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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Selling Pieces of the Past

Ryo Asami

Oct. 28, 2015

70 years have passed since the end of the World War 2, but the trade in war memorabilia in Japan is hotter than ever. Dealers say they're being offered more and more items for sale, and they think it indicates the country is going through a generational shift.

Yasuhiro Maekawa is a dealer who has mixed feelings about the trend. He says large numbers of war-related items have hit the market in recent years.

Many sellers approach Maekawa's shop in Tokyo, which is packed with sabers, uniforms and other items once used by members of the Imperial Japanese army and navy. They take up not only the first floor of the shop, but also the second and third floors.

Some of the items are so rare that Maekawa cannot put a price on them. "This military sword really shouldn't be here," he says, looking over his stock. "It belonged to a member of the Imperial family." One display case contains military uniforms for high-ranking officers, most of which were sold by the officers’ descendants.

Not all Maekawa's customers are interested in history. Roberto Lorenzi, a fashion designer from Italy, says he’s attracted to the designs. "I'm here looking for some detail and construction and color, and this kind of fabric," Lorenzi says while looking over uniforms. Teenage shoppers treat Maekawa’s merchandise no differently than they would items in a department store.

Maekawa recently visited one potential seller in a Tokyo suburb. Takashi Okubo had found several military objects while sorting through his late father’s belongings, including hats and uniforms. "He would never have been able to bring himself to throw them out," he Okubo says. His father was an engineer who was conscripted into the army near the end of the war and late spoke little of his experience.

Okubo says when he sees the articles, it helps him understand a bit about his father’s life as a soldier. "He must have kept them as reminders of his days in the army," Maekawa tells him. "That's probably why he didn't give them away."

Okubo wanted to keep his father’s things, but he didn’t have enough space in his apartment and felt the moth-eaten uniforms would be difficult to care for.

"I'm sorry I can't keep them," Okubo says. "If I sell them, I won't be able to pass the stories they tell down to my children. But there's not much I can do." Maekawa agrees that such items carry historical importance. "The number of people who experienced the war is decreasing each day," he says. "Fewer and fewer people know what things were like in Japan before the war. Military items are historical relics that can teach us about that time."

Maekawa says people have their own reasons for selling and buying these pieces of the past. He believes that as they move from the families of those who cared for them into the hands of strangers, much of their significance is lost.


Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya were joined in the studio by NHK reporter, Ryo Asami, and James Simms, an American journalist who covers post-war Japan.

Shibuya: Ryo, I was surprised to see these historical artifacts being bought and sold so easily.

Asami: Yes, I was surprised too. The store I visited was so packed with war memorabilia that I could hardly find space to step inside. During my research for this report, Maekawa has bought more than 300 items, such as military uniforms, diaries and photos. There are fewer and fewer people alive who actually fought in the war, so people of my generation ought to see these items as precious. They can help us understand what happened. Not everyone wants to sell the memorabilia, but some feel they have to for economic reasons. They're becoming hot commodities online, allowing people around the world to them.

Beppu: I had mixed feelings about seeing this kind of thing selling as commercial goods. James, what did you feel about what is happening here.

Simms: It is a bit unfortunate, because there is a long history that goes along with these items, and it would be interesting to know the history that came along with these items. Who used them, where they went and how that fits into larger picture of what happened.

Beppu: Do you think this fits into how quickly the generation is shifting in the country?

Simms: I think in Japan the issue of World War 2 is not discussed as much as say the United States, so there is not as much interest in the memorabilia, in terms of the historic value, in terms of its link to past.

Shibuya: Could you tell us how people in Japan may make use of these items rather than simply selling them?

Simms: In the United States, they have oral history projects, for example at universities, public broadcasters or local historical societies. If you can somehow link these objects with the history of the person, who they were and where they went, and then to link it into the larger history, I think that would be a good first step to understand where Japan has been. And also figure out where it is going in the future.

Beppu: It seems that learning from the past is difficult for any countries. I think we are having same problem or task to pass on war memories to next generation, carrying this day, not just Japan but also the US.

Simms: It is often said that the lesson of history is that we forget history. But obviously these objects, in terms of what they represent, people are aware of the history, but that does not necessarily translate into political action or policy decisions. But you need to be aware of the history before you can act on it.