Showa-ing it like it was

Tin toys and other tat bring tears to Japanese eyes of a certain age


Most of us have things we were given years ago that we cannot simply throw away, even though they’re of no use and are often simply gathering dust somewhere in the corner of a room.

Whether it’s the ticket to the movie you went to see on your first-ever date, or a woolly cap that was knitted by your dear departed grandma, such stuff often carries a personal, sentimental value that is too emotional for others to really comprehend.

You would think that anyone who collects mountains of such mementos must have lots of fond memories bound up with them. Otherwise, why would anyone accumulate 250,000 pieces of, well, old junk — those tiny tin toys that you once got as freebies when you bought a box of sweets, or empty soda bottles from long, long ago, or plastic masks of heroes and villains from now-vintage television anime shows?

Yet Hironobu Komiya, the proud owner of a veritable Matterhorn of memorabilia, says that what has kept him collecting junk for all these years is actually his memory of not having access to that kind of stuff when he was a child. That, and the warm memories he imagines his friends and family must have for life’s trivia such as this.

But now, in a resounding triumph of trivia, around 50,000 items from Komiya’s collection — many from Japan’s “good old days” of the mid-1950s, and through to the early ’70s — are on permanent display in the town of Bungo Takada (pop. 24,000) in Oita Prefecture, northeastern Kyushu, where he directs his self-styled Dagashiya-no-yume Hakubutsukan (Dreams of the Penny Candy Store Owner Museum).

The museum, part of Bungo Takada’s “Showa Town” project to preserve and showcase buildings and shops from Japan’s Showa Era (the time when Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as the Showa Emperor, reigned from 1926-89) as a tourist attraction, opened in 2002.

“My father was a bureaucrat for the Fukuoka Prefectural Government, and back then, bureaucrats were poorly paid,” Komiya recalled one recent afternoon at a cafe next to the museum after busloads of mostly middle-aged group tourists left.

“We were so poor that children had no regular allowance, and my siblings and I had few toys to play with.

“On the rare occasions I saved enough money to be able to buy a box of Glico sweets, I would shake the box beforehand to check if it contained one of the tin cars I craved so much. But often, after excitedly guessing the box’s content and buying it with glee, I would find out that it contained a brooch for girls . . .”

Komiya, now a gray-haired 60-year-old, and arguably Japan’s No. 1 toy collector, says such childhood memories — and feelings of nostalgia for the period — came back to him 30 years ago, when he was on a business trip to Tokyo as an importer of household goods. There, he stumbled across a book in the Kanda district, the nation’s secondhand-book mecca, and read there that all those little giveaway toys generally vanish soon after confectionary-makers stop giving them away.

Then one day, during another trip to Osaka, he spotted five 2-cm tin cars — once freebies with caramels marketed by Ezaki Glico Co. — sitting unloved and unappreciated between antique pots and plates in a secondhand store. After talking to the store owner, he was able to scoop up the lot for ¥200 and, as they say, the rest is history — or in Komiya’s case, the foundation of a collection that has just continued growing ever since.

Finally, turning his hobby into his living, Komiya opened a dagashiya (penny-candy store) in Fukuoka 20 years ago and started asking wholesalers to sell him other freebies. Today, though, he says he finds his best bargains via Internet auctions.

However, Komiya insists that his criteria for choosing what to collect are clearly different from those of hard-core otaku (obsessive) collectors. He picks toys, he says, that resonate with his own childhood memories or what he thinks would appeal to his friends and acquaintances. “Obsessives would try to collect all the bottles with different serial numbers,” he said. “I don’t pay attention to such details. I think just having one bottle of each kind is fine.”

He also encourages visitors to touch the objects on display, which are all original. But he has regretfully had to put certain items in glass cases, after discovering that some light-fingered visitors took some toys away with them.

To encourage visitors to re-connect with the Japan gone by, Komiya opened another museum last year, named Showa-no-yume-machi 3-chome-kan (Showa’s Dream Town on the Third Street). There, visitors can experience the lifestyles of people living in that era through his recreations of old-style housing — a living room with a black-and-white TV, a period kitchen (with a tap that actually gushes water) and a Japanese-style toilet from where visitors hear the voice of a grandpa calling for more paper.

Visitors’ reactions to the exhibits have been varied, Komiya says. While many simply marvel at the sheer volume of his collection, he recalls one elderly visitor telling him that “the Showa Era was not as rosy as this.”

On the other hand, there are some items that have raised visitors’ eyebrows, such as an original wartime poster asking people to sign up for the Imperial Navy, with an illustration of a towering warship in the background.

When a high-ranking South Korean official once visited the museum, officials who had made an inspection reconnaisance beforehand politely asked Komiya to withdraw the poster from the display. While he accepted the request at the time, and temporarily removed it, he says his decision has left him with ambivalent feelings as he has no intention of using the museum to make any political statement.

“This is where people look for their memories,” he said. “On other, separate occasions, two Japanese visitors, both probably in their 70s, burst into tears after seeing the same poster, saying that they did sign up for the Navy and fought in Southeast Asia, and that they were the only ones left to have the chance to see the poster again, because the others all died in the war.”

When Komiya asked them whether the poster should be removed, he recalls, they both shook their heads, saying the museum should tell people what really happened in those times.

“These little toys and things can conjure up not just stories from the era, but the tastes and the smells of the era as well,” Komiya said.

“It’s not just my memory that is on display here — it’s the memories of so many other people from back then.”