"It may be difficult for parents who lost their children to look at this statue, but I think it is important for people to remember [the earthquake] fifty or one hundred years from now."

—Ogura Uichirō, sculptor, 1929

On 24 March 1930, thousands of people lined the streets of Nihonbashi hoping to glimpse an impressive motorcade as it drove toward Chiyoda Primary School. Inside, children representing the 117 schools destroyed by earthquake and fire in 1923 waited in anticipation on the spacious new sports ground.

To mark the completion of the imperial capital reconstruction project, the emperor conducted an inspection tour of Tokyo, stopping at only seven locations described as “the most deeply significant places related to the reconstruction”. One of the stops was at Chiyoda Primary School. The emperor spent roughly ninety minutes touring the new school, inspecting the modern facilities, and viewing children’s schoolwork. He spent more time there than at any other location on his imperial capital reconstruction tour. This was no coincidence: Chiyoda Primary School not only best encapsulated the successes associated with reconstruction, but also symbolized hopes for the future.

While many events held between 1929 and 1931 focused on celebrating the reconstruction of Tokyo with ceremonies, medals, and commemorative postcards, efforts were also made to remember victims of the Great Kantō Earthquake, especially children. Children represented the future—both in physical and idealised form. In life and in death, they could also serve as influential reminders as to why Tokyo must be better prepared for future earthquakes. Teachers and education officials employed children—both those who had died and those who had survived the 1923 tragedy—for longer term objectives because they elicited powerful emotions. In death, government officials wanted children to be remembered as a distinct category of disaster victims.

In April 1931, a statue to commemorate the death of 5,000 school children was installed in the grounds of the Former Honjo Clothing Depot on the southern side of the recently completed Earthquake Memorial Hall. Dubbed the Statue of Sadness (kanashimi no gunzō), the new form and function of the statue reflected the emerging desire of Japanese educators and government officials to educate future generations about the risk of earthquakes by reminding them about the tragic deaths of children, not to comfort bereaved families as many hoped.

  • When newspapers published a photograph of Ogura Uichirō’s commemorative statue in 1929, how did the public respond?

  • Why was the Statue of Sadness controversial?

  • What does the Statue of Sadness reveal about the complicated issues surrounding earthquakes, commemoration, and children?
  • Borland, Janet. “In memory of future earthquakes: Controversial new form and function of a commemorative statue in 1920s Tokyo.” Journal of Material Culture 27, no. 3 (2022): 238-258.