Monday, April 30, 2007

The Sharon Linn

On the night of July 19, 1945, the B-29 "Sharon Linn" was on a mine- laying mission over Niigata. It was hit by anti-aircraft fire near the city of Niitsu, and it crashed in a bend of the Agano River in an area named "Yakeyama". Six of the eleven crew members did not survive the crash. The five survivors spent the few remaining weeks of the war in a Niigata City POW Camp. Photos of the plane and her crew may be viewed at the following:

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Niigata's POW Camps

Two POW camps for Allied,Korean, and Chinese prisoners were in operation in Niigata City from 1943-45. They were known as Camps 15-B and 5-B. Mr. Gregory Hadley, instructor of English and American Cultural Studies at the Niigata Prefectural University, has conducted considerable research into this dark chapter of Niigata City's history. His excellent site can be accessed by searching for "Niigata POW Camp". Hadley makes inaccurate statements, however. He erroneously asserts that Allied prisoners of war represented Niigata City's first significant influx of foreigners. "Gaikokujin" began arriving in the early years of the Meiji Era(1868-1912), with Niigata's designation as a Treaty Port. Moreover, the POW camps were located at what was then the edge of town, and few civilians would have had contact with the prisoners, whereas the traders and missionaries who constituted the bulk of the early foreign visitors commingled with the local populace. The second inaccuracy concerns what Hadley says is a monument honoring the POWs. Located in a small park overlooking the mouth of the Shinano River, Japan's longest waterway, the monument, erected in 1998, is a peace memorial. The inscription opens with an enumeration of the vessels sunk by enemy mines laid in the river and roadstead and is followed by a kind of collective obituary honoring those who died. No mention of the POWs is made until the third paragraph,which tells of foreigners who died while being held in internment and prison camps in the city. Thus, the monument is less about the POWs than an affirmation of the city's commitment to peace. The photos show the location of POW Camp 15-B, now a row of apartment blocks in the Momoyama neighborhood of Yamanoshita. Contrary to Hadley's statement that the city did not officially recognize the existence of the camps until the mid-1990's, a history of Niigata, published in 1989 under city auspices, contains an aerial photo of Camp 15-B. The buildings that housed the prisoners are clearly marked, as is that used by the camp guards. 15-B is described as having held both Chinese and Korean nationals. Curiously, no mention is made of Allied POWs or of Camp 5-B. The peace memorial is shown in the topmost photo.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Ohata Young People's Center

The Ohata Young People's Center is housed in the building formerly occupied by the Ohata Elementary School. Declining enrollment forced the school to close nearly 20 years ago, and its remaining students were moved to nearby Niigata Elementary School, less than a quarter- mile away. You might wonder why, for the better part of a century, the city should have needed to maintain two primary schools in such proximity. The following explanation is based on what I have gleaned from local residents. The two schools are located in what was formerly referred to as the "Beverly Hills" of Niigata City. The official residence of the prefectural governor is across the street from Niigata Elementary School, and those of his lieutenant and of the city's mayor were, until fairly recently, but a short distance away. Influential private citizens made their homes in the neighborhood as well, and these were joined by a small expatriate community. Niigata's entertainment quarter was (and is) nearby, and geisha were a common sight in the neighborhood. So, too, were their "illegitimate" children, who were nevertheless legally required and entitled to six years of primary school education. Our pillars of the community, who sent their offspring to Niigata Elementary School, objected to this morally contaminating influence- and were perhaps apprehensive lest certain of the urchins be mistaken for their own. Suffice it to say that these influential citizens succeeded in persuading the Board of Education to establish a school for the exclusive use of the geishas' children, and that the Ohata Elementary School continued to operate long after the kimono was replaced by the mini-skirt.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Heaven and Hell Lane

The topmost photo shows the narrow street known locally as "Heaven and Hell Lane" in Niigata City. Whence this curious appellation? Let us begin with the culinary paradise that is Ikinaritei, one of whose exterior walls is visible at left. The restaurant dates to the Edo era, and the lovely wooden structures housing its several dining rooms, as well as their sylvan setting, have been designated a National Treasure by the central government. Though first-time patrons no longer must present letters of introduction from prominent citizens before being allowed through the gates of Ikinaritei's holy precincts, they must still take fistfuls of yen with them, for with lunch a relative bargain at ¥7,000, a full-course Japanese dinner starts at ¥33,000- $350 at the current exchange. This, then, is the "Heaven" to which only the "elect" were formerly admitted. On the opposite, or "Hell", side of the street, was the City Prison. All that remains of the former house of incarceration, which was moved to a new location on the outskirts of town about 20 years ago, are a commemorative plaque or two and a section of the original brick wall, the latter visible in the middle ground of the topmost photo. The vicinity is sometimes referred to as the "Beverly Hills" of Niigata-consider therefore the curious juxtaposition of a detention facility and the homes of local worthies. The grounds of the former prison are now the lovely Nishi Ohata Park.

Monday, April 02, 2007

An Early Loan Shark

The Niigata City Branch of the Northern Culture Museum pays tribute to the contributions to local history made by the Ito family,whose exploits date to the Meiji Era. The Itos began as modest landlords in the late 19th century, but by the 1920's they owned 3300 acres, one of the largest feudal fiefdoms in all of Japan. This they accomplished by extending loans to impoverished peasants and seizing their land in the event of default. The dispossessed peasants became tenants on their former property. At one time as many as nine hundred farming families, comprising 60 small communities, worked lands controlled by the Itos. After Japan's defeat in WWII, the U.S. Occupation confiscated all such estates and embarked on an ambitious land redistribution scheme. The Ito mansion, located a few kilometers outside present-day Niigata City, became the Main Branch of the Northern Culture Museum, while the Itos vast landholdings were parceled out to small farmers in the area. The family would appear to be in general decline, for the direct male line ended a generation ago, the current Mr. Ito being an adoptee. There is a Master Ito, however, a little brat with whom my son has the misfortune to be an elementary school classmate.