The History Behind Syonan Jinja, Light of the South Shrine

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Find out the history behind the fabled Syonan Jinja, a Shinto shrine dubbed to be the grandest of all in South Asia.

Commissioned on April 1942, two months after the fall of Singapore, Syonan Jinja was built to commemorate Japanese soldiers who have died in the battles at Malaya and Singapore during World War II.

Nicknamed Light of the South Shrine, Syonan Jinja envisioned to be a 1,000-acre large park complete with recreational and sporting facilities such as promenades, playgrounds, a swimming pool, and even wrestling arenas.

Constructing the Light of the South Shrine

The project was spearheaded by Major Yasuji Tamura, officer-in-command of the Japanese 5th Division’s Engineers Regiment, and was expected to be the grandest Shinto shrine in the south of Asia.

prisoner of war working on divine bridge at syonan jinja in MacRitchie reservoir
Prisoners of war working on the Divine Bridge | Image credits: National Archives of Singapore

Syonan Jinja is one of two Japanese shrines constructed in Singapore. The other shrine, Syonan Chureito, was built at the top of Bukit Batok Nature Park and served as a memorial site for both Japanese and British soldiers that sacrificed their lives during World War II. Today, only a memorial plaque can be found at the hilltop of Bukit Batok Nature Park.

Aerial view of syonan jinja in Macritchie reservoir
Aerial view of Syonan Jinja (at bottom right) | Image credits: National Archives of Singapore

As the WWII battles against the Allied forces continues, the scale of Syonan Jinja was greatly reduced to divert resources to the Imperial Japanese Army.

Still, hundreds of trees were fell and tonnes of stones were used to pave the path. In total, it took over 20,000 Allied prisoners-of-war and almost a year to complete the Syonan Jinja.

Ceremony to celebrate grand opening of syonan jinja in Macritchie reservoir
Opening ceremony of Syonan Jinja on 15 February 1943 | Image credits: Kanagawa University

On 15 February 1943, the first anniversary of the fall of Singapore, Syonan Jinja officially opened to the public. A grand ceremony was officiated by Shigeo Odate, the first mayor of Syonan, to celebrate the opening of the shrine; Syonan is the official name for Singapore during the Japanese Occupation period. 

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Tori gate at syonan jinja in Macritchie reservoir
The Torii Gate at the bottom of the hill leading up to Syonan Jinja. The Divine Bridge can be seen in the background | Image credits: Mainichi Newspapers Company
staircase leading to syonan jinja shrine in Macritchie reservoir
Steps leading to Syonan Jinja | Image credits: singaporeheritage Instagram

Syonan Jinja’s Architecture

Syonan Jinja was modelled after Ise Grand Shrine (Ise Jingu) in Japan. Ise Grand Shrin was built to honor the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami whom the Japanese emperors were said to be the direct descendants of.

Many of the artefacts and stones in Syonan Jinja were either handcrafted by Japanese craftsmen in Singapore or imported directly from Japan.

The Syonan Times reported that Syonan Jinja receive as many as 200,000 visitors a year during the Japanese Occupation.

It is said that four to five tonnes of pebbles meant for Bukit Timah Nature Reserve’s rapid gravity filter beds were instead used to construct a pebble stream at the foot of Syonan Jinja.

remnants of syonan jinja bridge in Macritchie reservoir
Wooden stumps of Divine Bridge leading to Torri Gate, foot of Syonan Jinja | Image credits:

A highlight of Syonan Jinja is the Divine Bridge, a large stone bridge that connected the edge of the reservoir to a road leading to Torii Gate.

Grand Ceremonies

priests holding ceremony at Syonan Jinja in MacRitchie Reservoir
Shinto priests carrying out ceremony at Syonan Jinja | Image credits: Kanagawa University

Syonan Jinja served as an important venue for ceremonies and celebrations of Japanese festivals. It was well recorded that the locals, often the youths and the well-established, were coerced into attending the ceremonies as a sign of submission and loyalty towards the Japanese empire.

A rare footage (from 1:23 to 3:30) featuring a ceremony taken at the Syonan Jinja.

Remnants of the Syonan Jinja

abandoned structure in syonan jinja in Macritchie reservoir
Chōzu-ya or temizu-ya, a pavilion with water basin for ceremonial purification rite | Image credits: @darreh Instagram

With the imminent defeat of the Imperial Japanese Army on August 1945, Syonan Jinja and Syonan Chureito were ordered to be burnt down to prevent desecration by the British; the burning of the shrines was an acceptable practice in the Shinto religion as it is perceived as a means to purify the site.

Today, only the stone steps and foundations of Syonan Jinja remains. The foundation of the Divine bridge can still be seen from a trail along MacRitchie Reservoir.

It is said that the famous Yamashita’s Gold is hidden at a tunnel near Syonan Jinja. An article by The Strait Times on 15 August 1945 reported that the British troops had discovered an extensive tunneling project at the western end of MacRitchie Reservoir but no gold was found.
stairs leading to syonan jinja in Macritchie reservoir
Steps leading to Syonan Jinja | Image credits: @darreh Instagram

In 2002, the National Heritage Board listed Syonan Jinja as a historical site, making it an offence for anyone to enter the area. This however, have not stop local explorers from venturing into the forests of MacRitchie Reservoir in search of the abandoned shrine.

In November 2020, Syonan Jinja made headlines when it was reported that two 14-year-old ended up lost in the forests of MacRitchie Reservoir after veering off the MacRitchie trails to find the abandoned shrine. A team consisting of 50 personnels from the Singapore Police Force and Singapore Civil Defence Force were deployed to locate the teenagers.

They were rescued at approximately 9:30pm on the same night, nearly 6 hours after their ‘adventure’.

The ruins of Syonan Jinja are now off limits to the public. Any attempts to visit Syonan Jinja is considered trespassing. 

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