Tigers, Ducks & the Kamikaze: Matsumoto’s Gokoku Shrine

Sun, Mar 6, 2022


Many have heard of Yasukuni Jinja in Tokyo – the shrine honoring the almost 2.5 million people who gave their lives for Japan (willingly or otherwise) in the Boshin Wars and the various conflicts Japan has engaged in since. Some might also know that among those commemorated are 1,068 convicted war criminals, resulting in traditional visits by Japanese prime ministers being met with anger and protest by people of the countries who suffered from the war crimes of the Japanese.

Yasukuni Jinja may get all the attention, but there are shrines all over Japan that, with their ideal of protecting the country, also commemorate Japan’s war dead. These shrines are known as Gokoku-sha. One of them is here in Matsumoto.


It may be incorrect to equate these Gokoku-sha with Yasukuni Jinja, but as the website for Nagano Gokoku-sha states (in Japanese), it is “a shrine founded for the safety and well-being of our nation, dedicated to the spirits of war dead since the Meiji Restoration.” In clarification they add that “Naganokengokoku-sha is a shrine dedicated to the spirits of those from Nagano prefecture who perished.”

Visiting Matsumoto’s Gokoku-sha one hardly gets the impression that this has anything to do with Japan’s wartime past. Until you take a closer look.


The entrance to the shrine grounds, with a massive torii gate standing over a wide gravel path lined on both sides with trees, reminds one – okay, reminds me – of Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine. The stone memorial on the knoll just inside this outer gate looks common enough, but the four-character inscription on the upper stone – 鳴呼戦友 translates as something like “call to our comrades” or “the call of our brothers in arms”, best taken as a salute to those soldiers long departed rather than a call for more to fight in the future.


From here the gravel path bends gently through the trees and out into the wide-open main shrine grounds. A second torii invites one to the expansive grassy area, split in half by the stone walkway cutting a laser-straight line to the prayer hall, but before you head that way take a few steps to your right. In front of a small building you’ll see a modest memorial with a bas relief figure of a man in fighter pilot dress. The green plaque reads (essentially) “Special Forces, we will never forget you.” Interestingly, there is an uncannily similar memorial in Naha, Okinawa.

Yes, perceptive reader, this statue off to the side is a memorial to the young men who were conscripted into the Shinpu-tokubetsu-shogekitai (神風特別攻撃隊) – the Kamikaze Forces of WWII. As this shrine here in Matsumoto is dedicated to the protection and well-being of Nagano Prefecture, this memorial may also be considered to honor Nagano’s Kamikaze pilots killed in action – of which there were ninety.


Note: I recently read the Memoirs of a Kamikaze by former pilot Kazuo Adachi. Sent out on eight missions, he either never located a target or was turned away by the weather. Fascinating read. Highly recommended. You can find a rundown of the book here.

To the left of this second torii I found something the polar opposite. In the temizuya – the basin where one washes their hands in a ritual of purification before entering the shrine grounds – was a colorful flock of rubber ducks. This, as a kind young woman in white and orange robes explained, was this particular shrine’s way of keeping people from washing their hands and mouths during the ongoing pandemic.


The main elements of Matsumoto’s Gokoku Shrine are similar to those found at shrines all over Japan, though I did notice what I thought was one exception. Cut into certain surfaces of the stone lanterns lining the walkway to the main hall were three tall hills – at least that’s what they looked like to me.

Incredibly, I was correct.

The toro stone lanterns found at Matsumoto’s Gokoku Shrine are called Kasuga-toro, named after Kasuga Taisha in Nara. Just north of Kasuga Taisha is Mt. Mikasa-yama, also known as Mt. Wakakusa-yama. With its three distinct, rounded peaks, Wakakusa-yama appears as three mountains. As an enduring symbol of Nara, these mountains continue to be depicted on stone lanterns at shrines all across Japan (meaning they aren’t quite the exception I thought).


Incidentally, also often seen on these lanterns is the depiction of a deer, which, if you’ve been to Nara, you will recognize as one of the ancient capital city’s most recognizable, numerous, and hungry symbols.

One eye-catching element of Gokoku-sha, one that will only be around for so long, is a colorful and almost incongruously modern painting depicting two tigers, in recognition of 2022 as the Year of the Tiger. Visiting in subsequent years may bring bright murals of other animals.


One hidden aspect of the Gokoku-sha is the existence of a Kyudo (Japanese archery) dojo. In 1978 the National Kyudo competition was held here – their claim to fame I suppose. To this day the dojo is available for use. The ties to the military aspect of the shrine is up for speculation.

As with any self-respecting shrine, Gokoku-sha hosts weddings, children’s occasions, and other such important occasions (inquire about fees at the office). Also are the annual events of New Year’s and O-bon, plus one special festival.

Every June 30th Gokoku-sha holds their Natsu-koshi Tai-sai-shiki. In this festival, the Gokoku-sha folks explain on their website, “Shinto rituals cleanse the sins and impurities that we suffer without our knowledge, and by passing through the Kaya no Wa set up in front of the shrine, you can avoid illness and plague and open up your life with a new feeling.”

photo: https://naganogokoku.jp

You can purify yourself further, evidently, by stroking the body with a kind of doll and, by blowing on it (the doll), transfer your sins and shadows to the doll, freeing yourself to spend your days without illness.

All this for only 3,500 yen, payable at the office window.

By the time you make it to Nagano-ken Gokoku-sha the tigers and the rubber ducks may be gone. But the memorial to the kamikaze pilots will most certainly remain, along with the quietude that goes only too naturally with a shrine dedicated to the peace of the nation.