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Tsutenkaku and the New World

January 20, 2010 5 comments

I must have been a stronger person when I came to live in Osaka for the first time. Newly divorced, friendless, jobless, and without orientation in my new environment, I would spend two months watching the numbers in my bank book grow progressively smaller as job interviews came and went uneventfully. I gradually compromised my standards until I was desperate enough to apply for any job that looked remotely bearable. The tiny apartment was barren, with only a floor mattress to sleep on, a folding “floor chair” whose protruding metal bars made the hardwood floor feel merciful, and a cart for the television set scuffed-up Playstation 2. To retain my sanity and sustain myself, I bought cheap sake, Meiji chocolate and instant yakisoba from Super Tamade, the obnoxiously bright supermarket with blaring theme music, cashiers who only spoke Chinese, and suspiciously low prices.

The studio apartment was a seven-minute walk from Shin-Imamiya Station, located in what seems to be the largest agglomeration of homeless people in Osaka. Also nearby was the covered arcades of Shin-Sekai and Den Den Town, where smelly old men wandered the streets or simply slept on them, day or night. The neighborhood I lived in was Ebisucho, and my apartment building Rapanjiiru Ebisu III—Rapanjiiru is “Rapunzel” in Japanese. When I was first introduced to the apartment, it was through an agency that catered specifically in to foreign customers, because even today many apartments will reject non-Japanese.

After looking at a series of rancid, decrepit rooms, living in a cardboard box in Osaka Castle Park was starting to look attractive—until we reached that seventh-storey room in Rapunzel Ebisu III. It was clean, conveniently located near the subway station, and close to the city center. I made up my mind when I first stepped out on the balcony and saw a somewhat dingy, yet oddly familiar, metal tower.

“Um, this isn’t…”

Tsutenkaku? Yeah,” said the agent, laughing derisively at the aging urban landmark.

Then it came back to me: my university professor, who specialized in Osakan history, had mentioned this tower. “So that over there is Shin-Sekai?”

The agent looked surprised. “Yeah! How did you know that?”

But could this really be the Shin-Sekai I had learned about? Was this the fashionable entertainment district of Taisho-period Osaka? Impossible. But there it was, in plain sight: Shin-Sekai, with the landmark Tsutenkaku tower right smack in the center.

In the early modern period, as Japan rapidly “modernized” to try to gain equal footing, politically and otherwise, with Europe and the United States, planners developed Shin-Sekai (which means “new world”). The area was half modeled after New York City, and half after Paris, with the Eiffel-Tower-inspired Tsutenkaku (the name means “tower reaching the heavens”) as the centerpiece. There was an immensely popular amusement park, Luna Park, located there from 1912 until its closing in 1923. Tsutenkaku was connected to Luna Park by aerial cable car, another modern marvel at the time, and ching-ching of streetcars could be heard from the nearby boulevards. The neon nights, clattering of wooden-shoed feet and giggling of youthful kimono-clad women in Shin-Sekai continued day and night. The brilliant glow of Tsutenkaku could be seen from anywhere in a metropolis that was not yet dominated by high-rise buildings. Shin-Sekai was, to Osakans of the time, truly a marvelous new world.

After the war, however, when most of Osaka had been burnt clean to the ground and the original Tsutenkaku heartlessly dismantled for parts in desperate support of the war effort, Shin-Sekai had seen its final days as Osaka’s glamorous entertainment district. Almost no effort was put into redeveloping the area in the postwar period, and it diminished into a run-down residential neighborhood. Yakuza gangsters operated in the area until the 1990s, giving Shin-Sekai a reputation as being dangerous that still lingers to this day, and after the Yakuza left, the homeless moved in to occupy the space, which did nothing to improve its image. A faint smell of piss mixed with rotting garbage had come to permeate the air of this former playground for the young.

But all was not lost. Surviving citizens of the neighborhood had not forgotten the glamour of the former Shin-Sekai, and even though the district was physically not what it used to be, the pride and culture of the area remained unscathed. Thanks largely to the efforts of neighborhood donations and volunteers, Tsutenkaku was rebuilt in 1956 in a slightly altered form from the original tower, and began to draw attention as a tourist attraction. Hitachi began sponsoring the tower in 1957—and still does today—dressing it with neon lights that the company renews periodically. This resulted in Tsutenkaku becoming a beautiful thing to see at night, in contrast to the dull, metallic spectacle it provided during the day. The tower was not only a piece of local history; it had become a beacon of hope for wartime recovery. It was also an encouraging companion for this lost American who, alone on his floor mat in Rapunzel Ebisu III, looked out at the shining monolith in the dark and felt a faint stirring in his heart.

I imagine the way I felt looking out at the tower every night from my window was the same way many local residents must have felt when the tower’s reconstruction was finished and it once again soared in the sky. Through all the good times and all the tribulations, this simple, elegant tower waited for my return home every evening. Even during that first lonely Christmas full of regret and uncertainty, lying next to the cheap plastic tree from the hundred-yen shop, the warm rays of Tsutenkaku softly stealing through the windowpanes provided some semblance of comfort. Shin-Sekai may be a thing of the past, but its spirit, and the spirit of the Osakans who loved it, live on in this tower to the heavens.

(Tsutenkaku, Shin-Sekai, and Den Den Town can be reached from Ebisucho Station on the Sakaisuji Subway Line.)
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Peace Osaka (warning: serious topic ahead)

August 23, 2009 2 comments

 

August is the month when two unfortunate and horrendous historic events, the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, are remembered. However, back in 1945 around this time, other tragedies preceded these two. Sixty major Japanese cities were targeted by B-29 bomber squadrons carrying bombs–consisting mainly of incendiary bombs meant to burn down Japanese buildings, which used large amounts of wood and paper in their construction–and most of the cities were almost completely destroyed. Approximately 100,000 people (mostly civilians) were killed by the “firebombings,”  and the economy and infrastructure of the country were reduced to shambles.

I am aware that this is a volatile issue to be writing about. I will convey only one opinion, and it is one that I think (and hope) we can all agree with: peace in this world is much better than the senseless human and material destruction brought about by war.

Which brings me to the main purpose of this post: to tell you about a facility in Osaka that I have a lot of respect for, and one that I think should be visited by everyone. That facility is called Osaka International Peace Center, more commonly known as Peace Osaka. It features a number of exhibits on subjects including the firebombings of Osaka, the expansion of the Japanese Empire in Asia during World War II and its harmful effects in many countries, and other topics. There are video clips taken from the B-29s as the bombs were dropped, images of the city in ruins afterwards, articles salvaged from the ruins, and many good testimonies and explanations of historical events of the time. As Peace Osaka’s name implies, this museum offers an unbiased view of the wartime destruction with the goal that we not forget mistakes of the past. Be warned that some of the images are quite graphic and disturbing, as is generally the case with any honest portrayal of the realities of war.

I was a student of Japanese history in university and have continued my studies on my own since, and it has always pained me to study World War II because of nearly unimaginable suffering, and the racism and hatred underlying all of it. Additionally, it pains me to remember that people in many countries I have learned to love an respect were bitter enemies at the time. But I think places like Peace Osaka are incredibly important. History has made it clear that humans tend to repeat the same mistakes time and time again, but perhaps we can avoid an even more horrendous war (or stop the ones we are involved in now) by educating ourselves. Memories of World War II in particular have taken on a strong “good guy-bad guy” flavor, which is a dangerously moralistic and illogical way of looking at history and teaches us to hold onto destructive attitudes of the past. Just like the informative and heartbreaking Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and other such facilities around Japan, Peace Osaka plays a noble role by delivering a strong anti-war message.

Peace Osaka can be accessed most easily from Morinomiya Station on the Chuo subway line or Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi subway line (about 3-5 min. on foot from exit 1, or 2 min. on foot from exit 3B). It is located on the edge of Osaka Castle Park, a visit to Peace Osaka can be easily combined with a visit to the Castle, the Osaka Museum of History, and other sightseeing spots within walking distance. Hours, cost, and general museum information can be found here.