Men in Metal. A Topography of Public Bronze Statuary in Modern Japan

Saaler, Sven
Anzahl Seiten
356 S.
€ 110,25
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Laura Hein, Department of History, Northwestern University

This book is an elegant example of using a small topic to tell a very big story. While Japan Studies has been enlivened by a large literature on remembrance and commemoration in the last quarter century, not least by Sven Saaler himself, the roughly 3,000 statues of historical personages have received surprisingly little attention until the arrival of this deeply researched, beautifully produced, and lavishly illustrated volume.

As we already know about Japan and other nineteenth century modernizing nation-states, leaders worked incredibly hard in many ways to inculcate a sense of national belonging among the general population. One of the challenges for that project was that “the nation” is a somewhat abstract entity which does not automatically lend itself to such enthusiasms. Erecting statues of historical and mythical individuals was one of many strategies that Japan’s political, economic, and cultural leaders pursued to invent the back story for a unified Japanese nation stretching back millennia under the benevolent and uninterrupted rule of the Imperial family. Each statue, created or only proposed, was an opportunity for “systematically constructed personality cults” of individuals who in one way or another represented and humanized the nation (pp. 3–4). This topic meshes well with other published works on rebuilding early modern castles, establishing art museums, writing textbooks and histories of Japan, and erecting Shinto shrines1, but the statues, because they represented individual human beings, are a particularly good way to see precisely how the national narrative was created, adjusted, embellished, and criticized with each new “man in metal.”

Unlike many other new nations, the religious status of the emperor as a demi-god meant that the Imperial Court vigilantly patrolled representations of the ruler himself while still wishing to emphasize his centrality to the national community. His image did not grace the new bank notes, postage stamps, or provincial government halls, for example. This taboo “triggered an intensive search for proxies that would satisfy the need for visual representation of the nation” (p. 13). And, when successful, these proxies shared in the religious aura surrounding the emperor while their images also became a destination for domestic and international tourists, an embellishment to city parks, a prestigious commission for professional sculptors, and a field trip for local schoolchildren, all brand-new activities.

The book is organized in three parts: first, a discussion of the earliest debates regarding who should be represented in statuary followed by a study of the typical participants in these debates. In general, these were local elites – or sometimes passionate oddballs – who desired to see a hometown figure venerated as a national hero. It was not easy to get a statue built and approved for public display. Success meant aligning these varied local agendas with national ones by finding a narrative that encouraged veneration.

Part II consists of quantitative and qualitative analyses of essentially every bronze statue of a historical figure built in Japan since the 1870s, and some that never were completed. Saaler took advantage of the tight focus to create his own data base, allowing him to pinpoint the periods of most active meaning-making in this form as well as to examine what kinds of people were treated as models to emulate and when. At first, ancient figures associated with the imperial family were particularly popular. Throughout, individuals who had in some way contributed to establishing the modern nation-state made frequent appearances. But what “contributed” meant changed over time. So, for example, Ii Naosuke, the shogun’s deputy who negotiated the first treaties with the United States in the 1850s and was assassinated before the end of samurai rule eventually was celebrated as one of Japan’s first internationalist modernizers, although it took fifty years for this narrative to succeed. The delay was due in no small part to the fact that the treaties themselves were very unpopular and so Ii’s elevation could only happen after they were retired. By the dawn of the twentieth century, the new state builders increasingly shared center stage with military figures.

Part III picks up the story in the 1930s, explaining what happened to statuary during the Asia-Pacific War in Japan, in the colonies, during the Occupation years, and in the postwar era. Only about 100 of these symbols of national community survived the war because they were melted down for their metal content. Chillingly, this action was presented to the population as a beautiful act of self-sacrifice by a role model who “gave his life” for the nation. It was only a small step from there to the Imperial Japanese Army’s plan that the entire civilian population follow their example. In the colonies, everyone involved understood the moral lessons the statues were designed to teach, explaining why so many located in Korea were inaccessible to the general public to prevent anyone from defacing them. Most of these were torn down after the war ended.

Then after defeat in 1945, the founders of the modern nation remained popular but in the early postwar years they were most often depicted as internationalist peacemakers. They were joined by cultural figures such as the haiku poet Matsuo Basho. Since the 1990s, the feudal warlords who had accepted their loss of status in the 1870s became more popular choices for (re)elevation to a cult of personality. A number of older statues were recreated after the war, sometimes from the original molds. This process began during the Occupation: the Occupationaires trod lightly, fearing a backlash if they were to ban symbols of Japan’s past, unlike the occupation of Germany.

Saaler relies on postcards for many of his images, a clever tactic that both demonstrates the statues’ popularity and provides a much clearer view of the object than would a photograph taken in situ. These are wonderful historical resources, and interested readers can peruse more of them at the excellent website maintained at Lafayette College by Paul Barclay, which pairs nicely with Saaler’s book.2

1 For a representative sample, see Sven Saaler / Wolfgang Schwentker (eds.), The Power of Memory in Modern Japan, Folkestone 2008; Sven Saaler, Politics, Memory and Public Opinion. The History Textbook Controversy and Japanese Society, Munich 2005; Oleg Benesch / Ran Zwigenberg, Japan’s Castles. Citadels of Modernity in War and Peace, Cambridge 2019; Alice Y. Tseng, The Imperial Museums of Meiji Japan. Architecture and the Art of the Nation, Seattle 2008; Noriko Aso, Public Properties. Museums in Imperial Japan, Durham 2014; John S. Brownlee, Japanese Historians and the National Myths, 1600–1945, Vancouver 1997; Laura Hein / Mark Selden (eds.), Censoring History. Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany, and the United States, Armonk 2000; Akiko Takenaka, Yasukuni Shrine, History, Memory and Japan’s Unending Postwar, Honolulu 2015.
2 East Asia Image Collection. Easton, PA: Lafayette College, 2012, (21.12.2020).

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