Recalling the Tabata district's golden age

by Hiroshi Matsubara

Seeing the rows of houses and apartments clustered around JR Tabata Station, it is hard to believe the area was, until the beginning of the last century, a vast agricultural landscape marking the northeastern end of downtown Tokyo.

It is even harder to believe that the Kita Ward area was an artistic hot spot during the Meiji and Taisho eras (1868-1926), hosting some of the country’s most celebrated cultural figures.

While the area’s strong cultural bent is long gone, there stands near the station a small museum that brings visitors back to the area’s golden age, which lasted almost four decades.

The semipublic Tabata Memorial Museum of Writers and Artists preserves some 3,000 cultural items related to the area’s former residents, including Ryunosuke Akutagawa, one of the most celebrated writers in modern Japanese literature.

“It was a miracle of human connection that brought more than 50 prominent artists to this block of 700 sq. meters in Tabata,” says Wataru Otani, head of the museum, which was established by the ward in 1993.

“One artist brought another, and another brought another, naturally forming a cultural community, in which they inspired and stimulated each other,” he said.

Aside from Akutagawa, who moved to Tabata as a teenager and wrote some of his prime works there, more than 50 artists — including poets Sakutaro Hagiwara and Saisei Murou, writers Hideo Kobayashi and Kan Kikuchi, and potter Hazan Itaya — once lived there.

The museum regularly displays around 150 items in rotation, including precious pottery and paintings, and writers’ original drafts, some of which cost more than 10 million yen, according to Otani.

“Despite its convenient location and proximity to the Tokyo School of Arts and other cultural facilities in the Ueno area, Tabata was a farming village where everything was reasonable for cash-strapped artists,” Otani says.

Some items that may catch visitors’ eyes are original letters exchanged among Tabata’s former residents, providing clues about life in the artistic community.

Asako Murou, 78, daughter of Saisei, vaguely recalls her childhood memory of Tabata in its heyday.

“Artists, including my father, enjoyed a close relationship with each other, visiting each other’s places almost every day,” she says. “It was not just a geographical neighborhood, but a community of a variety of artists who shared strong cultural inspirations,” says Murou, who now lives in Ota Ward.

The decline of Tabata as an artistic community came when Akutagawa, who the artists called the “king of Tabata,” committed suicide at his home in 1927 at the age of 35.

In the following years, many artists left the neighborhood, and then all of the traits of its artistic heyday were turned into ash on April 13, 1945, when fires from a U.S. air raid burned down almost every building in the area.

“The houses where they resided, the restaurants and social clubs where they hung out are all gone, leaving nothing to help us connect today’s Tabata and its past,” says Otani of the museum. “But the works created in Tabata live through the period, satisfying our cultural interests.”