Friday, August 6, 2010

Den-emon Itoh, a Chikuho Hero

Iizuka, Tagawa, and Nogata are the three major cities inside Chikuho, which once thrived as coal mining zones with heaps of slag. They produced a number of coal tycoon families, including Aso, Kaijima, Yaskawa, Itoh, etc.

The Onga River runs through Chikuho. It once carried coal-filled barges out to Kitakyushu, a blue collar town with giant steel mills, and fed the entire town. With the shutdown of the coal mines in the ‘60s, the cities of Chikuho were thrust into a pitiful plight for survival.

Iizuka aggressively wooed the information technology industry, inviting research and educational institutions; developed 50 hectare (370 acres) of leisure and recreational parks; and promoted local sightseeing. One of them was a traditional theatrical venture. The traditional wooden theater, Kaho Theater, built in 1921 had mats rather than seats to sit in - perhaps the last of its kind found in Japan. This theater was underwater when Onga River flooded a few years ago. They refurbished it all with help from citizen volunteers. Iizuka is trying to maintain it for continuous shows.

Another heavily promoted local attraction was the palatial home of coal tycoon Den-emon Itoh (see the photo above). The history of this home is mixed with romance and scandal. The site is 7,570 square meters in size (2,300 tsubo, or about 2 acres) and the building itself has an area of 1,020 square meters (300 tsubo or 11,000 square feet).

The highlights of the tour are the three western rooms of the house: a drawing room, a study, and a dining room. The drawing room boasts a Victorian and Art Nouveau style usually seen in the opulent mansions of the Meiji / Taisho era, and has a mantle fireplace made of Italian marble. There are wide crossbeams on the ceiling, diamond-design stained glass in the upper windows, and a chandelier. Built-in benches nestle in one corner - a novel concept at the time. The dining room is of modest size, accommodating a dozen guests at most, and overlooks a garden and atrium.

Den-emon Itoh was born in 1860, during the time of Lord Naosuke Ii, the Chief Minister of the Tokugawa Shogunate who was assassinated 7 years prior to the Meiji Restoration. Den-roku, Den-emon's father was a boatman and fish peddler. While traversing Chikuho, peddling his fish, Denroku may well have spotted traces of gleaming coal that had surfaced from beneath the ground. Later on, his keen eye for glittering coal may have contributed much to the success of his business ventures with his son Den-emon.

Father and son started their coal venture together and had the good fortune to hit the jackpot, a high quality coal lode. Den-emon's business expanded to include machinery, a foundry, a power company and banking operations. At one time Kobukuro Works, the main electric machine plant, had over a thousand employees, plus a vocational school. He also endowed a county girl’s school as a service to the community.

Den-emon lost his father in 1899 and his wife Haruko in 1910. He served as a congressman from 1903 to 1908. His accomplishments include the enactment of the Mining Industry Law, and the completion of flood control and irrigation projects along 60 kilometers of the Onga River. You can observe these works today as you drive along the river banks.

Eventually a marriage proposal came to Den-emon from among the peerage, based on political convenience. The son of Count Yanagiwara wanted to run for the House of Peers, which is now the Upper House. He needed campaign funds, and sought money from Den-emon in exchange for marriage with his sister Akiko, cousin to the Emperor Taisho. Akiko was reputed to be one of the three great beauties from the Taisho days, and had been married to a Viscount's son, but was now divorced and back at the home of the Count. Because her mother was a geisha, Akiko had not been treated with much respect.

Den-emon must have been stunned by the marriage proposal from the peerage and the opportunity to wed the fairest of the fair. To welcome his bride to Chikuho, Den-emon rebuilt his house to accommodate her with every luxury. When Akiko moved in, she was assigned to the newly added 2nd floor suite. Her quarters overlooked an enormous rock garden with an arching stone bridge and a man-made hill topped with a gazebo. The elaborate wedding lasted for three full days. Den-emon was 50 and his bride was 25. The house, now encroached upon by the surrounding neighborhood, probably had quite view of the Onga River back in 1911.

Although Den-emon allowed Akiko to live her own life, she found the Chikuho dialect and traditions unbearable, and she retreated to a fantasy world where she sang plaintive poems that sprang from her unsatisfied heart. However, Den-emon lavishly provided Akiko with a second and a third house, equally gorgeous, in Fukuoka and Oita, and even a fourth home in Tokyo. These residences became literary salons run by Akiko. To top it off, Den-emon helped Akiko publish many of her poems.

One day, Akiko met Ryusuke Miyazaki, a young graduate of Tokyo University, who majored in law. He was a magazine editor who had come to interview her. When Akiko and Ryusuke fell in love, their romance startled the entire country because Akiko declared separation on paper, similar to Ibsen's character Nora in "A Doll's House". This public declaration appears to have been a scheme devised by Ryusuke's friends as a last resort to escape conviction for the crime of adultery. According to Mariko Hayashi, the author of Akiko's biography (see Note 2 below), the declaration was not in Akiko's original handwriting.

Den-emon could have punished Akiko for adultery, but he did not. He calmed his angry followers and let the issue drop. Akiko was not financially well off in her life with Ryusuke, and Den-emon offered help from time to time. People wondered if Den-emon was an unusually generous elder, or simply a cuckold and a damn fool.

The following children's song is said to have been written in reference to Akiko, but the allusion to Akiko is no longer generally recognized today.

"Why tears? The bride born in purple. She is clad in the world's best gold brocade kimono with a silk sash belt."

1. Den-emon's house was opened to the public on April 28, 2007. During the first year, there were reportedly 250,000 visitors.

2. Akiko suffered from cataracts in 1961, and lost her sight in both eyes. Under Ryusuke's tender care, she continued to sing poems until her death in 1967, according to her biography "Byakuren Ren-Ren" (1994) by Mariko Hayashi.

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