Go for a wander in any Japanese park in a public area and you’ll undoubtedly come across at least one statue of some historical figure or other, who you have no doubt never heard of before. Like most people, I usually have a brief glance at the memorial plaque and then forget about it just as quickly.
However, on my recent trip to Kyoto I came across one such statue that made me stop and think, and actually show an interest in who that random person was – after all, if they are important enough to have a nice statue crafted in their likeness then there must be something interesting to find out, right? On that note, here is a short introduction to Tsuzaki Muraoka-no-Tsubone, whose statue is located in the Kameyama-koen in Arashiyama.
Born in 1786, Tsuzaki Muraoka-no-Tsubone was the daughter of Tsuzaki Sakyo, a member of the minor nobility in Kyoto. Growing up in a privileged position she became the court lady-in-waiting – her master was Konoe Tadahiro. Towards the end of the shogunate era, she was a member of the imperial loyalists, and this is what she is most famous for. In her career, she helped her master form many important ties with various Tokugawa activists at the time.
Her work as a major contact between court nobles and loyalists saw her coming into contact with Ugai Kichizaemon of Mito, the priest Gessho and Saigo Takamori – a famous and influential samurai, known as the last true samurai.
Her work as a political activist had unsurprising consequences – she was imprisoned by the domain authorities, being arrested and exiled twice in her lifetime. When she was later able to return to Kyoto, she rebuilt the Jikishian Temple and lived in the temple grounds for the remainder of her life. A strong, political woman in early life, in her later years she was a teacher to local children and seen as a mother figure to all who knew her. But most of all, she is remembered as a heroine of the Meiji Restoration, in a time where most political achievements are attributed to men.
The statue in Kameyama-koen sums up the interesting and contrasting life of Tsuzaki Muraoka-no-Tsubone; the fierce political activist and the gentle teacher reflected in the duality of the statue – strong, imposing, masculine… but also with kindness etched in the soft lines of the face and gently folded hands. It was designed by Sakatani Ryonoshin in 1928 and crafted by Nakamuta Sanjiro.
Next time you’re in a public park and pass by a mundane-looking statue, remind yourself that these stony incarnations represent living, breathing human beings with a historical background and stories to tell. These little snippets of the past may not be the most attention-grabbing, interesting research topics, but all the same, it consolidates your Japanese experience and places your history books in context. Don’t just walk on by without a glance – after all, what are the chances that there’ll be a statue like that of you one day? Not so much.