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View of the Hondon looking north from the inner shrine at Hachiman Jinga

Photo by G. Cabrera, courtesy of Division of Historic Preservation, Saipan, CNMI

Hachiman Jinja is a Shinto shrine located on the island of Saipan. Constructed during the 1930s under the Japanese administration of the Northern Mariana Islands, this shrine has survived both the World War II battle for Saipan and the intervening years substantially intact and still retains its original structural components and landscape elements. A Shinto shrine or jinga is more than the sum of the structural elements that are present at the site. It is considered a sacred space that is conceptualized as becoming more spiritually powerful as one moves further into the jinga. Some spaces in the jinga would only have been accessible to shrine priests while others would have been spaces for worship of the Kami---a difficult concept to define in Western terms. Kami can include spirits, natural forces as well as anything or anyone that embodies awe or excellence. Ritual dances and ceremonies for the surrounding community were also held at Hachiman Jinja.

Japan conquered the Northern Mariana Islands from Imperial Germany during World War I, and expelled all German Capuchin priests and missionaries in the archipelago. However, there were no initial attempts to inhibit freedom of religion. Japan negotiated with the Vatican and Spanish Jesuits quickly replaced the German priests. At the same time Japan was also sending Buddhist and Shinto missions into the Northern Mariana Islands and the rest of Micronesia. The earliest Buddhist temple was established in Saipan in 1919. However, Shinto was particularly favored by the Japanese government as a means to acculturate the indigenous and immigrant Okinawan populations into more Japanese patterns. Shinto was the Japanese state-sponsored religion until 1945, and is believed to have been founded around 660 BC in Japan. The religious climate of Japan’s mandated islands in the Pacific changed in the 1930s in conjunction with ideological changes in the home islands. Shinto, today referred to as “State Shinto,”was increasingly forced on the Northern Marianas in order to further assimilate the population. The timing of the construction of Hachiman Jinja places it solidly within this framework. Additionally, the selection of Hachiman, the spirit/god of war, as the chief Kami honored at the shrine further illustrates the militant aspects of “State Shinto” that was conducted at the site.

View of Hondon looking south
Photo by G. Cabrera, courtesy of Division of Historic Preservation, Saipan, CNMI

The results of state indoctrination became very evident during the battle for Saipan starting July 9, 1944. With American victory imminent, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians committed suicide by throwing themselves off “Suicide Cliff” and “Banzai Cliff” at the northern tip of the island. This self-sacrifice was totally in character with the expectations generated by the Japanese nationalistic ideology of the 1930s and 1940s. Although no longer used as a place of worship, Hachiman Jinga is an important testimony to Japan’s 30-year presence in the Northern Marianas.

The entranceway to the Jinga is an impressive concrete stairway that is flanked by large limestone walls. Two large concrete lanterns are located on either side of the staircase and a large concrete plynth is located west of the stairs. The staircase is plain poured concrete, measuring 6.3 meters by 3.7 meters, and is currently in a deteriorated condition. The visitor climbs the staircase to the entrance of the shrine proper. To either side of the southern end of the staircase are two short pillars. Directly to the south of the staircase is a fallen Tori gate. To the west of the gate is a basin. A well-kept lawn stretches south from this entrance until the visitor reaches a raised courtyard terrace. Originally the pillars would have supported a pair of carved stone dogs, which served as guardians of the sacred site. Beyond this area lies the haiden, an outdoor space (approximately 14 x 8 meters) that is clearly defined by rock and cliff face and by being a raised terrace that is surrounded by a stone and concrete retaining wall.

Concrete lantern at entrance to Hachiman Jinja
Photo by G. Cabrera, courtesy of Division of Historic Preservation, Saipan, CNMI

The haiden at Hachiman Jinga is only accessible from two staircases. The honden, or inner sanctuary, is the most sacred area of the shrine. This portion of the jinja is only approached by the most senior Shinto priests. The entrance is marked by a cedar wood Tori gate. The two bases of the Tori columns as well as the two cross bars are bound in copper. Through the Tori gate visitors pass a concrete sill and transverse a slightly upward sloping natural limestone fissure toward the inner sanctuary. Two meters past the concrete step one encounters a concrete sill and the remnants of concrete gate posts or possibly a support for a former Tori gate. The concrete gates are deteriorated and reveal that they were constructed of mortared limestone rubble with a smooth concrete face in the standard Japanese Period manner. The innermost shrine is found at the end of the corridor. Four concrete steps rise a meter to a 2 x 1.5 meter concrete platform that stands before the shrine. The inner shrine is constructed of concrete and measures 1.43 by 1.62 meters and takes the form of a miniature building.

Close up view of inner shrine looking south
Photo by G. Cabrera, courtesy of Division of Historic Preservation, Saipan, CNMI

The architectural style of the current roof is in the style of nagare zukuri, though the limited space within the fissure constrains more elaborately projected eaves. The original structural elements were almost certainly damaged or destroyed in World War II during fierce combat at the shrine—bullet pockmarks are present throughout the site and artillery shell duds and shrapnel were once common before they were collected. The doors and roof style are consistent with other Shinto shrines and it is likely that the former practitioners and their priest attempted to reconstruct the honden to its original form. The concrete base and walls of the inner shrine are all original. The reason that the honden is considered the most sacred area of the jinga is that the objects associated with the Kami are stored in the inner shrine. These objects, typically mirrors, are called shintai. Shintai are considered sacred because the Kami invest the shintai with their presence during the rituals.

Hachiman Jinga | Kam Wah Chung Company Building | Kalaupapa National Historic Park
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