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Japanese pagoda monument fact and fiction

by Adam Minakowski on 2023-06-20T09:08:20-04:00 in History, Special Collections & Archives | 0 Comments

The granite Japanese pagoda, sometimes called the Saitō Monument, standing in front of Luce Hall has received renewed attention lately. Naval History magazine recently published an article about it, and midshipmen from the History Department interviewed Associate Professor Lee Pennington, who specializes in Japanese history, for a podcast about the monument. Both provide a full account of the pagoda's story which began with the death of Hiroshi Saitō, a respected, well-liked Japanese ambassador to the United States. A funeral procession brought Saitō's ashes from Washington, DC to the academy where they were transferred to the USS Astoria for transport back to Japan. In gratitude for "the courtesy extended by [the] institution at the time of the Astoria's departure," his widow presented the pagoda as a gift to the academy, where it was erected only a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Records in the Naval Academy archives describe both real and imagined obstacles to this exchange of courtesies between two nations on the brink of war.

The Japanese pagoda monument shortly after it was erected in July 1941.

A 1960 article in the midshipman-published magazine The Log presented a few paragraphs on the memorial that, despite their brevity, got a number of facts wrong. First, the article noted that "the monument had to be shipped in by way of Mexico" because "hostilities had by this time broken out between the U.S. and Japan" and in 1940 "was lying unassembled at the Supply Department docks of the Naval Academy." Although the Navy was notified of the gift in 1940, the monument didn't arrive in the US until February 1941. With no hostilities occurring at that point, there was no need to reroute the monument through Mexico. The ship transporting it did off load it in New York instead of Baltimore as was originally planned. No reason was given for the change, but other than the memorial arriving in Annapolis by train rather than boat, the detour was inconsequential. 

Description of the monument from Mrs. Saito's letter.

The Log article also claimed "a contractor, working at the time on a wing of Bancroft Hall, estimated the cost of construction and several interned Japanese consuls were contacted to assist in the assembling of the monument," which was completed in November 1942. Irwin & Leighton, the firm that was indeed extending wings one and three of Bancroft Hall at that time, was tasked with erecting the monument but finished the job in June 1941, more than a year before the article's stated completion date and prior to the establishment of the Japanese internment camps. Katsuzo Okumura, Second Secretary of the Japanese Embassy, visited the academy on June 16, 1941, to inspect the site chosen for the monument and to make arrangements for paying Irwin & Leighton for its work.  However, he didn't assist in the monument's assembly.

The opposite view of the monument standing in front of an ivy-covered Luce Hall.

Finally, The Log article indicates that "the question of which party should pay the bill, the Japanese Embassy or the Naval Academy, was undetermined and, due to confusion with the Japanese Embassy, the Academy, and the contractor, the bill has probably never been paid."  This is probably true. With the US severing commercial and financial ties with Japan in July 1941, less than a month after the monument's completion, it isn't difficult to imagine the Japanese Embassy ignoring the bill or the US declining to present it in the first place. The archives reference file for the monument contains correspondence from 1944 showing Irwin & Leighton still trying to collect with no indication that it was ever successful.

Information on the Sanskrit figures appearing on the monument and how it should be oriented from Mrs. Saito's letter.

Indeed, the only way the US and Japan's path to war impacted the construction of the Saitō Monument, other than the contractor's payment, was the absence of a dedication ceremony. Following the monument's installation, Superintendent Russell Willson asked the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) to report the completion of the project to the Japanese embassy and find out "what its desires, if any, are in the way of dedication ceremonies."  The CNO replied asking the superintendent for suggestions "bearing in mind that the pagoda is a private gift and that the ceremonies should be simple, with as little publicity and fanfare as possible." This correspondence also took place around the time commercial and financial relations ended between the two countries. So, the superintendent's conclusion was that "because of the change in the international situation" the "question of dedication of the Japanese pagoda be not referred to the Japanese Embassy for the time being." The CNO agreed and directed Willson to send a note of thanks along with photos of the monument - probably copies of the photos reproduced here - directly to Mrs. Saitō instead of through the embassy. 

In the end, efforts to connect the Saitō Monument to larger geopolitical events prove difficult, although the case can be made that it was an attempt to improve strained relations, albeit an ill-fated one. But most of all, the story behind the monument is a personal one, in which a family showed its gratitude for courtesies extended to the after the death of a loved one.


Individual Exhibits: Japanese Pagoda, Correspondence 1940-1944, Records of the Superintendent, General Correspondence, Entry 39b, RG 405, Special Collections & Archives, Nimitz Library.

Monuments and Memorials: Japanese Pagoda, Reference Files, Special Collections & Archives, Nimitz Library.

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