Occasionally we come across haikyo that are shocking not due to an unsettling atmosphere or dilapidated state of grandeur, but because of the historical significance of objects left behind. Pieces that might better belong in a museum that have long been forgotten and stolen glimpses into the lives of past inhabitants that should have gone unseen.
On Respecting the Past
It’s something of an ethical dilemma. How can one salvage memories of the past and simultaneously respect the privacy of residents long since gone? Photographs, clothes, keepsakes and personal trinkets litter all manner of ruined buildings, each with a fascinating story to tell and historical insight attached. But while tip-toeing through the ghosts of the past, one cannot but help feel guilty of invasion; a ghastly set of eyes piercing would-be explorers with a burning sense of immorality.
Is this right? Should I be here? …Why am I here?
Some such thoughts were creeping their way through my mind as I treaded carefully on the broken floorboards of the ground floor. It looked to me like they had collapsed due to weakness rather than vandalism, and the resulting mess of furniture was unfortunate. But upstairs was a different story. I clicked on my headlamp inside a second floor room of my latest haikyo exploration. The Royal House, as it’s known on the Japanese internet. A plethora of goodies. A burglar’s paradise. A historian’s fancy.
The place was still rather neat. A fine layer of dust covered everything around me and the now familiar smell of mould found in old spaces filled the air. Faint beams of light filtered through a small hole in the roof made by a fallen tree and the surrounding silence was only broken by my own shallow breathing. I could reach out and touch piles of boxes to both my left and right and directly in front of me was a neat pile of bedding and clothes. Along the walls, various pieces of classy wooden furniture adorned with exquisite Japanese dolls and drawers stuffed with yellowed letters, postcards and household items. At the end, a closet half open containing a row of pungent men’s suits.
It’s unusual to find a ruined house in as good a state as this one was. Most of the time either nature has demolished such buildings or they have been ransacked and left in disarray by disrespectful visitors. It seems the Royal House haikyo is largely unknown on the internet, as I couldn’t find any definitive hints about the location or signs of vandalism.
A House Worthy of the Name
Placing my tripod down upon the soft tatami mats, I stared in awe at the sight before me. A collection of large portrait pictures, all neatly framed and standing in an alcove next to the Buddhist altar. I wondered just what to make of it.
This place is…too much. Can I even write about this house? Unwanted attention would be the end of it.
I knew I had seen one of the pictures before somewhere before, and understood instantly what the surrounding pictures all had in common. A familiar symbol caught my eye, glinting gold. It was the mark of the Imperial House of Japan.
Pictures of the Japanese Emperor and the Royal family. The surrounding portraits also showed large photographs of various members, most of whom I couldn’t put an immediate name to, but having come home and researched, it confirms that and a lot more. The picture above is no ordinary picture. I thought as much judging from the embossed logo placed top centre.
The picture is none other than the Imperial Family Portrait. To give you an idea of just how significant this is, let me talk a bit about the historical background.
In pre-WWII Japan, the Emperor was still revered as a living deity and to look upon him was thought of as an immense privilege. Distribution of the Imperial Family Portraits was not compulsory and schools had to petition to the Ministry in order to receive one, which was usually granted on grounds of academic excellence. Because the official portraits were on loan from the Imperial Household Ministry, protecting the picture from harm was deemed of utmost importance. Having the picture lost or damaged, even from natural disasters like fires or earthquakes, was seen as such a serious failure of duty that there were incidents of school officials committing suicide in an act of repentance.
It was also said that looking at the Emperor directly in the eyes would result in punishment of blindness, so students were told not to stare at the picture and it was kept behind curtains except on occasions where the school would open them to pay respects to the Imperial Family.
Distribution of the portraits began in 1874 and by 1920 shrines known as 奉安殿 (ほうあんでん) were built in many places to better preserve the portraits and prevent people dying in attempts to protect them from damage.
After Japan’s defeat in WWII, the iconic picture of the Showa Emperor Hirohito (裕仁) and American military general Douglas MacArthur was taken and published in ordinary newspapers. It is not hard to imagine just how shocking it must have been for the Japanese people to see the god they thought so highly of standing at attention next to their American enemy.
After Japan’s defeat, the Imperial Family Portraits were withdrawn in order to be replaced with a new version. But a new portrait was never re-issued to schools.
In my opinion then, this could mean one of two things. Either this Imperial Family Portrait was taken from a school and brought here for safety, or the portrait was issued to this family directly. All of this before the Imperial Family Portraits were withdrawn in 1946. Judging by the nature of the house, the abundance of expensive-looking items (3 televisions!), a huge collection of photographs of Imperial Family members and the following curious black box containing scrolls and bearing the Imperial mark, I would say there is a good possibility that this place was indeed special and worthy of the nickname ‘Royal House’.
The Former Inhabitant
It’s not clear who did live at this Western-style house. Its distinctive green, orange and white exterior, use of stone and attractive balcony area are very different from the typical Japanese-style house. One of the triangular roofs has collapsed in the picture below.
From the notes inside it’s possible to learn of the family surname and several funeral photographs (characterised by the distinctive black ribbon at the top) suggest that the last owner was an old lady with a shock of white hair. I found her picture in several places around the house, suggesting that she either lived there or was loved very much by the owners. I don’t feel right publishing private photos from the family, but a large painting of the very same lady might just about walk that fine line.
Looking around upstairs, we do learn that the previous owner was a lover of cats. A poster on one wall, cat-related items and one feline in particular named Popo-chan who passed away 1979. The old cat box lovingly adorned with Christmas paper sat next to the owner’s desk and a photo of another cat Happy-chan placed in front of the Buddhist altar. Important members of the family.
Another mysterious photo found in the hallway of a balding foreign gentleman beaming at the camera. He looks to be sitting in a posh restaurant with a wine glass in front of him. I wonder – did a foreign national live here at some point? Perhaps he is somebody notable the occupant once met and left a great impression?
A locked door at the end of the hallway. No way to enter without the proper key for the deadlock. I suppose it’s a bathroom or storage closet, judging by the small size and tiny windows leading outside, but it will remain a mystery for now.
Back downstairs I find a doll with a broken neck. One of many specimens dotted around the house. The painting in the background again suggests a life of luxury. One must wonder where the family went and why all these items remain to slowly decompose..?
Time is ticking on and I’ve got other haikyo to visit on this day. I circle the building one last time, taking in the interesting exterior. The surrounding trees have caused considerable damage through falling on the house. I imagine it would only take one well-placed trunk to smash in the centre and this piece of history would be levelled.
I don’t feel like I’ve even begun to uncover all the secrets of the Royal House haikyo. Hundreds of postcards and letters unread for dozens of years. Hidden items that have sunk beneath the splintering floorboards and a quiet kitchen area with plates and bowls still neatly stacked up. Who did live here and what was their connection to the Imperial Family? Are these items historically valuable? Why is the house exterior Western-style? The mystery still remains to be solved, but perhaps in time it will unravel further. Until then.
**Note** I’ve done my best to protect the privacy of the people who lived here and the location as there is a controversy about publishing these pictures due to the perceived link to the Imperial Family. Previously published pictures of this haikyo have had the portraits blurred out by the author and to the best of my knowledge this is the first time on either the Japanese or English side of the internet that a portrait has been shown without a mosaic. All the pictures I have included are either artist’s impressions, tourist postcards or previously published Imperial portraits, which is as much as I feel happy about posting right now. I would welcome thoughts on the privacy issue and historical implications of posting pictures of the Emperor and Imperial Family. Thanks.