National | KANSAI BEAT

Everyone's a tour guide in ward civic pride drive

by Asako Murakami

OSAKA — On every fourth Sunday, Osaka’s Hirano Ward turns out to put its best historical foot forward and demonstrate its community pride.

As the many visitors converge on the area and meander about clutching hand-made maps to the 15 museums in the area, locals step forward to help guide them.

Hirano, a 15.3-sq. km area of southeast Osaka, prospered as an autonomous city in the 14th century and has numerous historical and cultural sites.

Unlike conventional museums, where artifacts are displayed in glass cases, Hirano’s museums, many of which only open on that day, show off the cultural and natural heritage of everyday life.

In one corner of confectioner Baigetsudo, which doubles as the Wagashiya (Sweet Shop) Museum, for instance, are wooden molds and other tools used to make traditional sweets since the shop opened in 1909. At the Hirano no Oto (Sounds of Hirano) Museum, visitors can listen to everyday sounds of bygone days in the community via a CD player.

“(Designating places as) museums is part of our efforts to recognize the cultural and historical assets we have and to get residents involved in such activities,” said 56-year-old Ryonin Kawaguchi, chief priest at Senkoji Temple, where the civic group working to revitalize the community is based.

Although the group produced a map depicting the museums and other historical spots, it deliberately made their exact locations difficult to find. Kawaguchi said this was to make visitors ask local people for directions and thus encourage interaction.

“In a way, all local residents are curators. They are aware that the whole town is a museum,” Kawaguchi said, adding that the movement is not necessarily aimed at increasing the number of visitors from outside but to boost local pride in the ward.

What Hirano is doing is similar to the “eco-museum” movement that started in France in 1971. Eco-museums are defined as activities initiated by local residents to preserve various aspects of their heritage, including nature and cultural and industrial traditions.

The aim of the movement is to encourage local residents’ pride in their region and motivate them to work toward making it better.

Kazuoki Ohara, an assistant professor at the graduate school of engineering at Yokohama National University and secretary general of the Japan Ecomuseological Society, finds Hirano fascinating from the standpoint of eco-museology.

“The eco-museum movement in Japan began in the 1990s, but while there are about 40 to 50 municipalities that say they are carrying out eco-museum projects, some do not go beyond municipal officials’ making a guide map,” Ohara said. “But activities in Hirano are being undertaken by local people. When I spoke with them, I had a strong sense of the deep pride they have in their community.”

Kawaguchi said his group was unaware of the eco-museum concept or the movement in Europe until several years ago.

The Osaka movement started in 1980 with efforts to preserve the old Nankai-Hirano Station building on the Nankai Line — an effort that was unsuccessful. The group’s activities have since expanded to trying to preserve more intangible things, including the values and cultural assets of the town and its residents.

The museum movement began in 1993 with seven museums. That figure has since increased to 15, including natural sites such as the grove of a local shrine.

“A town is revitalized when the people there are revitalized. A town becomes an interesting place because the people who live in it are interesting,” said Kawaguchi, who also plays his part in keeping traditions alive by performing “kamishibai,” or storytelling with picture cards, at the temple grounds every fourth Sunday.

The priest’s claim that Hirano has interesting residents may be right.

For instance, Kesashichiro Tagawa, 75, who runs a sports-bicycle shop, has created more than 400 kinds of bicycles, including the world’s largest bike, which was recorded in the 1994 Guinness Book of Records.

The shop, designated as the Bicycle Museum, showcases many of his creations — including recent ones designed for the elderly and the disabled.

Another is Chojiro Matsumura, 74, who runs a kimono fabric and after-care service shop. Matsumura has been recording film festivals and events that took place in Hirano for more than 40 years, and some of his productions have won prizes.

Although Matsumura boasts that as many as 4,000 people have visited his shop, which also doubles as the Hirano Film Museum, on a single day, they seem to come largely to listen to him and tap his extensive knowledge of local history.

On Aug. 24, the ward will become even more lively, when many other local people show off their skills through performances and displays.

Kawaguchi said his group does not merely want to nurture and preserve tangible landmarks but also the skills and activities of the citizens.

“Traditional forms of play and bits of wisdom have been dying out in recent years.” Kawaguchi said. “We are trying to pass such knowledge and skills on to future generations.”