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The Syonan Jinja (Light of the South Shrine) was a Shinto shrine built deep in the forests of the MacRitchie Reservoir to commemorate Japanese soldiers who died in the conquest of Malaya and Sumatra. Constructed 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. Before their surrender, the Japanese destroyed the shrine for fear of its desecration by returning British forces.
The shrine was built near Sime Road at the western part of the MacRitchie Reservoir. Along with the Syonan Chureito, a memorial at Bukit Batok honouring the Japanese war dead, the Syonan Jinja was sited for its proximity to Bukit Timah, where the fiercest fighting took place in the battle for Singapore.
The plans for the Syonan Jinja were grand and ambitious in scale and imagination. 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.
The area around the shrine was to be transformed into a 1,000-acre park with public recreational and sporting facilities. These facilities were to include gardens, promenades, playgrounds and a lake for fishing and boating. The proposed sports compound was to feature a stadium, a swimming pool, wrestling arenas and public bandstands, and would be a possible venue for the Greater East Asiatic Olympic Games envisioned by the Japanese.
The planners also declared that a new city would develop with the Syonan Jinja at its centre.
Work on the shrine began in April 1942, two months after the fall of Singapore. Its construction relied heavily on the labour of some 20,000 British and Australian prisoners-of-war from the Sime Road Camp, some of whom were sent to work on the Death Railway in Thailand after the completion of the shrine. Civilian Japanese artisans and craftsmen and the Japanese military’s engineers were also involved in the building of the Syonan Jinja.
On 7 May 1942, the foundation stone of the shrine was laid by Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese forces in Malaya. Another ceremony was held on 30 July to mark the completion of the framework of the Syonan Jinja, as well as the opening of the Divine Bridge that would provide access to the shrine.
The Syonan Jinja was opened on 15 February 1943, the first anniversary of the fall of Singapore. The opening ceremony was presided over by the mayor Shigeo Odate 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.
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. 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”.
The Syonan Jinja has been described in various accounts as a beautiful wooden structure that featured the clean, simple lines of classic Japanese architecture. It was built on a raised stone platform and it had a large granite ceremonial fountain for ritual purification. The surrounding area was designed to be a Japanese garden with gentle pebbled streams, stone lanterns, a stone-stepped path, small torii gates (traditional Japanese gates commonly found at the entrance of Shinto shrines), and landscaping featuring native and imported plants. Four to five tonnes of pebbles were imported from Borneo for this project, while religious artifacts and certain plants were sourced from Japan. The wood used for the shrine, however, was from Singapore.
Access to the shrine was via a new road created from Bukit Timah Road. The entrance featured a huge torii, and immediately behind it was a red wooden bridge called the Divine Bridge that spanned the reservoir waters to the opposite shore, where a gravelled walkway led visitors to the shine.
The shrine saw about 20,000 visitors a month, with the majority being Japanese military personnel and civil servants and overseas Japanese. Only a small proportion of its visitors were locals. Nevertheless, the shrine was a key venue for important public ceremonies and anniversaries. On those occasions, the local populace, especially young people, would be compelled to participate in marches from the city of Singapore to the Syonan Chureito and then to the Syonan Jinja as a show of their allegiance to the Japanese. They would have to pay homage to the souls of the enshrined Japanese war heroes and lay wreaths at the monuments.
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 method as part of the purification rites in the Shinto religion. Today, the foundations of the shrine and the bridge are the only visible remnants of this structure. In 2002, the site was designated a historic site by the National Heritage Board. The site has also been used by performing arts groups to stage productions.
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(Call no.: RSING 959.005 SEAR)
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(Call no.: RSING 940.5425 HAC-[WAR])
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(Call no.: RAV 959.57 HEY)
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(Call no.: RSING 959.57023 SHI-[HIS])
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(Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN)
Syonan Shrine dedicated to glory of southern regions: Tribute to war dead [Microfilm: NL 256]. (1943, February 16). The Syonan Times, p.1.
Syonan Zinzya and Tyurei-to will be revered edifices [Microfilm: NL 255]. (1942, July 23). The Syonan Times, p.4.
Syonan Zinzya ready for dedication by Feb 15 next: Institution will be second only to Meizi Zinzya within 30 to 50 years [Microfilm: NL 255]. (1942, November 13). The Syonan Times, p.3.
Tan, L. (Interviewer). (1983, November 26). Oral history interview with Tan Beng Neo [Transcript of Cassette Recording No. 000371/26/12, pp.166-174]. Retrieved May 25, 2012, from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.a2o.com.sg
WWII Shinto shrine marked as a historic site. (2002, September 17). The Straits Times, Home, p.H3. Retrieved May 25, 2012, from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 14 August 2012 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.
Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Historic Buildings
Events>>Historical Periods>>World War II and Japanese Occupation (1939-1945)
Singapore--History--Japanese occupation, 1942-1945