Lost and Restored: The Equestrian Statue of Date Masamune

Lost and Restored: The Equestrian Statue of Date Masamune

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The equestrian statue of Date Masamune in Sendai.
A massive earthquake struck northern Japan, damaging the famed statue of Date Masamune in Sendai. But Date - and Sendai - are nothing if not resilient.
Date Masamune’s equestrian statue on Mount Aoba, 30 September 2005. Photo by the Author.

The recent Magnitude 7.4 earthquake off Fukushima Prefecture was thankfully not as severe as the catastrophic 2011 triple disaster. It was, however, still very destructive, with damage estimated between 2 and 4 billion USD, 4 dead and 225 injured. And a particularly visible bit of damage in Sendai was to the famed equestrian statue of Date Masamune atop the Aoba Castle walls. Video footage and on-site photography shortly after the earthquake showed the statue leaning and one of the horse’s hooves cracked, along with some parts of the castle walls collapsed.

支倉常長@伊達武将隊/歴史講座 支倉ないと /武将フェス on Twitter: “伊達政宗公騎馬像と仙台城跡石垣の現状(3/17 11:30現在)・政宗公騎馬像は斜めに傾いています。台座に接している2本の脚元に亀裂が確認できます。午後には足場を組み覆いを掛けるとのこと。・石垣は北西部の一部が崩壊。復旧まではしばらく時間がかかりそうです。 pic.twitter.com/FhnltdxBdA / Twitter”

伊達政宗公騎馬像と仙台城跡石垣の現状(3/17 11:30現在)・政宗公騎馬像は斜めに傾いています。台座に接している2本の脚元に亀裂が確認できます。午後には足場を組み覆いを掛けるとのこと。・石垣は北西部の一部が崩壊。復旧まではしばらく時間がかかりそうです。 pic.twitter.com/FhnltdxBdA

Statues are objects. Objects are replaceable. Statues, however, are also symbols. There is no denying that symbols have power, for good and for ill. This particular statue is a highly visible symbol of the city and its four centuries of history. Despite wars and natural disasters, Sendai, and the Tohoku region at large, have endured. The statue’s visible damage may be a bit of a morale blow, including to me as a former resident of the city. But it may also come as some comfort that the statue itself is a survivor, lost and found, cast and recast since its debut in 1935.

Perhaps by exploring that story, we might draw some hope not only for the fate of the equestrian statue, but also for Sendai itself.

A Changing Castle Site

The statue stands on a high plinth bearing bas-relief depictions of Masamune in life, in court garb, and leading his army on the march. The statue itself depicts the city’s founder in his prime: reins in left hand and right hand resting at the small of his back. Masamune is dressed in his iconic gusoku armor and crescent-moon helmet. He looks out over his old castle town from Mount Aoba’s apex.

Here, his castle’s core walls and halls once stood, including the brewery covered in an earlier Unseen Japan article. Sendai’s traditions and the castle’s story are also intertwined. The famous Suzume-odori dance was first performed by the stonemasons who laid its foundation. During the Date family’s rule, the castle was an asset sensitive enough to the domain’s defense that dignitaries from other fiefdoms were instead received at the Matsuyama Estate in Sendai’s Katahira district, which was the residence of the Moniwa family, a senior vassal family in service to the Date.

Vacated by the Date family after its defeat in the Boshin War, the castle became home to the imperial army’s Second Division. Even at the beginning of the imperial army’s control, the site was known for its commanding view of the city and even drew international attention. Charles Appleton Longfellow, son of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, visited Mount Aoba’s crest with US Minister-Resident Charles De Long, and commented on the view, along with the cannon and other military hardware belonging to the then-Sendai Garrison (Sendai Chindai).

This military presence led to the US Air Force firebombing it in July 1945. Sadly, after the firebombing, little of the original castle remains beyond the walls and a reconstructed gate tower. Since then, the castle’s footprint has transformed. It remains a park. The former third bailey is also home to the Sendai City Museum. At Mount Aoba’s crest, just a short distance from the equestrian statue, is Miyagi-ken Gōkoku Shrine.

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To put such an imposing, highly visible statue there was a symbolic local reclaiming of the site.

Black and white image of Sendai Castle's gate and gate tower in the early Showa era. Date Masamune once lived behind these walls.
Sendai Castle’s gate and gate tower in the early Showa era.

A Symbolic Reclamation

Especially in the early 20th century, the Tohoku region lingered under a cloud of suspicion, imagined as potential enemies to the imperial loyalty built by the Meiji oligarchs. At the time, the north’s version of the Boshin War was still somewhat politically controversial. The Date of Sendai, in particular, were stilled viewed as traitors to the throne for having led the Northern Alliance. In a Meiji-era text that was one of the first that tried to tell the Date version of the story, its authors wrote the following. The discrimination against which they were fighting is evident in their choice of words. (emphasis mine)

But the most valuable part of this book is the list of names for those officers and foot soldiers under Sendai domain command, killed and wounded during the fighting in support of the Mutsu-Dewa-Echigo Coalition. This is something that neither the book Sendai Boshin-shi nor the book Sendaihan Boshin-shi possesses, so we feel our inclusion of it is particularly valuable. These fallen and wounded men, who served so loyally, ought to be esteemed. Their deaths should be pitied. Thus, though it was sixty long years ago, we naturally cannot forget their names.

Otokozawa Chisato et. al., in “Boshin Shimatsu”

Only during the tenure of Morioka-born Hara Takashi did some of that opposition from the highest levels begin to change. In 1917, just before becoming Prime Minister, Hara famously stated “The Restoration was simply a conflict of political views.” He and other Tohoku natives seizing the moment in the Taisho era to make their voices heard, made that turning point possible.

Although Date Masamune predated the Boshin War by centuries, he was the Date clan’s most famous lord, and the city’s founder, and thus a symbol to post-Boshin Sendai. So, to have erected this statue in 1935, 22 years later while many Boshin War veterans were still alive, speaks to the times that had begun to change.

A Hometown Sculptor and an Anniversary

The occasion was the 300th anniversary of Date Masamune’s death in 1936. A committee chaired by former Prime Minister Saitō Makoto approached Komuro Tōru, a Miyagi-born sculptor, to design a sculpture.

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Nyri Bakkalian

Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian is an author, recovering academic, raconteur, and Your Favorite History Lesbian. Her PhD thesis focused on the Boshin War in the Tohoku region. She is the author of "Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union" (Balance of Seven Press, 2020). She hosts Friday Night History on anchor.fm/fridaynighthistory and the secret to her success is Arabic coffee. She misses Sendai daily.

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