History Comes Tumbling Down

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In Japan, the demolition of a home signifies the passing of a tradition

My parents chose the first day of the new millennium to make the announcement: they had decided to tear down our family home and build a new one. I wasn't surprised. They had been debating for months whether to repair the tin roof or build a new place. Still, I couldn't help but feel sad. My late grandfather had built the house 72 years ago, from straw thatch and cedar beams. (The tin roof appeared 30 years ago, once thatchers became hard to find.) It was the oldest home in a community of some 60 households in Sashima, a quiet farm town 50 km north of Tokyo. Three generations of Sakamakis had lived in the single-story, 106-sq-m minka, or old-fashioned house: my father, his five siblings and his three daughters were all born there. It had a dirt-floor entryway, five rooms furnished with tatami mats, a sunny wooden-floor corridor and a single black pillar (made of zelkova wood, similar to elm). The cedar beams had witnessed Japan's pre-war poverty, postwar confusion and, eventually, the nation's rapid economic development. Why would anyone want to destroy a house that had endured so much?

The answer: winter. The old house used to get very cold. Over the years, the heating system was upgraded from charcoal-filled ceramic pots to kerosene burners to an electric room heater--but you still needed a jacket indoors from December to March. It's like camping out, said my American husband, who grew up with central heating. As young farmers, my parents tolerated the cold; now 67 and 69, respectively, they could take it no more.

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History Comes Tumbling Down Their decision also reflects a fundamental change in what Japanese want in their homes. Houses in Japan were traditionally airy and open, built for summer weather. More practically, wooden houses needed good ventilation to prevent rotting in the high humidity. But as Japan started building modern houses and condos with concrete and steel, rotting became less of an issue. And as more married women started staying home, rather than working in the fields, they wanted a more comfortable home environment. Some Japanese still try to preserve the minka: these tend to be city folk, with comfortably insulated homes and romantically impractical notions about traditional country living.

Impractical or not, the black pillar seemed too precious to discard. At first, my sisters and I pleaded with our parents to remodel the old house rather than tear it down. But an architect advised them that it would cost more to renovate ($360,000) than to build anew ($230,000), partly because the foundation was weak. My parents had a nest-egg from 44 years of toiling in the fields; even so, they needed a $45,000 loan to rebuild. My older sister, who is single, lives with my parents and works only part-time, so she couldn't contribute much. So, as we say, shikataga nai--it can't be helped.

Once my father had decided to build a new house, he entrusted the job to a relative who is a professional carpenter. My father conceded that the man was no builder: He's known for knock-down jobs. But when we criticized him for risking his life savings, my father declared: There's an obligation to respect. He had contracted another relative, a more able carpenter, to build a storage house 10 years ago; it was only fair to give this job to the other man.

In preparation for the day of the demolition, my father took out a long piece of yellowed rice paper bearing notes written with a calligraphy brush. The paper lists the guests (and their gifts) for the ceremony celebrating the 1928 construction of the house. One person brought tangerines; another offered rice cakes. Then my father made his own list, naming those who would help in the demolition: 10 male neighbors, three daughters and five other relatives.

On a sunny February day, the boss of the demolition crew (who is married to a Sakamaki) started operating the power shovel at 8 a.m. As the noisy machine attacked the roof, one of my uncles said: It feels like my body is being torn down. By noon, it had smashed through most of the house--the roof where sparrows nested, the wall on which I drew graffiti, the spooky bedroom where I slept with my grandmother (surrounded by pictures of dead ancestors), the small bedroom where I played with my sisters, the dining room where we ate on a low table (always sitting up straight). By early afternoon, the ground was leveled for the new house.

I didn't have time to be nostalgic. With two neighborhood women--whom I was told to call older sisters--I prepared lunch (fried fish) and dinner (sashimi) for our guests. After each meal, I washed two dozen plates, bowls and cups. The old was giving way to the new, but the tradition of inviting relatives and neighbors hadn't changed. Or maybe it's my parents who haven't changed. It's an obligation to invite people, and it's obligation for people to be invited. Shikataga nai, explained my mother.

By 5 p.m., the demolition was complete. Now it was time for nostalgia--and lamentation. One neighbor complained that farmers no longer visited each other to help with the rice planting and harvesting. In five years' time, people will no longer invite neighbors to tear down a house, he added. I had witnessed not just the demolition of my home, but the passing of a tradition.