14 July 2009

The Katsu Kaishu Peace Museum

A Small Protest

Steve Chodoriwsky

When I asked the composer Nakai if he could recommend an interesting museum in Tokyo, he began to tell me the rumour of one dedicated to a certain Katsu Kaishu. ‘Actually I’ve never been there myself’ he said. He had heard that to visit this private (or was it public?) collection, you would first need to bring an object that somehow deals with its namesake. Your contribution is both the ticket and price of admission. There appeared to be some sort of screening process as well. ‘I think it can be anything’ Nakai said ‘as long as you can prove to the owner how it relates to Kaishu’s life’ (as it turns out Kaishu is a critical figure in late seventeenth century Japan – statesman, naval officer, swordsman, peace advocate and one of Japan’s first international representatives. It was his diplomatic skill that is considered instrumental in Japan’s transition of power from the Tokugawa shogunate to the reinstatement of Imperial rule).

Nakai then put me in touch with the architectural historian Nakatani, who was at first puzzled by my interest. ‘You are making a very personal request’ he told me when we met, ‘the museum is just my father’s house’. I soon learned that the so-called Katsu Kaishu Peace Museum is the ongoing project of an 83-year-old retired mathematics teacher and lifelong Marxist, and an anomaly of a museum in what often feels like an entire city composed of anomalies.

The corner property has three parts: a sturdy but featureless two-storey concrete house (which Naktani’s father himself designed), the remaining portion of a mid-century wooden dwelling and a courtyard garden. As is so often the case in Tokyo the lot is tiny and surrounded by a patchwork of neighbouring buildings. Nakatani and his father led me up to the second floor of the concrete building, where the exhibition occupies but a single room. The flick of a lightswitch revealed four walls covered with carefully hand-drawn maps and black and white photographs, coupled with several anti-violence texts focussing on the life and virtues of Katsu Kaishu and, a bit unpredictably, the thorough decimation of Tokyo during the Second World War. In fact the general site of the house is not without significance. Located in a neighbourhood just north of downtown, it was an area largely destroyed by aircraft bombing and completely rebuilt after the war; Nakatani’s father had at that point moved to, and has lived on, this property ever since.
Nakatani then explained to me his father’s activities. For several years, he has been conducting a slow and meticulous archaeological excavation of his property. Sure enough, in the corner was a small glass display case with the objects unearthed so far, dating ruins of the fire-devastated area, centred around everyday life: fragments of ceramic bowls and saucers, bits of glass or crystal, sake cups, utensils, buttons and jewellery, half bottles and pieces of jars.

Nakatani is at least in part his father’s co-conspirator. He has designed a conveyor belt will which transport the objects up to the second floor to be sorted for display. And he is poetic about the implications, referencing the original wooden house on the property. The earth, he explained, is part of the domain of the ground floor. It is used in traditional dwellings to form the doma, a hard-packed earthen floor mixed with hardening components such as bittern and ash. But here the site’s earth goes through a process of displacement, where its bits and pieces are upended and elevated, examined and exposed.

The garden takes up half the property and is thriving in midsummer with watermelons, grapes, rice and sweet potatoes growing amongst recently-planted saplings, various digging sites and collections of pebbles in the midst of being sorted. ‘My father has a long history of being a protester’ Nakatani explained as we wandered through the small wilderness. By excavating objects from his property and categorising them, it is, in his own peculiar way, a protest against violence – the violence that obliterated this and many other areas of Tokyo, and the violence that Kaishu rejected by never drawing his sword. The yield of fruits and vegetables, off of which Nakatani’s father largely lives, then becomes a next stage of the site’s rehabilitation.

The original concept of admitting only those bearing Kaishu-related paraphernalia has since fallen away, but the museum remains a work in progress and subject to its creator’s curatorial whims. For instance, on the property, the remaining portion of the original post-war wooden house contains fifty years’ worth of collectibles, documents, household objects, and ‘trash’, in a state of perpetual disarray. Unfortunately I was unable to see inside. The future intention, I was told, is to assemble it all into a ‘museum of ordinary life’, which would complement the excavated artifacts found on the property.

A thought occurred while talking to this spry octogenarian that this bizarre little conceptual complex, dedicated to peace, is less the product of an old man’s contempt for lethargy and more a device, in its own personal way, against the act of forgetting. ‘Therefore, doesn’t it succeed as a museum?’ I asked Nakatani upon leaving. Ever the patient observer of his father’s escapades, the architectural historian shrugged, musing ‘Maybe, at the age of 83, the difference between useful everyday things, trash things, and art things is really not so much’.

Chodoriwsky, Steven. 'A Small Protest' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Steven Chodoriwisky and On Site review

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