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1,000 Skull-Related Items on Display at Eerie West Japan Museum

AMAGASAKI, Hyogo — A private museum in this west Japan city displaying some 1,000 skull-related items collected by a late neurosurgeon is giving visitors the chance to ponder life and the remains which people inevitably become.

The Skull Museum, whose exterior is itself shaped like a skull, exhibits skulls and other items collected by Keiji Kawamoto, a late professor emeritus at Kansai Medical University. He passed away in August 2019 at the age of 75, but his eldest daughter, pharmacist Kayo Yamamoto, took over the museum as director.

The museum opened in November 2011 serving as a place to “look at death and think about life.” The huge number of skulls on display are among some 8,000 items Kawamoto handled as research material.

The building has three floors and features other items besides skulls. Items on the first floor range from rock band T-shirts to lighters with personal names from the Vietnam War. The second floor has a range of cultural items, from toys and costumes to Mexican and Nepalese masks. On the third floor are academic exhibits such as human skulls from fetus to adult stages, along with Kawamoto’s research papers.

Kawamoto began the collection more than 30 years ago, when he visited San Francisco for an academic conference and acquired a skull at a store there. Its eyes were decorated with glass beads. Yamamoto explained, “Eye sockets are usually supposed to be empty. My father said he was shocked tremendously when he saw it was decorated with eyes and thought, ‘What on earth is this!?’ That was the beginning of his collection of skulls.”

In Japan, people tend to have the impression that skulls are scary or creepy, but in other countries, that’s not always the case. In the traditional Mexican culture of “Day of the Dead,” for example, people honor the deceased by dressing up in colorful skull costumes and flamboyantly decorating altars and graves. When the 2017 U.S. animated film “Coco,” themed on the Day of the Dead holiday, was released, Kawamoto was apparently delighted.

“We should not only fear death, but also reconsider life by being aware of death — that’s what my father wanted to convey,” said Yamamoto. The museum’s Mexican skull exhibit is accordingly cheerful and charming.

Two recent visitors, Kozue Mizushima, 48, and Mayu Hayashida, 47, smiled and said that they felt the former director’s love for skulls from the many exhibits.

Upon entering the museum, visitors are handed an A4-size sheet of paper with a list of 10 displayed items recommended by Kawamoto, and visitors can have fun looking for them. People can come away with some extra knowledge too. This reporter was surprised to read that the oldest hominin is not Australopithecus, but Sahelanthropus.

A giant “Sahelanthropus” decoration is attached to the exterior wall of the museum. The A4 sheet visitors receive reads, “It is worth coming here just to remember this name because the textbooks have changed.” A skull excavated in Africa in 2001, estimated to be roughly 7 million years old, is now considered the oldest human and is named “Sahelanthropus tchadensis.”

On the back of the explanatory sheet are introductory skull-related quizzes. Yamamoto smiled and said, “It represents the wishes of my father — a humorous yet serious person — of wanting people to enjoy learning before leaving here.”

At a later date, ashamed of my ignorance, I went to a library in Osaka where I could browse textbooks. In fact, junior high and high school history textbooks contained descriptions of “Sahelanthropus,” and “Australopithecus” was only described as “representative of ape-men.” I was thankful to receive the knowledge that Mr. Kawamoto left beyond the grave.

Skull Museum:

Located at 5-49 Hamadacho, Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture. Open on Sundays on an irregular basis, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Reservations are unnecessary, but for open days, check the museum’s account on X (formerly Twitter) or Facebook (both in Japanese). Admission is 800 yen (about $5.50) for junior high school students and older, and 500 yen (approx. $3.40) for elementary school students.

Source : Mainichi