Friday, 23 March 2018

A Pointed Story – Saigo's dog's ears

Statue of Saigo Takamori in Ueno Park.
From a print by Watanabe Nobuzazu (1899)
The whole print may be seen here.

The Year of the Dog (2018) is already well underway as I write this, but alas, there seems to be little evidence of that principle feature of the dog’s personality, loyalty, in public affairs. Perhaps this is part of the popularity of heroes who seem to rise above the 'swamp' of realpolitik.

Japan has had a long and conflicted relationship with dogs (and, indeed, with the concept of loyalty) varying from using them as target practice for inuoumono, a form of mounted archery (the arrows were blunted, so the dogs survived)... the edicts of the Tokugawa Shogun Tsunayoshi, who forbade the taking of animal life (Edicts on Compassion for Living Things issued from the 1690's), and had a huge kennels built for 20,000+ dogs outside the walls of Edo Castle.

The typical image of a dog nowadays is that of the shiba inu; a little on the small side, slightly foxy, smart-looking and attentive. This is only a comparatively recent development, however. It was not so long ago that dogs became a small but hotly contested area of nationalism – the relatively new Japanese nation needed to show its spirit through its canine friends. A quick look at the Japanese breed standards for the shiba inu still has a whiff of this:
A spirited boldness, a good nature, and an unaffected forthrightness, which together yield dignity and natural beauty.

Speaking of former symbols of nationalism, 2018 is also the year of the Taiga drama ‘Sego-don,’ about the life of Saigo Takamori – perhaps a good choice for this year as he was renowned for his loyalty and strength of spirit, and was strongly associated with his own dogs, especially his favourite, Tsun.

 The confusing title comes from the way ‘Saigo dono’ (dono is an honorific) was/is pronounced in Saigo’s local Kagoshima dialect – Sego don. Note also the Mt Fuji-shaped hat

But back to the dog. Saigo was fond of dogs, keeping several. His favourite, by all accounts, was Tsun – a black and white floppy-eared foreign breed. These characteristics are clearly seen in early depictions of the dog, such as this one by Yoshitoshi (1888), eleven years after the death of Saigo.

By the time the statue was built, Saigo had been thoroughly co-opted by nationalist interests, and it was felt that a floppy eared dog did not look Japanese enough. An early version was criticised for looking like a mongrel or too Chinese. Flying in the face of fact and common-knowledge, it was suggested to the sculptor, Gotō Sadayuki, that he change the ears to make them pointed, as a good Japanese dog’s ears should be. This is the image that has stuck in popular culture, and I fear NHK will be no different.
Statue of Saigo Takamori, Ueno Park, Tokyo by
Takamura Koun and Gotō Sadayuki) (1898)

Takamura Koun, with a hat remarkably
similar to Segodon's.

Both men were remarkably skilled sculptors (Takamura was particularly well-known), and their Saigo is not among their best works. Their Kusunoki Masashige, which stands outside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, is far more dynamic and assured. (Once again, the horse was by Gotō – he was famous for his horses, with two other sculptors responsible for the sword and the armour).

Kusunoki Masashige (1904)

Takamura's small pieces, particularly of animals, also have a charm which is absent from the Saigo statue. Head of the woodworking department of Tokyo School of Fine Arts, he was also appointed as an artist of the Imperial household. One of his most famous pieces is Aged Monkey, which was exhibited at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893.

Sharp eyes might also spot that Saigo's attire is very 'Japanese' in the statue, in contrast to Yoshitoshi's print. There may have been considerations in the sculptor's mind of what looked more heroic or suitable for such a statue in aesthetic terms, but I can't help feeling that there was something purposeful in choosing to go without the western-style shirt and collar as shown in the slightly earlier print by Yoshitoshi. The choice was also something of a shock to Saigo's widow, Itoko, who remarked on it when the statue was unveiled.

When the statue was finally uncovered, revealing the image, Itoko emitted a sudden shriek.  “It looks nothing like my husband,” she exclaimed.  She was immediately silenced and later reprimanded by Tsugumichi, out of regard for the “feelings of those many people who went to such trouble and expense to produce the statue.”  But Itoko would never overcome here embarrassment at the statue’s informal attire “for all the world to see” – because in life Saigo “was a man of the utmost decorum” who would have worn the formal “hakama and haori bearing the family crest, or a military uniform.” 
(From Samurai Tales: Courage, Fidelity, and Revenge in the Final Years of the Shogun, Romulus Hillsborough, Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Pub., 2010.)

But popular images evolve over time, and Saigo's, despite several notable inaccuracies, (I know the dog's ears are not really important) long ago became a legend.

An enlightening article dealing with some of these issues can be found at:

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