Skip to main content

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

View Larger Map

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.


View Larger Map

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

The princess who loved insects

Edit added 8 May 2013: This post receives so many keyword search hits for "The Princess Who Loved Insects" that I've published an updated post (with extra information) that focuses on the book. Click here to read it.)

Blogging has been an interesting experiment. I initially started two blogs, Rurousha for personal musings and Sanpokatagata for factual stories accompanied by photos. I've now decided I'll do all stories on this blog, regardless of the content, and turn Sanpo into a supplementary photo blog. I'm not sure it's a good idea, since I'm not a good photographer at all, but let's see how it goes.
It occurred to me that "nomad" is not the ideal name for my blog. I don't wander anymore; I want to live in Japan forever and ever amen till death do us part. Then I remembered that I've already stayed in six different apartments in Tokyo and although most of my income is derived from one company, I've been based in three diff…

Call it remorse

Something out of memory walks toward us,
something that refutes
the dictionary, that won’t roost
in the field guide. Something that once flew
and now must trudge. Call it grief,
trailing its wings like a shabby overcoat,
like a burnt flag. Call it ghost.
Call it aftermath. Call it remorse
for its ability to bite and bite
again. — Don McKay, from “Angel of Extinction,” Angular Unconformity: Collected Poems 1970-2014 (Icehouse Poetry, 2014)

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

Hiking along the old Tōkaidō in Hakone

How in heaven's name did Edo travellers walk long this road …

over this pass …

wearing straw sandals?!

Last week I walked along the old Tōkaidō (東海道East Sea Road) in Hakone while The Hero was trolling¹ for trout on Lake Ashi (芦ノ湖Ashinoko). I did it in sturdy hiking boots, and although my feet weren't disgruntled, they weren't entirely gruntled either, if I may paraphrase P.G. Wodehouse.

It was the first time I visited Hakone, and I enjoyed it so much that I'll just have to go again. Since The Hero agrees with me, I predict more Hakone posts, but this one will focus on my first trip's main goal: following the Tōkaidō, the road that connected Edo and Kyoto. The old road has been replaced by modern highways² and high-speed railways, but you can still walk along the original route between Moto-Hakone (800 meters above sea level) and Hakone-Yumoto (80 meters above sea level), a distance of about 10 km. The sea levels should warn you that it's a steep route.
I didn't…

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?
The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.Birds protect it against fire.
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?

Why Kanda Myōjin?
Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed …

Hi, Keanu! Here's the real story of the 47 rōnin.

Chūshingura(忠臣蔵). Is there anyone in Japan – nay, the world! – who doesn't know this story? It's been told in novels, kabuki, bunraku, films and TV shows, and now Keanu Reeves has tackled it in his movie 47 Rōnin.
When I first heard about the film, I was thrilled, but now that I've seen the trailer … uh-oh. It's a fantasy-adventure-martial arts mishmash that can't decide whether it's Star Wars, The Matrix or The Last Samurai; but perhaps the full-length feature is better than the trailer.

Everybody will be talking about it, though, so let's look at the real story of the 47 rōnin. It's based on historical facts. As briefly as possible this is what happened in 1701:
A country baron called Asano Naganori was appointed by the shōgun to receive the emperor's ambassadors. Since Asano was unfamiliar with court etiquette, a higher-ranking nobleman called Kira Yoshinaka was instructed to act as his mentor. Then disaster struck: Asano tried to assassinate Kira. …