A Topography of Modern Japanese Bronze Statuary

Personality Cult in Modern Japan

The foundation of the modern Japanese nation-state after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 demanded new methods for achieving social integration, creating and propagating a collective identity, and, ultimately, for securing the loyalty of citizens to the new central government.

The Japanese Emperor, the Tenno, is usually considered of paramount importance as a symbol of national unity and the central means of securing "loyalty and patriotism" (chukun aikoku). However, a close look at the utilization of public space in Japan since the late 19th century reveals that the Tenno was only seldom utilized as a visual symbol. After his tours of the country in the 1870s and 1880s, he is rarely seen in person; his official photographs (as the one shown below) are kept mostly invisible behind curtains and visual representations of the Tenno are hard to find.

In public space, different figures were instrumentalized to propagate the newly constructed national identity with the ultimate aim of bringing the abstract and remote national identity closer to the daily lives of the Japanese people. Public space is regularly utilized by nation-states as an arena where concepts of "national identity" and national consciousness can be inculcated. Just as in Western countries, it was above all statues of national heroes, founding figures, mythical ancestors and recent political and military leaders that appeared in hundreds in Japanese public space since the erection in 1880 of the first (non-Buddhist) bronze statue.

While in any modern states, the head of state or the monarch is also depicted in form of statues, on coins or bills, on postcards or reliefs, the conspicious absence (or rather, invisibility) of the Emperor in public space was therefore compensated by a mis-en-scene of historical personalities, the sum of which made up to a personality cult that was a central facet of modern Japan's politics of memory and of the propagation of national identity among the population.