Northern Culture Center (Hoppo Bunka Hakubutsukan) is a former Japanese farmhouse built in 1887 and converted into a local museum. The house has numerous rooms, with a floor space of about 4,000 sq. meters. It’s in a cluster of buildings (main house, storehouse, tea ceremony room [upper right photo], and more) surrounded by a splendid Japanese garden with fall foliage, seasonal flowers, Japanese pine trees, etc.
Upper left photo shows the large Ohiroma banquet room (大広間) used for large gatherings. It has a picture-perfect view of the garden in autumn. With 100 tatami mats, the Ohiroma room is the most impressive room in the house used only a few times a year, rented for wedding and funeral receptions, etc.
I’m bringing attention to this farmhouse because of its heartwarming history concerning local Japan-US relations. The original owner of the home was a farming and merchant family started in 1756 by Ito Bunkichi who received some farmland in Niigata. Successive generations of the Ito family increased their agricultural and merchanting wealth until they owned large tracts of land in Niigata.
However, after World War II, the Land Reform Act placed a limit on how much land people could own. It forced landlords who owned too much land to sell their excess land to the government. This was to weaken the power of wealthy land owners and reform the economy. The Ito family therefore had to give up much of their land holdings and their magnificent farmhouse was to be demolished. Fortunately, the home was rescued by an American soldier who was in Japan as a member of the Allied Occupation. He was Air Force Lieutenant Ralph E. Wright-Peterson (1922–1995) from Peoria, Illinois.
Acting on reports that the Ito property was storing hidden goods for the old Imperial Army, Lieutenant Wright conducted a search of the property and met Ito Bunkichi VII (1896-1958), the family head at the time. It so happened that Bunkichi VII had once studied at University of Pennsylvania in the 1920s. Lieutenant Wright had also attended University of Pennsylvania.
Having the same alma mater seeded a friendship between the two men, and Wright supported Bunkichi VII’s wish to preserve the home. They both wanted to pass on Japan’s traditional life and culture to future generations. Wright helped to push for a private museum foundation to be established in 1946 (the first of its kind sanctioned by the Japanese government after the war), so that the Ito home and property could be donated to it. The home was then converted into a museum. That’s how this grand home was saved with the help of an American.
On the museum property is this monument (lower photo) for Lieutenant Ralph E. Wright (left) and Ito Bunkichi VII who both established the museum foundation and saved the home in 1946. The monument was built in 1988 by Bunkichi VII’s son, Bunkichi VIII (1927-2016) who is standing next to the monument in the photo. He was the museum director when he graciously gave us a tour of the house. He shared stories and photos of when he met Wright in 1985 (lower right photo). Wright finally met Bunkichi VIII and visited the home in 1985 for the first time in 36 years.
Wright was an infantry rifle platoon leader on Okinawa when the war ended. From 1946 to 1949 during the Occupation of Japan, he was a civil education officer with the Niigata military government. After returning to Illinois, Wright earned a Ph.D. and pursued a career in education. He later moved to Rochester, Minnesota where he became the principal of a number of high schools until retiring in 1986. Wright died of leukemia in 1995. Survived by seven children and grandchildren. I wonder if his children ever visited Niigata. Hope they did.