Setagaya Kannon Temple

The Setagaya Kannon Temple contains both Buddhist and Shinto features within its grounds. A Shinto torii gate sits in front of a building with a gold Buddhist swastika crest on its roof.

This somewhat unusual (well, to me anyway) temple is located fairly close to our apartment in Setagaya; Brett and I came upon it the other day when we were walking around the neighborhood. I use the word unusual because Buddhist temples are typically quite distinct from Shinto shrines, but this site seemed to be something of a mash-up of both, which I have never seen before in Japan.

The main entrance to the temple is a traditional Buddhist design, but hanging across the front is a Shinto shimenawa (hemp rope) with shide (folded paper strips).
One of two Niō, guardians at the temple’s main gate. The Niō are aways very large, fierce and muscular.
The Niō represent not only protection for the temple, but also the beginning and end of all things (“the alpha and omega”).

According to what I could find out about the temple, it was constructed in 1951 following World War II. However, in 1955 the Special Attack Kannon (Buddhist Goddess of Mercy) statues were moved to the temple. Initially these Kannon statues were placed in the main temple, but were moved to their own building in 1956. The statues are in remembrance of Special Attack forces (known as kamikaze) during the war, and dedicated to the 4,615 young men who sacrificed their lives for their country. A memorial ceremony for the dead is held on the 18th of each month.

The main temple is on the right, and the small temple containing the special Kannon is on the left.
We were not sure of the purpose of this building . . .
. . . nor this one, but both were quite striking, and again have Shinto shimenawa in front.

The temple grounds contain several memorials to the kamikaze. Some appear to be group memorials, while a few seemed to be for individuals. One memorial is in front of the main gate, but the others are located throughout the grounds.

What appeared to be the newest memorial to the kamikaze sat outside the main gate.
This memorial to the kamikaze was located inside the grounds, nearby the building that holds the Special Attack Forces Kannon statues.
These appeared to be memorials to individuals, located near the main temple.

What was most interesting and confusing to me were the Shinto shimenawa (hemp ropes) and shide (folded white paper which is attached to the rope) found throughout the temple grounds, and on all of the buildings. When we first entered the temple compound I thought we were visiting a Shinto shrine, and was confused by Buddhist indicators or symbols, such as statues of Kannon and swastikas. Shimenawa are placed to note that ritual purification of a space by a Shinto priest has taken place, and that the area inside is sacred. They act as a ward against evil spirits. They are also placed around objects which can be inhabited by spirits, such as trees or rocks, and cutting down those trees or moving those rocks can bring misfortune. Although Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines can share many features, in all my visits to Japan I have never seen shimenawa placed inside or anywhere near a Buddhist temple, and now I am very curious about why it’s been done at this particular place.

Sacred tree wearing a shimenawa – so unusual to see this inside a Buddhist temple’s grounds.

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The whole temple area had a particularly haunting feel to it. It’s all well-maintained, some other visitors came and prayed while we were there, and we were greeted warmly by a priest. But the overall sensation was one of great sadness like I’ve never felt before.


8 thoughts on “Setagaya Kannon Temple

  1. 1951 is relatively recent. Maybe the two joined forces to attend to everyone’s needs after the war.. I know the chapel at the Air Force Academy can be set up for many religions. The unusual part is sharing the space at the same time. If you find out anything more, please let me know.


    1. My hypothesis (which could be w-a-y off) is that because there are still many people who do not want any reminders or glorification of the war years, by having the temple areas purified by a Shinto priest that marks them as OK and/or protects them from being vandalized or destroyed in some way.


  2. I’m wondering if the young kamikaze pilots included both Buddist and Shinto followers so this memorial recognizes both religions to honor the pilots.

    I always love your deep dives into a place 🙂


    1. We wonder the same thing. Our daughter-in-law says the two religions are sometimes mixed, but not in such a deep fashion. She said that she wouldn’t find it strange to see both of them together although they’re very distinct religious traditions.


  3. That’s very interesting. Is there a local historian you could discuss this with? I googled it and couldn’t find much information beyond photos tourists took. You said, “But the overall sensation was one of great sadness like I’ve never felt before.” Would you say it’s a similar feeling to visiting other war memorials such as the USS Arizona Memorial?


    1. I wish we could have asked the priest that greeted us a few questions about it. Our son also thought it was strange, not that both religions were represented, but by how much Shinto there was. Maybe we should take him along to talk with the priest and have him translate for us.

      I think the sad feeling came from it being a war memorial; I have gotten the same feelings at other places, like Gettysburg and Shiloh. A war always has two sides, and just because the kamikaze fought for Japan, it doesn’t mean that their lives were worthless or that their families don’t grieve for them because we won. They really didn’t have the option of not fighting or becoming kamikaze.


  4. Very interesting. And I can surely relate to the sad feeling you describe. I have felt it at multiple war memorials, regardless of location. It’s hard for me to believe most young men (and historically, they were men) wanted to give their lives for a cause they might or might not think is reason to die.


    1. I wondered while I was there how many people come and visit this temple, or remember the young men that died (and in such an awful way). Do families come and remember their relatives or are they mostly forgotten now? The temple holds a memorial service once a month, but how many come?


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