One of my favorite places in Fukuoka City is Gokoku Jinja, located just south of Ōhori Park.
According to the Encyclopedia of Shintōism, Gokoku is a shrine built for the protection of the nation and "dedicated to the spirits of individuals who died in Japanese wars from the end of the early modern period through World War II."
These shrines were originally called shōkonsha (lit. "spirit-inviting shrines") in the prewar period numbered over one hundred. In 1939, however, they were renamed gokoku jinja. Following Japan's defeat in the Pacific War, "the shrines were placed under strict observation by the occupation armies, and many of the shrines changed their titles, though most have today reverted back to their original name . . . In most cases, they have added individuals who have died in service to local public organizations to their lists of enshrined kami (spirits or gods). Yasukuni Jinja in Tōkyō acts as the central or home shrine for gokoku jinja nationwide." (See note below.)
I wrote about Gokoku Jinja in my second novel A Woman's Nails:
Many of the more interesting sites in Fukuoka are fortunately within a short walk from my apartment: the castle ruins with its maze of stone ramparts, and Ôhori Park, which has a beautiful Japanese garden. A Noh theatre and art museum are also located in the area, as is Gokoku Jinja and a martial arts center simply called Budôkan.
Gokoku Jinja, like Tokyo's infamous Yasukuni, is a shrine dedicated to those who died defending Japan. Had I known this little fact before visiting the shrine, I may have been moved in an altogether different way. Instead, I was inspired with a deep sense of awe, the very awe which was sorely absent when my father would drag his unwilling brood at an ungodly hour every Sunday morning and stuff it into the first two pews of our dimly lit, dusty old house of worship where we'd reluctantly take part in that hebdomadal morose pageant, Mass.
No, if the divine and mysterious were to be felt anywhere, it was in shrines such as Gokoku, a serene island of ancient trees, expansive lawns and painstakingly raked gravel. It's a spiritual oasis in the heart of a frenetically bustling desert of asphalt and condominiums and if you're not moved to the core when visiting the shrine, then you have no core. With the Catholic church, the nearest I ever got to appreciating the power of the Almighty was at the coffee and donuts bonanza after Mass when dutifully sitting-standing-genuflecting automatons were resurrected with copious amounts of caffeine and sugar.
After a purifying ablution of my hands, I passed between a pair of komainu statues and through a towering wooden torii gate, entering the shrine. At the end of a long the broad path of combed gravel was the shinden, a long, one storey golden structure with a gracefully sloping roof at the edge of a lush and verdant woods. Iron lanterns and straw braiding hung along the eves, and a young woman, her black parasol leaning against the offertory box, bowed her head in prayer. Drawn by both curiosity and a spontaneous reverence, I made my way along the gravel path, ascended the short flight of steps and offered up a pray, myself.
One day my father will ask cynically, "So, now you're a Shintôist, are ye?"
I'll reply, "When was I never one?"
What did I pray for? Happiness, of course.
With the change in my pocket, I bought an o-mikuji, a small folded strip of white paper with my fortune written in Japanese on one side, and, to my surprise, in English on the other.
"Your flower is heather," the o-mikuji prognosticated. "It means lonely."
"You are introverted and like to be alone."
"But man cannot live on without others."
Hah! No man is an island! Plagiarist!
"Let people into your heart, and you'll be happy."
Regarding my hopes and ambitions, I was told to "make efforts, and try to be friendly with a lot of people."
By gum, try I will!
"You studies will be all right, if you keep calm." I took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly, releasing a small fart, redolent of sour milk.
Any more relaxed and I'd be dead.
I was advised to be cheerful, but to not aim too high when looking for a job. It was also suggested that being quiet on dates wasn't always the wisest thing to do, and, because I was, again, too introverted I must "behave cheerfully."
Not particularly impressed with this fortune--it was only shokichi, a four out a scale of about six--I tied it onto a narrow branch of a nearby tree and left the shrine.
© Aonghas Crowe, 2010. All rights reserved. No unauthorized duplication of any kind.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A Woman's Nails is now available on Amazon's Kindle.
Gokoku Jinja holds a special place in my heart. It was, in fact, where I was first married. And though that first marriage could hardly be called a success (My second marriage in a Christian church in Honolulu has fared much better), I still have many fond memories of that wedding day.
Anyways, I've take quite a long time to get to what I wanted to write about: the Mimata Matsuri, or the Souls' Festival that is held from the 13th to the 16th at Gokoku Jinja.
Like the similarly named festival at Tōkyō's Yasukumi Shrine, Gokoku's Mitama Matsuri is a festival in honor of those who died in the service of the country. That may sound sinister considering Japan's history, but (at least here in Fukuoka) all this really involves is lanterns being displayed on the grounds of the shrine.
The first time I discovered the "festival" was about ten years ago, during one of my evening jogs. Seeing the lanters, I took a detour and headed into the shrine. There were only a handful of people milling about, but the lanterns must have numbered in the tens of thousands. It was awe-inspiring.
In recent years, the shrine has tried with a modicum success to attract more visitors by offereing concerts, food stalls, and other attractions. Unfortunately, the number of lanterns steadily falls year by year and the feeling of awe that struck me the first time has become disappointment.
Seventy years have passed since the end of World War II and those who participated in it are now in their 80s and 90s, if still alive. Those who lost children in the war, people who'd be most inclined to keep a lantern burning for the souls of their loved ones, are even older, more infirm. My own Japanese grandmother, an octogenarian who is now bedridden after a massive stroke, lost her husband in the war. The more that time passes since the end of hostilities in the Pacific, the easier it is for me to imagine that the yearly calls of "Never again" might one day become too faint to prevent another destructive war. Just a thought.
Fidelium animae, per misericordiam Dei, requiescant in pace. Amen
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Note: "The origin of Yasukuni Shrine is Shokonsha established at Kudan in Tōkyō in the second year of the Meiji era (1869) by the will of the Emperor Meiji. In 1879, it was renamed Yasukuni Shrine.
"When the Emperor Meiji visited Tōkyō Shōkonsha for the first time on January 27 in 1874, he composed a poem; "I assure those of you who fought and died for your country that your names will live forever at this shrine in Musashino". As can be seen in this poem, Yasukuni Shrine was established to commemorate and honor the achievement of those who dedicated their precious lives for their country. The name "Yasukuni," given by the Emperor Meiji represents wishes for preserving peace of the nation.
"Currently, more than 2,466,000 divinities are enshrined here at Yasukuni Shrine."
-- From Yasukuni's official home page