A bronze statue that survived Hiroshima has a message for Riverside Drive

What cements Riverside Drive as one of Manhattan’s most beautiful streets is its architecture. The avenue is a winding line of elegant 1920s and 1930s apartment houses, with some surviving rowhouses and a few stand-alone mansions that reflect the beaux-arts design trend of the Gilded Age—lots of limestone, light brick, and marble.

But every so often, the Upper West Side portion of Riverside has a surprise. Case in point is the 15-foot, 22-ton bronze statue that has stood outside 332 Riverside Drive, between 105th and 106th Streets, since 1955, according to Japan Culture NYC.

The statue is of Shinran Shonin, a Buddhist monk in Japan who founded a sect of Buddhism called Jodo-Shinshu in the 13th century. The monk is depicted in missionary robes, his face mostly obscured by his hat. (Originally he carried a cane, presumed stolen in the early 1980s, per Japan Culture NYC.)

Riverside Drive has always been an avenue of grand statues. But how did the statue of a Japanese monk end up here?

The story begins in Japan in 1937, when a businessman in the metal industry commissioned his factories to make six identical bronze statues of Shinran Shonin, according to fascinating research by Sam Neubauer at I Love the Upper West Side. “The statues were spread across Japan, with one standing on top of a hill overlooking Hiroshima,” Neubauer wrote.

Once war broke out, the Japanese military turned three of the statues into scrap metal for ammunition. “A similar attempt was made in Hiroshima but after significant protests over the importance of the statue, the government allowed Shinran Shonin to remain on his hilltop,” stated Neubauer. 

Riverside Drive between 105th and 106th Street, about 1903

“It was from the hilltop that, on August 6, 1945, the statue witnessed the destruction of Hiroshima when the first atomic bomb exploded over the city,” he continued. “Although the epicenter of the blast was just 1.5 miles away, the statue somehow survived.” An estimated 80,000 people perished in immediate aftermath of the atomic blast.

In 1955, after the New York Buddhist Church moved to Riverside Drive from its original home in a brownstone on 94th Street, the church’s minister and the businessman who commissioned the statue decided to bring it to New York.

“The statue of Shinran Shonin was unveiled in the front garden of the New York Buddhist Church, where it remains today,” wrote Neubauer. “A carved stone plaque along the sidewalk describes the statue as ‘a testimonial to the to the atomic bomb devastation and a symbol of lasting hope for world peace.'”

Apparently radiation was a concern when the statue was unveiled. According to Atlas Obscura, the statue “has been free from radiation since it began its stay in the United States and has never posed a danger to visitors.”

Japan Culture NYC has a slightly different take. “The statue still bears red burn marks on its robes and a trace of radioactivity as a result of the blast from the atomic bomb,” the site stated.

[Third photo: MCNY, MN122632]

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5 Responses to “A bronze statue that survived Hiroshima has a message for Riverside Drive”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    Fascinating, although I have never heard of a Buddhist church. Temple, yes. Any further enlightenment on this?

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I don’t know why they are a church rather than a temple, perhaps they really are interchangeable terms?

  3. Beth Says:

    Shinran is truly an imposing figure in person. The church and he sits on the site of a former beautiful Beaux Arts townhouse acquired by William Randolph Hearst for Marion Davies’ father. The existing townhouse to its right was Marion’s. (Hearst lived with his family down Riverside at the Clarendon at 86th Street.). That entire block has quite a history.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, and there’s a wonderful book written about the houses in this row and their illustrious, sometimes notorious occupants: The Man With the Sawed-Off Leg, and Other Tales of a New York City Block, by Daniel Wakin.

  4. velovixen Says:

    Hmm…If I glow in the dark, you know why: I’ve gone to see the statue.

    Seriously, though, it seems appropriate there. I suspect that one of the reasons why wealthy people built those houses on Riverside Drive is the sense of serenity the river views offered.

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