Memorial tower for deceased Russian soldiers (Koyasan)

Entrance to the Okunoin temple, Koyasan (photo by the author, November 2022)

The number of foreigners visiting Japan has been increasing since the relaxation of the border security measures regarding the new coronavirus from April 2023. When visiting regular tourist spots, it seems that there are more foreigners than Japanese. Koyasan, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Wakayama Prefecture, is one such tourist attraction. Koyasan, where many visitors from the U.S. and Europe stay in lodgings run by the temple. The monks also do their best to explain the temple in English to foreign tourists.

Now, Koyasan, the sacred site of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism, is an area founded by Kobo Daishi Kukai 1,200 years ago, and is home to 117 temples with a long history. The highlight is Okunoin Temple. The sight of countless moss-covered cenotaphs, memorial towers, and tombs standing side by side in a cedar forest is mysterious and breathtaking. The names of warlords such as Takeda Shingen and Oda Nobunaga are inscribed on them, making it exciting for history buffs to just look at them.

Koyasan is a very Japanese place, but did you know that it has had relations with foreign countries? In this article, we will look at Koyasan and the memorial tower for Russian soldiers who died in the Russo-Japanese War, based on historical data.

The Russo-Japanese War and Urban Disturbances

In February 1904, amid the ongoing colonization of Asia by European nations, the Russo-Japanese War began over claims and interests in the Korean Peninsula. The war, which was initially thought to end in Russian victory, shocked the world when the small Asian nation of Japan destroyed Russia’s Baltic Fleet. While European countries were increasingly threatened by Japan and advocated the “yellow peril theory” (the argument that the yellow race would accumulate power and become a threat to the white race), Asian countries began to hope that they, like Japan, could win the war and began a struggle to escape colonial rule.

On the other hand, Japan also did not have much strength left and could not afford to prolong the war. Therefore, in the Treaty of Portsmouth signed in September 1905, Russia recognized Japan’s control over the Korean Peninsula but refused to pay reparations, but Japan had no choice but to accept the treaty. As a result, Tokyo residents dissatisfied with the terms of the peace treaty gathered in Hibiya Park and turned into a mob, attacking and setting fire to the official residence of the Minister of Home Affairs and other buildings, resulting in the Hibiya incendiary incident.

Note that although the Hibiya incendiary incident in Tokyo is well known, riots actually occurred not only in Tokyo but also in other cities. The following document describes the Yokohama riots, addressed to the Minister of Foreign Affairs by Suhu Kohei, Governor of Kanagawa Prefecture, on September 13, and summarized in part as follows.

“Tokyo-Yokohama Disturbance” (東京横浜騒擾一件). Holding institution: Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (ID: Images: Japan Center for Asian Historical Records (Ref.B08090142500).

On September 12, at 7:00 p.m., a speech on the Peace Treaty issue was scheduled to be held at the Hagoromoza Theater in Hagoromo-cho, Yokohama, with six orators including Shiro Isobe and Ichijiro Okuno. Before the scheduled time, 3,000 people had already gathered, and more than 450 were unable to enter. Although the atmosphere was a bit tense, it had not yet become unsettled as long as the orators were on stage. However, at 8:30, when the four orators had finished, the chairman announced that the meeting would be adjourned because no other orators were present. The audience was outraged, and shouts of “return the admission fee” and “fraud and thievery” were heard, and the atmosphere became more and more disturbing. The people inside and outside the theater responded by causing a huge commotion, not only ignoring the police officers’ attempts to stop them, but also injuring one of them. Then they became more and more rabid, invading the old settlement and attacking French and American consulates and other places. I (Governor Suhu) was in Tokyo for a meeting of local officials when I received the news and requested the commander of the 1st Division to mobilize two companies of infantry. Patrols were posted at the six consulates of the British, Americans, French, Germans, Russians, and Qing, as well as at church buildings and other important places, and we were on high alert.

Memorial Pagoda by Daen at Jokiin Temple

“Proposal from Koyasan Jokiin Temple to erect the memorial tower in Koyasan to comfort Japanese and Russian war victims” (高野山ニ日露両国戦病死者ニ対スル如意宝珠塔建立方ニ関シ同山常喜院住職伺出一件). Holding institution: Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (ID: Images: Japan Center for Asian Historical Records (Ref.B07090962200).

On December 11, 1908, three years after the disturbances in the cities, a letter of inquiry was submitted to the Russian Ambassador in Tokyo by Daien (大円), the abbot of Jokiin Temple on Koyasan. The Russian Ambassador inquired at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which in turn made an inquiry to the Governor of Wakayama Prefecture.

The letter reads in part: “At Koyasan, based on Kukai’s vow, since ancient times, people of all ranks have erected memorial towers and prayed for the repose of spirits after their death. Therefore, I too would like to erect a 4-meter-long bronze tower (dousei-nyoi-houjyu-to 銅製如意宝珠塔) to enshrine the spirits of Japanese and Russian soldiers who died in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. I would like to inscribe on the inscription the number of Russian army and navy servicemen killed in action and those who died of illness, so please let me know the number.

The text that Daien intended to inscribe on the inscription is preserved in the following documents.

On 10 February 1904, the imperial edict of war was issued, our armies rushed forward and penetrated the solid fortifications, crushed the giant ships, the heavens and the earth were astonished, and we won a great victory both on land and at sea, and on 16 October 1905, the imperial edict of peace was issued, stabilising the country like Mount Fuji. Although this was solely due to the Emperor’s outstanding virtue, how could the victory have been achieved without the loyal and brave officers and soldiers who sacrificed their lives? In this war, those who died in battle and died of disease were about 91,200 for our army, 2009 for the navy and 860 for the wounded and sick (how many Russian dead?).
I, Daien, was born in a time of national power and was happy to enjoy peace. At the same time, when I thought of the devastation of the mountains of corpses and rivers of blood, I felt a strong desire to comfort the spirits of those who had died in the service of Japan and Russia. And a man from Osaka, Ono Seikichi (小野清吉), agreed and invested a huge donation to erect this bronze tower.

(Japanese: 明治三十七年二月十日、宜戦ノ詔勅煥発セラルヽヤ、我軍奮進堅壘ヲ抜キ、巨艦ヲ摧キ天地震驚。陸海斉ク大捷ヲ奏シ、三十八年十月十六日、講和ノ詔勅煥発セラレ、茲ニ国家ニ富嶽ノ安キニ置ケリ。是レ一ニ聖上ノ御感徳ニ因ルト雖モ、一身ヲ犠牲ニ供セン忠勇ノ将士無クセバ、烏ソ此ニ至ラン。斯ノ役ヤ戦死病没者、我陸軍約九一二〇〇人、海軍戦死者二〇〇九人、傷病死者八六〇人、露国何々人ノ。貧道大円盛世ニ生レ、昇平ノ楽ヲ享クルヲ歓フト俱ニ、其屍山血河ノ惨状ヲ追想シテ、自他ノ忠魂ヲ慰メンコトヲ祈願スルヤ切ナリキ。茲ニ大阪ノ人小野清吉氏之ヲ賛成シ巨額浄財ヲ投シテ此荘厳ナル宝塔ヲ建立セラレタリ。)

Today, Jokiin Temple continues to operate as usual, but unfortunately, the bronze tower is no longer extant.

Impact of the Russo-Japanese War

Japan’s victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War gave the Japanese people of the time a sense of superiority, as if Japan had become a first-class nation. Such memories have been passed on to the Japanese people of today, and the soldiers who played an active role in the Russo-Japanese War, such as Gentaro Kodama and Heihachiro Togo, are all regarded as heroes and talked about as glorious achievements. On the other hand, both Japan and Russia sacrificed much during the war. On the one hand, it gave hope to Asia, which was suffering from the domination of European countries. On the other hand, Japan itself, like European countries, colonized Asian countries after the war. We should not forget the negative aspects of the war.

In addition to the Russo-Japanese War, Koyasan is also home to various cenotaphs and memorial towers for the war dead. If you decide to travel to Koyasan, look not only at the names of the samurai, but also at other names. You may also want to think about the Japanese and Russian soldiers who once died in the Russo-Japanese War.

Yuichi Hosoya. Lectures on Modern Japanese History: Learning from Success and Failure. Chuokoron Shinsha, 2019.
Yukei Matsunaga. Koyasan. Iwanami Shinsho, 2014.


Dr. Maki is the team leader. She has experience in archives management. Her hobbies are otaku culture (manga, light novels, anime, and video games). The illustrations on this home page are hand-drawn by her.

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