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Monuments Men in Japan: Discoveries in the George Leslie Stout papers

By Rihoko Ueno

October 29, 2012

Archivist Rihoko Ueno shares documents from the George Leslie Stout papers, which highlight the work of the Monuments Men in Japan.

Officials at Nishi Honganji temple in Kyoto, Japan
George Leslie Stout, Langdon Warner, and Japanese officials at Nishi Honganji temple in Kyoto, Japan, 1946 May 29 / unidentified photographer. George Leslie Stout papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

While processing the George Leslie Stout papers, I came across a black and white photograph of a group of Japanese and American gentlemen gathered together in a temple garden. The accompanying letter written on June 27, 1946 from Haruki Watsuji, then mayor of Kyoto, to George Leslie Stout mentions a visit by Stout and Langdon Warner, both seated in the photo, during which they attended a tea ceremony at Nishi Honganji temple. For a few months, I have been organizing the personal papers of several of the Monuments Men at the Archives of American Art, thanks to funding by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation’s grant program for World War II provenance research. Stout was a member of the Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Section (MFAA) of the U.S. Army—known colloquially as the “Monuments Men.” This group was charged with the protection and damage documentation of cultural monuments along with the investigation, location, recovery, and repatriation of art that had been plundered systematically by the Nazis.

Stout was a prominent art conservator working at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum and one of the first to be recruited to the MFAA Section. As a Monuments Man, Stout accomplished a great deal: he supervised the inventory and removal of several thousand art works from repositories hidden in salt mines, churches, and other locations; he was appointed as the Lieutenant Commander of MFAA; and he received the Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal. I knew of Stout’s history and of the Monuments Men’s work in Europe, but the letter and the photograph of Stout and Warner alerted me to the existence of a branch of the MFAA Section in Japan.

George Stout and fellow Monuments Man Laurence Sickman recommended creating a MFAA division in Japan following the country’s official surrender on September 2, 1945. Consequently, the Arts and Monuments Division of the Civil Information and Education Section of GHQ of the Supreme Command of the Allied Powers in Tokyo was established. Stout was the Chief of the Division from approximately August 1945 until the middle of 1946. Langdon Warner, archaeologist and curator of Oriental art at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, was brought on as an advisor to the MFAA Section in Japan from April to September of 1946. Other members who served in Tokyo’s Arts and Monuments Division include Howard Hollis, Sherman Lee, and Harold Gould Henderson. Curious about the legacy these individuals left behind, I rummaged through the collection at the Archives. I learned that Harold Gould Henderson, a Japan scholar and Columbia University professor who would later become the director of the Japan Society in New York, was on General Douglas MacArthur’s staff as an MFAA advisor and worked as a liaison to the Japanese Imperial household alongside his friend and colleague Reginald H. Blyth. Henderson and Blyth assisted with drafting the Humanity Declaration (人間宣言 Ningen Sengen), the Japanese Emperor’s historic speech in which he renounced his personal divinity.

Another lasting impact on Japanese culture was made by Sherman Lee. An Asian art expert, Lee had the opportunity to examine an art collection held at the Shosoin Imperial Repository in Nara, Japan, which houses over 9000 categorized objects. Lee negotiated with the Japanese government to display the treasures, which had never before been available to the public. The first of what would become an annual exhibition was held in September 1947. To this day, the exhibition is considered the most popular in Japan each year.

Watsuji letter to Stout
Haruki Watsuji, Kyoto, Japan letter to George L. (George Leslie) Stout, Tokyo, Japan,, 1946 June 27. George Leslie Stout paper, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Photograph of George Leslie Stout
George Leslie Stout, ca. 1965 / Lotte Jacobi, photographer. George Leslie Stout papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

It should be noted that not all of the achievements in Japan attributed to the Monuments Men are accurate. One rumor that gained ascendancy—to the extent that it was widely accepted as fact—was that Monuments Man Langdon Warner was the savior of Nara and Kyoto, the first and former capitals of Japan respectively, and cultural goldmines, rich in temples, shrines, and palaces. The two cities had survived the war relatively intact, whereas other places had not: Tokyo was razed to the ground by incendiary bombs; Hiroshima and Nagasaki were leveled by atomic bombs. When news traveled that Kyoto had been on the shortlist of prospective targets for the atomic bomb, people were convinced that only a man as knowledgeable and influential as Warner could have had the clout to sway those in power and divert the disaster. Warner repeatedly denied any responsibility for the fortunes of the two cities, but the belief was too entrenched. He was posthumously awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasures in recognition of his work, and memorial shrines were built in his honor on the precincts of the Horyuji temple in Nara and other cities, including Sakurai, Kita Ibaraki, and Kamakura.

If not Warner, then who? In something of a historical whodunit, the idea that Warner protected Kyoto and Nara from harm has been discredited. In 1975, professor and Japan scholar Otis Cary, wrote an article examining the issue titled, “Mr. Stimson’s ‘Pet City’ — The Sparing of Kyoto, 1945,” a copy of which he inscribed to Stout. According to Cary’s research at the National Archives, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson visited Kyoto several times and rejected the city as a target for bombing on multiple occasions, without prompting from Warner or others. Nara, fortuitously, was never marked for bombing by the B-29 planes.

My cursory research on this topic yielded an intriguing mix of history and legend. I’m sure that I will discover more as I continue processing the collections at the Archives. If anything, the Monuments Men demonstrate that the survival of art in wartime is not a happy accident in history, but the result of dedicated individuals united by a common goal.

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Rihoko Ueno is a processing archivist at the Archives of American Art.

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.