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Yuh Fukai

Takehiro Iwashita【profile

Preserving Hekiunso

- a Cultural Heritage

Takehiro Iwashita
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of specialization: Japanese literature

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Hekiunso and the Ogikubo Cultural History Preservation Group

Osamu Dazai lived at Hekiunso in Amanuma, in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward from November 1936 to June 1937. It was in this house that he wrote the novel, Human Lost, and there is also a well-known mention of the house in a different novel, Fugaku Hyakkei [One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji]. In architectural terms, it is the only remaining example in the Tokyo area of a “high-class boarding house” built in a mixture of Japanese and Western styles. The insights it provides into early-Showa suburban culture make it an invaluable piece of cultural heritage.

The house was built as a residence-cum-boarding house by Toyosaku Tanaka in 1927. Tanaka’s daughter lived in one part of the building while renting out rooms in the other part. Several years ago, recognizing its value as cultural heritage, the Ward approached the owner about preserving the building, but was turned down at the time. After the owner died, her heirs sold the land to the Ward, which now plans to build a welfare facility and aged care facility on the land and a neighboring site.

At the end of last year, I received word that a sign had been placed that urged for the removal of Hekiunso. Immediately, opposing members got together to discuss how the building could be preserved, and two days later, on December 29, the Ogikubo Cultural History Preservation Group was formed. While it may sound as though the group was organized in a prompt and smooth fashion, in fact, none of the group had any clear vision for what could be done and how to save the building. The group came together out of pure momentum to do something. Nevertheless, its central members are a gathering of very able persons, including Chuo University alumni Makoto Minegishi and Ryuichi Tsuchiya, who have a broad knowledge of local affairs through participation in NPOs and volunteer activities. Others include local historians and people involved in the preservation and use of old traditional Japanese houses through the Tatemono Ouendan architectural preservation group. The great diversity of the group is what lends energy to our campaign.

The Dazai Summit and Petition

After the New Year’s break, at Suginami Ward’s New Year’s reception on January 5 this year, I personally handed to the Mayor a letter of appeal calling for the preservation of Hekiunso. Our contact with the Ward started from around that time, and we continued to explore and negotiate to come up with ways of saving and making use of the building. An article reporting on these events appeared in the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper on January 25. Our view was that, if we could just come up with some way of saving the building and putting it into use for benefit of the area, we would have something to work with, so we gathered information about the Ward and the area and made other preparations, all while watching over the situation in the period until the purchase contract between the building’s owner and the Ward came into effect. In April, when the land purchase contract was concluded, our group began to take concrete action.

To spread awareness about the issue of the Hekiunso house, the Dazai Summit in Ogikubo was held on May 30. The event was joined by just over 80 participants, but it gave us the opportunity to connect with fans of Dazai, as well as people who are involved in preserving buildings associated with Dazai throughout the country, including Chuo University Professor Emeritus, Yoshinori Watabe.

The group also began collecting signatures for a petition calling for the preservation of Hekiunso. We asked people with personal connections to the Group’s members for their cooperation, and with the support of Summit participants, we obtained 3,780 signatures in the two months until July 27.

Meeting with the Mayor and the Visit to Goshogawara

On July 28, I presented our petition and the collected signatures to the Suginami Ward Mayor, Ryo Tanaka. Mayor Tanaka admitted quite frankly that it would be difficult to save the building itself, but said that he would be prepared to consider some way of preserving it if we could give him some ideas. Armed with this response, we began considering specific preservation proposals in preparation for negotiations with the Ward, while at the same time using the media, as well as direct interaction, to appeal to the general public for support for the preservation and use of Hekiunso. As part of this campaign, I visited the city of Goshogawara, Dazai’s birthplace in Aomori Prefecture, from Friday, July 30 to Saturday, July 31. Tatsumi Kinoshita, Chairman of the Kanagi Dazai Kai, played a central role in the preservation of Dazai’s childhood home, Shayokan, and was instrumental in persuading local residents who had been opposed to the plan. Today, Shayokan, which has been preserved as the Osamu Dazai Memorial Hall, attracts as many as 100,000 visitors every year. I felt keenly that there was significance in the fact that the house was located where it was.

Welfare and Culture

In the course of our negotiations with the Ward, I felt that we needed to appeal to local residents and to young people, so on September 14, in the main auditorium at Suginami Kokaido near Hekiunso, we held the 2nd Dazai Summit, with the theme, “Meeting Dazai, and Meeting Matayoshi.” Dazai researcher, Professor Hiroshi Ando of Tokyo University, architectural historian, Yusuke Matsumoto, 2015 Akutagawa Prize winning novelist, Naoki Matayoshi, and author/translator, Yuko Matsumoto, all gave their time to participate in this event, which turned into a lively meeting with over 1,000 audience members. The energy generated at the Summit is the wellspring of our campaign to save Hekiunso.

Discussions with the Ward are ongoing. While they have suggested establishing an exhibit for Hekiunso in a corner of the new facility to be built on the site, they have indicated that they are not considering retaining the building itself. Their position has consistently been one of priority on welfare. Although we fully understand the need for welfare, our focus is also about preserving our cultural heritage. We will continue to negotiate with the Ward and explore the possibility for a balance of both welfare and culture.

Takehiro Iwashita
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of specialization: Japanese literature
Professor Takehiro Iwashita was born in Kumamoto in 1946 and graduated from the Japanese Language and Literature Department, Faculty of Letters, the University of Tokyo in 1971. He completed the Master’s Program of that university’s Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology in 1974, and became an assistant at the National Institute of Japanese Literature that same year. He later held positions as a full-time lecturer in the Faculty of Economics, Nagoya Gakuin University, and full-time lecturer, assistant professor, and professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, before taking up his current position of professor in the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University in April 1995. Professor Iwashita has been Chair of the Ogikubo Cultural History Preservation Group since December 2014.