Statue of Kusunoki Masashige

Dynamic representation of a samurai expressing the spirit of Meiji era artists

Imposing statue overlooking Nijubashi Bridge in the heart of Tokyo

In the gardens across from the Imperial Palace stands a bronze statue of a warrior mounted on a spirited steed. He is Kusunoki Masashige, a samurai who lived toward the end of the Kamakura period (early 14th century) and is celebrated for his unswerving loyalty to the emperor. Everything about the work is richly detailed, from the determined expression on the samurai’s face to the taut sinews of the splendid horse. An image of this statue once graced a Japanese banknote. Overlooking Nijubashi Bridge, a sightseeing spot, this is one of the most famous statues in Japan.
The imposing statue, about four meters in height, is mounted on a granite plinth, giving a total height of some eight meters. It is one of three renowned bronze statues in Tokyo, the others being the statue of Saigo Takamori in Ueno Park and that of Omura Masujiro in the precincts of Yasukuni Shrine. The statue of Kusunoki Masashige, in armor and mounted on a fiery charger, expressing all the romantic notions associated with samurai, is often featured in tourist guides. Visitors from all over the world stop to admire the statue.

The bronze statue of Kusunoki Masashige with trees of Kokyo Gaien National Garden in the background
Kusunoki Masashige, the embodiment of virtue and imperial service, reins in his spirited horse. The image is inspired by a description in Taiheiki (Chronicle of medieval Japan)
Kusunoki Masashige varies widely in appearance in the surviving portraits. Opinion was divided as to which portrait should be used as the basis of the statue. Finally, to express his astuteness as a commander, it was decided to depict the indomitable warrior with a lean resolute countenance.
The horse was cast in several parts, such as legs and the tail. The finish is so smooth that one can scarcely detect where the parts were joined.
There was also a debate about the breed and type of horse. Seeking advice from equine specialists, it was decided to depict an idealized Japanese horse embodying the traits of the best horses from around the country.
Painstaking research was undertaken to ensure the historical accuracy of Kusunoki Masashige’s attire, weaponry and tack.

Collective endeavor of artists of Tokyo Fine Arts School

Sumitomo presented the statue of Kusunoki Masashige to the Imperial Household to commemorate the bicentenary of the Besshi Copper Mines. At the end of 1889 (22nd year of the Meiji era), following consultation with Tomotada Sumitomo, the 13th head of the Sumitomo family, Saihei Hirose, the first director-general of the House of Sumitomo, decided to commission a statue using copper from Besshi to mark the 1890 bicentenary and present it to the Imperial Household.
Sumitomo requested Tokyo Fine Arts School (predecessor of present-day Tokyo University of the Arts) whose dean was Tenshin Okakura to create the statue. At that time, Tokyo Fine Arts School lacked a course on metal sculpture and the related facilities for making molds. Professor Koun Takamura of Tokyo Fine Arts School, a distinguished sculptor who had been working in wood, became the leader of the statue production team. The following year, Tokyo Fine Arts School hired three teachers who subsequently joined the team producing the statue. While Koun Takamura was responsible for the head of the statue, Kisai Yamada and Komei Ishikawa were responsible for the body and the armor, and Sadayuki Goto for the horse.
Teachers and students of Tokyo Fine Arts School were invited to propose designs and that of student Shusui Okakura was selected. Though the design had been determined, production was not straightforward. Twenty or so portraits of Kusunoki Masashige survived but he looked different in each one. Finally, Koun decided that Kusunoki Masashige should have a lean face with an astute countenance, highlighting his capabilities as a military strategist.
Professor Chitora Kawasaki of Tokyo Fine Arts School, an artist specializing in the genre of history painting, was responsible for ensuring historical accuracy of the armor. He visited temples and shrines associated with Kusunoki Masashige, researched items said to have once belonged to him, at times resorted to well-informed speculation, and completed the design of the armor.
Goto, who was in charge of production of the horse, had been a keen horse rider in his youth and had even researched horse breeding at the Agency of Military Horses. Driven by his passion for equestrian portraiture, he studied both Japanese and Western painting. Venturing into sculpture, he became a disciple of Koun who, recognizing Goto’s talent, had recommended that be given responsibility for producing the horse. Full of enthusiasm, Goto secured carcasses for dissection from the Agency of Military Horses, took numerous photographs of horses in the Tohoku region, and became an expert on horses. He created many mockups and eventually determined the design.

First section-by-section bronze casting in Japan

楠木正成像 台座 銘文
A plaque on the plinth is inscribed with the words of Tomoito, the 15th head of the Sumitomo family, who was adopted by the Sumitomo family and whose biological brothers included Sanetsune Tokudaiji and Kinmochi Saionji. It states: “My deceased brother Tomotada, as a heartfelt expression of the loyalty of the nation, wished to cast the statue of Kusunoki Masashige using copper from Besshi and present it to the emperor.”

In 1893 (26th year of the Meiji era), the wooden mold ready for the casting process was transferred to Assistant Professor Sessei Okazaki of Tokyo Fine Arts School. He was a renowned caster and chaser whose work had won the second prize at the Exposition Universelle (Paris World Exposition) of 1889. However, monobloc casting or a traditional Japanese step-by-step casting technique proceeding from the lower to the upper portion of the work was not feasible for a statue exceeding four meters in height and including spaulders, sword, and all manner of elaborately detailed features. A new casting technique was needed.
Traveling at his own expense, Okazaki headed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, a showcase for arts and crafts from around the world, to see what he could learn from the exhibits. Several large statues at the expo appeared to have been produced by monobloc casting and Okazaki was surprised by the sophisticated technology. But as the expo was drawing to a close, a shaft of sunlight illuminated an otherwise barely detectable seam in one of the statues, which caught Okazaki’s attention. On examining other statues, he found that they too were not the products of monobloc casting, but had been cast section by section.

Having returned to Japan, Okazaki spent about a year making the horse, casting it section by section, having divided the horse into seven sections: the body, the neck, four legs, and the tail. He also drew on traditional Japanese metalworking techniques to create the imposing statue of Kusunoki Masashige astride his charger. The section-by-section casting of this large bronze work was unprecedented in Japan.
Since the chasing and patination of the statue took a further two years, it was not completed until September 1896 (29th year of the Meiji era). The plinth was installed and the statue of Kusunoki Masashige was erected near Nijubashi Bridge in 1900 (33rd year of the Meiji era).

Championing the traditional arts and crafts of Japan

A the crisis gripping Japanese arts and crafts constituted the background to Hirose’s proposal to present a statue to the Imperial Household commemorating the bicentenary of the Besshi Copper Mines and to request Tokyo Fine Arts School to create it.
The Meiji Restoration prompted Japan’s rapid modernization, including an embrace of Western models in the cultural sphere, too. Consequently, traditional arts and crafts tended to be neglected. Whereas Japanese art and design were highly regarded in the West where Japonisme influenced many artists, few in Japan recognized the value of Japanese arts and crafts, and so their practitioners received ever fewer commissions.
The so-called Rokumeikan period (1883-1887) was the result an extreme and undiscriminating infatuation with everything European. Based on the lessons learned, Tokyo Fine Arts School was established in 1887 (20th year of the Meiji era). The school proactively hired Japanese artists as teachers. In 1889 (22nd year of the Meiji era), it launched courses on Japanese painting, sculpture, metalworking and lacquerware, seeking to foster the excellence of the traditional arts and crafts of Japan.
In 1889 Hirose visited the Paris Expo. Distressed by the poor quality of the arts and crafts exported from Japan, Hirose recognized there was an urgent need to restore Japanese culture. Upon his return to Japan, Sumitomo commissioned Tokyo Fine Arts School to create the bronze statue with the aim of championing the traditional arts and crafts of Japan.
Other elements in Sumitomo’s commemoration of the bicentenary included commissioning Tokyo Fine Arts School to create a statue of Prime Minister Masayoshi Matsukata, as well as production of a copperplate engraving of the Besshi Copper Mines and copper-mirror-shaped paper weights as commemorative items. Subsequently, Sumitomo also commissioned a statue of Bank of Japan president Koichiro Kawada, a statue of Saihei Hirose, and six small statues of Kusunoki Masashige. Through these and other initiatives, Sumitomo endeavored to spur the resurgence of the traditional arts and crafts of Japan.

東京藝術大学 理事・教授 北郷 悟
Satoru Kitagou
Trustee and Professor, Tokyo University of the Arts
B.F.A. in Sculpture, Tokyo Zoukei University, in 1977; M.F.A. in Sculpture, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, in 1979. Having served as associate professor, Faculty of Education, Niigata University, and as associate professor, Department of Sculpture, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, appointed professor, Department of Sculpture, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, in 2006. Appointed trustee and vice president, Tokyo University of the Arts in 2009. Appointed trustee and professor, Tokyo University of the Arts, in 2013. Fellowship at Accademia di Brera in Italy awarded by Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs.


Statue of Kusunoki Masashige

1-1 Kokyogaien, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
+81-3-3213-0095(Kokyo Gaien National Garden Administration Office, Ministry of the Environment)