largest city, and one a day to Kumamoto, the prefectural capital, it has been beset by mechanical woes and is frequently out of commission, as it was on the day I was there.

All flights were cancelled and would remain so for a fortnight.

Passenger numbers peaked in FY3/06 at 85,600. In the six months to September 2010, they were down to 32,400, an annual run-rate of about 65,000. The passenger load factor on both routes was around 54%, far below breakeven at around 65%-70%. In FY3/09, revenue was down 12% from the year before and the operating loss margin an eye-watering 44%, which means the airline was effectively spending Y144 for every Y100 it took in. With its capital almost depleted, the fate of Amakusa Airlines hangs by a gossamer thread.

Amakusa Airlines is but a microcosm of the woes of the airline industry, plagued as it is with too many airports, too many airlines, and too many flights: of the 21 commuter airlines, only five were consistently profitable from FY3/07-FY3/09. JAL, the nation’s largest carrier, began axing domestic routes in October as part of its post-bankruptcy rehabilitation plan: with 30 routes going and reduced services on a further 13, the skies over Japan will grow quieter and emptier, although not yet quiet and empty enough.

Deeper and deeper into the fastnesses of Amakusa I drove. In the sleepy onsen resort town of Shimoda stood an excrescence of the Bubble so hideous I feared it would shatter the camera lens. 

In general, the more wincingly random the agglomeration of languages in the name of a place, the closer it is to the epicenter of the Bubble, and the hotel Jardin Marl Boyokaku (“the tower with ocean prospects and a garden of kaolin”) must have been at ground zero.

We are stuck with the word “bubble” to describe asset manias, thanks to the South Sea Bubble of 1711-1720, but its childish overtones, suggestive of the soap bubbles blown by a toddler, the bubbles rising from the mouth of a child’s drawing of a fish, or the bubblegum bubble blown by a teen, fail to capture the damage done by real-world asset-price bubbles, which are more like malevolent pockets of methane gas lingering in some forgotten pipe missing from the plat which, hit by some contractor’s drill, explode to kill and maim those known in movie credits as innocent bystanders.

When the ban on Christianity was revoked by the Meiji government in 1873, the missionaries returned, although they were not to meet with the proselytizing successes of three centuries before: the church at Oe, completed in 1933 by French missionary Louis Frederic Garnier, who arrived on Amakusa in 1892, is one of only three on the archipelago, and their combined congregation accounts for less than 1% of the population. 

It was abidingly eerie to see a church of such heft in such a lofty location: what with the sultriness of the afternoon, the subtropical verdancy, and the buzz-sawing of the cicadas, I felt as though I had stepped into a scene from the Philippines.

Not far beyond Oe rests the tiny port of Sakitsu, where Tomoko Yamazaki first encountered the former child-prostitute Osaki, who lived half-an-hour’s walk away, and home to one of the other two churches.

The first church at Sakitsu was erected by Luis de Almeida in 1569. Persecution of believers was particularly merciless in Sakitsu, according to the commemorative plaque beside the church, forcing them underground to become the hidden Christians of lore, who kept their faith secret in midnight masses and faintly recalled Latin prayers for two-and-a-half centuries before the return of the missionaries. Rebuilt three times since the Meiji era, the last time in a Gothic style in 1934, the altar of the church at Sakitsu stands on a spot where Sakitsu’s hidden Christians, or those suspected of being so, were made to go through the annual ritual of fumi-e, the trampling of icons of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, with those who hesitated tortured and executed.

The church at Sakitsu was the inspiration for the opening passage of Sandakan Brothel No. 8:

As I sit before my desk preparing to write about the category of overseas prostitutes known as karayuki-san, I find that one particular scene continues to surface in my memory. The setting is Tenshudo, Lord of Heaven Chapel, in the town of Sakitsu, at the southern end of Amakusa-Shimo Island…

It must have been about three o’clock. Although it wasn’t the time of day you would expect people to shut themselves up in their homes, in the vicinity of the Tenshudo not only were there no adults, there wasn’t even a single child at play. Sakitsu was so quiet, it seemed to have been abandoned…

The doors of the Tenshudo stood ajar, as if it, too, were deserted. I walked in and looked around as my eyes adjusted from the outside light. When I focused on the form of a person crouched before the altar, my eyes interpreted it at first as a stone sculpture of a person in prayer. This was because, as the minutes flowed by, the old woman kneeling on the tatami, a rosary hanging from her clasped hands, neither uttered a word nor made a single movement. However, as my eyes grew accustomed to the dim interior of the Tenshudo and I could clearly discern everything from the image of the crucifixion, the statue of Mary, and each of the candlesticks on the altar in the front, to the stained-glass windows on either side, I realized that what I had mistaken for a stone image was actually the living flesh of an old peasant woman…

She looked to me as if she might have been seventy to seventy-five years old, and that was exactly the age of the karayuki-san that one might find still living on the Amakusa Islands or the Shimabara Peninsula. This old farm woman in silent prayer like a stone image—might she once have worked as a prostitute overseas?

…Her face, which I can see clearly now, two years later, as if she were right before my eyes, was furrowed with a number of wide wrinkles, while her fingers were short, with knotted joints. Different patterns at the elbows and knees betrayed the patches on her work clothes. If her attire indicated the poverty in which she now lived, and the wrinkles on her face spoke of the many difficulties she had faced during the course of her life, then I would probably not be going too far in interpreting the true intent of her fervent prayer, not as an idealistic request for the deliverance of humankind from original sin, but rather as a heart-rending wish that she ultimately be saved from a life of poverty and hardship.

More than forty years on, Sakitsu was unchanged, although nowadays it’s no longer possible to register surprise at there having been no child at play. Time appeared to have ground to a halt in the 1950s. An old man, naked from the waist up, squatted to chisel contentedly away at a block of wood, while down a narrow alley a stooped woman fed stray cats, just as Osaki did.

And there was the harbor at Sakitsu, from whence Osaki had sailed, aged 10 or so, some hundred summers before I stood on its shore, to Nagasaki and ultimately Sandakan in the British protectorate of North Borneo, a journey that took many months, to serve first as an indentured maid and then, after a couple of years, as an indentured prostitute, bound by largely fabricated debt from flight.

Given the grimness of its subject matter, Sandakan Brothel No. 8 could be a monstrously dispiriting book. That it is anything but is testament to the way it straddles genres, its academic pretensions constantly undercut by the passion of the author. It is by turn quest, travelogue, oral history, and the tale of an implausible friendship that blossoms between two women across the boundaries of time and age, place and class. Above all, it is a celebration of Osaki, the talker to frogs on paths, the adorer of children, and the shelterer of cats without homes, whose antecedents span holy fools like the Zen monk and hermit Ryokan but also the wise old women of European fable and folklore:

Although she had emphasized that it was “a dreadful house”, I was amazed that a human being could actually live there. … Although the black pillars that supported the house somehow stood up straight, the miscanthus-thatched roof, which had not been rethatched in decades, looked like a heap of compost. On the south side grew wild chrysanthemums and dandelions, while various kinds of ferns had colonized the north. To me, it looked just like a witch’s house described in fairy tales…

Cobwebs three feet long hung from the low ceiling. Here and there the roughly plastered clay walls had crumbled in, and both the interior and exterior paper sliding doors, the fusuma and shoji, had been reduced to the skeletal structure of their wooden frames. The tatami mats in the sitting room appeared to have rotted entirely, for as I stepped into the house on her invitation, my feet sank into the mats as if I had set foot in a rice paddy. Not only did the dampness of the mats cling to the soles of my bare feet, but as I braced myself to bend down, a number of centipedes crawled up toward my knees. Overcome with revulsion, I peered down at them, only to find that the straw mats had become one giant centipede nest.

The tides of trafficking have long turned since Osaki’s day, and Japan is a destination rather than a source of trafficked women, although clampdowns by the authorities and downturns by the economy have improved matters meaningfully since the gory days of the Bubble and its aftermath, when—as I know from personal experience—every flea-bitten hostess joint in every two-bit town from Nemuro to Nagasaki was staffed by Southeast Asians and even the remotest ryokan was not replete without an “entertainer” from Manila or Medan. More needs to be done—Japan remains a signatory to but not a ratifier of the 2000 UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its protocols, in particular the one to “Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children”—but however horrific contemporary trafficking is, one can’t help but feel it was worse a century ago:

[There are also tragic tales] about women hidden as stowaways in water tanks. One such account tells of a number of women who hid in a tank that the trafficker and seamen involved assured them would remain empty. However, through some human error the water was turned on and the tank began to fill. The terrified women broke their promise of silence and began beating on the metal sides of the tank and screaming. The water gradually rose to their ankles, then to their knees, and then up to their chests and continued to rise. After the ship had been underway for several days, a seaman turned on a faucet and began to drink, when he noticed a long hair come floating into his glass. Strange, foul-smelling bubbles rose up through the water. When crew members investigated the water tank, they found the bodies of women, so badly decomposed they no longer retained their shape. In the high temperatures of the southern route, bacterial decomposition was a rapid process.

Sandakan Brothel No. 8 went on to sell more than a million copies and be translated into five languages, while the film of it, shorn of the troublesome “brothel” word, was nominated for the 1975 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Osaki, her last years leavened a little by income from the book, died on April 30, 1984, as old as the century.

The dull and timid day, harangued by clouds, had grown tired of itself and was ready to surrender to dusk as, vexed by an amorphous discordance, I entered the town of Ushibuka, to which I took an immediate, unusual, and visceral dislike. Perhaps it was the bleak walls of the junior high, more concentration camp than place of learning.

Perhaps it was the dreary shudder brought on by the monotony of the lifeless tenements.

Perhaps it was the way the bridge, another Bubble era vanity project, completed in 1997 and designed by Renzo Piano, architect of the Pompidou Center in Paris, disfigured the bay.

It was then I spied them: two crude effigies severed at the bottom of the torso, one with matted Jesus locks, one covered, repulsively, in flying ants, strung up on trees outside a wholesale produce market.

Was this, I feverishly wondered, a modern reenactment of the fate of Amakusa Shiro and his band of rebels, a macabre admonition by some nameless authority of the futility of revolt? It was all I could do to raise the camera before turning tail and taking flight to the mountains and the haven of a rustic onsen, where I found, to great relief, that the unease that had been stalking me had shuffled off, to be replaced by a fragile composure.

Next morning, the ferry schedule allowed a few moments to capture the spent melancholy of Ushibuka, where the price of land is falling fastest in all the nation, through the exhausted sadness of its signs

before the ferry carried me away to other, sunnier, islands, islands not of dread.

[With many thanks to A.E. for the karayuki-san tip-off.]

Phoenix Seagaia: Look on my works, ye Mighty

Heading north out of the eponymous prefectural capital of Miyazaki, the traveler soon finds the flotsam of modern life giving way to a more manicured world, one of trim box hedges, pansied plant troughs, and sedately whispering pines. Then from out of nowhere, there it looms, the loneliest skyscraper on earth.


Skyscrapers are by nature gregarious animals, to be found in dense hordes in city centers, in tight packs around the watering holes of international airports, and in majestic ranks along the beaches of a Benidorm or an Acapulco. They are even known to breed in small numbers in that most inhospitable of habitats, the antique European capital. But this skyscraper had been expelled from the herd and condemned to eternal exile in a prison of pines. 

For a decade after it was topped out in 1994, the 154m, 45 storey Sheraton Grande Ocean Resort—as it is now known—was the tallest building between Osaka and Taipei. It remains the tallest building in Japan west of Hiroshima and its nearest 100m plus companion is 150km to the north, in Oita. What a lonesome existence it must be, the life of a solitary skyscraper. 

At the Sheraton reception, it took several hundred keystrokes, a couple of phone calls, and a quarter of an hour to summon up the price of a single. “Y19,200,” (about $230) was the oddly precise answer. “Fine.” Picking up a resort map (“let’s design the you from tomorrow”, it said in Japanese), I made it to the 12th floor room in time to capture a Seagaia sunset, the lone and level pines stretching far away. 


The unfunny pun and bloky jokiness of the message on the plastic wrapping on the bathroom sponge—“Get yourself all in a lather”—and the enormous condescension of the instructions—“Just add shower gel”—brought on a grimace, although with the words only in English and French (“Enrobez-vous de mousse”), the nuances of the patter would be fortunately lost on almost every guest. 

I made a beeline for the top-of-the-tower 42nd floor bar, Stella, to snatch a sundowner, but a sign declared that it was closed due to that most embracing of catch-alls, tsugo (“circumstances”). Turning tail, I headed for the first floor cocktail bar, Pacifica, and settled in on a sofa for the long haul. 

An Australian lounge bar duo, Kishh, were tuning up and threatening schmaltz. Was that a spelling mistake, I wondered to myself. Shouldn’t it have been Kitschh? While navigating the drinks menu for ways to keep the tab below $100, I pondered ways of escape, but there were no other bars left in which to hide. Teeth grated, I braced myself for the first set, which went like this:

Sheryl Crow, If it makes you happy

Toto, Georgy Porgy/Africa

Roberta Flack, Killing me softly with his song

Olivia Newton-John, Have you never been mellow

The Carpenters, Close to you

Abba, Chiquitita

Carole King, It’s too late 

They knew their audience, full credit for that. ONJ’s Have you never been mellow was a 1975 flop around the world but a hit here. The heavily tattooed Mandy and Michael joined me for a drink between sets. 

“I’ve heard Killing me softly before, you know.”

“Tell me about it,” Mandy guffawed. “Thing is, when people here latch on to something, they never let it go. I mean, Abba, Whitney Houston, The Carpenters. Imagine playing The Carpenters to anyone under 60 back home!”

“This is our fifth six-month contract at Seagaia,” Michael said. “We love it here—open your window and you’ve got a fresh breeze coming in off the sea. We’ve played all over Japan, Chiba-chuo, Narita, but this is the best.”

He let slip that Seagaia had been hit hard by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease ravaging the prefecture, which had brought the shutters down on several eateries as well as “top bar” Stella.

“Tonight’s the busiest it’s been in months. This bar is the only place that’s making any money, apart from the breakfast restaurant.”

“Any requests”, asked Mandy as they prepared to take the stage for their second set.

“Got any Motorhead?” 

It turned into a lively enough Saturday night: a woman in tight denim shorts for which, despite her lithe figure, she was a touch too old, partied like it was 1989, dancing on a tabletop as if the Bubble had never popped. A party of minor-league rock stars and their groupies swilled champagne and guzzled cocktails at the table next door. Eventually one of their number asked drunken unsociable me in fractured English where I was from. I played my cruelest card. “I’m from the UK.” So simple yet so devastating, it floors the enquirer every time.

With all respect to the charming and competent Mandy and Michael, when Seagaia opened it was able to attract a different league of celebrity: Sting played the opening night concert on October 31, 1994. He also recorded a couple of TV commercials for Seagaia, ones that a definitely older and perhaps wiser Gordon Sumner almost certainly doesn’t want you to see today.

“OK Miyadzaki, let’s go,” exclaims the prickingly monikered one as he leaves his palatial country estate to his tune, Take me to the sunshine, written specifically for Seagaia, as the voiceover intones, “Our first guest is Sting. A resort of sun has been born. Miyazaki Seagaia.” 

In the second, a sleep refreshed Sting throws open his windows with a hale “Good morning, Seagaia,” to the chords of When we dance. The narrator continues, “A place abounding in sea, wide open spaces, and sun. Book now and relax big time. Miyazaki Seagaia, a global resort of sun,” leaving Sting to sign off with “Miyadzaki, I love it!” 

Dubiously reliable muckraking hack Christopher Sandford reports that Sting was paid around £500,000 for the Seagaia deal, which if true, works out to almost £50,000 a word, two out of the eleven of which he cheerfully mangles. (Although it is not beyond the realms of chance that he was told to mangle them, for that deftly clunky foreign touch.) 

There’s a national penchant for counting things in trios, the “Three Greats” (三大). Wikipedia lists 242 examples, ranging from the familiar, such as the three great gardens or the three great night views and the now obscure, such as the three great brushes of the Kan’ei era (1624-1643) and the three great centers of child kabuki actors, to the prosaic, such as the three great garbage bands (you read that right) of Kanto and the three great centers of seven-flavored pepper condiments. 

There is no listing, however, for the Three Great Structural Legacies of the Bubble (三大バブルの構造物遺産). With so much competition, one of the three is tricky to pick: could it be the absurd 158m Play Park Gold Tower in the tiny town of Utazu on the Inland Sea, with its gold throne and gold toilet slippers, the ridiculous recreation of a French chateau in the heart of Tokyo, Taillevent Robuchon, or the risible mock-medieval Hotel Kawakyu on the remotest tip of the Kii Peninsula? Two are shoo-ins, however: Dutch theme park Huis ten Bosch and Seagaia.

Desperate to regain the tourist luster it had lost since its days in the limelight as the locus of the honeymoon boom of the 1960s, the Miyazaki prefectural and city governments, spearheaded by six-term (1979-2003) governor Suketaka Matsukata (1918-2007), teamed up in 1988 with local travel and leisure firm Phoenix International Tourism and its president, Muneyoshi Sato (1919-), to begin planning Seagaia, the very first project approved under the notorious Resort Law of 1987, which offered tax breaks, flexible approval procedures, and—disastrously—easy financing from state-backed banks to resort plans that met with the blessing of the government.     

A prime spot on the coast north of Miyazaki was selected and 135 hectares (335 acres) of state-owned pine forest that had been planted as a windbreak on the sandy shores before the war was sold to the Phoenix Resort Group at a knock-down price. Garlanded modernist architect Yoshinobu Ashihara (1918-2003) drew up the plans, and with an initial budget of Y80bn (about $1.1bn at the time), construction of Seagaia—which for starters necessitated the uprooting of 100,000 pines—got underway in 1989. 

The sheer scale and audacity of the vision was—and remains—breathtaking: in addition to the centerpiece hotel, Ocean 45, which was to become the Sheraton, Seagaia was finally to be graced with three other hotel complexes, two 18-hole country clubs, a golf academy, a tennis club, an onsen, a spa, a marina, a bowling alley, a zoo, a world-class convention center, and last but very much not least, Ocean Dome. 

When it opened in advance of Ocean 45 in July 1993, Ocean Dome was a repository of superlatives: the world’s largest indoor pool, with a 140m long beach, featuring the world’s largest retractable dome, at 300m by 100m, and the world’s largest and most sophisticated wave-making equipment. The real beach was only 500m away, but how could cantankerous reality compete with the seductions of the hyperreal, a temperature-controlled, Caribbean-themed paradise where the water was maintained at a constant 28°c and the air at 30°c, where the “sea” had been purged of its saltiness and there were surf juggler shows, synchronized swimming spectaculars, and amusement arcades to keep boredom at bay? Mere sand, so humdrum, could not have been expected to satisfy the dictates of the hyperreal, although it could have been sourced from anywhere; instead, the beach was made of marble, imported from China and crushed to powder. 

Ocean Dome reached the apex of the hyperreal when the wave machines were cranked up and stoner surfer dudes were given free rein to frolic. Pinch yourself sporadically as you watch the following to recall that it all plays out indoors.

By the time Seagaia opened to the strains of Sting, the bill had spiraled north of Y200bn ($2.5bn) and it needed 5mn visitors a year—nearly 15,000 a day—to break even. At first, the planes to Miyazaki were crowded with pilgrims, but the prices were prohibitive: admission to Ocean Dome cost Y4,200 ($50) for an adult, more than Tokyo Disneyland, and a two-night trip for a family of four could easily eat up Y400,000 ($5,000). Not much support could come from the locals, either, in Japan’s poorest mainland prefecture, and from the outset Seagaia was losing around Y20bn ($250mn) a year. In February 2001, Seagaia collapsed under the weight of an accumulated Y326bn (nearly $4bn) in liabilities. The press conference following the bankruptcy filing was a battle of the octogenarians, with the businessman Sato (81) heaping the blame on himself and the governor Matsukata (83) washing his hands of all responsibility. 

The notoriety of Seagaia was now such that only foreigners were to be found sniffing around its corpse, and in June 2001 it was sold for just Y16.2bn ($200mn) to US private equity outfit Ripplewood Holdings, whose founder and CEO Tim Collins claimed the price was “reasonable”. Ripplewood set about restructuring: one of the early victims, in December 2002, was the Tom Watson golf course. 


Down to the last purple swirl on the carpet, the clubhouse interior was an insect preserved in amber.


Colors at the Seagaia Tennis Club had been bleached and washed out. Depth of perspective had been drained from the scene, like a David Hockney painting of California.


Ocean Dome first shut its doors from October 2002 until the following summer, before closing for good in September 2007. In December 2009, Ripplewood offered it to the city and the prefecture for free, but in August 2010 they spurned the offer, citing the crippling expense of maintenance and repair. 

Is there anything more sinister, I asked myself, than an abandoned multistory car park?


Yes, plenty, came the answer swiftly: a bank of vending machines was still dispensing drinks to no one at all. Then there was the bus parking lot, which had been taken over by the prefectural riot police.


Were they expecting an outbreak of mutinous assembly and disorderly conduct at the 19th hole?

Ocean Dome was a stupendous structure by any measure, a geometrician’s heaven and a photographer’s dream. In marvel I wandered past its vast and trunkless legs of stone and sauntered round the decay of its colossal wreck.

Back at the Sheraton, the aerial approach road struck me as the embodiment in concrete of an elephant in white.


Few conferences have gathered at the World Convention Center, with its main hall able to hold 5,000 people, since a G8 summit in 2000; this Sunday, it was largely given over to wedding ceremonies.   


The aesthetic spirit of Seagaia is that of the country club and the golf course, of palm and pine and gin and Jag, of Beverly Hills and the Home Counties, with a dash of Bauhaus Modernism and just a drizzle of Albert Speer.

The illusion of affluence conjured up by the Rolls-Royce is undercut by the building behind it, a hotel falling helplessly into ruin.

Ripplewood closed the Phoenix Sea-Side Hall in December 2001, giving nature ample time to go to work. Around the back, mossy pipes created lovely abstracts and a bicycle turned into a trellis.  


Frogs plopped into the pool on my approach and paint blistered painfully in the men’s washroom.

Bereft of the consolations of the hyperreal, holidaymakers now are forced to deal with the inconveniences of the real. Down by the sea, a lifeguard hosed down a rubber ring while a lady with parasol stepped out of a 19th century watercolor of the beach at Deauville.

Ripplewood CEO Tim Collins may be ruing the day he struck the Seagaia deal: it took until the year to March 2007 to turn an operating profit and until the year to March 2010 to turn the bottom line black, with Seagaia reporting net profit of a measly Y500mn ($6mn) on sales of Y11.2bn ($135mn), down 8.9% from the previous year due to an aggressive discounting campaign. 

The strategy, fraught with geopolitical risk, is to lure visitors from the Sinosphere, above all China. It’s hard to see what the appeal might be, though: while the Seagaia Sheraton is one of seven Sheratons in Japan, with no more planned, there are already 29 in China, many in resorts, and there will be 55 by the end of 2013. Why pay the premium to venture overseas only to struggle with a strange tongue and funny foreign food? 

The one thing that might have saved Seagaia is a casino, but debate on casino legalization has been dragging on for decades with no end in sight, stymied by the vested interests of the pachinko industry and the legislators in their pockets. My guess is that Seagaia will stagger on for a decade or two and that centuries hence, a hunter in pursuit of deer amid the pines will stumble on some fragments huge, and pause to wonder:

“What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.”

Omuta: The shopping arcades of a thousand bankruptcies

Capitalism, then, is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary. … The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as US Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation—if I may use that biological term—that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.

Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Joseph Schumpeter (1942)

 Omuta kept its pre-trip promise to be a different kind of town as soon as I crossed the city limits and came across this brace of beauties, a pair of modern genius loci guarding the spirit of the place.


In scrap-and-build, tidy-it-away, spick-and-span Japan, sights of the vintage of the 1981 Nissan Cedric on the right, to say nothing of the 1969 Toyota Crown on the left, rotting by the roadside under a crumbling ceiling, are vanishingly rare. Heartened, I pressed on.

Omuta is an old coal town: the stones that burn with a flame are said to have been discovered as long ago as 1469. Mining was industrialized across the Mitsui Miike coalfields in the late 19th century but the post-WWII history was grim: massive strikes rocked the region from 1953 to 1960 against redundancy programs and then in 1963 a dust explosion left 458 miners dead in Japan’s worst postwar industrial disaster. A mine fire in 1983 took the lives of another 83 colliers and the last mine closed in March 1997. But coal had attracted an array of chemical and other heavy industrial firms, many linked to the mighty Mitsui combine, and the loss of coal did not bring on complete collapse. 

Nevertheless, there’s precious little hiring going on down at the docks, where in January 2009 Mitsui Chemicals shuttered a huge facility for the production of toluene diisocyanate, a key ingredient in polyurethane, wracked by the collapse in global trade. Omuta’s current claim to notoriety is that it is bleeding people faster than any other city of its size in the country: 15,000 out of a starting population of 138,000 in the last decade alone, with the population projected to fall to below 83,000 by 2035.

Driving the city streets, Omuta felt like a patient in the last stages of terminal cancer, skin and bones clad in clothes now many sizes too large: half of everything could be torn down and carted away and it would have no impact on what life remains in the city. But where were the shopping arcades decried by Professor Ito in his Ugly Japan report?

 Stopping at the main station to orient myself, I noted with shock the absence of a convenience store and later came to learn there were none at all downtown, so atrophied has it become—this in a country where the biggest six operators have nearly 40,000 outlets between them, where there is at least one store for every 2,000 people.  

Rather than radiating out from the station, as is often the case, the shopping arcades of Omuta were a few hundred meters distant from it, which may have in part been behind their decay into their present pitiful state. 

Meandering across five blocks, the drear arcades of New Ginza, built around the apogee of the town’s prosperity in the late 1950s, had been named in a provincial kowtow to The Ginza, the still swanky shopping and entertainment district of central Tokyo. Time has mocked the pretensions of the namer. I caught a Ginza sign reflected in sodden street stones.


Each block has just one surviving store: in the first, the man behind the counter of a school outfitter had given up all pretence of busyness and was fiddling blankly with his mobile phone.


In the second, a greengrocer’s with bowed shelves and random produce soldiered on.


In the third, the beautician’s sign under the rotting vaults boasted of full air-conditioning.


Here and there, small fires had broken out, charring wood and melting wires.


In places the cheap plastic roof had caved in, stripping the arcades of their shelter.


In the fourth block, the sole survivor was a mercer’s, a term now so obscure in English that for most it requires explanation: in a Japanese context, it refers to a dealer in kimono silks. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Family Income and Expenditure Survey, average annual household spending on Japanese clothing (mainly kimonos) tumbled 85% between 1990 and 2009, to around Y3,000 (about $35) from around Y20,000. Spending on all clothing and footwear is down by 43% over the same period, to around Y165,000 (about $1,900) from Y290,000.


I attempted to engage the proprietor in conversation.

“It’s lost its vitality, this street.”

“I suppose.”

“When did everyone start shutting up shop?”

“About thirty years ago. One by one. Business is slow.”

I asked to take her portrait, but she recoiled in horror and hid behind her racks like a hunted animal until I took pity and gave up.

At the top of the fifth block, I was caught trying to steal a snap of the last store standing, a tea emporium exuding an elegance wholly out of kilter with its surroundings, and got snarled at by a tiny grandma and her yappy dog for my sins.


Arcades of the vintage and debility of New Ginza are now rare but not extinct across the land: not long ago, NHK aired a 30-minute documentary on the last denizens of a very similar one in Kita Kyushu, Japan’s first post-million city. They’re to be found above all, I suspect, in big, rusty ports long past their prime, places like Kure in Hiroshima, Iwaki in Fukushima, and Ishinomaki in Miyagi.

 New Ginza was merely the entrée, however; the plat principal came in the arcades leading off it, which went by a variety of names: Sun Route, Gallery, and Ginza yet again. These arcades were thrown up in the early 1980s, but scarcely a shop survives.


Whole blocks have already been razed into wilderness, leaving only the skeletal frames of the arcades themselves to give scant shelter to pedestrians.


At one end of the Gallery arcade stood pachinko parlor L’aimant and its karaoke parlor Santa Claus (motto: “Let’s enjoy Santa Claus!”) Four stories of car parking above the shop had not been enough to save either.


Parlor Lucky is hanging on.


But the rows of empty seats say its luck will soon be running out.


It might seem to go against everything we’ve just witnessed, but according to the latest Census on Commerce from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, mom and pop shops (which I’ll define as outfits with up to four workers, thereby excluding convenience stores, which tend to have 10-20 full- and part-time workers on their books) still accounted for 775,000 (68%) of Japan’s 1.14mn retailers (one for every 111 people) in 2007, ringing up Y20.2trn (15%) of total retail sales of Y135trn. 

The absolute number of retail outlets peaked in 1982 and is now lower than at any time since data collection began in 1952. While the number of corporate-owned stores, which have been declining since 1999, fell by only 2.3% between the 2007 survey and the previous one in 2004, the number of stores owned by individuals, which have been declining since 1982, when there were a total of 1.72mn stores, a third more than today, fell a staggering 13.4% in just three years. 

Total retail sales in Japan topped out at Y147.7trn in 1997 and are off nearly 9% since; although sales rose 1.1% in 2007 from the 2004 survey, this was mainly due to soaring gasoline prices; sales at the smallest mom and pop stores, those with one or two workers, fell 3.6% in just three years. 

These, then, are some of the bald statistics behind the desolation. Strangely enough, the United States might be said to share some of the responsibility for the hollowing out of countless downtowns across Japan; to find out why, let’s rewind the clock to 1937, when the first ever piece of legislation to protect small shopkeepers, the Department Store Law, was enacted by the Imperial Diet at the behest of smaller retailers worried by what were then the dominant threat to their position, department stores. The law was repealed by the Allied occupation forces in 1947 but swiftly reenacted in 1956 once they had left. 

By the late 1960s, however, new superstores had discovered a way to drive a coach and horses though the Department Store Law’s 1,500m2 threshold, above which store opening permits were required, by creating separate legal entities, each below the threshold and operating on different floors of the same building but under a common corporate identity. Small shopkeepers squealed, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, for which they were an important source of votes, listened, and the bureaucrats at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) drafted the Large-scale Retail Sales Law (LSL), often assigned the adjective “notorious” in US trade circles in the 1980s, which came into effect in 1974. By the time of its even stricter 1979 amended incarnation, the LSL imposed a formidable set of obstacles to opening stores with anything more than 500m2 of floor space. A process of notification and adjustment afforded small shopkeepers a powerful temporizing tool and in some instances an effective veto on new larger stores in their neighborhoods. Larger new stores took an average of 34 months to open, and where opposition was particularly vehement, much longer: general merchandiser Ito-Yokado applied to open an outlet in Shizuoka City in December 1976, with the outlet finally opening in May 1986, nearly a decade later.     

In the US-Japan trade disputes of the 1980s, the LSL climbed to the top of the agenda as a key non-tariff barrier, with the US side initially pushing for liberalization in the expectation that larger retailers would be more open to selling imported goods and then pushing for direct market access for US retail giants. This textbook piece of gaiatsu (foreign pressure) was neatly aligned with the interests of Japan’s own large store operators and also according to some sources with champions of deregulation within the MITI bureaucracy. 

The LSL was defanged from 1990 to 1994 in three stages, resulting in a shortening of application processes, greater flexibility on opening hours, a much reduced consultative role for small shopkeepers, and deregulation in principle of stores with less than 1,000m2 of floor space. The results were predictable: the sales floor area of large-scale stores surged some 80% from 1988 to 2001. 

In 1995-1996, the US, emboldened by success, pushed for the complete abolition of the LSL by 2000, taking Japan to the WTO, where it lost. MITI, however, concerned that the law might still be in violation of Japan’s WTO commitments under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), buckled and the LSL was replaced in 2000 with the (MITI-designed) Large-scale Retail Store Location Law. On the surface, this represented a further defeat for small shopkeepers, as the focus of the law shifted to the physical environment—parking, noise, garbage—surrounding a new store rather than their protection. In practice, there remain unofficial ways for small shopkeepers to act in concert with local governments to at least increase the cost burden of large store openings, if not thwart them entirely. Some 3mn m2 of large-store floor space was being added annually by the middle of the last decade, a slower pace of growth than in the 1990s, but that sluggishness was likely due to growing saturation. 

Three conclusions stand out: first, despite seven decades of protective legislation and regulation of varying ferocity, the slow-burning demise of the mom and pop store over the last three decades has been inexorable. The pace of decline in the number of stores with fewer than four workers slowed in the late 1980s under the accommodating wings of the LSL but also slowed again in the late 1990s, suggesting that the rate of contraction owes less to the actions of lawmakers and mandarins than to the business cycle and to the remorseless forces of suburbanization and motorization. 

Is there space to shed a tear or two for the passing of small storekeepers from all but their last bastions, the big cities and the deep countryside? No doubt there is, although the process of their passing will in many cases have been less gruesome than implied by Professor Ito’s “shopping arcades of a thousand bankruptcies”, as the sons and daughters of elderly shopkeepers found more comfortable avenues for their lives and politely declined their back-breaking inheritances. Their passing is part of the restless process of creative destruction integral to capitalism, and Japan is in some ways—from its threadbare welfare nets and its Victorian insistence on the dignity of labor to its exceptionally low income taxes, consumption taxes, and tax-to-GDP ratio—an exemplary capitalist state, too exemplary for some. Here’s Schumpeter, writing with great prescience in 1942 on the future of retail, a future that came last to these shores: 

In the case of retail trade the competition that matters arises not from additional shops of the same type, but from the department store, the chain store, the mail-order house and the supermarket which are bound to destroy those pyramids [of traditional retailers] sooner or later. 

The second conclusion is that if the US aimed to establish a beachhead for its big-box retailers through the watering down of regulations, it has failed abjectly. The longest run of success was enjoyed by Toys “R” Us, the first to arrive (in 1991), which faced—and still faces—no organized competition at all, allowing it to build out a network of 167 stores. The listed Japan subsidiary fell deep into the red in the recent recession, however, and was taken private by the US parent in late 2009. Many of the largest US retailers, names such as Home Depot and Best Buy, Target and Walgreen, sensibly never ventured here. Of those that did, Wal-Mart has struggled ever since acquiring sixth-largest general merchandiser Seiyu in 2002 and Costco has just nine outlets. Japan has long been an elephant’s graveyard of overseas retailers, both from the US and elsewhere: Office Depot (1997-2009), Office Max (1997-2001), Carrefour (2000-2005), Sephora (1997-2001), and Boots (1999-2001), to name a few, although that doesn’t deter some from trying: Tesco finally dipped a cautious toe in under its own brand in 2007. The reasons for their collective troubles and failures are many and varied, and we’ll gloss over them here: suffice it to say that foreign retailers account for far fewer than 1% of retail stores and less than 5% of retail sales. The barbarians have been kept at bay. 

The third conclusion—brutal but inescapable—comes courtesy of the dismal science: the process of creative destruction has not gone nearly far enough, in retail as in most sectors of the economy. Japan still has about as many retailers as the US, even though it is only the size of California and only has roughly a third of the population. Debt-ravaged zombie monsters Daiei and Mycal, once the largest and fourth-largest retailers in the land, were indulgently allowed to stagger on for far too long. The specialty supermarket subsector, which accounts for roughly a quarter of all retail sales, remains hugely fragmented, with dozens of listed supermarket operators and scores more unlisted, testimony to the aversion to M&A in general and the hostile takeover in particular, thwarting economies of scale, keeping prices high, retarding innovation, and depressing profits, the lifeblood of the economy. 

The very biggest retailers, Seven & i Holdings and Aeon, are toddlers on the world stage, ranking 14th and 16th by sales, and are hideous agglomerations of firms seemingly acquired in a fit of absence of mind that would make professors of business weep. Aeon, which has barely any brand identity itself, operates supermarkets under six different brands, none its own, and has by its own admission 169 subsidiaries, of which 88 are major ones and 33 listed ones, with all the inefficiencies and expenses listing entails. Subsidiaries include ones in areas unlikely to be core competencies, such as pet stores, cinemas, shoe shops, bento lunchbox vendors, and Laura Ashley Japan. [Tesco, whose sales are twice those of Aeon, has only one brand and owns up to just 22 principal subsidiaries, most of which are for operations in far-flung places such as Turkey, Slovakia, and Thailand.] 

Because of the convoluted capital structure, much of the little profit Aeon makes bleeds away in minority interest to shareholders in the listed subsidiaries, resulting in a razor-thin net profit margin, just 0.6% in the year to February 2010, although that was an improvement from the red ink of the year before. The balance sheet is bloated with poorly performing assets and drowning in debt, so Aeon continually stiffs its shareholders with dilutive share and convertible bond offerings. Shareholders these days are no longer the bowler-hatted pig-faced thugs of a George Grosz caricature; almost every working adult in Japan has a stake in Aeon, however small, via the state pension funds. Aeon is a tile in the mosaic that explains why Japanese household financial assets only rose by 40% in the “two lost decades”, while they tripled in the US. Unanswerable to anyone and with barely any financial interest in their own company, Aeon management can pursue its foolish dreams of empire building and of vaulting into the ranks of the world’s top 10 retailers by sales, as if that mattered a jot. 

By any conventional financial metric going—return on assets, return on equity, or return on capital employed, for example—debt-dogged and barely profitable Aeon is a basket case. Its purpose in existing, other than to buff the egos of its managers, seems to be to generate thousands upon thousands (over 70,000 at the last count) of mainly poor-quality, low-wage jobs. Mr. Market is none too impressed, either, having clipped two-thirds off the share price since a 2006 peak. Aeon is ripe for takeover and dismemberment, especially by foreigners, but this is Japan, where such thoughts are simply untenable. The grievous misallocation of capital, the stunning lack of adventurousness, and the insanely misguided focus on the top-line to the exclusion of the bottom-line epitomized by the likes of Aeon has ensured that Japan never quite got the economy it in many ways deserved—and sad to say, it’s too late now. 


But we’ve strayed a long way from Omuta. I checked into the gardenless Omuta Garden Hotel as the rain kicked up a storm. For reasons that in recollection entirely baffle me, I decided to open the window as soon as I entered the room, to be met with sworls of water muscling through the six inches of aperture the window allowed, only to find that the hinge arm at the bottom of the window had jammed open. Joggling the elbow of the hinge and pulling in on the lever at the same time shut the window at the expense of a forefinger, which got trapped in the closing window and began to ooze blood. Instinctively, I thrust the window open, only for it to jam again. Liberating a towel from the bathroom in which to wrap my hand, I tried again, more gently and with success.

After mopping up, I took a relieved pee seated, Japanese-style, only to be deceived—yet again—by the tiny toilet bowl into urinating all over the floor. The towel was pressed into more service: I had been in the room five minutes and already it was drenched in rainwater and filthy with grime, grease, blood, and piss. No wonder many Japanese hoteliers have their reservations about foreign guests. 

As dusk stole in through the shadows back down at the arcades, something was astir: knots of young people gathered outside long-shuttered stores. A preteen hip-hop duo practiced their moves to an old beatbox and an upturned umbrella. 


Stussied-up hiphopsters acting ’hood they may have been, but they weren’t averse to chucking a bit of air guitar into their shtick.


The knots of girls had coalesced into a marching troupe rehearsing for Daijayama (Big Snake Mountain), Omuta’s showpiece summer festival, in a half-empty car park by Pachinko L’aimant.


The knots of boys, meanwhile, fanned out through the arcades, taiko drums in tow. They too were rehearsing for the festival. Taiko drumming to this observer is the most erotic act the Japanese male performs with his clothes on, perhaps even regardless of his state of dress or undress.


Elsewhere, younger taiko kids received tuition from their elders and queued patiently for their turn at the skins as bystanders gathered to watch and the arcades, so dead in the daytime, came to pulse to the heartbeat of taiko life.



Back by Parlor Lucky, evening classes were in full swing at a baggy hiphop dance studio.


Next door, a boxing gym had opened up for sparring after school or work.


As with so many hardscrabble towns the world over, it seemed as though for the youth of Omuta there were only two ways out: dance your way out or fight your way out. 

So were Professor Ito’s “shopping arcades of a thousand bankruptcies” ugly? Not to me: by rainswept day their epic melancholy transcended the merely ugly, while by this sweltering summer night, at least, they breathed with the spontaneity of the new and the resilience of tradition. 

The next morning I woke to rain: today’s rain was not the fierce but flighty rain of the previous evening but a pounding and implacable rain, a fuck-you-and-your-plans rain, a rain that said it was here to stay. The skies were the same unrelenting gray in every direction, offering no chink of hope, and the rain on the window made the unlovely rooftop cityscape bleed watery tears. I was trapped, waterlogged, in Omuta. 

After a couple of hours loafing around watching the rain lash down, cabin fever set in and I set out. Embrace the rain, I told myself, befriend it. After all, how could you come all this way to Omuta and miss out on Navel Land? 

Ah, Navel Land, Navel Land, Navel Land. No matter how you say it, it doesn’t get any better. And no, it’s not a typo for a theme park with a nautical twist; they really did name it Navel Land. You see, if you gaze at a map of Kyushu and strain every fiber of your imagination, then it comes to look like a fetus, with two little feet kicking out at the bottom, Nagasaki the head, and Omuta, yes, Omuta the navel. Making this up? If only I were. 

In No Miracles Here: Fighting Urban Decline in Japan and the United States (2001), a cross-cultural comparison of attempts to revive Omuta and Flint, Michigan, Theodore J. Gilman claims the name was also inspired by Omuta’s heritage of coal, dug from the belly of the earth, and by Navel Land being a centerpiece “belly-button project” (臍事業) for the town, although this phrase seems to barely exist in Japanese. Hard to credit, but the name could have been worse: one of the consulting firms tapped in the planning stages wanted to christen it GeoBio World’s Weird Gnome Nation. 

Mr. Gilman reports that the idea for Navel Land surfaced in 1988, inspired by the success of Tokyo Disneyland: “The planning office walls in Omuta are sprinkled with Disney maps and posters, and souvenir dwarves sit on the desks.” The initial concept of what was to be called GeoBio World was earnest: the Geo Zone was to have a coal and underground theme, while the Bio Zone was to celebrate the ocean, playing to Omuta’s location on the Ariake Sea, but such high seriousness was toned down by the consultants. Funds poured in from the city, the prefecture, the central government, firms in the Mitsui combine, and the usual Kyushu stalwarts, Bank of Fukuoka, Japan Rail Kyushu, and Kyushu Electric Power. A succession of proposals was rejected by Japan Development Bank, the key backer, however, and with time dragging on and the economic winds growing chillier, Omuta finally took control of the project. Navel Land ultimately opened in July 1995, having cost a cool $100mn or so, with an attendance projection of 600,000 a year. 

Down toward the port on a lightly trafficked stretch of dual carriageway, the Navel Land parking lot had been turned by the endless rain into a shallow lake, dotted with islands.


Even by the wretched underachiever standards of the limply conceived theme parks of these islands, Navel Land was a monumental flop. It attracted some 440,000 visitors in its first year, but all went downhill from there and it closed on Christmas Day, 1998. Its deathspan as a ruin is now three times its lifespan as a park, and rising.


The mock Tudorbethan stylings of the entrance, gift shop, and restaurant complex pay homage to Omuta’s Mitsui Port Club, built in 1907-1908 together with the port as a retreat for Mitsui executives and guesthouse for visiting dignitaries, making it an architectural pastiche of a pastiche.

The clock above the entrance had stopped at 10 past eight. Eerily, other clocks in the park showed the same hour. Was that really the time that fateful Christmas night back in 1998 when the electrocutioner’s switch was flicked, convulsing the body of the park into a corpse? And just what was a theme park doing with clocks anyway—aren’t such places meant to be precious spaces into which noisome time should not intrude? Perhaps the clocks, by reminding revelers of the pressures of the humdrum from which they had hoped to escape, played a part in the park’s downfall. 

Failed and struggling theme parks fall into two categories: those with lamentably weak concepts, such as Huis ten Bosch (which we’ll come to in a later post), inspired by the Dutch Golden Age, and those left by chaotic and conflicted planning with simply no concept at all. Navel Land was in the latter camp. What, for Buddha’s sake, was this beached Fin Whale doing at the entrance, growing a green beard of grass and grinning a plutocrat’s grin?


The boy and girl polkadot dragon “image characters”, sanitized for your protection, trace their roots through the Big Snake Mountain festival, which features fire-spitting dragons, back to local dragon-god cults of the 17th century. 

By the entrance, the silver skeleton of a bicycle lay in silent repose.


Part of the park had been requisitioned by the adjacent Coal History Museum to store disused mining gear; instead of coils of barbed wire and searchlights, there were only sagging ropes to keep the curious out. Why, it was practically an invitation to trespass, especially as Kiddy Land beckoned so invitingly.


With everything removable from the attractions gone, it was hard to tell how enjoyable the Battery Cars, the Swingaround (a teacup ride), Columbus (a rocking pirate ship), and the Dream Carousel might have been. The drowning goggled rafter crying for help in the background of this peeling sign didn’t seem to be having too much fun.


A graffiti of immortal thug Tupac graced the entrance to the aquarium. Kids in Omuta take their old-school rappers seriously, it seems, though thankfully they’re not likely to die in a drive-by at 25 nor to cause as much grief as Shakur did in his short spell.


Sunken chairs at the neighboring restaurant convinced me not to tread the boardwalks any further.

Over at the plant pavilion, trees and shrubs were making an anguished bid for freedom, but there was to be no escape.


Lighting fixtures with cement shoes, perhaps toppled by a typhoon, had created an accidental flowerpot.


I bid the polkadot dragons a sad farewell.



Like any country peered at and prodded and pored over long enough, Japan can be anything the watcher wants it to be. There’s no better—or funnier—illustration of the dizzying kaleidoscope of the conclusions of “experts” than a post that once appeared at the long-defunct Dead Fukuzawa Society discussion group on things Japanese, in the days before the Internet was tarted up and dumbed down. An average US citizen is imagined to be asking a panel of Japan specialists what he or she should know about the country.

Answer: Well, any well-informed person should know that…

It’s a peaceful state.
– Edwin O. Reischauer

It’s a belligerent state!
– Tag O’Conroy

It’s a highly nuanced state.
– Ruth Benedict

It’s a highly simplistic state!
– James Clavell

It’s a headless state.
– Karl van Wolferen

It’s a democratic state!
– George Packard

It’s a mentally repressed state!
– Masao Miyamoto

It’s just a boring state.
– Henry Kissenger

More like a US protectorate, not a state
– Ivan Brezinski

Or should we call it an entrepreneurial state?
– Edward Lincoln

Actually, it’s a capitalist developmental state.
– Chalmers Johnson

More like a bankrupt state lately.
– Gary Saxonhouse

Or a crony capitalist state, to be exact.
– Jake Schlessinger

Let’s just call it the headquarters state.
– Leon Hollerman

A corporate state, really, the beginning of a “Japan Inc.”
– James Abegglen

Which lasted 5 minutes before we had the end of “Japan, Inc.”
– Christopher Wood

Making it, yes, a soured state…
– Richard Katz

Or perhaps just a normal state, after all.
– Hugh Patrick

But a misunderstood state, nonetheless.
– Bill Emmott

 [You can read the full post here.]

No abstract noun vexes and divides the experts more than “change”. “Japan must change its ways if it is to navigate a passage through the turbulent waters of the coming years,” thunder the editorials. “The advent of a new administration proves Japan has changed beyond all recognition since the days of the Iron Triangle,” trumpet the essays on the op-ed pages. “More than anywhere, Japan needs change to come its backward-looking institutions so it can harness the dynamism of its people and rise to the challenges of the new century,” opine the authors of letters to the editor. 

Here’s Professor Jeff Kingston, writing in his just published Contemporary Japan: History, Politics, and Social Change since the 1980s

Contemporary Japan is remarkably different from the Japan that existed at the outset of the Heisei era in 1989. All societies change, but the pace and scope of change in Japan has been staggering and deeply unsettling in many ways for its citizens. … Many of the profound changes in Japan go largely unnoticed, because this transformation is gradual and incremental, being built brick by brick, law by law, through regulation and deregulation. Each initiative taken on its own seems of little import, but when placed in the larger mosaic of reform, the shape of this sweeping transformation emerges, clarified by the passage of time.

 And here’s the—inevitably but still regrettably anonymous—reviewer in The Economist, writing in response on August 21: 

Mr Kingston believes that Japan can get itself out of trouble and that change is taking place. But the country is remarkable for dodging its biggest concerns. … And, like other scholars of Japan, Mr Kingston fails to solve the mystery of why the country finds reform so difficult. Change is still a four-letter word in Japan. … What will replace [its 20th century system] is unknown. That, though Mr Kingston does not quite say so, is the reason for Japan’s near-paralysis. 

Japan’s sweeping transformation? Japan’s near-paralysis? How can it be possible that these two observers are looking at the same country? Perspective is part of the answer: Professor Kingston is writing from the liberal (in the US sense) halls of academia, with a focus on society, while the Economist reviewer is writing from a liberal (in the UK sense) bastion, with a focus on the economy. The nebulousness of the word “change”, like its cousins “reform” and “transformation”, is another part of the answer: there are as many flavors of change—technological, demographic, economic, societal, and political are perhaps the overarching five—as there are of ice-cream. 

One way to reconcile these polar-opposite conclusions might be to propose a two-speed Japan. As we’ve seen from the shopping arcades of Omuta, down at the bottom of the heap (economic) change is often wrenching. At the top of the heap, firms cosset against this change through celebrated practices such as lifetime employment (終身雇用), seniority based pay (年功序列型賃金), and resistance to mid-career hiring (中途採用). To pervert what has long been my favorite quotation about Japan, from reticent Sicilian nobleman Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s only novel, The Leopard, “Everything must change (for you), so that everything stays the same (for us)”. 

At the commanding heights of the economy, the lineup of the firms themselves is remarkably unchanging: to find out how so, I compiled a list of Japan’s top 100 firms, from Toyota Motor at number one to Chugoku Electric Power at number 100, as measured by market capitalization on September 24, and quickly traced all their genealogies back as far as I could. These are the companies that aspiring graduates of elite universities jostle to join. 

The conclusion: of the 100, 43 have roots in the 19th or earlier centuries, with drugmaker Mitsubishi Tanabe (#84) able to trace its ancestors back to 1678, and another 42 have roots between 1900 and 1950, leaving just 15 founded in the 60 years since 1950. 

Some caveats apply: I played fast and loose with the rules, excluding mobile phone operator NTT DoCoMo and IT services firm NTT Data for being spin-outs of the venerable Nippon Telephone and Telegraph but including robot powerhouse Fanuc, also a spin-out, for being qualitatively different from its parent. Naturally, many on the list, such as Nintendo, founded in 1889 as a maker of playing cards, are not in precisely the same line of business as they were at their inception. Of course, many other nations have banks, insurers, and pharmaceutical firms with august lineages. Sure, it takes time to build a vast enterprise from scratch. It is nonetheless noteworthy—disquieting even—that only 15 are younger than pensionable age. Here they are: 

#13 Softbank                    1981

(Mobile phones) Date of foundation

#18 Fanuc                        1972

(Machinery) Date spun-out of Fujitsu (#44)

#26 KDDI                          1984

(Mobile phones) Date of foundation as DDI. Constituent company KDD has roots back to 1953

#30 Yahoo Japan              1996

(Internet) Date of foundation by Yahoo! and Softbank (#13)

#36 Kyocera                     1959

(Electronic parts) Date of foundation

#43 Fast Retailing             1963

(Apparel) Date of foundation

#53 Nidec                          1973

(Electronic components) Date of foundation

#59 Keyence                     1974

(Machinery) Date of foundation

#71 Secom                       1962

(Security) Date of foundation

#80 Rakuten                    1997

(Internet) Date of foundation

#82 SMC                           1959

(Machinery) Date of foundation

#85 Tokyo Electron          1963

(Semiconductor manufacturing equipment) Date of foundation by Tokyo Broadcasting, some roots back to 1951

#91 Orix                                          1964

(Leasing) Date of foundation by what is now Sojitz and the then Sanwa Bank, some roots back to 1950

#95 Oriental Land             1960

(Real estate) Date of foundation

#96 Unicharm                   1961

(Toiletries) Date of foundation

Of the top eight, seven have some form of outsider status. Softbank and Yahoo Japan were both the brainchild of an ethnically Korean entrepreneur, Masayoshi Son, while five have their origins and their headquarters far from the locus of power in Tokyo: Fanuc in the foothills of Mount Fuji, Kyocera and Nidec in Kyoto, Keyence in Osaka, and Fast Retailing in the wilds of Yamaguchi. Worryingly, only three were born the 1970s, two in the 1980s, and two in the 1990s, with the last decade unrepresented. 

All 15 have certain things in common: they are free of the keiretsu corporate ties that bind, they are far from household names overseas (and a handful are far from household names in Japan), and most interestingly, they are all solidly, in some cases wildly, profitable, with the exception of Tokyo Electron, which has the misfortune to be in as cyclical an industry as any that exists. 

They are not all dazzling centerfold models of corporate perfection, by any means—Softbank, for instance, is adrift in debt up to its eyeballs—but at their best they have a feistiness not often found elsewhere. An SMC representative was captured on camera by NHK last week attempting to source cheaper components from South Korea, an act that would be regarded as tantamount to treason at a Toyota or a Toshiba. Fast Retailing is unique in its embrace of foreigner hiring for fast-track career positions. At Keyence’s Osaka headquarters, low stone tables are inlaid with trilobites, a cautionary tale of what happens to companies if they ossify.   

What are the chances that these 15 will be joined by lower-ranked rule-breakers and game-changers? Looking at the next 100 largest firms and applying the same criteria as above, I found that only 12 out of the 100 were founded since 1960. The list comprises the following:

–        A fallen angel unlikely ever to recapture its golden era (component maker Rohm)

–        Two convenience store operators (Lawson and FamilyMart) in a saturated market

–        Two homebuilders (Sekisui House and Daito Trust) operating in a country where housing starts, around the 1.4mn/year level in the mid-1990s, fell to around the 1.1mn level in the mid-2000s and to just 775,000 in 2009, with no recovery expected anytime soon

–       A pachinko machine maker (Sankyo). The number of pachinko parlors in Japan fell 27% in the decade from 1999 to 2009

–       A maker of antivirus software (Trend Micro) that has always struggled to compete with the big boys, Symantec and McAffee

–       Two retailers (Yamada Denki and Nitori) that may be able to squeeze a few more drops of growth from suburbia

–       Two Internet social network and gaming firms (DeNa and Gree) that appear to lack any international ambition and will eventually run out of headroom in Japan

–       And one genuine growth prospect, Sysmex, a maker of reagents and equipment for specimen testing

 Not, all told, an encouraging collection. 

What of the budding entrepreneurs of tomorrow? An April 2010 survey of around 2,000 newly minted corporate freshmen in their early 20s by the Japan Productivity Center provides fodder for despair. 

Asked to choose between the following:

(a)  “I’d like to stay with my present company for the rest of my working life”, and

(b)  “It would be OK to change jobs if the opportunity arose”,

57% of respondents chose (a) and 30% chose (b), a complete reversal from as recently as 2004, when 51% chose (b) and 30% chose (a).

Asked to answer “agree” or “disagree” to the following statement:

“In terms of my future career plan, I’d rather set up my own business and become independent than get on in my present company”,

just 13% agreed and 87% disagreed, with those agreeing having fallen from 32% every single year, good times or bad, since the question was first posed in 2003.

Asked which kind of work they would prefer:

(a)  “Work where you form teams with your seniors and other divisions and can share in success”, or

(b)  “Work where your own individual effort leads directly to success”,

an overwhelming 85% chose (a), up from 73% in 2000.

Asked how salaries should be determined, either:

(a)  “In a system where individual performance and ability have a major impact”, or

(b)  “In a system where the emphasis is more on age and experience than performance or ability”,

only 56% chose (a), down from 73% in 2000.

Asked to answer “agree” or “disagree” to the following statement:

“If a company was offering good employment conditions, it would be smart to move to it promptly”,

just 22% agreed, down from 38% in 2000.

Asked to choose from three responses what they thought about changing jobs in the course of their working life:

(a)  “It would be better not to”,

(b)  “Changing jobs once or twice might be unavoidable if there was a good enough reason”, or

(c)  I wouldn’t mind changing jobs however often if there was a good enough reason”,

34% chose (a), up from 19% in 2000, and a mere 12% chose (c), down from 26% in 2000. Notice how negatively the question is couched to begin with.

Asked whether they would prefer to be specialists or generalists (the bane of Japanese companies), a minority (44%) replied that they would rather be specialists, down from 52% in 2000.

A June 2010 Japan Productivity Center survey targeting the same category of corporate freshmen presented respondents with the following scenario:

“If you were told to work overtime one evening when you had a date lined up, what would you do?”

(a)  “Give up on the date and do the work”, or

(b)  “Say no to the overtime and go on the date”,

85% chose (a) and just 14% chose (b), respectively the highest and lowest percentages since the survey began asking the question back in 1973 and a very different breakdown from the 60/40 split that briefly prevailed in the carefree early 1990s.

Finally, a June 2010 survey on awareness of globalization (by the admittedly less than illustrious Sanno Institute of Management with an admittedly small sample size of 400 businesspeople) asked simply:

“Would you like to work abroad in the future?”

63% of respondents in their twenties said no, exactly the same percentage of respondents in their forties who were disinclined. (Those in their thirties and fifties were still more unenthusiastic about the idea.)

Taken together, these surveys present a sobering picture of twentysomething salarymen drones increasingly terrified of risk, individuation, and difference. This is change indeed, but change in favor of the stupor of the status quo, not at all the change that our professors and reviewers—of whatever ideological stripe—have in mind. 

If there is scant hope to be had from the upstart corporate thrusters and none at all from the generation now setting out as adults, then for innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity, we have to fall back on the ageing colossi, the Sonys (1946) and the Sharps (1935), the Mitsuis (1876) and the Mitsubishis (1873), which is dispiriting, because these are acts they may encourage but rarely reward. The casebook example of this is surely Shuji Nakamura, the inventor in 1993 of the blue LED, who was awarded a princely bonus of around $200 for his toil by his employer, Nichia, who he then pursued through the courts, eventually settling for around $7mn in 2005. 

Once so adept at pumping out gadgets the world snapped up, the electronics titans have locked up the market for only one of all the many gizmos, from laptops to LCD TVs, that have swept the globe since 1990: digital cameras, a market they were predestined to dominate anyway because of their near-extinguishment of competition in film. The drugmakers’ pipelines are by and large bone dry. The banks and insurers are hardly renowned for their ingenuity, although they still burned their fingers meddling with the ingenuity of others in the conflagration of the financial crisis. The trading houses and power generators, the railways and retailers, the leasers and steelmakers all mind their own business and stick to their knitting. Which leaves us with the auto leviathans and their suppliers as just about the last redoubts of resourcefulness, although with rivals catching up with their only real killer app, reliability, profound motive power change coming, and their vehicles chronically uninspiring, the car in front may not be a Toyota much longer. 

Here for one last time is Schumpeter, this time on a state of satiety in which the “methods of production have reached a state of perfection which does not admit of further improvement” (and how could a Lexus plant be improved?) 

A more or less stationary state would ensue. Capitalism, being essentially an evolutionary process, would become atrophic. There would be nothing left for entrepreneurs to do. They would find themselves in much the same situation as generals would in a society perfectly sure of permanent peace. Profits and along with profits the rate of interest would converge toward zero. … The management of industry and trade would become a matter of current administration, and the personnel would unavoidably acquire the characteristics of a bureaucracy.

 Japan in 2010 is no state of satiety, although the after-dinner torpidity intermittently revealed in the complacent statements of the elites sometimes make one think it thinks it is, but it has come to resemble in its upper echelons at least the stationary state of Schumpeter’s description, one in which not satiety but the state has deemed the entrepreneur and even the entrepreneurial function obsolete, save at the margins. 


My focus has been on microeconomic change, because the arcades of a thousand bankruptcies stirred microeconomic thoughts, but I’m conscious too of change—and lack of it—in other realms as well. Here, then, is a cut-out-and-keep laundry list of markers on the highway to real change in every sphere, markers that this mostly mild-mannered liberal (in the UK sense), would like to see overtaken. I’ve deliberately set the thresholds unambitiously low. Tick them off as they occur! 

1)    One of the top 200 Japanese firms is taken over lock, stock, and barrel by a foreign one when not in financial distress

2)    More than 10% of new cars sold are made by foreign automakers (the ratio is around 5% currently)

3)    A government comes up with a credible plan to eliminate the fiscal deficit and stop the debt mountain piling up

4)    The Bank of Japan acknowledges that deflation is “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”, that “sufficient injections of money will ultimately always reverse a deflation”, and takes action accordingly

5)    The banking and life insurance operations of Japan Post are surgically removed and closed down, while its post office operations remain nationalized

6)    Japan rises into the top half of the table in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report (it ranked 98th out of 130 states in the 2008 report, sandwiched between Mexico and Brunei)

7)    The Imperial Household Law of 1947 is amended to allow succession by legitimate female descendents of the imperial family and ends patrilineal primogeniture

8)    The Civil Code is amended to allow women the official use of their maiden names after marriage

9)    More than 5% of Japanese babies are born out of wedlock (the ratio is below 2% currently)

10) More than 5% of senior executives are female (the ratio was 1.2% in 2009)

11) A truly pronatal government succeeds through a variety of steps in raising the birthrate above 1.5 (it was 1.37 in 2009)

12) More than 5% of men eligible for childcare leave take it (the ratio was 1.2% in 2008)

13) The percentage of single parents living in poverty falls to the OECD average of around 20% (the ratio is currently around 50%)

14) Legislation is passed to establish an institutional framework for same-sex marriages or civil partnerships

15) High school students are allowed to specialize to a degree in subjects in which they are interested

16) University entrance examinations routinely require applicants to write essays in liberal arts subjects rather than answer multiple-choice questions

17) Universities offer tenure to foreign academics as a matter of course

18) Nurse and long-term caregiver wages are raised to a level sufficient to tempt back discouraged workers or the accreditation of nurses and caregivers from Indonesia and the Philippines is accepted and they are permitted to freely work in Japan after a year of intensive language immersion

19) The foreign-born population of Japan rises to 5% of the total population (it is currently around 2%)

20) The video-taping of suspects in police station interviews is made mandatory

21) The criminal justice system conviction rate falls below 95% (it is currently about 99%)

22) The death penalty is abolished or falls into desuetude

23) Two main ideology-driven political parties, one leftish and one rightish, emerge and alternate in government, either in coalition with smaller parties or ruling alone

24) Measures are taken to revitalize the moribund regions through a general devolution of power and the provision of incentives to companies to set up operations in severely depopulated areas

25) Subsidies for the Institute of Cetacean Research are ended 

Some of these are tantalizingly close, some may happen in the not too distant future on an extrapolation of present trends, and some seem nigh on impossible. Many would cost next to nothing, some would save money, and many could be achieved with a stroke of the pen. It would be best though, if you’re planning on collecting all 25, to have an extra lifetime or two lying around.

Ikeshima: Goodbye to old King Coal

About to enter the scruffy ferry ticket office in the Nagasaki port of Seto one leaden noon to book my passage to Ikeshima, I was attacked by a severely depilated Dachshund, its coat a canine topiary. The reception inside was no more welcoming. Three knocks at long intervals on the frosted slit of a waist-high window finally elicited a pair of gnarled, disembodied hands. Money and tickets were shoved in one direction and the other. “Come back in half an hour”, rasped a gnarled, disembodied voice. “And don’t forget your vehicle roadworthiness certificate.” Quite why a vehicle’s roadworthiness has to be proven for a seaborne voyage has always baffled me, but such is the custom of the land.

Lunch came from the Seto Shopping Center, a huge barn of immense decrepitude, where the stench of fish well on the way to its sell-by date saturated everything, even the women’s clothing section, and a bento lunchbox cost just Y198 ($2.30), half a central Tokyo price.

The ferry was sailed in but sturdy enough. I had half-expected to be the only person aboard, but four other vehicles clustered in the hold, three small trucks and a Black Cat parcel delivery van. Still, the ferry crew outnumbered the passengers. They took great interest in my Tokyo plates.

“What are you going to do on Ikeshima,” one asked with a trace of incredulity. “Research?”

“You could call it that.”

“You’d better catch the five o’clock ferry back. That’ll give you plenty of time. Don’t wait for the last sailing. The weather’s bad and we might cancel. You don’t want to be stuck on the island.”

“Is there nowhere left to stay?” I knew there had been as late as 2006.

“No, there’s nowhere now.”

The truck drivers chose to sit out the half-hour voyage in the comfort of their cabs, which meant I had the sixty-odd high-backed industrial-green vinyl chairs and ancient cathode-ray TV of the ferry lounge to myself.

I gasped in marvel at the ferry schedule posted in the lounge: there are fewer than 300 folk left on Ikeshima but 14 ferries a day tramp in and out of the island’s port, nine from Seto and five from Kamiura, further south along the coast. A back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that every man, woman, and child on the island could ship out and ship in twice a day and the ferries would still not be full. Whether the ferry operator, which does not even have a website, receives subsidies I know not, but either way, this is a fine example of inertia—or indulgence—at work, and not the last.

We chugged out to sea, skirting Matsushima, an old coal and whaling island, which although it lies only a kilometer or so from land, has never been bestowed with a bridge, perhaps in perverse punishment for the loss of its main mine, as long ago as 1934, after a rockfall left 54 miners dead. The island gave its name to a company called Mitsui Matsushima, now the very last mining firm listed in the mining sector on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

After rounding Matsushima, Ikeshima soon loomed into view.


As we neared port, row after row of sandy gray apartment blocks, starkly Soviet in their utilitarian boxiness, revealed themselves against the drab green backdrop.


The story of Ikeshima is simply told. Once upon a time, before the war, it was a blameless little island on which some 300 folk scratched a living from the seas and the hills. No one had noticed that it sat atop a bed of coal. Then after the war came the engineers and geologists and technicians from Mitsui Matsushima, and the company began buying up the island; to this day it still owns more than half of it. Commercial mining began in 1959, with Ikeshima turning out to be the last coal mine to open its shafts in Japan. It opened in the teeth of mine closures across the rest of the nation, as the central government’s energy policy mandated a shift from coal to oil, but against the odds it prospered for a while. At its 1970 zenith the island, 4km in circumference, was home to some 8,000 miners, their families, and the tradespeople that fed off them in symbiosis, making it about as densely populated as any place on earth.

As Ikeshima was the last conventional pit-coal mine in Japan to open, so it was the last to close (one sea-bed mine remains in operation in Kushiro, Hokkaido). The final shift left the mine on November 28, 2001, bringing down the sooty curtain on two centuries of pit-coal extraction in Japan. At the end of coal, the island counted 2,719 residents; just a year later, all but 720 had fled. In western welfare states, people might have stayed on, subsisting on handouts; in Japan, where the dole is meager and ideas about the dignity of work are hard-wired into the national consciousness (best not to ask by whom), almost everyone packed their bags at once.

A technology transfer program that ran from 2002 to 2007 brought trainees from Southeast Asia; what they made of their sojourns on the island is far beyond my ken, although there is a stilted archive of the games and ceremonies and parties they were put through here. Ikeshima must be the only place in Japan where the “Do not trespass” signs—and there are many of them—are also in Bahasa Indonesia.


The bow mouth of the ferry opened up and disgorged us at the port, where stray cats lolled on abandoned cars, catching precious if watery rays of rainy season sun between the showers.


Kittens teetered in the frail way that only feral ones do. The doors of the spartan ferry ticket office bore signs admonishing that they be kept closed at all times, on account of the cats.

From the port, I headed along the shore to the district of Goto (郷東), the only sizeable area of housing for non-mining civilians on the island, which had once been an entertainment district of restaurants, bars, and snacks for miners heading down the hillside on their way home to their sandy boxes. No dog barked, no bird cried, not a soul stirred—but then there were no souls to stir, only ghosts.



Retracing my steps to the port, I stopped off at the desalination plant to indulge in a spot of kojo moe (工場萌え, factory infatuation).


Ikeshima, as its name—Pond Island—suggests, used to have ample fresh water, but the pond was dredged and became the harbor. Thirsty miners needed water, and so this desalination plant, Japan’s first, was built in 1966.

Around the back of the plant, ivy devoured a van.


The sandy apartment boxes are home to many of Ikeshima’s last stayers-on, though only a fifth at most are still occupied. The stayers-on bustled around to keep up appearances, taking down election posters, burning rubbish in deserted parking lots, and chatting outside an electrical store that had somehow survived.



A mini-roundabout near the port had been decorated with ghoulish pumpkin faces, aliens, frogs, and cats in silent chorus.


A middle-aged woman appeared by my side. “Do you like them?” It was a reasonable enough question to ask. “My husband made them.”

“Why, they’re delightful,” I lied.

She turned out to be the proprietor of the last restaurant on the island, Minato-tei.


Born in Sasebo, she had been on the island 30 years. Across the road, astonishingly, construction work was in progress, on the Ikeshima Development Center.


“Is that a new building they’re putting up?”

“No, it’s just being renovated.”

“What’s the redevelopment plan?”

“Coal tourism,” she exclaimed animatedly. “Do you know how much they’re raking in down at Battleship Island?”

I confessed ignorance.

“Y600mn (about $7mn) a year.”

“Well, in a couple of decades, you’ll be in the same state of dereliction as Battleship Island,” I blurted out, and immediately began to worry that I’d said the wrong thing. No one wants to bring ruination on themselves, after all, do they?

“Yes, that’s what we’re hoping! After all, nothing’s been pulled down yet, except for a couple of apartment buildings by the shore. The problem is Mitsui Matsushima. They still own all the good bits. We’ve been trying to get the prefectural government to persuade them to cooperate, but we never get a clear answer, just keep getting rebuffed.” She sighed.

“And the restaurant, well, I’m lucky if I do five or six bentos for the construction workers. It’s barely enough for the electricity, to be honest.” Her voice trailed off.

“Come next door, my husband runs a little business.” Over the lintel, a sign offered power-assisted bicycle rentals.

“We got the bikes from the prefecture. But we only rent out one or two a month.”


Clearly, Ikeshima’s bid to become the next Battleship Island is in its nascent stages and faces formidable challenges. Time may be on its side, though, if it’s prepared to play the long game, as Battleship Island’s ancient structures are destined to tumble into rubble, robbing the island of its intensity.

Around the docks where the coal was once stored and shipped, a lone man with a blowtorch was doing his best to dismantle the island’s legacy, one oil drum at a time, as drizzle turned to downpour. 


Atop the island’s central plateau, hydrangeas were in full bloom by a vast network of apartment complexes laced with ditch-lined lanes so narrow I was in constant fear of the sickening grind of metal undercarriage on tarmac.


On first sight, I took it as given that the island’s combined elementary and junior high school, which looks like every other school in Japan, would have been closed, but no. While 57 students graduated junior high in March 2002, just three did so the following year. Now just five junior high students and seven elementary schoolers rattle around the corridors and classrooms of a school built for at least 1,500 kids.


In many countries of the West, the school buildings would have long been pulverized into tiny particles and mixed with fishmeal to make chickenfeed and the children shipped off to the mainland with a pat on the back and a warning not to talk to strangers. The two schools welcomed one new student apiece at their April 2010 entrance ceremonies, and this was true of seven other schools in Nagasaki Prefecture alone, one of which was reopened especially for the admission of the sole student. Indulgence and inertia, wonderful in their way, rule the roost.

Behind the school stand the earliest apartment blocks to be built on the island and the first to be vacated, eight-storey liftless behemoths with a sublime brooding magnificence.

I was swiftly and deeply smitten with their android fire hydrants.

A brand-new black and yellow minibus, no doubt a gift of the prefecture, buzzed to a halt at a bus stop. But there was no one to pick up, and no one to set down; there was no one about at all. And so the bus shuttled off on its way around the island, in luckless search of the pollen of a passenger.

Down at the shops, a bench crumpled in on itself as if it had been shot.

Above a tiny ex-grocer’s, whose signboard advertises an only-in-Nagasaki soy sauce, someone was staying on.

The three-digit number, Ikeshima 151, inspired in this phone-phobe a reverent awe for a world long gone. The whole island is beyond the reach of mobile signals.

Saturday nights would never be the same again when the ten-pin bowling alley hit town; to guess from its lettering and architecture (if you can call it that), it came as late as the mid-1980s. 

Around the back of the shops, rust once again stopped me in amazement at the tricks it can pull.

Although the police station, with no drunk payday brawls left to club to quiet, has gone, much of the rest of the institutional infrastructure of the state remains, including the post office, the locked-up community hall, and the part-timers’ fire station.

Finally I made it to the source of all of Ikeshima’s strife and glory.

Although there was never a major fatal accident at the mine in its 42 years of life, there was plenty of pneumoconiosis. In March 2002, 77 former miners and their families sued Mitsui Matsushima for negligence, and amazingly, given how slowly Japan’s courts grind, they won just four years later, with compensation payouts ranging from some $30,000 to $300,000. Not much for years of suffering but more than most plaintiffs manage to squeeze from the stone of Japan’s judiciary.

The ferry steamed out of port and looking back, I saw Ikeshima capped with a crown of cloud all its own, a white pillow of cloud for a sleeping island, hanging lower than the dirt grey skies that spawned it.

“Goodbye King Coal, you venal tyrant,” I thought to myself, “and good riddance. It’s good you’re gone, gone at last from these lands at least, gone with your lives cut short by dust blast and black lung, gone with your weeping widows, gone with your fatherless children. And goodbye to you, too, Ikeshima: may your dreams of ruin come true, may you rust in peace.”