The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
The unique appeal of old playhouses   Links to Edo Period theater culture
The unique appeal of old playhouses   Links to Edo Period theater culture
(National Important Cultural Assets)

Venue: Yamaga 1499, Yamaga-city, kumamoto Prefecture

Photo by Yachiyoza
Yachiyoza is a building that was repaired and refurbished numerous times in its history as well. Did you try to restore it to its original form?
Since Yachiyoza has been designated an Important Cultural Asset as a wooden-structure theater built in the Meiji Period, showing people a Yachiyoza with renovations made in the [current] Heisei period would not give them the taste of Meiji culture they have come to see. This was a restoration project, so the main purpose was to repair the building, but an equally important purpose in a case like this is to try to restore the building to its original form when it was first built.
 A restoration project requires academic surveys and research. We can never expect to find any remaining architectural plans of the original building, so we basically survey the evidence of past repairs and renovations remaining in the existing building materials as the building is dismantled. For example, there may be a place where there is now a window in such a building, but when you look closely at the neighboring struts you find the remains of wall plaster indicating that it was originally a wall section that was later cut out to install the window. So, to restore the building to its original form, you have to remove the window and plaster it over as a wall section again. However, if that strut was not an original one but one from a later renovation, then your restoration would be mistaken. Therefore, the first thing you have to do is to assess the age of all the structural parts [materials] remaining in the building as you dismantle it. In the case of the Kanamaruza that was moved and restored in 1975, a total of 130 parts of the building were restored. It was about the same with Yachiyoza.

Isn’t it difficult to determine the age of old building materials?
It is not difficult to tell the difference between a 100-year-old pillar and a 10-year-old one, but you can’t tell the difference between a 100-year-old pillar and a 90-year-old one just by looking at them. There are a number of factor for judging the age of materials, but the most reliable and objective one is the number of nail holes in them. When mounting a roof rafter on a beam, the first thing the carpenter does is to drive in a nail to hold it in place. If leaking rain causes the rafter to rot, but not the thicker beam below it, the carpenter who comes to repair it removes the rusted nail, throws out the rotten rafter and then nails on the new rafter. When he does that, he drives in the new nail at a point a little distance away from where the original nail was. Then, when the building is dismantled later and the dust is wiped off, we find the replaced rafter has only one nail hole but the beam has two nail holes. That means the two pieces are from different periods in the building’s history. If both pieces only have one nail hole it means that they are from the original building when it was first built. But there are cases where there are two holes in all the pieces of the building. That means either that the building has been dismantled and moved once or that it has been dismantled once and repaired. If the parts have three holes each it means the building has been dismantled twice in its history.

I can envision a beam having a number of nail holes, but do you count all the nail holes in the entire building when dismantling it in a restoration project? If so, how many did Yachiyoza have?
By the time the dismantling is finished we have marked all the nail holes with chalk. For example, if it was the current hole it may be marked in blue and a previous hole in white. By the time we had finished dismantling Yachiyoza, we had marked about 500,000 nail holes. It took half a year in all.

Besides the nail holes, I am told that you mark and number all the tiles and timbers and other parts and check the condition they are in to decide if they can be used again, that certainly must be a painstaking job.
It is. You can’t do it if you are the kind of person who gets bored easily. It is a menial job, but it is also one that demands a lot of care, because you can’t damage any of the pieces. Good carpenters are taught to work fast and build a clean, precise building, and they are not trained to take buildings apart while surveying each piece carefully. So, after about a month on the job, everyone has grown silent. For that reason we have to do things to keep the morale up, like having a drinking party every now and then or reporting the things we have learned about the building at the end of each workday thanks to their diligent work.
 There were about 10,000 pieces in all to the Yachiyoza. As we check all the nail holes we look for traces of past work done on the building. Most of the pillars and beams of the Yachiyoza were the original ones from when it was built in 1910 (Meiji Period), but about 10 percent of them were from the time when an expansion was made on the building in 1924 during the Taisho Period. Only 2 or 3 percent were from the later Showa or Heisei periods.
 When the original Meiji-period pillars and beams were investigated for evidence of changes, we found actually quite a lot of evidence of the existence of previous parts to the ones at the time of the dismantling. There were even some places were there was a confusing mix of several traces of previous work in one place.
 From these traces we tried to determine which were the original ones from the time when the building was originally built. We find that the chisel work in the joints with the cleanest cuts is on the original beams. But we are alloy able to tell the original work. We can’t tell which of the chisel work from the second and third renovations is the older. So, we have to turn to other peripheral evidence such as the layout of the building overall to make those decisions. It is a matter of using both the “micro eye” for investigating the individual work traces on the wood and the “macro eye” that sees the building as a whole, through the repeated processes of the dismantling work and surveys, in order to eventually get the entire picture of how the building and its history.

At the same time you are “reading” the history of the building in that way, do you also conduct surveys of historical documents and interview people who remember to older days of the building?
It is a fortunate case when we are actually able to get historical records related to a building being restored. In the case of Yachiyoza we were lucky that there was one old photograph from the time when the building was originally built and it was also helpful that local historians and other people had found and interpreted written records about the Yachiyoza.
 The survey of the physical evidence found in the dismantling eventually gives us a history of the building. Then, based on this history we begin discussions about what period in the building’s history we should return it to. The basic rule is to return it to the original, but we also think not only about each building’s individual story and what point in its history was its brightest period, the height of its glory, but also about its positioning in terms of Japanese history. From the survey of its physical construction evidence, we knew that in the building’s 90-year history up until the restoration project began in 1996, changes had been made to the Yachiyoza 19 times.
 These changes can be divided into four main periods. The first is the period of the original building which was similar in style to Edo-period playhouses. The second period was after the expansion of the building in the Taisho Period (in 1926). This expansion was conducted to accommodate a new fire law requiring smoking rooms on each floor of a building in accordance with the floor’s seating capacity. At that time, two extensions were added to the second floor of the Yachiyoza on the right and left sides of the building as smoking rooms and they were covered with what is called a Yamagata Chidori gable. This made the building look much more extravagant as the “mountain” of the big main roof was now visually sitting atop the ridges of the two side roofs. That also happened to be the period during which the playhouse was at the peak of its glory, so in the case of the Yachiyoza it was decided to restore the building to that Taisho-period form.

Restoration is a process that looks back to the past, but at the same time it is also a job that looks to the future. When you do restoration work, how far into the future are you planning?
At least 100 years. For a building with big pillars and beams like a temple, the need for major repairs comes around about every 200 years. In the case of a residence or playhouse with their thinner pillars and beams, that need comes around every 100 years or so. So, my responsibility at the very minimum is to make sure the building last until that next repair time. When restoring a building I always try to do the best job possible, but human beings always make mistakes. In the future, as specialists study our restorations made now in the Heisei Period, they are sure to find any number of areas where we made mistakes in our judgment. That is why we leave records of the judgments we made in the restoration and their reasons to leave for future reference. On the parts we replace, we brand the wood with a mark that shows when the piece was replaced in some discrete place on the piece. And with the pieces we have taken out, even if they have been eaten beyond use by termites, we coat it in insecticide and keep it for future reference when the next restoration survey is made if it is a piece that provides important evidence of the building’s history. If you store these pieces somewhere separate from the building, however, they will eventually be lost. So, we store them up in the building’s attic.
 Recording the things that we learned during the restoration survey work is an important part of our job, but we don’t use a digital camera to record things, because there is no CD that will be good 100 years from now. If you store the information on the hard disc of a computer, the software will inevitably be different when the time comes to refer to it and it won’t be possible to open it. The more primitive the preservation method the better it is. The glass dry-plate photographs taken 140 years ago at the end of the Edo period are still as clear as ever. And if you write something on handmade Japanese paper with sumi ink and put it in a paulownia box, it can keep for 1,000 years.
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