The Taiwan Jingū (台灣神宮), or the Grand Shrine of Taiwan, was chief among Taiwan’s 66 official Shinto shrines. Wait…what? That’s right. Shinto—the Japanese polytheistic kami-worshipping religion.

Taiwan was a key possession of the Empire of Japan from 1895 to 1945. Japan branded the island a “model colony” and, naturally, imposed its state religion on the Taiwanese people.

Side note: Shrines vs Temples

Japan has two primary religious traditions—Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto places of worship (jinja, jingu, etc.) are referred to in English as “shrines” while Buddhist ones (tera) are called “temples.”

This kind of distinction between shrines and temples doesn’t exist outside of Japanese contexts. In common English usage, the usual distinction is one of physical size—with temples typically being larger than shrines regardless of religious affiliation.

Painting of the Grand Shrine of Taiwan
Painting of the Grand Shrine of Taiwan. The Grand Shrine served as Taiwan’s chief Shinto place of worship during the Japanese era.

The Shrine’s Origins

The Japanese founded the Grand Shrine in 1901 as the Taiwan Jinja (台灣神社)—the Taiwan Shrine. The sanctuary, located in Taihoku (now Taipei), honoured Prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa, a member of Japan’s Imperial Family and a Lieutenant General serving in the Imperial Army.

The prince commanded the elite infantry 1st Division and participated in the invasion of Taiwan in 1895. Unfortunately for the prince, the campaign led to his demise. Precisely how the prince died remains unclear to this day. Official records indicate malaria as the cause of his death, though he is also thought to have been killed by Taiwanese resistance forces.

The Taiwan Shrine’s construction finished in September 1901. Ornate stone lions, torii gates, stone lanterns and a chōzuya fountain adorned this sanctuary. Elegance and a beautiful simplicity graced it. This was Taiwan’s third Shinto shrine.

Two other Taiwanese Shinto shrines predate the Taiwan Shrine. They are Tainan’s Kaizan Shrine (開山神社) and the now-abandoned Ōgon Shrine (黃金神社) in the eastern outskirts of Taipei. The former was converted from the Kaishan Temple (開山王廟), dedicated to Taiwan’s 17th-century Pirate King. The latter was constructed in 1898 and was the first Taiwanese Shinto shrine built in the traditional Japanese style. Taipei’s government designated the Ōgon Shrine a municipal heritage site in 2007.

Taiwan ultimately hosted up to 66 Shinto shrines during its Japanese era.

Photo of the Grand Shrine of Taiwan
Photo of the Grand Shrine of Taiwan

Shinto and Japanization

The empire subjected Taiwan to Japanization (kōminka) policies during WWII. These policies encouraged the Taiwanese to adopt Japanese names, made the Japanese language mandatory in Taiwanese schools and conscripted Taiwanese soldiers to fight for the Imperial Japanese Army.

An integral piece of the Japanese effort to assimilate their Taiwanese subjects was the proselytization of their Shinto faith. By order of the Governor-General, October 28th became Taiwan Jinja-Sai or Taiwan Shrine Festival Day—a public holiday—and Shinto rites became increasingly incorporated into Taiwanese life.

Sadly, behind this religion lies a much darker reality. Today, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Japan enshrines as gods of war all who died for the lost Japanese cause. Tragically, 27,863 of these so-called war gods are Taiwanese. The Shinto faith encases the Taiwanese sacrifice behind a gilded facade—for Japan’s imperial dreams.

Photo: Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo
Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo Kakidai [CC BY-SA]

Grand Shrine of Taiwan

In the summer of 1944, the colonial government elevated the Taiwan Shrine to become the island’s top Shinto shrine and renamed it the Grand Shrine of Taiwan. The chief deity of the Japanese pantheon—Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess and ancestress of Japan’s Imperial Family—was installed as the patroness of the Taiwanese Grand Shrine.

The government had planned celebrations to mark the occasion for December of that year. Unfortunately, in October, an aircraft from the nearby military airbase, the Matsuyama Airfield (松山飛行場)—now the Songshan Airport (松山機場)—crashed on the grounds of the Grand Shrine, badly damaging the site.

With the War in the Pacific bogged down by heavy man-to-man fighting, the empire diverted attention and resources away from rebuilding the shrine.

Painting: Amaterasu emerging from a cave
Painting of the chief Japanese deity—the radiant Sun Goddess Amaterasu (centre)—emerging from a cave

New Rulers: Déjà Vu

The Empire of Japan was no more by the following year in 1945. The young Republic of China claimed Taiwan after WWII. The new Chinese Nationalist regime promoted Sinicization and began forcibly overwriting many traces of Japanization.

The regime instituted a reign of terror and made the Taiwanese adopt Mandarin names. Standard Mandarin Chinese—rather than native Taiwanese languages like Taiwanese, Hakka or the indigenous Formosan languages—became mandatory in Taiwanese schools. Before long, Taiwan’s new rulers began drafting Taiwanese men to fill the ranks of the Chinese army.

Photo: Grand Hotel Taipei entrance
The Grand Hotel Taipei 玄史生 [CC BY-SA]

What Happened to Taipei’s Grand Shinto Shrine?

Today, but for a plaque commemorating the Japanese religious sanctuary, few traces of the Grand Shrine remain. Chinese Nationalists tore down what was left of the Japanese-era shrine in 1952 and built the flamboyant, late-Imperial-Chinese-style Grand Hotel in its place.

A joint public-private foundation now owns and operates the hotel. Today, with the autocratic rule of both Japanese Imperialists and Chinese Nationalists in the rear-view mirror, Taiwan is a thriving democracy and an economic miracle. The Grand Hotel regularly hosts banquets and welcomes visitors to the country—all of whom are standing unawares upon the most sacred of grounds in Taiwan’s bygone Shinto age.

Posted by:Island Folklore

An online repository of Taiwan’s folktales, history, legends, myths and traditions.