- Men in Metal: A Topography of Public Bronze Statuary in Modern Japan by Sven Saaler
Recent years have witnessed an upsurge of interest in public statues and their symbolic meaning. As “Black Lives Matter” protesters have defaced and taken down statues in the United States and elsewhere and as conflicts and antagonism have grown over the “comfort women” statues in and outside South Korea, we are reminded of the power of statues to shape collective narrative with their visual and material presence.
Men in Metal offers a timely and important study of Japanese public statuary of historical figures. Through meticulous research based on wide-ranging primary and secondary sources, Sven Saaler has produced the defining work on the topic, a book that all interested readers should consult. As a basis for his discussion, he has created an impressive database covering over two thousand of the statues scattered throughout Japanese parks, train stations, universities, and other public spaces. He identifies overall trends since the Meiji period, offers detailed case studies of individual statues, and provides ample, beautifully reproduced images. His central argument is that Japan’s public statues, embodiments of the nation’s “cult of the individual,” have been tools for symbolizing national unity, significantly contributing to the growth and maintenance of national consciousness among the public.
The stories of the statues—some massive, some miniature, mostly in bronze but also in stone (metal was hard to come by during the war)—are reconstructed from a multitude of sources including local newspapers, letters, postcards, government documentation, catalogues, advertisements for donations, and speeches at the unveiling ceremonies. Fascinating and curious episodes, like the Yomiuri newspaper’s failed campaign for mass-produced statuettes of the Meiji Emperor (p. 48) or the granting of an Ig Nobel prize to the Japanese scientist who solved the mystery of a statue that repelled bird droppings (p. 66), bring the topic to life and make this book a delight to read. I am glad to have learned why the well-known statue of Saigō Takamori in Ueno Park is dressed in yukata and accompanied by a pet dog.
Interesting stories aside, the book’s strength is that it is not just about statues. Rather, it is a history, told through public statuary, of Japan as a modern nation-state. Men in Metal maintains a steady focus on the role of public statues as an expression of nationhood and the systematic development of this role since the Meiji period, laying out its examination across ten chapters arranged largely chronologically in three parts. While keeping an eye on parallel phenomena in the European context, Saaler shows how statues have been deeply intertwined with the nation’s history, consistently serving as expressions of symbolic national unity through emerging modernity, imperial expansion, wars, the Allied Occupation, economic recovery, and the resurfacing of militarism. [End Page 193]
Chapter 1 finds the roots of Japanese public statues in native sculpturing traditions as well as European public bronze statues of historical figures, with an emphasis on the latter. While visiting Europe, the members of the Iwakura Mission clearly recognized the role of public statues in fostering patriotism. The Meiji elite subsequently pursued the same strategy, creating numerous statues to impress the masses, instill national pride, and reinforce the legitimacy of their new regime. This chapter locates the origin of Japan’s national cult of the individual in the early Meiji period, when the bestowal of court titles and dedication of new shrines granted a place in history to many figures who would otherwise have been forgotten. It points out that while statues provided a visual iconography of modern Japan, the cult of the individual was actually a much wider cultural phenomenon. It also includes a useful discussion of the increasingly nation-centered understanding of ijin, or Great Men, as it was expressed in biographies and other popular educational publications.
The next two chapters consider imperial statuary. Chapter 2 makes the interesting observation that the Meiji emperor’s statue was absent from public space during his...