BOUND TO PLEASE / The human connection in abandoned places

The Japan News

By Kumi Matsumaru / Japan News Staff WriterAbandoned Japan

By Jordy Meow

Jonglez Publishing, 256pp

Western Village, a cowboy theme park in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, closed in 2007 after being open for less than 35 years. Its now crumbling remains may not seem old enough to be called a ruin, or haikyo in Japanese, but it makes its presence uncannily felt in the haikyo photo book “Abandoned Japan.”

It appears along with other haikyo that are the result not of natural disasters but of truly human, generally peacetime acts of abandonment for social, economic or other reasons.

Jordy Meow, a French resident of Japan who is mesmerized by haikyo, visited ruins around Japan and collected photos he took at about 45 of them in the book. Haikyo carried in the volume include places that were once a private house, a dormitory, a school, a hotel and a hospital.

Some may find the color of some images appear to be overly styled. Others may think things are a bit too well coordinated, such as in a photo of a tall glass lab vessel with some organic matter still inside on a blackened wooden desk in what appears to be a science room of a school built in 1868 and abandoned in 1994. Still, the images are powerful, and what Meow writes about them underlines their eloquence.

An impressive example concerns a house built in the woods of Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 1948 and abandoned 40 years later. Traces of a family’s story still linger around it.

Inspired by memorabilia, including a photograph of a Caucasian man chatting with Queen Elizabeth, found inside the spongy structure with moldy walls and broken windows, Meow did some research and learned that John Jerwood, the man, and his Japanese wife Sugiko spent a lot of time at the house, where Sugiko’s mother lived.

Meow found that John and Sugiko may have met each other through her brother, whom Jerwood met in Paris. Tracing their footsteps in Hakone and Tokyo, he found out why they came to leave a lot of belongings at the house.

He even visited the wealthy couple’s tomb in Tokyo, now rarely attended and maintained, and concluded his pursuit with the hope of someday seeing Sugiko’s younger sister, who was still alive at the time of the compilation of the book.

Images of these haikyo may be strong because one can easily visualize how people spent their time there, or even relate to them, thanks to their being relatively young constructions. It may sound contradictory, but since it is also so recently that they were abandoned, they strike us more graphically or luridly.

Kyoichi Tsuzuki, who is known for his reports and photographs, especially those giving insights into unsung places in Japan and abroad, writes in his Roadside Books that haikyo are beautiful because nature, as a “strong counter-artist” — unlike an artist who creates something new from existing things — makes them attractive by way of stripping them of the influence of human beings.

But I’d like to argue against the statement.

Abandoned buildings are intriguing since they remain attached to people’s lives. Slippers lying in the middle of a hallway, chapped but neatly lined up color pencils in a box, or rusted roller coaster rails curving over the unkempt grass tell us much more than we see.

Where to Read

On a vinyl sofa in a Showa-era cafe, perhaps next to a shop with an “Everything must go” sign, in a mostly empty shopping arcade.

Maruzen price: ¥6,540 plus tax (as of July 6, 2016)Speech

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