School reborn as museum to help kids learn the joy of low-tech toys


A defunct 100-year-old elementary school in Tokyo that boasted 1,000 pupils in its heyday has been reborn as a museum that hopes to revive the passion of playing with toys that don’t require batteries.

Yotsuya No. 4 Elementary School in Shinjuku Ward was forced to close its doors after 100 years of history in March 2007 after attendance had dwindled to as few as 100 pupils in its final years.

But on April 20, with the assistance of the Good Toy Association and other supporters, the deserted building reopened as the Tokyo Toy Museum, a facility now filled with ecstatic children running around and discovering unique toys to play with.

“Children are ingenious players by nature. They can easily be excited by playing with a mere stone or sandbox,” said Chihiro Tada, 47-year-old head of the Tokyo-based nonprofit association. “But nowadays, high-tech games and toys offer children little opportunity for being creative, and those high-tech games have significantly undercut their ability to play.”

“It is just like a car-navigation system. Once you start using it, you won’t use the atlas anymore to find where you are,” he said.

Less than a month since its opening, the museum has already proved popular, with about 300 visitors daily during the week and 500 to 600 on weekends. The museum had tallied 8,000 visitors as of Monday, it said.

Tada, chief director of the museum, and his late father, Shinsaku, had long dreamed of establishing a permanent home for the 150,000 toys they had collected from 100 countries over the years.

Tada’s father, an art education expert, established his first toy museum in Nakano Ward in 1984, but it only had one-tenth of the floor space of the Tokyo Toy Museum. Their hope was to create a place where a child could truly be “the wizard in the play world.”

Thus he and his staff established three principles for creating the museum.

First: Make it as “low-tech” as possible.

“I want this museum to be a place where children will think and play, while challenging and trying out various tools and toys,” Tada said.

Second: Put high value on communication.

Tada proudly said all the toys in the museum are so exciting that they unconsciously force you to share your excitement with the people around you.

Third: The museum must be “made in Japan.”

“Today, 95 percent of the toys in Japan come from China, while mothers who want to give their children good toys opt for imported European toys, leaving no room for Japanese toys,” he said.

“It’s a lie to say that Japan is a country of forests. We are surrounded by such great woods, yet nobody is trying to create good wooden toys. Japan has become a huge economic power with no power to create wooden toys,” he lamented.

Tada then compiled a list of 180 craftsmen in Japan and sent letters to 80 of them, asking them to create the best wooden toys possible. The result was the arrival of 500 toys from 54 craftsmen that can now be purchased directly from the museum.

One of its rooms, Omocha no Mori (Forest of Toys), is devoted entirely to wooden toys. Meters away, the aroma of “hinoki” (cypress) emanating from the room relaxes visitors. The entire floor, in fact, was crafted from hinoki shipped from Kyushu, where the museum’s designer went to pick the individual trees to be used for the room one by one, Tada said.

Other rooms feature traditional Japanese toys, such as “kendama” (a cup and ball game), antique dolls, international toys, and games and building blocks.

The former elementary school’s art room is now used to hold workshops where visitors can learn how to create their own toys. And the old science room has been converted into a cafeteria that boasts a bakery.

“We have various toys ranging from giveaways that come with (Ezaki) Glico Co.’s caramels to unique toys from all over the world. But most of all, our collection from China and the former Soviet Union is huge,” Tada said, adding that his father was great at getting toys for free.

For example, his father organized a toy fair in Moscow in the 1970s and took along 500 Japanese toys. After it was over, he didn’t hesitate to give everything away.

“In return, in the following weeks, cargo filled with toys that were gifts from the Soviet people began arriving in Japan for my father,” Tada said.

The former elementary school, which survived the war, also has a unique history.

“After a fire destroyed it in 1935, local residents collected donations and rebuilt it with reinforced concrete. It was designed by a German architect and has high ceilings (for a Japanese building),” Tada said.

So when Shinjuku Ward announced the school’s closure, local residents resisted and formed a council to save it.

Although they couldn’t persuade the ward to keep the school open, they decided three years ago to use half of the building for local community gatherings and rent the other half to an NPO.

That’s when Tada got a phone call asking him to move the toy museum there.

According to Tada, it cost his NPO ¥80 million to renovate the building and build the new museum, of which ¥20 million came from donations, ¥20 million from bank loans, ¥20 million from bond issuance and the rest from a donation by Tada himself.

“We have saved for nearly 30 years for this project, he said, adding that as it receives many visitors, entrance fees — ¥500 for a child and ¥700 for an adult — may be able to cover its operating costs.

And the museum may be able to count on repeat visitors in the future.

“I was especially relaxed and put at ease by the hinoki trees. It also felt pleasant when touching wooden toys and listening to the sound they created,” said Noriko Iwasaki, 35, who came to the museum with her 3-year-old son, Makoto, and 6-year-old daughter, Shiori. “We discovered a lot of interesting wooden toys here, and we hope to come back.”