Dear Alice,
On the premises of the Shinjuku Sumitomo Building in Tokyo there is a statue of St. Francis of Assisi. It’s quite big — larger than lifesize. I’ve known about it for years, since the building was first constructed, but no one has ever been able to tell me what the heck a prominent saint has to do with the Sumitomo Company! Can you please find out? (As an aside, the statue next to that one seems to be of a very destitute person! She has nothing at all to put on!

Arthur B., Tokyo

Dear Arthur,
This was a bit of a tall order, but you gave me a great head start by enclosing a copy of an old subway fare card with a picture of the sculpture. According to the Japanese on the card, which is one of the “Metro Art Walk” series, the statue is the work of Naoki Tominaga and is titled “Taiwa” (“Dialogue”). My first thought was to contact the sculptor, but a quick check on the Internet revealed that he passed away three years ago at the age of 92.

So I contacted the company that owns the building, Sumitomo Realty Co. A spokesman took my inquiry but wasn’t encouraging. “It’s been more than 30 years since the building was built,” he cautioned. “I doubt there’s anyone still on staff who would know.” I made hopeful noises about records somewhere and he promised to get back to me.

A few hours later he did. “I even tracked down retired employees,” the spokesman reported, “but no one remembers specifics about that particular statue or why it was selected. All they could say was that a decision was made to place various sculptures around the building to make the plaza level more attractive.”

For the benefit of readers who aren’t familiar with the urban topography of Tokyo, I should explain that this section of Shinjuku, just west of Shinjuku Station, is famous for its towering high-rises. Notable structures in the area include the 52-story Park Hyatt Hotel of “Lost in Translation” fame, as well as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government buildings, the highest of which is 48 stories.

Yet this prime real estate remained undeveloped until the early 1970s because it was occupied by a sprawling water-treatment facility. Built in 1898, the Yodobashi Purification Plant was the first modern waterworks in Tokyo, and it served the growing metropolis until 1968, when a new facility was constructed in Higashi Murayama. The demolition of the Yodobashi plant opened the door for high-rise development.

When the Shinjuku Sumitomo Building was completed in 1974, it was not only the highest building in the area, but also, at 52 floors, the highest office structure in all of Japan. (Until then, the highest buildings were the Kasumigaseki Building, built in 1968 with 36 floors and the Keio Plaza Hotel, finished in 1971 with 47 floors). That distinction alone qualified it as a tourist attraction, but the developer added restaurants with skytop views and the first free observation deck in a Japanese high-rise. For a number of years, the building, nicknamed sankaku biru for its triangular shape, was a popular stop on Hato Bus’ tourist rounds.

But let’s get back to your question. A search of the Tokyo Metropolitan Library system turned up two massive volumes of the collected works of Tominaga. From these I learned that he was a fairly famous sculptor, born in Nagasaki in 1913. He served at the top of various influential art organizations, including Nitten (The Japan Fine Arts Exhibition) and the Japan Sculpture Association. In 1989 he received the Order of Culture, Japan’s highest honor for contributions to culture. He also designed the first colored telephone in Japan.

In one of the volumes I found an essay that touched on the statue in question. What caught my eye was that the work was cast in 1970, a full four years before the Shinjuku Sumitomo Building opened. That made me doubt the company had commissioned the piece. I was also interested that the critic who wrote the essay described the figure in the statue as “a Franciscan priest,” with no mention of St. Francis. Unfortunately there was nothing in the essay about the placement.

By now, I had pretty much run out of leads. For lack of a better idea, I called up one of the art organizations and begged for any information they might have. “Why don’t you ask the family?” the woman who answered the phone suggested. And just like that, I had the artist’s last known phone number.

Five minutes later, I posed your question directly to Naoki Tominaga’s son-in-law. “What does Saint Francis have to do with Sumitomo?” he repeated. “Nothing at all, as far as I know. And anyway, that’s not St. Francis. It’s a Franciscan priest my father-in-law met in Nagasaki. He agreed to be the model.”

I waited while he looked through the artist’s notes. “It says here that he chose this theme because he felt there wasn’t enough dialogue in the world. You have to understand that this was the time of the student movement in Japan, when there was a lot of shouting and violence but very little true discourse. My father-in-law chose the image of a priest speaking with God, not out of any religious conviction, but because to him it was the perfect symbol for dialogue.”

Sumitomo did not commission the piece. “They came looking for something by Naoki Tominaga, because he was already quite well-known. After looking at several sculptures, and considering the size of the site and other factors, this is what they chose.

“I’m afraid that’s all there is to it,” he said, “but I’m very glad to hear the statue is still appreciated. It would be very nice if it encouraged more people to speak their hearts openly.”

To see the statue for yourself, take the Oedo subway line to Tochomae Station and go up the stairs at exit A6. There are seven statues placed around the building, including the “destitute” nude and a whimsical cat named Tamachan that shouldn’t be missed. There’s also a giant valve from the old Yodobashi Purification Plant that will appeal to history buffs and engineering geeks. To see what Shinjuku looked like when the plant was still there, check out www.token.or.jp/magazine/g200002.html Puzzled by something you’ve seen? Send a description, or better yet a photo, to whattheheckjt@yahoo.co.jp or A&E Dept., The Japan Times, 5-4, Shibaura 4-chome, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-8071.

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