The story of the brave men and women who worked to rescue Europe’s greatest art treasures during World War II has been brought to the silver screen in The Monuments Men. But did you know that monuments men also served in Japan? When the war ended and the allied occupation of Japan began, civilian monuments men were charged with protecting and preserving Japanese cultural heritage. Although systematic looting had not occurred in Japan as had in Europe by the Nazis, when fighting ended, art treasures needed protecting from occupying forces. A systematic inventory of cultural property was also needed to ensure its protection during this unstable time. Several of Europe’s monuments men including George L. Stout, the man upon whom George Clooney’s character is based, Thomas C. Howe, and Laurence Sickman advised on the setup and staffing for an arts and monuments section in Japan.
Although recently discharged from the service and reunited with his young family, Sherman Lee, then Curator of Far Eastern Art at the Detroit Institute of Art, volunteered to join his colleague and mentor Howard Hollis, Curator of Far Eastern Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, in this important work. Although no longer in uniform, Lee was given the assimilated rank of major with the official title Adviser on Collections, Department of Arts and Monuments, Civil Information and Education Section, General Headquarters, Supreme Commander, Allied Powers, Tokyo. He served from 1946-1948 achieving the rank of Officer in Charge. By his own admission, when he began he knew very little about Japanese art, as he recounted later:
Lee and Hollis were responsible not only for the protection of registered cultural property in both private and public hands, but for Japanese national parks and temples as well. The allied powers considered using works of art as reparations, a policy strongly discouraged by Sherman Lee.
His responsibilities also included encouraging the democratization of Japanese museums through exhibitions and the sharing of knowledge (which had rarely been done before the war), and supporting the work of living artists through extant living-artist societies. Lee traveled throughout the country, inspecting every museum and cultural site, and in the process became acquainted with not only every major public and private collection and temple, but with all of the important government officials, art dealers and scholars, as well. He made regular reports to allied general headquarters (.pdf) and reported monthly to the Japanese Ministry of Education, advocating for the necessary funding and support for arts and monuments activities.
The education Sherman Lee received as a monuments man in Japan, and the friendships he forged with scholars, dealers, interpreters, and government officials, made it possible for him to later build one of the finest Asian collections in the United States. This collection is now on view in the new west wing.