Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Ryozen Kannon: Remembering the Fallen

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Many nations have memorials to the unknown soldiers who died in various wars. In addition to showing respect for the dead, they remind the living that war creates deep and permanent losses that transcend time and don't go away when the fighting ends.

The Ryozen Kannon memorializes all the fallen, not just the Japanese

One such memorial, the Ryozen Kannon, stands in a historic section of Kyoto's Higashiyama district. Though surrounded by thousand year-old shrines, the Ryozen Kannon memorial dates only to 1955. The memorial commemorates, and pays tribute to, the unknown soldiers from every country who died in the Pacific War (the Pacific theater) during World War II. Its placement in the center of a deeply historical area ensures it visibility--tens of thousands of Japanese and foreign visitors pass by it, and visit it, every year. The size of the Kannon statue ensures that even those who don't visit the shrine will see her--and, hopefully, ask about her meaning.

The Kannon as seen from a neighboring street

The shrine's unassuming entrance . . .

A deceptively neutral entrance for such a lovely shrine

. . . leads to a large graveled court with a reflecting pool, a large incense burner, and the Kannon-do (Kannon hall).

Beyond the gate

For a $3 admission fee, visitors receive access to the grounds and a stick of incense to set in the burner on behalf of the unknown dead.

Incense burner in front of the Kannon-do

Kannon, the Buddhist bodhisattva of mercy and compassion, has been venerated in Japan since at least the sixth century. Her name means "the one who sees all." Her role is to see and hear the cries of all who have troubles during life, and to help them attain enlightenment (and merciful release from suffering) after death. Although sometimes portrayed as male, in Japan Kannon is almost always shown in a female form.

The Ryozen Kannon

The massive Ryozen Kannon sits atop the Kannon-do, watching over the reflecting pool. Inside the hall, priests conduct observances and prayers on behalf of the dead four times each day. Visitors can watch the services, and arrange for private prayers as well.

The Kannon makes the building look deceptively small.

Kannon herself is made of concrete and steel, measures 24 meters in height, and was built by Japanese artist Hirosuke Ishikawa. Photos don't do justice to her massive size and presence.

In the wake of World War II, the Japanese people foreswore war and erected memorials like the Ryozen Kannon (and the Hiroshima memorial) to remind themselves and others of the true cost of violence. In remembering those who gave their lives, they also remember that war is a choice--and one that we as a species must try to avoid.

The Kannon, as seen from a neighboring temple

Instead, as these memorials remind us, we should strive to have compassion, not just for the lost, but for the living too.


  1. Gorgeous, Susan. Thank you for this moving reminder.

  2. We ought to erect its sister on the White House front lawn.