Part 4 – Death and Rebirth
When plans to demolish Noma Dōjō were announced in 2007, a great many voices both in the West and in Japan pleaded for an effort to preserve this historic hall. Nevertheless, once the structure was lost Japanese voices were much less sharply critical compared to some Western voices. This fourth and last piece in the series on the architecture of Noma Dōjō will attempt to explain some possible cultural reasons for this. First will be a look at historic developments that may explain some differences in attitudes between the Japanese and Westerners towards the built environment. There will also be a brief look at Japan’s policies for protecting heritage buildings. Finally, new life for some parts of Noma Dōjō will be presented.
Death – Impermanence of Mokuzō and Conservation Issues
Japanese attitudes towards the built environment, compared to those of the West, come from historic developments rooted in Japan’s building culture. Japan has a long tradition of impermanent architecture. This simply comes down to the fact that wood is the most readily available building material. Wooden buildings need constant renovation and are prone to burning down and rotting. During the entire Edo Period (1600-1867), Edo suffered 49 major fires and countless smaller ones. These fires were euphemistically called the “Flowers of Edo.” Even in our modern day and age and in every industrial country, fire safety is still a central concern in how building codes are written. Add to that other disasters like powerful earthquakes and devastating wars and it is no wonder very few in pre-modern Japan gave much thought to a building being able to last more than a generation.
European building traditions on the other hand significantly utilized masonry and the idea of a building lasting hundreds if not thousands of years was simply a given. Japan too had some masonry construction techniques. These were however, limited to constructing kura (蔵 warehouse) and the base of castles. However, due to the expense of these construction techniques and the fact that they make less hospitable habitation in Japan’s humid climate than airy wooden structures, these techniques only uncommonly extended to other types of buildings3. Earthquakes also limit the spans that could be achieved with pre-Modern Japanese masonry construction techniques.
As another illustration of just how transient even important cultural buildings are in Japan, Shintō’s most senior shrine at Ise is dismantled and rebuilt from new material every 20 years. Ise Grand Shrine, dedicated to Amaterasu-Ōkami2, is considered so sacred that only the Imperial family and the shrine’s priest may step within the walls that surround the structures. Everyone else has to make due with a glimpse of the roof from outside the walls and or visiting the scaled down replicas nearby.
So rather than attributing the importance of Ise Grand Shrine to the artifact of the building (the wood and other parts that make up the building itself), it is attributed to its form, for only Ise Grand Shrine may use the yuitsu-shinmei-zukuri (唯一神明造り) style of architecture, and the fact that it is kept in pristine condition precisely due to the material being replaced at the end of its life. The act of rebuilding also keeps alive the techniques for producing this architecture. The DNA of the architecture continues its life with each reconstruction. This approach would be nigh unthinkable in the west where importance is attached to the very material of an important building. Although this is a unique ritual that does not typify how buildings are treated generally, it illustrates certain perspectives within the culture. The idea of reconstructing a shrine every 20 years is rooted in the Eastern tendency towards a cyclical world view. The fact that wood not only decays relatively quickly but can also be erected quickly expresses well the cyclical world view.
Japan does have a formal legal framework for preservation of heritage buildings in the form of laws protecting “National Treasures,” “Important Cultural Property” and the lower tier “Registered Cultural Properties.” There are also of course UNESCO listed buildings. The majority of the buildings covered are of a religious nature, castles, connected to historically important or famous people. Buildings that make up the fabric of a designated District for a Group of Historic Buildings can also be designated. However, protection is not extended much further to more “everyday” buildings.
Noma Dōjō itself came under cultural interest when it was featured in Bunkyō-ku Annual Cultural Property Report 2006 (文京区文化財年報 平成18年度), a publication from which this series draws greatly from. The publication explains Noma Dōjō’s historic significance, its architectural characteristics, noted the rarity of mokuzō dōjō and concludes that the structure qualifies for designation as a Cultural Property at the national level due to fulfilling criteria No.152 as Zōkei-no-mohan (造形の模範) or Representative Example of its Era. Whether it would have actually been registered is hard to say as it would not depend entirely on one ward’s assessment. As illustrated in this article, the vast majority of conserved buildings are institutional, which suggests that in practice the odds were perhaps against Noma Dōjō actually achieving a listing.
It is not only buildings that get lost in Japan’s persistent march through Modernity. Prior to industrialization many urban places in the Kantō area were called Fujimi (富士見 lit. see Mt. Fuji) due to having a direct view towards Japan’s most famous peak from some unexpected corner of the urban landscape. Many of these have lost their views due to modern buildings being taller though sometimes the place will retain its moniker. Urban views can be considered part of the character of the built environment. However, unlike certain views of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, views of Mt. Fuji are not protected.
Rebirth (in parts)
In 2007 Kōdansha announced plans to re-utilize the land on which the original Noma Dōjō stood for 82 years. This brought both pleas to reconsider the plans as well as proposals to move the entire structure, whether wholesale or in parts, to other locations. There were two notable relocation proposals. One called for a wholesale move of the entire structure to Finland. This turned out to be too expensive. A more modest proposal was also put forward to move the genkan to Noma Seiji’s hometown of Kiryū, Gunma Prefecture. This too was never realized.
Nevertheless, the one part of the dōjō that is arguably the most important, in so far as training is concerned, did survive. The floor was moved almost in its entirety to Hashi-Ichi Dōjō (橋市道場) in Morioka City, Iwate Prefecture (岩手県盛岡市). With the exception of a few planks left in their original condition for posterity, the original planks were refinished so that the original varnish was taken off. Pictures of the floor can be found here.
There is another notable rebirth for another part of the original structure. The nails were collected, melted down and forged into nihontō. The two katana forged from the nails can be seen here and here. Aside from these two blades, a number of small knives were also forged from the same batch of nails and given to various senior sensei. One could consider these blades as holding the spirit of the original hall.
Noma Dōjō has also left a brief imprint in film culture. It appears about 34min into Ame Agaru (雨あがる) or After the Rain, a more recent classic in the bushi film genre. The scene was shot on the very last day of filming. Shoji were put up between the hikaenoma and the perimeter hallway so that any nearby modern buildings would not be visible in the scene. The photography also took care to avoid catching the skylights.
The new Noma Dōjō is also not without it inheritance. Various pieces of furnishing and scenery were also moved to the new Noma Dōjō. The original desk on which the sign-in book was placed near the entrance as well as the original sign board that hung next to the main entrance doors both still greet those arriving at Noma Dōjō today. Everything in the old jōdan’noma was moved to the new one. Works of calligraphy, other signboards with motivational words still give inspiration to the members. The large taiko still announces the beginning and end of each practice. The members still turn and bow towards the same kamidana.
Currently there is a proposal to rebuild Noma Dōjō in Kiryū. This would be a very expensive undertaking and so far the necessary funds are not available. Even if it were built though, it would arguably be only a full scale replica. The daily practices that gave Noma Dōjō its legendary status would not conceivably move to Kiryū for this kind of gathering could only happen in one of Japan’s economically or culturally premiere cities.
Japan has a policy framework in place for the conservation of the built environment. This however, under serves non-institutional buildings. Places like Tōkyō could preserve more of its heritage without sacrificing its economic and cultural dynamism and becoming a frozen in time living museum. But this is something that ultimately the people of Japan have to take upon themselves to change on a cultural and policy level. To its credit, the laws protecting Japan’s Cultural Properties extend beyond tangible properties (works of architecture, art, crafts, etc.) and include intangible properties like the skills involved in arts, crafts and even some budō ryūha. Highly skilled practitioners may themselves be designated as Living National Treasure. So while the preservation policies may not be deep enough for some of our architectural liking, its umbrella is broader than most other countries.
It should be noted that while the original Noma Dōjō structure is now lost, the culture and tradition continues. From my talks with a few members, they are most grateful that daily practice continues the same as it did in the old structure. Having participated in a few of these practices, I can say it really is a marvel in itself. The tears for the old hall have been shed and wiped away but the joy of practice continues every morning at the new dōjō. For that, the members continue to be grateful to Noma Seiji’s successors.
1 The difference between architectural conservation and preservation should be noted, at least in so far as how these terms are used in this post. Conservation is the act of allowing for continuation through careful management. This does not exclude use of the structure nor some changes to it. Preservation is the more specific act of preventing harm or degradation of the structure. It is more narrow in that it is about keeping something as is.
2 Amaterasu-Ōkami’s role in a budōjō kamidana is described in this previous post.
3 Anyone interested in seeing a street full of masonry feudal machiya in a construction style called kura-zukuri (蔵造り lit. warehouse form) should visit Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture (埼玉県川越), which takes about 30min to reach from Tōkyō’s Ikebukuro Station.
4 Subsidies are provided for designated property. However, most Important Cultural Properties are institutional buildings that are somewhat distanced from the normal pressures of commercial or residential property assuming it is meant to perpetuate as an institution.
「文京区文化財年報」 文京区教育委員会 平18月7日10