The History Behind Syonan Jinja, Light of the South Shrine

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The History Behind Syonan Jinja, Light of the South Shrine

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

Commissioned in 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 during World War II.

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

Constructing the Light of the South Shrine

The project was headed 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.

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 Hill and served as a memorial for Japanese and British soldiers who died during World War II. Today, only a memorial plaque can be found at the foot of the steps leading to the top of the hill.

Aerial view of Syonan Jinja (at bottom right) | Image credits: National Archives of Singapore

However, the scale of Syonan Jinja was greatly reduced as resources were diverted towards the ongoing World War II. Still, it took over 20,000 Allied prisoners-of-war and almost a year to complete the shrine.

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. 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.

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
Steps leading to Syonan Jinja | Image credits: singaporeheritage Instagram

Syonan Jinja’s Architecture

Syonan Jinja was modelled after the Ise Grand Shrine (Ise Jingu) in Japan which 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.

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

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

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 edges of the reservoir to a road leading to Torii Gate.

Grand Ceremonies

Shinto priests carrying out ceremony at Syonan Jinja | Image credits: Kanagawa University

Back then, Syonan Jinja was an important venue for ceremonies and celebrations of Japanese festivals. It is well recorded that Singapore locals, often the youths and the well-established, were coerced into attending the ceremonies as a sign of 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

Chōzu-ya or temizu-ya, a pavilion with water basin for ceremonial purification rite | Image credits: @darreh Instagram

With the eminent defeat of the Imperial Japanese Army in August 1945, Syonan Jinja and Syonan Chureito were ordered to be burnt down to prevent desecration by the British.

Today, only the stone steps and foundations of Syonan Jinja remains.

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.

Steps leading to Syonan Jinja | Image credits: @darreh Instagram

In 2002, the National Heritage Board listed Syonan Jinja as a historic site, making it an offence for anyone who enters the area. However, this has not stop local explorers from venturing into the forest of MacRitchie Reservoir in search of the abandoned site.

In November 2020, two 14-year-old ended up lost in the forests after veering off-trail to find the abandoned Syonan Jinja. 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 is now strictly off limits to the public. Any attempts to visit Syonan Jinja is considered trespassing. 

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