text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
In Shibuya, it is a dog, Hachiko and in Roppongi a spider, Maman; modern Tokyoites have indeed some very strange tastes when picking a statue as a rendezvous point. But up until a few decades back, when people arranged to meet, their choice was invariably the statue of Saigo Takamori, up on the hill in the southern side of Ueno park. Of course those days Ueno was one of Tokyo’s cultural centers, both because of its location (the heart of the city was still beating at the east) and because of the museums and the temples that fill the park which still hosts Saigo-san’s statue. And because things run in circles, the people have gradually started meeting again in front of him, although now it is probably so they can also have a look at the view towards the river and the “Sky Tree” tower on its opposite side.
The story of the sturdy man with the square jaw, the short summer kimono and the little dog at his side is more or less known to all Japanese: a samurai from Kagoshima in Kyushu Island, a military commander in the Boshin war that brought the fall of the last Tokugawa shogun and the restoration of the Meiji emperor, a politician and later a leader in the Satsuma rebellion, one last futile attempt of the samurai to stand against the emperor Saigo himself helped sit on the throne. As for his end, appropriately legendary and adventurous: a ritual suicide (seppuku) that might or might not have happened and a severed head that got lost to reappear later –his story, as told in Hollywood’s “The Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise was, uncharacteristically smaller than life.
The Komadori sisters, a duet that was very successful in the years after the war are wondering in their song about him, how he sees Tokyo from up there –a Tokyo cold, facing enormous difficulties and very different from the one he knew (the statue was unveiled in 1898, still during the reign of the Meiji emperor). And there is no doubt that the razed post-war Tokyo would bring tears to the eyes of Saigo-san as it brought tears to the eyes of all those who saw it. But Tokyo was rebuilt and Japan became bigger than what Saigo Takamori and the other visionaries of the age of the big change probably imagined. And even though very few today can realize the extent of the role the sandal-clad “oji-san” (i.e. middle aged man) played in this change, they all feel a strange familiarity when they stand next to his statue –a familiarity neither Hachiko, nor Maman, nor any other city landmark offers..
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.