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Tokyo's war shrines (no, not Yasukuni)

Tokyo's best-known war-related shrine is Yasukuni Jinja, but it's not the only one.

Today I want to tell you about two other shrines that honour war heroes. They're not as controversial as Yasukuni, but both interest me because they've rebranded themselves as popular wedding shrines. I was surprised when I first read about that connection, but upon reconsideration, perhaps there isn't that much difference between a marriage and a battle field. All is fair in love and war.

We start with Nogi Jinja (乃木神) in Akasaka. It enshrines Count Nogi Maresuke (乃木 希典), a general in the Imperial Japanese Army and a governor of Taiwan, who used to live here. His house has been preserved on the shrine's premises.

The main entrance to Nogi Jinja

The inner torii of Nogi Jinja

He was regarded as a perfect example of the samurai spirit, a man who epitomized the combination of wakon yōsai (和魂洋才) or "Japanese spirit, Western technology". He succeeded in capturing Port Arthur from the Russians during the Russo-Japanese War, but lost 60 000 troops including his two sons.

After this Pyrrhic victory he requested permission from the emperor to commit suicide, but the emperor refused and instead appointed him as the head of the Gakushūin school, where he was responsible for training a young royal who would become Emperor Hirohito.

General Nogi (image from Wikipedia)

It is said that he had a special knack for teaching youngsters, and a statue at Nogi Jinja depicts the general, dressed in Western clothes, praising a young boy who's looking up at him in admiration.

Statue of General Nogi

Despite his reputation and the respect he commanded, Nogi never recovered from the devastation of Port Arthur and eventually committed junshi (殉死), a ritual suicide in which a samurai follows his lord into death. He chose to do this on the day of the Meiji Emperor's funeral, at the exact moment when the funeral procession passed his house.

I quote from Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert Bix:

At the beginning of the Taisho period, on the day of Emperor Meiji's funeral, General Nogi and his wife closed the door to their second-floor living room and prepared to end their lives. He had removed his uniform and was clad in white undergarments; she wore black funeral attire. They bowed to portraits of Meiji and of their two sons, killed in the Russo-Japanese War. While the funeral bells tolled, they proceeded to commit ritual suicide. Mrs. Nogi acted first; he assisted, plunging a dagger into her neck, and then he disemboweled himself with a sword. The departed hero of the Russo-Japanese War left behind ten private notes and a single death poem. (The writing of waka death poems was another practice from Japanese antiquity that was revised in the nineteenth century.) In one note he apologized for his action to four family members, including his wife, and acknowledged having contemplated suicide ever since losing his regimental flag in the war of 1877; he also mentioned his aging and the loss of his sons. In another note, to a military doctor, he bequeathed his body to medical use ...

Nogi's death poem, intended for public consumption, told the nation that he was following his lord into death--a practice known as junshi that even the Tokugawa shogunate had considered barbaric and outlawed "as antiquated in 1663." Conservative intellectuals ... interpreted Nogi's suicide as a signal act of samurai loyalty, pregnant with positive lessons for the nation, and for its armed forces. Nantenbo, Nogi's Zen master, was so enthralled by the majesty of his pupil's action that he sent a three-word congratulatory telegram to the funeral: "Banzai, banzai, banzai." The Asahi Shinbun, however, editorially criticized those who called for the establishment of a new morality by reviving bushido, and asserted that Nogi's harmful action could teach the nation nothing.

When informed of "Schoolmaster" Nogi's death by the chamberlain in charge of supervising his education, Hirohito alone of his three brothers was reportedly overcome with emotion: Tears welled up in his eyes, and he could hardly speak. Doubtless he was too young really to understand the general's action, let alone the harmful effect that his anachronistic morality of bushido might have had on the nation. But as Hirohito remarked late in life to an American reporter, Nogi had a lasting influence on him, instilling precepts of frugality and stoic virtues of endurance and dignity to which Hirohito never failed to adhere.

A photo of general Nogi and his wife, Shizuko, from

Nogi's suicide shocked Japan, who didn't expect such Edo behaviour when the country was modernizing rapidly. It had a profound effect on writers of the time, and it's believed that Sōseki Natsume used Nogi as a role model for several characters, including Kokoro's anti-hero Sensei, who confesses his own suicide in a lengthy letter to the novel's first-person narrator.

Nogi's home was in Akasaka, on land that used to be next to army barracks, the Japanese War College and subsequently the headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. The general was enshrined at Nogi Jinja shortly after his death, but the original shrine was destroyed during the 1945 air raids.

Nowadays his restored home is on a slope named after him, Nogizaka, in a quiet corner of a shrine that's famous for its weddings. I'm not sure how this wedding metamorphosis happened, but it's a given that shrines have to make money to survive, and one of their best bets is weddings. (Shinto weddings remain popular; Buddhist temples have a monopoly on funerals.)

Wedding poster on the shrine's outer wall

While I was there, I witnessed three different weddings.

You can see Nogi's home, the room where he committed suicide and the stables where he kept his beloved horses, including the white stallion that Russian General Anatole Stoessel gave him after the victory at Port Arthur. The blood-stained clothes that the general and his wife wore during their suicides are displayed each year on 12 and 13 September to mark the anniversary of their deaths.

The shrine complex also contains the Akasaka Ōji Inari Jinja (赤坂王子稲荷神社).

Akasaka Ōji Inari Jinja

The second war shrine described in this post is Tōgō  Jinja (東郷神社) in Harajuku, which enshrines Tōgō Heihachirō (東郷 平八郎), Marshal-Admiral (Fleet-Admiral) in the Imperial Japanese Navy and one of Japan's greatest naval heroes. He's often called the Nelson of the East. (Tōgō, incidentally, studied naval science in England from 1871 to 1878.)

The main building at Tōgō Jinja. I took these photos in the autumn of 2012.
Look at that gorgeous autumn sky. Sigh.

Beautiful wooden torii at Tōgō Jinja

Marshal-Admiral Tōgō (image from Wikipedia)

During the Russo-Japanese War, Tōgō engaged the Russian navy at Port Arthur and destroyed the Russian Baltic Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905 – a battle that shocked the world, as it was the first time in history that a Western military power was defeated by a non-Western one.

His shrine, too, has now become famous for weddings.

It's quite an experience … to walk through crowds of crêpe-quaffing youngsters in Harajuku, and then to stumble over a memorial for men who died aboard submarines in Word War II. That's my Tokyo.

Tōgō Jinja memorial for men who died in submarines during WWII


Bix, Herbert. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. Harper Perennial, 2001.
Heine, Steven. Sacred High City, Sacred Low City. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Harvard University Press, 2002.
Beasly, W. The Meiji Restoration. Stanford University Press, 1972.

Nogi Jinja's main entrance

Nogi Jinja's complex

The temizuya (手水舎) at Nogi Jinja reads 心洗, which roughly means
"clean your mind" or "purify your soul".

The main shrine at Nogi Jinja

Above: standing next to the main building, looking into the inner courtyard.
Below: koma-inu or lion dogs at Nogi Jinja.

General Nogi's stables

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The main entrance at Tōgō Jinja

Marshal-Admiral Tōgō

The garden behind Tōgō Jinja is a popular wedding spot.

A golden chrysanthemum is the symbol of the emperor.
This decoration is on a gate at Tōgō Jinja.

Another emperor's symbol on a stone lantern
at Tōgō Jinja

Above: old well at Tōgō Jinja.
Below: two modern lion-dogs at the memorial to submariners.


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