top of page

In Search of the Lost

Yasuji Tamura was a man of vision. A vision bequeathed, stolen even, but no less audacious for that fact. He would build a shining Shinto shrine, a tribute to the spiritual glory of Japan, a sublime ruby in the crown of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. The setting for this jewel would be the heart of Singapore, newly liberated from the British by the Japanese Imperial Army, and re-christened "Syonan-to" - the Shining Southern Island. And thus, Syonan Zinzya1, the Shrine of that isle.

A little more than two years later the jewel would be stripped of its treasures and set aflame. And by Japanese hands.

"The Falun Gong people were hugging a tree, but apparently it's given them a headache."

Ted strides across the MacRitchie Reservoir car park, having arrived before me and clearly entertained by the small group of devotees who were now making whooshing movements with their arms. Several of them are still massaging their heads, grimacing and murmuring. The early morning is cool, or as cool as it ever gets in Singapore, and a canopy of liquid blue opens above our heads. Me, Ted, the Falun Gong people, united under a single peerless sky.

We are both are similarly attired, Ted and I, and very slightly out of place in our long khaki trousers and rugged trail shoes. To the discerning eye of a park warden we would stand out like a shimmering beacon of illicit intentions against the sea of lightly clad runners and trail walkers who swarm around us. Clearly we are up to no good and this is not a land of tolerance in that respect.

As they say, Singapore is a very fine country, and in this case the fine was potentially up to $2000 each.

We moved quickly to the relative obscurity of the trail that wends its way around the southern perimeter of the reservoir and into the dark cover of the canopy.

Tamura: soldier, architect, Major and commanding officer of the 5th Division Engineers Regiment of the Japanese Imperial 25th Army. Little more stands in the public record of him. No photographer thought to immortalize his face on film, no one recorded his voice on tape, or even thought to describe his features for us. The Regiment was originally from Hiroshima, and drew its troops from there as well as neighboring Yamaguchi and Shimane prefectures, so we know roughly which part of Japan he probably hailed from. But it was his talent for self-publicity and zeal in the expression of his grandiose dream that secured his legacy, at least in English language sources, as the visionary behind Syonan Zinzya. The propaganda mouthpiece of occupied Singapore for a time, the Syonan Shimbun, interviewed Tamura once in late 1942 and again in early 1943. Each time his voice carried a crazed, Kurtzian clarity in its proclamations:

"Someday, the Syonan Zinzya Park will be the locale for the Far Eastern Olympics, if not the international Olympic Games!"2

There would be gardens, he said. Promenades, public buildings, playgrounds. A running track, stadium, swimming pool, fishing lakes, wrestling arenas, public bandstands.

"This area will be one of the landmarks of East Asia."

It would be befitting to hold an Exposition and Exhibition here, he motioned.

A city, the city of tomorrow, would "naturally rise up around the Shrine", he foresaw.

"In 30 to 50 years, Syonan Zinzya will be second only to Meizi Zinzya in Tokyo."

He had brought the old gods to their new home, and they were on his side.

That Singapore is self-sufficient in neither water nor energy is a surprising fact, and controversial pipelines for both snake in from Malaysia and Indonesia. For a small island of five million people, where by turns the equatorial sun beats down or the rain deluges the city, this makes for a curious and vulnerable situation. The MacRitchie Reservoir was one of the very earliest attempts to relieve some of this burden. Funded by a generous private merchant's contribution, funds which were then tragically mismanaged by the colonial government, the reservoir dams the headwaters of the "Singapore Creek" and is now a national park in the center of the island's water catchment area. That this is a man made feature is clear from any map; the reservoir spreads its fingers into old river valleys and forms curious heart-shaped promontories where bluffs use to lie.

We moved swiftly along in the still morning air, quiet, eyeing the swift dapple of oars on water as local boat teams raced each other along lanes marked by red buoys. Monkeys darted across the path or shimmied weightlessly up trees, their babies hanging from their bellies and yapping to one another in the green gloom of the jungle.

"There's a video on YouTube of a king cobra attacking a reticulated python on the path along here. I didn't want to watch beforehand, though." Ted mentioned. I agreed that some things are better not known3.

Presently the boardwalk at the water's edge ends, and the trail carves a wide swathe through the forest and up the hill away from the reservoir. MacRitchie is a popular running route, a rare solace with nature and a pleasing almost exact 10km in its loop. Sweat clad runners pass us at intervals and at varying paces. As we traverse round to the north, and within shouting distance of the ranger hut we fire up the GPS with the vital coordinates of the entrance to our illegal destination. Some foliage trampled to the left of the track, a broken branch in the wall of foliage that closes over the trail; we have unmistakably arrived. We douse ourselves in mosquito repellent, the astringent tang of DEET catching the back of my throat and sending me into a fit of coughing that I am sure will alert the knowing park wardens.

But the trail is empty, and so we slip into the darkness and assume the mantle of the trespasser.

The truth is always more complex, and now lies mired not only in the mists of time but in the conflagration of official documentation that occurred as the Japanese lost their hold on their beloved Syonan-to. It appears, however, that the original vision for the shrine was that of General Tadahiko Hayashi, commander of the victorious 25th Army. While lodged at the house of a Japanese national in February 1942, shortly after he took the island, he commended the two Malaysian workers who had taken it upon themselves to move the small garden Shinto shrine to a place of safety during the chaos of the war. The General then charged the newly appointed Japanese officials of the city to explain what steps had been taken to maintaining the main Shinto shrine, built by the emigre Japanese community, which had existed in Singapore since before the war. Not unreasonably, the officials protested that their time had been spent securing water and electricity supplies for their mortal charges, and had not yet had time to turn their attention to the needs of the incorporeal. The General's rage is well recorded, accusing the errant officials of "spiritual rot", and questioning how the restoration of order could possibly be achieved while the gods went untended. "Bring me a concrete plan immediately!" he demanded. And so, in a fit of ire and the kind of single-minded illogic that only the military possess, was birthed the dream of Syonan Zinzya on the shores of the MacRitchie Reservoir.

Of course, and again in true military style, the General delegated the entire thing to an underling.

As the leader, so the men. History once more leaves us bereft of detail about Major Yosuke Yokoyama, but the cruelty of his soldiers towards prisoners of war is a matter of record and remembered by those who suffered at their hand. At best, he must have been indifferent but the truth is probably less kind. Yet the commander of the 15th Independent Engineering Regiment (Bridging) probably possessed those very qualities, brutality, action and anger, that the General foresaw would excise all of that spiritual rot. If bumper stickers had been invented, Yokoyama's would have read "The beatings will continue until morale improves".

Estimates vary, but under his watch in May 1942 somewhere between 10,000 to 20,000 prisoners of war would start work on the Great Project. Quite who was responsible for choosing the location of the shrine is again clouded in controversy, with some researchers believing it was Yokoyama himself who took the decision based on the similarity of the topography to the Ise Grand Shrine in Japan. Others state that the locale was fixed in the initial report to the General, the area already having been earmarked as a potential development site. Nevertheless, following the completion of the shrine, Yokoyama (now Colonel Engineer Yokoyama) was awarded the Imperial designation of "Landscaping Genius".

The jungle is in a perpetual state of war with itself. Even the plants have swords. A creeper studded with spikes like a medieval mace bisected our path at one point, perfectly positioned to blind or maim the unwatchful. Thankfully some prior kind trespasser had seen fit to decorate it with fluorescent tape, leaving us to merely bob and weave under its malicious payload. An unseen animal, far off in the jungle, whooped and thus we arrived at the first positively identifiable landmark on our journey: the ruined pump house.

"No sign of Angelina Jolie," Ted observed, and he was right; the creeper covered ruins and ominously half-visible water pits were the stuff of pure Tomb Raider. I peered into the gloom inside, and could make out the dank waters below. Ted walked the perimeter. A Snickers wrapper of modern vintage suggested that we were not the only recent visitors to the site.

Yokoyama was clearly not a man to waste on the construction of a shrine in the middle of a war, and shortly after receiving the commission to build Syonan Zinzya he was shipped to Burma where he took part in the Imphal Campaign. Once more, history (or, at least, that which lies in the ready public domain) does not record his fate, but it seems he took his gang of soldier brutes with him. And while we may hope that he met his mortal end in some suitably nasty and ugly fashion, that would be a very wrong thing to wish on a man. Let us console ourselves with the thought that while in Burma he would almost certainly, and hopefully on more than one occasion, have contracted the galloping shits.

His replacement, Major Tamura, was cut from entirely different cloth. Both he and his men were regarded by their prisoners of war as being fair and just. Rations for those working on the shrine were reported to be substantially better than those served to the POWs in the camps at Changi. The few photographs from the era that survive seem to bear that out. The workers, mainly Australians, look lean and fit, a far cry from the emaciated and diseased bags of bones that served the great Japanese works further north in Asia4.

On the 7th May 1942, Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita laid the foundation stones of the Shrine. Within a scant 5 months, over 70 acres of dense jungle was cleared, the Divine Bridge over the reservoir spanned and the shrine completed. Torii, the pillar-like gates of Shinto architecture, stood at each end of the bridge, with a greater torii at the foot of a magnificent three tiered stone staircase that wound its way up the hill from the shore to the buildings above. What maps exist from the time, as well as aerial photographs taken by the British after the war, show that in addition to the shrine proper there was also a broad walkway around the promontory upon which the shrine stood, which connected back to a side entrance on the western edge and also to a path which traveled north-west through the jungle5.

On the 8th December 1942, exactly one year since the first attack on Singapore - or the start of the liberation, as the Japanese would have it - the Shrine and accompanying monuments to the fallen were opened. However it wasn't until the 15th February of 1943 - exactly one year since the fall, or completion of the liberation, of Singapore - that the Shrine was officially consecrated. As was the case with many shrines built all over Asia during the Japanese occupation, Syonan Zinzya was heavily modeled on the Ise Grand Shrine of the homeland, and dedicated to the same deity: Amaterasu Omikami, the divine ancestor of the Imperial throne.

A few minutes more ducking and crawling brought us to the line which had once been the east-west side path to the shrine itself, and a brief while later we saw to our left the broken down remnants of a stone walkway. The rectangular blocks looked strangely modern, like the discarded building waste of any of Singapore's hastily erected modern condominiums. We followed them a short way and found ourselves atop the stairway that had once led from the shore to the shrine, the steps still clearly visible, although nature had imposed its own smooth curves over them and softened their once austere and precision-cut grace.

And then, to our right, a stone basin carved from a single boulder - a chozubachi - covered in moss and standing on a low stone platform. At each corner, rising from the platform, sat sets of three identical raised stone plinths. This was the remains of the temizuya, the covered shelter where visitors would stop to wash their hands and rinse their mouths in an act of purification before proceeding into the shrine itself. A small wooden plaque, quite new, stood propped against the base of the basin. The cursive kanji which ran down its spine declared "Hokkaido Jingu", a memento or greeting from the frozen gods of Japans northernmost island.

To the east of the temizuya platform rose a high perimeter wall, arching up at a graceful angle in the fashion of Japanese stone architecture. We walked to its corner then turned north for some meters to where the main buildings of the shrine would have lain. The photographs of the time show them to stand on platforms of carved stone with several steps running up to them. Nothing remains now except for some treacherous and half covered culverts, so we retraced our steps and moved back to towards the remnants of the stone staircase.

Despite enshrining Amaterasu Omikami as "Eternal Protector of Malaya and Sumatra", Japan's grip on Asia slipped and the empire surrendered to the Allies on August 15th 1945. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, perhaps the home town of Major Tamura, on the 6th and the bombing of Nagasaki on the 9th forced an inevitable conclusion to the hostilities. However it was not until the 4th of September that the British returned to the island, and much chaos was to occur during that three week interregnum.

Tamura and his men were clearly exceptions to the general rule of the Japanese occupation. The Sook Ching massacre, where 25-50,000 Singaporeans were machined gunned to death on the beaches, the barbaric Kempeitai military police, and thousands of daily acts of mindless and inhuman aggression were more typical and ensured that no aspect of the occupation would be warmly remembered. General Itagaki, now leader of the 25th Army, formed frenzied plans. First, they would execute all the POWs on the island. Then the remaining 77,000 Japanese troops would fight the returning Allies until the last of them drained their blood into the Straits. Fortunately, Itagaki's superior in Saigon, Marshall Count Terauchi, was of cooler mind and persuaded him to send signal to Lord Louis Mountbatten of the Allied forces announcing their peaceful surrender.

HMS Sussex, docked in Keppel Harbour, received Itagaki and his commanders as part of Operation Tiderace. "You are two hours late" remarked one of the Japanese delegation, only to be met with the terse and very British riposte "We don't keep Tokyo time here". Nevertheless, the surrender was finalized on the 12th of September 1945, after which 300 Japanese officers and men saw fit to hold a sake party at the Raffles Hotel followed by a rousing game of mass seppuku, which seems like an extreme way to dodge paying the bill. A further platoon of soldiers killed themselves using grenades, while Itagaki was sent back to Tokyo for trial and was later executed as a war criminal.

Yet what was to befall the monuments of the occupation? The Japanese knew very well the likely outcome and that desecration of their sacred spaces would follow. In common with the practice across much of Asia, they removed the sacred artifacts and set the buildings of Syonan Zinzya ablaze in the equatorial night, and the Divine Bridge followed suit.

The steps led us down to where the main torii had stood and to a platform that had once had steps on all sides. We walked a short way north along the remains of what had clearly been a magnificent approach from the Divine Bridge to the shrine's entrance. All that can be discerned now is the culvert which once ran down its side. We had hoped to see the pilings that remain of the bridge, but as we broke through to the reservoir's edge we scanned the inky waters in vain. The rains of the past few weeks that had worked to replenish the island's water supply also worked to deny us that view back though history.

The clear, bright morning had ceded itself to grey clouds, and the jungle which had sparkled on our approach was now dull and flat. We turned our backs to the water and retraced our track, up the steps to the temizuya and dragged ourselves through the mess of thorns and ants and vines towards the main hiking trail. Our khaki trousers, near black with sweat, clung to us and we were studded with spiked seed cases and thorns and other nastiness.

"I bet we get lost on the way back." I suggested.

We did.

Historians remain divided on which side, exactly, destroyed the shrine. Local researchers suggest the the Gurkhas did the deed after the Allies arrived, but this is hard to reconcile with the facts. Shrines across Asia were often destroyed by fire by the Japanese upon surrender, and such destruction is perfectly in line with Shinto purification rituals. Indeed, the Ise Grand Shrine itself is completely destroyed and rebuilt every 20 years. Further evidence comes from the testimony of those involved in the planned destruction of the Japanese memorial to their fallen: upon arrival on the 9th of September, British officers of the Engineers Regiment found it already destroyed - and the 3 meter cross that Tamura had commissioned nowhere to be found.

The Japanese Association of Singapore records are very definite in their view, as might be expected. On the 18th of August 1945, they state, General Itagaki issued the order to his men to destroy the shrine along with the memorial to the fallen, and the works were carried out from the next morning.

Did Tamura witness the destruction himself, perhaps even have a hand in it? As grimly poignant as that might have been, it seems unlikely. The 5th Division was subordinated to the 19th Army in 1943 and saw action in the Dutch East Indies before surrendering on Ceram in 1945. We do not know his reaction upon hearing he news, or if he even survived the war that far.

The ruins, such as they are, lie in a strange limbo. At once the remnants of a romantic dream, yet also a powerful symbol of oppression and a reminder of hatreds that still carry to this day across Asia. Tentative plans to restore, or at least improve access, to the site in the mid 1980's were crushed by overwhelming opposition. And so they remain, half forgotten and half ignored, strictly off limits and yet splattered across the internet for all to find.

So ended Yasuji Tamura's great dream.

And yet, and yet...

Singapore has rebuilt itself as a city of the future. It boasts promenades, public buildings, playgrounds, running tracks, stadiums, swimming pools, fishing lakes, sports arenas, public bandstands. It holds Expositions and Exhibitions dozens of times a year. It is one of the landmarks of East Asia. And at the risk of pushing the metaphor too far, if money is the new religion then the island has clearly outshone its old subjugator in that respect too.

I say goodbye to Ted, and climb into the taxi which carries me swiftly homeward along the eight lane highways that now snake across the island.

"I think God has given Singapore many gifts," the driver muses, and I can do nothing but nod and agree.


1. I've retained the transliteration of Japanese place names into English as written in the media of the time, which is largely pre the modern Hepburn romanization system. Syonan Zinzya would now be written as Shonan Jinja.

2. Japan was supposed to host the cancelled 1940 summer and winter Olympics, but clearly the ambition was still alive.

4. Tamura also seems to have been responsible for erecting a 3 meter high cross in commemoration of the fallen Allied dead, which stood near the Chureito monument to those lost on the Japanese side.

5. Interestingly, all descriptions of the shrine state that the only access was via the Divine Bridge, although the existence of this north-west path clearly suggests otherwise. Also interesting, our trek through the jungle followed the exact line of this path, although there is nothing ostensibly visible to the human eye that suggests there was ever anything more substantial there.

Resources of interest

Map of the site c.1943/4? Via the Adam Park Project

1:25000 map of the area (1953) via National University of Singapore

Kevin Blackburn & Edmund Lim (1999) The Japanese War Memorials of Singapore, South East Asia Research, 7:3, 321-340, DOI: 10.1177/0967828X9900700303

Various images

bottom of page