Memories of the Hihoukan:秘宝館の記憶

Memories of the Hihoukan

The first time I set foot in a hihoukan was nearly 30 years ago in 1995, at the Toba International Secret Treasure Museum and Science Fiction Miraikan, in Toba, Mie prefecture.

No other visitors were there on that day, and the building, in an already deserted shopping arcade, gave off a particularly desolate air. As I moved through the dimly lit rooms to a soundtrack of taped lounge music, a loud noise made me jump. Looking about, I spotted several pigeons which appeared to have been alighting and leaving through a hole in one wall. Startled by this rare visitor, they had flown off all at once.

At the time of my visit, management of the original Ise International Secret Treasure Museum and its annex, the Toba International Secret Treasure Museum, had been handed down to second-generation Matsuno Kenji from his father, the founder Matsuno Masato. I found the Toba annex so interesting I then visited the original museum in Ise to write about it. Later, when I heard the Toba museum was closing, I arranged an interview with President Matsuno, and told him of my dismay at the impending destruction of his building, full of such wonderful installation art.

As we happened to be the same age, our conversation ran on and somehow, by the end of it, I agreed to buy the entire science fiction display. I had no doubt it was the most unique exhibit, and although I didn’t have a lot of money, I was prepared to spend what I had, and the price was about that of a nice car.

Before relocating the artwork, I wanted to document it. As certain components of the installation involved moving parts, still photographs alone would not achieve a complete record, so after the museum shut down, I hired an adult video team at my own expense to shoot the sci-fi floor over three days. The footage is currently being edited into DVDs, to be distributed by direct sale.

I still had to decide where to put the artwork. I couldn’t possibly keep so many mannequins at home, so during 2001 I rented a warehouse on the edge of Saitama prefecture, and moved the entire installation there for safe-keeping. To be honest, it felt more like a permanent enshrinement than temporary storage, as I still didn’t know what to do with it. However, about one year later, the 1st Yokohama Triennale provided my first opportunity to show the work since the closure of Toba.

The Triennale had wanted to exhibit some of my more modest photographic prints, unrelated to the hihoukan, but I stood firm with my plan to present the Toba installation. Unfortunately, the location they assigned me was in a remote corner of the exhibition hall, and I was told that since visitors would include children and even members of the Imperial family (!), the curtains around my display would have to be drawn so tight it would be impossible to catch even a glimpse from outside.

Furthermore, since the space was only a fraction the area of the Toba floor, the display ended up as a much-abridged digest of the original. Finally, organizers erected a sign in front of the thick curtains, prohibiting entry to visitors under 18. All these restrictions had the reverse effect of creating a buzz, and the queue to get in was sometimes as long as two hours.

Word about the artwork spread, and after Yokohama I exhibited it again for one month at a gallery in Ebisu. Then in 2008, I was able to present the full show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Luxembourg, sending two shipping containers full of mannequins and sets on a return sea voyage. In 2010, I again staged the complete installation as part of my solo exhibition at the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art.

Despite such exposure, people’s memories of the hihoukan are fading. At their peak, nearly 20 secret treasure museums operated across the country, but from the late 1980s, as travel trends shifted away from groups to individuals, they rapidly lost favour. One after another they have been forced to close. After hanging on for as long as possible, the original International Secret Museum in Ise also finally shut down, in 2007. Fans of the place may have been saddened, but no other museum or gallery made any effort to save it.

In 2009, I published a small photobook titled Hihoukanan, documenting the 11 secret treasure museums I had visited. But as the book fell out of print and seemed unlikely to be revived, I turned the contents into a handmade PDF e-book, with high-resolution photos. Of the establishments I featured, only two are still open today: the Megamikan Life and Sexuality Museum in Ikaho, Gunma prefecture, and the Atami Museum of Hidden Treasures in Shizuoka.

Many so-called secret treasure museums continue to operate in Japan, but they focus on folkloric and anthropological exhibits, such as shunga (amorous paintings) and wooden phallic icons. Some museums in Europe and Asia also display erotica, but none of them celebrate the unique thrills of the ‘erotic-grotesque’ (ero-guro) through carefully crafted models, in the manner of the traditional Showa-era hihoukan.

For anyone in a creative field, to have one’s work described as being ‘without parallel,’ or having ‘nothing to compare to’ should be taken as a great compliment. This is how I see the unselfconscious, untrained originality one can find in the hihoukan. How does one categorise it? There is really nothing like it. But there appear to be many authorities in the art and museum world who believe this work is not legitimate. And they are in control of the country’s cultural assets and museum management. For as long as this situation continues, the hihoukan and almost all authentic popular art will never be preserved for the future.

Responsibility lies with us too. On the news of the closure of the original International Museum of Hidden Treasures in 2007, I often heard people lament, “Oh, I was planning to go there one of these days, what a pity!”

But — and I say this also out of a sense of self-reproach — merely thinking about supporting an exhibition, yet not acting on one’s impulse by actually going there, is the equivalent of not thinking about it at all. Perhaps it is even worse. Even if the public authorities did nothing to support the hihoukan, as long as ordinary people visited and there was enough revenue from admission fees, the museum could have continued to exist. Therefore it was not only the officials and curators who abandoned the museums; it was you and me.

The decline of hihoukan as a physical presence coincides with a resurgence in interest in the secret treasure museum. Nowadays, if you search ‘hihoukan’ on the internet, you will come up with countless hits. And every time I front up to a hihoukan-related event, I am surprised by the turnout of young fans — people who were not even born during the culture’s 1970s-80s golden years. For them, these qualities are nothing like the ero-guro ‘erotic grotesque’ sideshow of older people’s memories, but have crossed into the realm of the ero-kawaii, or erotic and cute (and pop and nostalgic).

As this new demographic of young people ‘rediscovers’ the Showa-era warmth of old-school love hotels, pink movies and other expressions of the age, they enjoy the privilege of an ‘ignorant generation’ — free to study the world with fresh eyes, and without old baggage. All I can do is record trends and artefacts that are disappearing, while hoping today’s young creators will not only enjoy them nostalgically, but use them to fuel new activity; work that is only possible in the ‘here and now.’ That is why I compiled this show.

Visitors to MORA may notice from the historic photographs of the Toba museum that nearly all the mannequins are completely naked. The age they belong to was different from today in its atmosphere and dreams. More than 20 years after Toba closed, the law says we are no longer allowed to view them as they were created. I consider my job partly done if you can take away with you a seed of the imagination that gave life to these blossoms, at the twilight of their days.

Toba International Secret Treasure Museum and Science Fiction Miraikan

Hihoukan ‘secret treasure museums’ once lent their inimitable cheer to tourist spots around Japan. The exhibits were not, of course, hidden national treasures or other grand artworks. The hihoukan were sex museums, made more enticing by their air of the forbidden.

The world’s first hihoukan opened in 1971 in Ise, Mie prefecture. Emboldened by its success, the founder built two more museums 10 years later in the Mie city of Toba, and the hot-spring town of Isawa, Yamanashi prefecture. He was a trend leader, as hihoukan spread across the country on the back of the Showa-era travel boom, although the Isawa museum closed in 1987. The Toba museum continued to operate until around 2000.

Many museums display sex-related folklore and rituals, usually under the guise of ‘education,’ but the original International Secret Treasure Museum promised more: vivid dioramas of life-size naked mannequins in action. This pioneering development truly earned the distinction ‘original.’

The annex at Toba occupied a four-storey building, and the first exhibit to greet visitors on the ground floor (after the gift shop) was a naked maiden mannequin enthroned in a transparent egg-like capsule. (This display is now on show at the entrance to MORA.) On the walls each side of her, light-boxes displayed images of ‘live-action’ dioramas substituting real women for mannequins.

Upstairs, the entire second floor was given over to a sci-fi fantasy installation. The third floor featured depictions of sexual activity in the Edo era, as well as a shadowy zone containing a shrine, enormous jade-like penises, a spurting breast sculpture and various sex-play equipment. There was also a health and hygiene corner explaining sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS.

As the name suggests, the concept behind the second-floor Science Fiction Miraikan was a ‘Futuristic Journey into the Erotic Universe.’ Within a ‘high-tech’ laboratory of flashing lights and computers that could have come from a B-movie set, men and women lay splayed or writhing upon medical chairs, or sealed inside clear containers. Flexible tubes and hoses connected them, as pumps and other plumbing groaned and wheezed.

The Toba exhibition notes describe the installation as follows: in the year 1999, with the Earth on its extinction path (as predicted by Nostradamus), a certain General Hitlery returns in his combat ship from his space station to begin a project to manufacture a species of superior beings for the regeneration of humanity. With society collapsing, the ship’s soldiers are ordered to hunt down healthy survivors and forcibly extract semen by machine from the best men, then inject their seed into only the most beautiful women. The unborn babies are transferred into growth-accelerating modules, where computers administer special magnetic treatments, short-term growth yeasts and other nutrients, to create bodies of 18-year-old adults in just three months. The project culminates in a sci-fi wonderland of erotic abandon, in which anything that fails the General’s tests is conveniently erased by a bio-annihilation processor.

Continuing upstairs, visitors to the Toba museum fourth floor would pass a large map of sexual shenanigans along the 53 Stages of the Tokaido road, before encountering a big black box with an eye hole and a mysterious sign reading, ‘Take a peek and see for yourself.’ A pornographic shadow performance played through the peephole. The rest of the floor had the feel of a warehouse, with a random assortment of surplus mannequins, as well as a likeness of the museum founder, President Matsuno, standing proudly in a blue, three-piece suit and tie. Beside him, against a partition, sat a mannequin of Matsuno in his youth, dressed in casual yukata bath-robe. His bare knees are raised as he clutches between his thighs a large and colourful nishikigoi carp, which is sucking his cock (said to be a true story).

Opening in 1981 and closing in 2000, the Toba International Secret Treasure Museum and Science Fiction Miraikan operated for exactly 20 years. It is ironic the showcase sci-fi display was set in the year 1999 — the same year the museum erected a sign outside saying it would be shutting for good in 2000. No one from the local shopping precinct appears to have rallied to the museum’s support or lamented its closure. To the end, it was neither loved nor recognised by anyone.