by Lee, Gracie
The Syonan Jinja (Light of the South Shrine) was a Shinto shrine built to commemorate the Japanese soldiers who died in the conquest of Malaya and Sumatra.1 Constructed deep in the forests of the MacRitchie Reservoir in Singapore between 1942 and 1943, the shrine was a venue for many public ceremonies where the local population was compelled to show obeisance to the Japanese during their occupation of Singapore.2 Before their surrender, the Japanese destroyed the shrine for fear of its desecration by returning British forces.3
The shrine was built near Sime Road, at the western part of the MacRitchie reservoir, along with the Syonan Chureito – a memorial built on top of Bukit Batok Hill honouring the Japanese war dead. These were the two sacred sites built by the victorious Japanese when they conquered Singapore.4
Major Yasuji Tamura, the officer-in-command of the Japanese 5th Division’s Engineers Regiment who oversaw the project, envisioned that the Syonan Jinja would be the leading Shinto shrine in the southern regions of Asia, and that it would in time become second only to the famous Meiji Jinja in Tokyo.5
The area around the shrine was to be transformed into a 1,000-acre park with public recreational and sporting facilities.6 The recreational facilities were to include gardens, promenades, playgrounds and a lake for fishing and boating, while the proposed sports compound was to feature a stadium, a swimming pool, wrestling arenas and public bandstands. It was also touted as a possible venue for the Far Eastern Olympic Games.7
Work on the Syonan Jinja began in April 1942, two months after the fall of Singapore.8 Its construction relied heavily on the labour of some 20,000 British and Australian prisoners-of-war (POWs).9 Some of the POWs were tasked with felling the jungle, while others laid the access to roads, or constructed the steps up the hill to the shrine.10
On 7 May 1942, the foundation stone of the shrine was laid by Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita, who led the 25th Army and successfully captured Singapore and Malaya.11 Another ceremony was held on 30 July to mark the completion of the shrine’s framework as well as the opening of the Divine Bridge that would provide access to the shrine.12
The Syonan Jinja was opened on 15 February 1943, the first anniversary of the fall of Singapore.13 The opening ceremony was presided over by Shigeo Odate, the first mayor of Syonan, and attended by military personnel, businessmen, community leaders and religious representatives of other faiths. The local representatives were instructed to follow the Japanese in prayer to show respect for the ancestors of the Japanese emperor.14
Architecture and dedication
The shrine was modelled after the Ise Grand Shrine in Japan, and dedicated to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami, whom the Japanese emperor was said to be a direct descendant of.15 To impress upon the conquered local population the importance of loyalty to Japanese imperial ideals, the military declared Amaterasu to be the “Eternal Protector of Malaya and Sumatra who is to be worshipped by the local inhabitants”.16
Standing on the north side of a hill facing the south, the Syonan Jinja is only accessible by crossing the Divine Bridge.17 An estimated four to five tonnes of pebbles imported from Borneo, originally intended to be used for constructing the Bukit Timah rapid gravity filters, were used instead for this project,18 while religious artifacts and certain plants were sourced from Japan.19
Access to the shrine was via a new road created from Bukit Timah Road. The entrance featured a huge torii (traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance of or within a Shinto shrine), and immediately behind it was the Divine Bridge that spanned the reservoir to the opposite shore, where long granite steps led visitors to the shrine.20
In June 1944, The Syonan Times reported that the shrine received 100,000 visitors between January and May that year, with the majority being Japanese military personnel and civil servants. Only a small proportion of its visitors were locals. Nevertheless, the shrine was a key venue for important public ceremonies and anniversaries. Specifically on 8 December, the designated day the Japanese military used to mark the beginning of the local population’s liberation from European colonial domination, the local populace, especially young people, would be compelled to participate in the celebrations at the Syonan Chureito and Syonan Jinja as a show of their allegiance to the Japanese as well as to pay homage to the deceased soldiers.21
Just before the Japanese surrendered, they burnt the shrine to the ground for fear of its desecration by returning British forces. The destruction of the shrine by fire was considered an acceptable practice as part of the purification rites in the Shinto religion.22 Today, the visible remnants of the shrine include the granite receptacle-cum-fountain, stone steps, and the stone foundation of the wooden bridge leading to the shrine.23 On 16 September 2002, the site was designated a historic site by the National Heritage Board.24
1. Kevin Blackburn and Edmund Lim, “The Japanese War Memorials of Singapore: Monuments of Commemoration and Symbols of Japanese Imperial Ideology,” South East Asia Research, 7, no. 3 (November 1999): 324. (Call no. RSING 959.005 SEAR); Mamoru Shinozaki, Syonan: My Story: The Japanese Occupation of Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2011), 170. (Call no. RSING 959.57023 SHI-[HIS]); Karl Hack and Kevin Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall? Churchill and the Impregnable Fortress (London: Routledge Curzon, 2004), 147. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 HAC-[WAR]); “Shrine to Our War Heroes to Syonan-To,” Syonan Times, 15 April 1942, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Blackburn and Lim, “Japanese War Memorials of Singapore,” 327, 329; Shinozaki, Syonan: My Story, 170.
3. Blackburn and Lim, “Japanese War Memorials of Singapore,” 334; Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall?, 148.
4. Shinozaki, Syonan: My Story, 170; Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall?, 147.
5. Blackburn and Lim, “Japanese War Memorials of Singapore,” 324–25; “Syonan Zinzya Ready for Dedication by Feb 15 Next: Institution Will Be Second Only to Meizi Zinzya within 30 to 50 Years,” Syonan Times, 13 November 1942, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Blackburn and Lim, “Japanese War Memorials of Singapore,” 325; “Syonan shrine Dedicated to Glory of Southern Regions: Tribute to War Dead,” Syonan Shimbun, 16 February 1943, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “Syonan shrine Dedicated to Glory of Southern Regions”; “Syonan Zinzya Ready for Dedication by Feb 15 Next.”
8. Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall?, 146.
9. Shinozaki, Syonan: My Story, 170.
10. Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall?, 147.
11. Blackburn and Lim, “Japanese War Memorials of Singapore,” 325; Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall?, 80.
12. “Divine Bridge at Syonan Zinzya,” Syonan Times, 1 August 1942, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Syonan Zinzya Ready for Dedication by Feb 15 Next.”
14. Shinozaki, Syonan: My Story, 170.
15. Blackburn and Lim, “Japanese War Memorials of Singapore,” 325–26.
16. Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall?, 146.
17. “Divine Bridge at Syonan Zinzya”; Blackburn and Lim, “Japanese War Memorials of Singapore,” 327.
18. Philip Carlyle Marcus, oral history interview by Chua Ser Koon, 4 August 1982, transcript and MP3 audio 27:44, National Archives of Singapore website (accession no. 000183), 28–29.
19. Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall?, 146.
20. “Syonan Zinzya Ready for Dedication by Feb 15 Next.”
21. Blackburn and Lim, “Japanese War Memorials of Singapore,” 329–32.
22. Blackburn and Lim, “Japanese War Memorials of Singapore,” 334–35.
23. Adeline Chia, “Forgotten Shrine Revisited,” Straits Times, 25 August 2004, 49; Edmund Lim Wee Kiat, “WWII Shrine Destroyed by Japanese, Not British,” Straits Times, 24 December 2004, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “WWII Shinto Shrine Marked as a Historic Site,” Straits Times, 17 September 2002, 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; “Syonan Jinja,” National Heritage Board, accessed 3 January 2017.
The information in this article is valid as at 2 January 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.