Shoin Shrine – A School, Prison, and Intellectual Hub of Japanese Revolutionaries

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Shoin Shrine is a shrine dedicated to the educator Yoshida Shoin (1830-1859) and built on the grounds were Shoin taught, lived, and was imprisoned for several years while under house arrest. Yoshida Shoin was born in Hagi, a castle town located in Choshu Domain, present day Yamaguchi Prefecture. At the ripe age of 11 years old, he was teaching the daimyo Mori Takachika military arts and scholastics. He became well known throughout his domain, as well as others, as a bright mind and educator at a very young age.

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Yoshida Shoin

His thirst for knowledge was so vast that he unsuccessfully attempted to board foreign ships and leave Japan in order to study western sciences and military techniques. This was an extremely dangerous quest since leaving your domain, let alone Japan, without permission was strictly forbidden. His famous attempt to board one of the Black Ships under the command of American Commodore Matthew Perry resulted in his capture. He was returned to shogun Tokugawa Iemochi and thrown in prison.

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 Woodblock print of Perry’s Black Ships (1854)

At this time, the shogun was trying to negotiate friendly trade terms with the western powers that recently arrived on Japanese shores. Shoin and his followers proved to be very troublesome for the shogunate as they were proponents of “Sonno Joi” (Revere the Emperor and Expel the Barbarians) in opposition to the shogunate, or bakufu. Because of his extreme disagreement with the shogun’s advisor Ii Naosuke, Shoin plotted an assassination attempt on the advisor’s life. It failed, and the conflict between bakufu policy and the rebel-rallying cry lead to the Ansei Purge (1858 – 1860), which ultimately resulted in the unfortunate death of Yoshida Shoin. On November 21, 1859, he was beheaded for his crimes of plotting to assassinate Ii Naosuke and organizing revolts throughout Japan.

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The grounds are home to Shoin Shrine, a museum, Shoka Sonjuku (pictured above was the school where he taught many of Japan’s future heroes), and the house he spent several years under house arrest. It’s amazing to witness the tiny school in which Shoin taught many of the brightest minds to emerge from Choshu. While the artifacts on the grounds are much older, the actual shrine was completed in 1955. Since its completion many students have come to Shoin Shrine to pray for good grades and fortune with upcoming tests. Some of the samurai students who attended his teachings at Shoka Sonjuku were Takasugi Shinsaku, Ito Hirobumi (Japan’s first prime minister), Yamagata Aritomo, Kido Takayoshi, and Genzui Kusaka, all active during Japan’s transition from the shogunate to the Meiji Restoration.

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