National | MUSEUM MUSINGS

Museum in Ikebukuro holds Mideast treasures

by Hiroshi Matsubara

Rather like a Pharaoh’s tomb inside one of the Great Pyramids, one dark corner of Sunshine City — a large commercial complex near JR Ikebukuro Station in Tokyo — is filled with ancient treasures.

Through a fitting accident of design, visitors to the Ancient Orient Museum must follow a long and narrow path from the busy section of the shopping and amusement complex to arrive at their destination.

The museum, which attracts some 100 visitors every day, regularly exhibits around 500 cultural artifacts — some of which were unearthed during excavations — primarily from the Middle East.

“The ancient Orient, or more specifically, (the region now comprising) Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and northern Iran and Iraq, has been plagued by conflict and poverty for centuries,” said Keiko Ishida, a museum researcher.

Ishida went on to claim, however, that the modern world owes a great debt to the Middle East.

“The very foundation of our current civilization, including agriculture and the use of script and metal tools, originated in that region thousands of years ahead of anywhere else,” she said.

She added that, while many Japanese perceive the region as a distant, alien part of the world, some aspects of Japanese culture, including the use of personal seals, also have their roots there.

The museum, which showcases the ancient cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia, was established in 1978 by a group of scholars and artists in an effort to educate the public about the great cultural heritage of ancient West Asia.

Items on display include a portrait in relief of an Egyptian noble that dates back to around 2300 B.C., a 4,000-year-old clay figure of a Syrian female, and stone figures of Buddha and Poseidon dating to 200 B.C.

As an active scholastic research entity, the museum has conducted excavation and research projects in Syria and other countries.

Ishida said, however, that with many of the region’s significant cultural remnants having been taken to Europe during its colonial rule of the region up until the mid-20th century, not many culturally significant items from the region can be viewed in Japan.

“It is quite difficult for us to impress visitors just by what we have, so we occasionally organize special exhibitions focusing on a certain element of ancient West Asian culture,” she said.

The museum currently has around 50 works by prominent ceramist Takuo Kato on display. Kato is a “living national treasure” who has striven to reproduce Islamic ceramic items found in ancient West Asia.

The museum is also showcasing some 200 ancient ceramic works unearthed from across Asia, featuring unique coloring techniques developed in ancient West Asia.

“I was fascinated by the coloring techniques of the pottery that reflects the aesthetic sense of West Asia and their designs that reflect the Islamic conception of paradise,” said the 84-year-old Kato, who lives in Tajimi, Gifu Prefecture.

“I believe their works, which have unique characteristics that no other regions have, deserve more recognition among the Japanese public.”

A special exhibition of works by Kato will be held until May 19, while a regular exhibition will start May 25.

Researcher Ishida added that learning the history of West Asia gives people a sense of the “vicissitudes of civilizations,” showing as it does that even the world’s most advanced regions can descend into bitter long-term conflicts.

“The history of West Asia shows that no civilization, no country or no individual can stay prosperous for a long time. Isn’t this a lesson for today’s Japanese?” she asked.