Media watch: Statues of limitations to honor not-dead political figures

Hold that pose…

Now that Shinzo Abe’s state funeral is history, we can get back to the business of mocking politicians, like former prime minister and sports honcho Yoshiro Mori, whose penchant for gaffes is even more fulfilling than Taro Aso’s. On Sept. 10, Tokyo Shimbun ran a story about a plan to erect a bust of Mori as a bid to “show appreciation” for what he’s done for the Japanese sports world. Mori was the chairman of the committee that organized the 2019 Rugby World Cut in Japan, and, of course, he held the same position for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics—until he didn’t due to his infamous way with words. 

Japan has a lot of statues in public places, so the Mori bust is hardly an anomaly. Probably every prime minister has had his likeness immortalized in bronze and placed in a prominent place in his home town or prefecture. What makes the Mori bust slightly different is that the idea started with sports folks rather than hometown supporters and the like. Toshiaki Endo, a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker, is pushing the idea. At one point, Endo was Olympics minister, and he said that in May the group of people who want to make the Mori bust contacted him for assistance and Endo agreed. One member of the group is fellow lawmaker and former Olympic speed skater Seiko Hashimoto, who took over as chairman of the organizing committee after Mori was forced to step down because of remarks that insulted women and others who have, you know, common sense. Other members of the group also worked for the Olympics and the Rugby World Cup (though the Japan Rugby Association has said it is not involved), and they all want to honor MorI for “the good deeds” he did in the sports world. One unnamed source told Tokyo Shimbun that the group is just friends of Mori who feel bad that he left the Olympics under a dark cloud and think he should get more credit for the positive things he did. 

Usually, busts or statues are erected after their subjects die, but Mori isn’t the first individual to be honored with a bronze likeness during his lifetime. For instance, the original “faithful dog,” Hachiko, showed up when his statue, probably the most famous in Japan, was unveiled in the plaza at Shibuya Station, according to “statue journalist” Takehiro Sumi, who also points out that former prime minister Hiromi Ito had a statue erected before he died, but it was torn down by forces who objected to the peace treaty he signed after Japan won the Russo-Japan War. Sumi says the history of public statuary tends to progress in waves. The second wave started in the 1990s and mostly focused on anime characters as tourist attractions. We are now at the start of a third wave, he thinks, launched by the erection in Tokyo of a statue of the comedian Ken Shimura, who died from COVID in 2020. Still, Sumi insists that the “attitude” toward public statues has remained pretty much the same since the Meiji Era: They’re always paid for and put up by friends of the subject. 

So unlike the Abe funeral, the Mori statue is a private affair. The cost will essentially be crowdfunded, but Tokyo Shimbun is careful to point out that Hashimoto is not and has never solicited donations for the bust, since such a move might be misinterpreted for political reasons. But Sumi thinks that it will be easy to raise money for the Mori bust because of his notoriety. Most statues commemorate people whom the vast majority of Japanese know nothing about, but Mori’s gaffes (which Tokyo Shimbun wryly explains are too numerous to list in the article) have made him more famous than most. Nevertheless, a professor and former rugby player told the newspaper that he isn’t sure it’s a good idea to erect a bust of Mori this soon after the end of the Olympics, because it will just extend whatever negative feelings people have about Mori; in other words, a bust will always be there to remind  people that Mori said some stupid things and, in that regard, didn’t really do the sporting world any favors. 

There is also a plan to erect a statue of former prime minister Yoshihide Suga in Akita Prefecture while he’s still alive. A Sept. 16 article in the Asahi Shimbun reported that the plan was to erect the statue this fall, but Suga himself asked the group carrying out the plan to postpone it until next spring because of his friend Abe’s funeral. The support group is all from Yuzawa, Akita Prefecture, which is Suga’s home town. They started planning the statue before Suga became prime minister, when he was perhaps Japan’s most famous chief cabinet secretary due to his dour demeanor and the way he artlessly stonewalled the press. 

Raising money for the statue has been done gingerly. Donations are solicited in ¥10,000 units, and after Suga became prime minister fundraising was suspended because it might have been misconstrued. It started again last January and ended in March after collecting a total of ¥21 million. However, when it was discovered that some local assembly members had donated more than once to the fund, the extra donations were returned so as not to spark suspicions of political pandering. In any case, the statue itself, which will be 50 percent larger than life, has been ordered from a company in Toyama Prefecture and will cost ¥8 million. (The photo sent to the company as the model for the statue is the one with Suga holding up the new nengo, “Reiwa.”) Asahi doesn’t mention what will happen to the rest of the fund. 

One thing the two statue projects have in common at the moment is that no final resting place has been definitely chosen for either. Originally, the friends-of-Suga wanted to put their statue in a public park, but some locals objected and even went so far as to say it shouldn’t be placed in any public space. Obviously, not everyone from Yuzawa thought Suga worthy of such an honor—or, maybe, they just don’t like the idea of public statues in the first place. The plan now is to buy a small patch of concrete in front of JR Yuzawa Station and erect the statue there, which is quite a concept, if you think about it: a statue erected on private property but within a very public space. What’s the point of honoring someone if you can’t force everyone to acknowledge it?

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