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West Japan's 'bullet-evading shrine' still trying to return 14,000 WWII soldiers' photos

In these photos seen at Misaka Shrine in Yamaguchi on Nov. 13, 2020, men sent to war wear military uniforms, suits and other outfits. (Mainichi/Eijiro Matsuda)

YAMAGUCHI -- A Shinto shrine here was known during the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and the Pacific War (1941-1945) as the "bullet-evading shrine." Families of soldiers sent to war would offer photos of them there, and prayed for their safety.

    Over 20,000 photos were brought to the shrine during the wars, and the shrine has since made efforts to return the images to their rightful owners. But it still has over 14,000. Nearly 76 years on since the end of World War II, the search for owners has become harder and harder. Still, the shrine's nonagenarian chief priest is not about to give up. "Unless I return all the photos, my postwar era will not end," he said.

    Harunori Saeki, chief priest at Misaka Shrine, calls for the public's cooperation in getting photos back to their owners, at Misaka Shrine in Yamaguchi, on Nov. 13, 2020. (Mainichi/Eijiro Matsuda)

    In the left-hand corner of the shrine building at Misaka Shrine in the western Japan city of Yamaguchi's Tokujikishimi district in Yamaguchi Prefecture, there are seven stacked containers holding photos of Japanese soldiers. Some are large, and others small. They are kept in different envelopes based on the soldiers' home locations. Most are wearing military uniforms, but some are in kimonos, suits, or even school uniforms.

    According sources including 92-year-old chief priest Harunori Saeki, the shrine's parishioners and others, it became known as the "bullet-evading shrine" after a newspaper report following the outbreak of the 1937 second Sino-Japanese War said that soldiers who prayed at the shrine had all returned safe and sound from the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).

    After that, day after day, people brought photos of their husbands and sons to pray for their safety. Most of them were from Yamaguchi Prefecture, but some photos came from as far as the northernmost prefecture Hokkaido, Tokyo, Fukuoka, Kagoshima, and even from Manchuria, Taiwan, and the Korean peninsula -- which were all under Japanese rule at the time.

    After World War II, Saeki's father Tetsuzo -- who eventually died in 1958 aged 61 -- began to take small steps toward returning the photos, starting with people living in the neighborhood. He also asked people who came to pray at the shrine whether they had previously left photos there. After Tetsuzo's death, Saeki, who was an elementary school teacher, began compiling a roster of names and addresses written on the back of photos left at the shrine. Starting in 1989, when he reached mandatory retirement age, he checked the roster against names in the phone book and tried to confirm whether family members wanted the photos back by sending them reply-paid postcards.

    Inquiries increased once Saeki's efforts were reported in newspapers and on television. As a result, in the 20 years between 1979 and 1999, Saeki was able to return a total of 5,466 photos to their owners. There were men who learned their photos had been taken to the shrine and felt gratitude to their parents for doing so. But many died in battle despite their families' prayers, and Saeki faced grief over and over again.

    The photo of Misao Kaneda that was returned to Hiromi Kaneda from Misaka Shrine is seen in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, on March 22, 2021. (Mainichi/Eijiro Matsuda)

    As a series of reply-paid postcards were sent back to Saeki without reaching anybody on the other end, he stopped sending them in 1997. Since then, there have been cases of photos returned to their owners via photo exhibits held across Yamaguchi Prefecture with the cooperation of civic organizations.

    Among visitors to the shrine, some volunteer to try and help locate the photos' owners by going through the rosters of areas where they themselves live. This assistance allowed Hiromi Kaneda, 63, a farmer in the Yamaguchi Prefecture city of Shimonoseki, to receive in late February of 2021 a photo (approx. 5.5 centimeters long and 4 centimeters wide) of his grandfather, Misao, who died near Manila in the Philippines aged 37.

    In February 2020, Kaneda visited the Philippines on a memorial pilgrimage organized by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. What motivated him to go was that his father, Tadao, who died aged 86 in 2018, had wanted to make the trip in his lifetime but been unable to. Having a grandchild additionally made him want to learn more about his own roots.

    After returning from the trip, Kaneda wrote a book about his grandfather and the trip he took to pray for his soul. Printing of the book had already begun when he found out a photo of his grandfather was at Misaka Shrine. The coincidence made him wonder if his grandfather had led him to write the book.

    "There are as many lives as there are photos," Kaneda said. "I would like to see administrative bodies, corporations, and volunteers work together to get the photos back to their rightful owners."

    Hiromi Kaneda talks about his grandfather, Misao, with the photo returned from Misaka Shrine, other photos left at home, and the book he wrote on the table in front of him in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, on March 22, 2021. (Mainichi/Eijiro Matsuda)

    As of the end of March 2021, 14,213 photos remained at the shrine. It started a website in January 2018, where it posted the names and addresses of some 2,800 photos offered to the shrine from outside Yamaguchi Prefecture, and also uploaded 287 photos asking for any information the public may have about them.

    "Each and every photo is valuable, as they are imbued with the wish that the person in them comes back alive and well," Saeki said. He longs for the day that all of these important photos, which teach the preciousness of life, return home to their owners.

    Misaka Shrine's website can be reached at: (Japanese)

    (Japanese original by Eijiro Matsuda, Yamaguchi Bureau)

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