Save the Asian Monuments: Reopening to the Global Museum World
Small museums that safeguard Asian monuments and the history of some of the greatest empires and religions in history need visitors to survive.
In late December, 2022, JAPAN Forward interviewed Shin'ichi Nakayama, head of an NGO called Save the Asian Monuments, about his work to preserve the material heritage of Asia. This is part three of a three-part series based on that and other interviews with Nakayama, and his Save the Asian Monuments partner Tatsuya "Tony" Takahashi, over approximately a year and a half.
First part: Save the Asian Monuments: Taking Up the Challenge of Preserving Asia's Material Heritage
Second part: Save the Asian Monuments: Preserving the Quality of Japan's Historical Heritage
A World Reopening
As the COVID-19 pandemic gives way to more international travel, Shin'ichi Nakayama is continuing to work on helping Japan's museums. But the NGO that Nakayama and Tatsuya "Tony" Takahashi founded, Save the Asian Monuments, remains an initiative with horizons far bigger than Japan. In that spirit, Nakayama has been trying to forge new relationships between Japan's museums and museums in other parts of the world.
And not just in Asia. In preparation for the eightieth anniversary of the end of World War II, for example, Nakayama has been exploring the possibility of a joint exhibition with the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia. Douglas MacArthur was the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Occupation-Era Japan. The MacArthur Memorial contains important papers and objects from MacArthur's long association with Japan and elsewhere in Asia.
Nakayama has also reached out to the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, DC. He tells me that he agrees wholeheartedly with the Smithsonian's basic stance that the public has a right to access and learn from the material historical record without censorship. Nakayama says he wants to let Smithsonian museum goers know about the wealth of history virtually untapped in Japan. That way, the doors of knowledge can be opened more widely.
Budgets Stretched and Dwindling
But there have been many more things to work out than expected with both American venues, Nakayama says. Indeed, Negotiations continue.
"Museums in the United States face many of the same challenges that museums in Japan do," he concludes. "Funding is down, or non-existent. People don't visit museums as much as they once did.
"It's a digital age. Museum collections are being digitized, which is a boon for research. But at the same time, some seem to have equated digitization of parts of some collections with the obsolescence of museums as a whole.
"The mood is cautionary, and avenues for new joint projects are hard to come by."
And yet, it is with the challenges associated with Nakayama's efforts to build a network of museums spanning the Pacific Ocean that his and Tatsuya "Tony" Takahashi's original dream seems to have come full circle. Save the Asian Monuments is slowly emerging from the coronavirus pandemic and building up new momentum in this part of the world.
Back to Asian Monuments
"We are finding a lot of enthusiasm at museums and historical and cultural sites in Asia," Nakayama says.
"In India, for example," Nakayama continues, "there is a museum in the Punjab region which is also affiliated with a university. Negotiations are ongoing so we can't reveal the name of the university just yet, but the directors there are eager to link with Japan and share knowledge.
"And there are museums elsewhere in India, in Nepal, and in Taiwan which feature the arts, histories, and cultures of minority populations," Nakayama says. "Some of those minority groups have connections with Okinawa, as do some cultures in Indonesia and Micronesia.
"We aren't forming new relationships in that sense," Nakayama tells me. "We're rediscovering very old ones that many today have forgotten."
Asian Monuments Telling a New Japan-and-Asia Story
One of the most fascinating projects Nakayama mentions is in Malaysia.
"On December 8, 1941—the same date as the attack on Pearl Harbor — a detachment of Japanese soldiers mounted on run-of-the-mill bicycles entered Malaysia," Nakayama says. "The Japanese drove the British colonialists out of the Malay Peninsula. And the Japanese military returned to native farmers' fields which had been appropriated by the British for tea production.
"After the war, some Japanese soldiers remained behind in Malaysia to help in the ongoing fight for independence. It was a guerrilla war. While there, Takahashi met one man in Malaysia who fought alongside the Japanese.
"Pro-Japan sentiment in parts of Southeast Asia is sometimes high," Nakayama relates.
"There are other connections, too," Nakayama continues.
"For example, there's a place in Malaysia, Labuan Island, which was once called Maeda Shima, 'Maeda Island'. (Sometimes it was spelled 'Maida' instead of 'Maeda.') It was a coaling and watering station for ships. The Imperial Japanese Navy took the island in the early stages of World War II in the Pacific.
The people who live on Labuan want the world to know that history. We are working with local museums in Malaysia, as well as with American institutions, to expand the network and keep history alive.
"I visited a site in Malaysia deep in the mountains," Nakayama says. "There was a shop which served shio ramen on Sundays. A previous owner had learned how to make it from the Japanese during the war. There are traces of Japanese culture in unexpected places. That history must be preserved."
Save the Asian Monuments!
Asia — stretching from the Middle East to Japan, from Siberia to Singapore, from the Philippines to Afghanistan — is a vast and rich world. It has been home to some of the greatest empires and religions in world history. It remains a vibrant cultural dynamo, a living bazaar of languages, faiths, peoples, and arts.
But it is also under attack. The People's Republic of China has destroyed not only much of its own Confucian and Buddhist heritage, but also much of the Buddhist culture of Tibet and the Islamic culture of East Turkestan. There is religious strife in India, social unrest in Sri Lanka, more Chinese cultural imperialism in Southern Mongolia and against Okinawa and Taiwan.
Terrorism and corruption, along with endemic war, undermine cultural-preservation efforts in western Asia and the Middle East. Russian incursions into Japanese territory north of Hokkaido brings local cultures there under threat.
Against these anti-civilizational forces stand a retired schoolteacher, Shin'ichi Nakayama, and his adventurous comrade Tatsuya "Tony" Takahashi. They are working to protect and preserve the material heritage of Asia. On a shoestring budget — every last yen of it from their own pockets — Nakayama and Takahashi are turning the tide.
Make This the Year to Visit Museums
But they need our help. What can we do to pitch in?
"Visit museums!" Nakayama reiterates.
"Don't bother going to the boring ones, though," Nakayama quickly qualifies. "Some museums don't do the hard work it takes to preserve artifacts and make them interesting to the public. Those museums will go out of business and their treasures will pass to vibrant museums whose directors and staff have a love for the artifacts and arts which they keep alive."
That love is contagious, and those artifacts and arts depend on our loving them enough to protect them for others to enjoy. A man in a mortgaged home and his partner in a foreign land are working to save the Asian monuments.
Let's go to a museum and see some of the priceless treasures they, and many others, have saved.
End of series 'Save the Asian Monuments.'
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Author: Jason Morgan, PhD
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