Shigesato Itoi and Tree Houses: A “home” that makes you free

Since last year the folk from online magazine Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun (Hobonichi) have been building tree houses around Tohoku in areas like Kesennuma that were devastated by the 2011 disaster. PingMag has been speaking to a lot of people about the idea of the “Japanese home” recently and we were curious what would make a dream tree house. But why are the Hobonichi team building tree houses in and around Kesennuma in the first place? We went to talk to Shigesato Itoi to find out more. The following is an extract with the full version to be published in the forthcoming PingBooks Vol.1.

shigesato-itoi-and-tree-houses-a-home-that-makes-you-free01Photo: Kazue Kawase (YUKAI)

Tom Vincent: Right now we are researching and writing about the Japanese home. As part of this we took part in the “odd meeting” that marked the start of your tree house project and it got me thinking how a tree house takes on aspects of a home. I wanted to ask you more about this. I also still don’t get why you ended up making tree houses. Why tree houses?

Shigesato Itoi: I made a mess of it when I was a child. You know, like how middle-aged dads suddenly buy an expensive guitar and say they’re starting a band? After all, that kind of fun is cheaper than going out drinking. Those sort of people are probably the kind who didn’t make a good job of it when they were younger or they were popular, but as soon as they put down their guitar, they lost their aura. It’s like with motorbikes too. The guys you see riding Harleys weren’t able to buy one when they were kids so now they do.

Yes, it was all payback for my childhood. Well, a fun sort of payback. A tree house is two things at once — a “naughty place” where you can do things with no grown-ups around, as well as being a dream for youngsters because it involves building something in a high place. But it’s actually really difficult. Even when you try again with some understanding. For kids it’s impossible to make a tree house. It’s even too difficult for adults if they are halfhearted about it.

We made tree houses in Tohoku because I wanted people to come together emotionally and I thought that people would come to see them if we could recreate memories. The parts of the Tohoku that were devastated by the disaster will return to being normal places once all the rubble has been cleared away. We might say that we shouldn’t forget but when there’s nothing there, people do forget. You can’t deny this. It’s natural. You then have to do something interesting, a kind of “service” just for making people remember. Today wherever you go in Japan it says outside the train station something about how the place is a “city of water and greenery” or something, right? But you need to do something like write like “water, greenery and the strawberry on top of the head” and people will be intrigued. I wanted to make something like this “strawberry” in Tohoku. We started it to combine childhood dreams and people’s joy, along with the people of Tohoku.

To make one you need to do the first one quickly. Otherwise you end up having spent a lot of time and haven’t finished anything. Once you’ve got the first one done you can start working on more in other places. In this way we’re working on around seven right now.

What are tree houses like in Britain?

shigesato-itoi-and-tree-houses-a-home-that-makes-you-free02The first tree house Hobonichi made in Kessenuma

shigesato-itoi-and-tree-houses-a-home-that-makes-you-free03The second tree house, in Ark Farm in Miyagi Prefecture

Tree houses are the same. They are an indescribably magical place. But why do we make them in trees?

Perhaps because people are like monkeys? It’s fundamentally like a monkey. If a monkey needs to do a poop, it just does it on the tree. It doesn’t care about a toilet. Being up high is like feeling as free as a bird. And so we remember what it was like when we were monkeys. Think about it. Sitting down in a tree house is like being as high up as the window of a two-story house. But if you look outside from the second floor it’s not interesting, right? But even though it’s the same height, it’s really interesting from a tree.

Some tree houses are actually just a deck. But these tree houses are more like real houses.

We defined “tree house” as something with a roof and walls. But you don’t need to get fixated on things like the windows.

And it’s not just about climbing trees, though, it’s also about building a house in the tree. Children like to make things into homes, don’t they?

They even build homes inside homes.

And use cardboard or anything they can get their hands on…

Perhaps this is all territorial. It’s like how kids say this is “my place”, somewhere mom can’t enter. When they reach puberty, boys want a car, don’t they? Girls want to live alone. Either is preparing for when they give birth to the next generation. Until then everyone is living in a place they call their legal home but our desire to move away and be free is fulfilled by these things.

And with a tree house, we can build a home just with the things we like. It’s like how we build a house out of cardboard when we are really small. It can then be a castle or even a boathouse.

And that’s why it’s no fun if you have a certificate of residence for it! It’s the same as a teahouse. Whether you are Nobunaga Oda or Hideyoshi Toyotomi, you still have to pass through the small entranceway to get inside.

Yes, a teahouse or tea room is defined as a place where you make and drink tea. It’s just for tea, a place where fundamentally you don’t do anything else.

But the tea is just a pretext. It doesn’t have to be tea, right? Since it’s somewhere where you can’t take a sword into, it became a place where you can relax and open up

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to another person. The tea is just tatemae, the front. Right now the NHK Taiga period drama is the story of Yoshitaka Kuroda and it shows how Nobunaga used the cloak of tea for conducting his political schemes. “This is a superb tea bowl,” he would say. And then by giving it to someone, they would then possess great value. And then if you bring a tea bowl to Nobunaga and say that it is worth one castle, then you give him a castle. You can build up a system of values outside of the tea ceremony. In a tree house we don’t have this but it’s still very similar. I want President Obama to come and see.

In which case, there would be two Obamas, since as you told us before, you also “do” Obama.

In emergencies I always “do” Obama. Just a bit, mind, I’m not being rude about it. Because no one notices.

I’d like to see the two Obamas in conference. Anyway, back to the tree houses, do you think there can be a tree house with a real goal or purpose?

Yes, it’s possible. Once you’ve made it, it’s yours to do what you want with. Make a fountain and use it as a fountain or perhaps not. The ideas are open to anyone. It’s different to the “do not enter” kind of thing. It could be used for advertising. You could write the name of a company on it. It’s the same as how in a car race there are names like Marlboro written on the cars. That’s the very reason why the cars are racing in the first place. Today when we talk about sponsors, that in itself is interesting and you can have something that is “sponsored” even if you don’t put a logo on it.

Right now we’re involved with an animal shelter and we’re asking around for people who would become the owners of a space with a rescue dog cage for 30,000 yen per month. The people who pay the 30,000 yen become the sponsors of the space and at some point the dog that is there will be adopted, and a new one will take its place. But because it’s your help that covers the heating costs and so on, it makes you happy that your money is being used in this way. In this way, even if it’s a business or an individual, it’s really great to be able to say that you made a tree house. Tom, how about putting the PingMag brand on a tree house?

A PingMag tree house! Yes, that does sound nice.

shigesato-itoi-and-tree-houses-a-home-that-makes-you-free04Photo: Kazue Kawase (YUKAI)

  • Nathan

    I like how Itoi is always doing different things…