Statue of Sadness: Commemoration and Controversy Surrounding Tokyo’s 1923 Earthquake Children Janet Borland

Janet Borland

The University of Hong Kong

In 1928, on the fifth anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake, Tokyo’s primary school principals announced their plans to build a monument to honour the five thousand children who died in this unprecedented disaster. Using donations collected from school children and the community, the Education Department commissioned sculptor Ogura Uichiro to design a bronze statue that would commemorate the innocent child victims for eternity. Within days of unveiling the design, however, city officials were inundated with letters from anguished parents and members of the public who complained that it was “too life-like”: they could not bear to look at such a statue that reminded them of their child’s wretched suffering. In his defence, Ogura explained that he chose the design so that people who visited the Earthquake Memorial Hall “one hundred years from now” could look at the statue and understand what happened in 1923. Why was the statue so controversial? How was the design issue resolved? This paper will explore important themes related to memory and commemoration that are just as relevant today following catastrophic natural disasters. In particular, how do survivors commemorate the death of children, when children represent the future of society?


Janet Borland is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Japanese Studies at the University of Hong Kong. She is the author of Earthquake Children: Building Resilience from the Ruins of Tokyo, forthcoming with Harvard University Asia Center, 2020.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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