Ailing Ome museum dedicated to samurai novelist Eiji Yoshikawa on the brink

by Chisato Tanaka

Staff Writer

A museum dedicated to Eiji Yoshikawa — famed author of the samurai epic novel “Miyamoto Musashi” — in Ome, Tokyo, is facing closure due to low attendance, it says.

The museum is so far in the red that the Yoshikawa Eiji Cultural Foundation, which runs the Yoshikawa Eiji House and Museum, decided in March to propose donating it to the Ome Municipal Government as a last resort.

A spokesman for the city says it has been carefully scrutinizing the offer, including the financial burden it would have to bear. The foundation has not decided what it will do if Ome declines its offer, but it seemingly has no choice but to close.

“To cut the annual operating costs of around ¥20 million, I have been agonizing over whether to either close the museum or end a number of prizes bearing his name, which the foundation is also in charge of,” said Eimei Yoshikawa, the novelist’s eldest son and director of the museum. He said that it was impossible to end the historical prizes, some of which are over 50 years old, so he thought it would be better to give up on the museum.

The museum, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, has over 20,000 items on show, including manuscripts of “Miyamoto Musashi” and rare paintings by the author. Situated next to his old house, where he spent the longest portion of his life, the museum used to receive over 170,000 fans each year in the late 1970s. Although his books are still widely known, attendance fell below 10,000 this year.

Yoshikawa said the drop is also attributable to the decline in tourism at Ome, which used to be famed for its plum blossoms.

According to the Ome Municipal Government, around 2.45 million people visited the city in 1995, but that plunged to 1.95 million in 2013 and has been falling ever since.

“Around the time when the museum opened, the city was occupied with making as many parking lots as possible for dozens of buses packed with tourists from all over Japan. Now, I hardly see any buses coming into the city,” Yoshikawa said.

His father, a historical novelist who lived from 1892 to 1962, rose to fame with the publication of “Miyamoto Musashi” in 1935 — a highly fictionalized account of Japan’s legendary 17th century swordsman.

The abridged English version, titled “Musashi,” was published in the United States in 1981 and soon became a best-seller, which at the time was unusual for a foreign work of over 1,000 pages. But many Americans were already familiar with Musashi’s book “Go Rin No Sho” (“The Book of Five Rings”), which had been published seven years before and also became a big hit.

“The Vendetta of Ako,” the English version of Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel “Shin Chushingura” — a story about several samurai on a mission to avenge the death of their master — appeared in serial form in The Japan Times from 1942 to 1943, a time when it was under severe censorship. The intention behind the story’s publication remains unclear.

Eiji Yoshikawa stopped writing after Japan lost the war, and led a quiet retirement at his house in Ome. But he later resumed writing and published another historical novel, “Shin Heike Monogatari” (“The Heike Story”), which cemented his fame.

“The house was special not only to my father, but also to my mother, who devoted her life to being the director of the museum until she passed away,” said Eimei Yoshikawa. “I feel guilty for giving away the museum as it is against my mother’s will. But it cannot be helped.”

The Yoshikawa Eiji House and Museum is temporarily closed for the winter and the director has not decided whether it will reopen, pending the Ome Municipal Government’s final decision, which is likely to be made by March.