Museum of the Fallen Art Students: A Tribute to Dreams Cut ShortSociety
The entrance to the Mugonkan (Museum of Silence) is about 10 minutes by car from Shiodamachi Station in the city of Ueda, Nagano Prefecture. From there, you walk 300 meters up a steep wooded hill. I was almost out of breath when my destination came into view. On the verdant hilltop, spring leaves rustled in the wind.
The footpath leads straight to the entrance of the main building. This simple structure together with a newer addition known as the Dome of Damaged Canvases further beyond make up the entirety of the Mugonkan.
The door to the main building opens onto a dim, cool space. Proceeding to the center of the building, one realizes that the gallery is laid out in the form of a cross, much like a chapel. Paintings are hung with care along the walls. Display cases exhibit a variety of personal artifacts, from old brushes and palettes to letters and sketches.
The pictures on exhibit vary widely by subject matter, style, and size, but all are the works of art students and other aspiring young painters who lost their lives in World War II. This is their museum and memorial.
Each Picture Tells a Story
The paintings are paired with biographical sketches and anecdotes that provide insight into the artists who created them. Stopping before an unfinished oil painting titled Nude, one learns that the painter, a young man named Hidaka Yasunori, labored over the work until the last minute, unwilling to lay down his brush even as well-wishers gathered to send him off to battle. At last, Hidaka bade farewell to his sweetheart, who had posed for the picture, promising to come back and finish it. He died in the Philippines at the age of 27.
A young art instructor by the name of Sakuma Osamu is represented by two works, a drawing of a reclining nude and a portrait entitled Shizuko. Both depict the painter’s wife. After students lost their exemption under a 1943 decree and were mobilized toward the war effort, a band of young students, led by Sakuma, set out for aviation school in Nagasaki Prefecture. The facility was hit by enemy bombers, and Sakuma died there at the age of 29. For many years after the war, these works adorned the bedroom of his widow, who derived comfort from “living under the watchful eye of Osamu’s pictures.”
An intimate group gathers around a small table for coffee in Izawa Hiroshi’s Family. The son of a farmer, Izawa had left the countryside to study at an art school in Tokyo. The entire family had chipped in to pay his tuition. “We were really poor,” recollected his elder brother, who preserved the painting over the years. “I think Hiroshi dreamed of such a scene, and that’s why he painted this.” The young man described as the Izawa family’s “star player” was killed in New Guinea at the age of 26.
A Survivor Plants the Seed
Mugonkan founder and director Kuboshima Seiichirō got the idea for the project from the noted oil painter Nomiyama Gyōji. Nomiyama (now 96) went off to fight shortly after graduating from the prestigious Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1942, but he fell seriously ill in Manchuria and was sent home before the war ended. Many of his comrades never returned.
In February 1994, almost a half century after the war’s end, Nomiyama attended an event at the Shinano Drawing Museum (also in Ueda), built to house Kuboshima’s private collection of drawings by early twentieth-century Japanese artists who died young.
As one of the war’s survivors, Nomiyama had never ceased to think about those who had suffered and died amid the increasingly grim conditions at the front. He spoke to Kuboshima about the many budding artists who had perished in World War II. “You like pictures by painters who died young, right?” he said. “Well, unless someone does something about it, the works of these young painters are going to disappear from the face of the earth.”
Kuboshima immediately offered to help locate and collect them. There was no easy way to go about it. It would involve searching meticulously through the student rolls of various art schools, seeking out surviving relatives, and traveling all over the country to call on them personally. But the thought of letting those paintings vanish spurred him to action.
At the start, Kuboshima had no thought of building a separate museum; he figured he could set aside a separate gallery in his Shinano Drawing Museum for paintings and drawings by the ill-fated art students. Apart from everything else, there was the issue of quality. Kuboshima was an experienced collector who had been drawn to the outstanding work of a group of brilliant young twentieth-century Japanese painters. By contrast, his search for pictures by art students killed in the war had (not surprisingly) yielded only student-quality work. For the most part, moreover, “these were not the kind of pictures that would even get you into a descent art school nowadays.”
Then, a few months into the project, Kuboshima had an epiphany. He was lying down in a small room in the Shinano Drawing Museum where he was accustomed to sleep. Around him, spread out on the tatami mat floor, were about a dozen pictures he had recently acquired for the new gallery. At some point far into the night, Kuboshima says, he clearly heard a voice coming from one of the paintings. It was saying, “I want to paint! I want to keep painting!”
That was when he came to a new understanding. “I realized it wasn’t about how artistically accomplished the paintings were,” explains Kuboshima. “Yes, they were mediocre artworks, but the people who painted them weren’t doing it because they wanted to win a contest or become famous. They were doing it purely out of the desire to paint.”
Kuboshima called Nomiyama and told him, “I don’t want to display these pictures in the Shinano Drawing Museum. I want to build a museum especially for them and call it the Mugonkan.”
A Labor of Love
The name Mugonkan—literally, “speechless museum”—came to Kuboshima almost at the same instant he decided to build the museum. It seemed to sum up his feelings toward the artists and their families. Kuboshima, who was born just before the war broke out, is a self-made man who grew wealthy operating a small chain of restaurants in the Tokyo area during the rapid-growth years after the war. By his own account, he spent most of the postwar era thinking about how to make money. “What can I say to these people who look at me with tears in their eyes and say, ‘Take good care of my little brother’s painting’? There’s nothing I can say.”
Kuboshima ended up taking sole responsibility for the project, embracing Nomiyama’s dream as his own. He traveled the country from Hokkaidō in the north to Tanegashima in the south, visiting surviving relatives and explaining his plans for a museum devoted to the paintings and drawings of art students killed in the war.
Kuboshima was surprised at how quickly most of the families agreed to donate their paintings. The parents of the artists had already passed, and the relatives who had come into possession of the artworks worried about their ability to store and preserve them. Indeed, some of the pictures had already suffered considerable damage. Though not everyone believed in Kuboshima’s good intentions (there were those who accused him of publicity mongering), most of the relatives took his offer to restore, preserve, and exhibit the works as a godsend.
Meanwhile, Kuboshima set about raising the funds needed to build a museum. He borrowed what he could and solicited donations for the rest. Finally, on May 1, 1997, the Mugonkan opened with a collection of 87 works by 37 artists.
As word of the Mugonkan spread, more people stepped up to donate the works of fallen relatives, and the collection grew. Eventually Kuboshima had a second building erected in September 2008 to accommodate that growth. Today the Mugonkan houses roughly 700 works by about 130 artists.
But even as the museum expanded, attendance fell off, dropping from an annual average of about 100,000 visitors during the first few years to less than 40,000 today. After covering maintenance costs and the salaries of his 10 employees (including the staff of the Shinano Drawing Museum), Kuboshima lacks the resources to finance the restoration of all the museum's paintings and drawings, many of which are deteriorating rapidly. Kuboshima himself is saddled with monthly payments of more than ¥600,000 (close to $6,000) on the building loan he took out more than two decades ago—payments that will continue until he is 82. Still, he is determined to preserve at least one work by each artist for posterity, whether by restoration or the creation of replicas.
Seeing the Light in the Darkness
Kuboshima is sometimes assailed by doubts about the project he undertook. He fears that the purpose of the museum has been distorted. Each August, on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender, journalists trek up the hill to visit the museum and proceed to write anti-war articles focusing almost exclusively on the tragic loss of young lives. Kuboshima feels they are missing an important point.
“Those students didn’t paint to make a statement about war or peace or Article 9 [of the Constitution],” he says. “They just painted the people they loved. What I see there is the sheer joy of painting.” Kuboshima would like to think that that expression of joy will live on through the museum’s collection. He wonders how the students would feel if they knew their paintings were being used first and foremost to remind people of the nightmare of war.
Still, there is one annual event at the Mugonkan that temporarily banishes all such misgivings from Kuboshima’s mind. That is the Coming of Age Ceremony for 20-year-olds held on April 29. Each year, Kuboshima invites a national celebrity, who personally hands out letters of congratulation to each of the participants.
After spending the morning on a tour of the museum, the 20-year-old guests record their impressions in the visitors’ book. “I play the guitar,” writes one, “but after seeing these pictures, I’m not sure I’m worthy to call myself a musician.” Another writes, “It made me think about family for the first time in my life.”
Kuboshima rejoices in such comments. This, he believes, is what the artists truly wished to communicate through their paintings. From the viewpoint of his young visitors, the Mugonkan is not an anti-war museum but a museum of youthful dreams, where one can see how young adults of an earlier time devoted themselves to the art that they loved.
Of course, when it comes to interpreting an artwork, there is no one “right answer.” But Kuboshima feels that the Mugonkan as a whole represents “both the despair of war and the hopes of these young people who painted in the midst of that despair—the struggle between despair and hope.” He adds, “Only by fully conveying that struggle can the Mugonkan communicate what war is really about.” First-time visitors generally come away struck by the tragic waste of life and talent, says Kuboshima, but by their second or third visit, they begin to see the joy underlying these paintings.
Listen carefully, and you begin to hear the voices of these young, dedicated art students, saying, “I want to paint!” Look closely, and you begin to see how brightly their spirits burned during their all-too-brief lives. And with that realization comes a still deeper awareness of the darkness that extinguished it.
3462 Koaso, Ueda, Nagano Prefecture
Closed Tuesdays, or the following day if a national holidays
High school and university students: ¥800
Elementary and junior high school students: ¥100 (Originally written in Japanese by Masuda Miki and published on May 29, 2017. Photos by Hanai Tomoko.)