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The stone gates of Sôgenji.
  • Established: 1475
  • Other Names: 霊徳山 (Reitoku-zan)
  • Japanese: 崇元寺 (Sougen-ji)

Sôgen-ji was a Rinzai Zen temple in Tomari, Okinawa, originally constructed in 1475.[1] All that survives of the temple today are its thick, heavy stone gates, which were originally constructed during an expansion of the temple in 1496.

At that same time in 1496, stelae were erected in honor of all the kings of Ryûkyû, making the temple both a shrine to each of the kings of the past, and also a shrine to the kingdom itself. Chinese investiture envoys regularly paid formal visits to Sôgen-ji, and to these stelae, performing a ritual in honor of the late former king, prior to the ceremony at Shuri castle investing the new king in his position.[2] These stelae were typically organized according to a system of Ryukyuan custom, with the earliest Okinawan kings, Shunten, Eiso, and Satto, at the center, and the kings of the First Shô Dynasty on each end of the row, and the latest kings, those of the Second Shô Dynasty, between them. In short, the arrangement looked something like this:

1st Shô Dynasty | 2nd Shô Dynasty | Satto, Shunten, Eiso | 2nd Shô Dynasty | 1st Shô Dynasty

In 1683, Chinese envoy Wang Ji expressed his confusion, or perhaps even distaste, at seeing the stones arranged in this manner. In 1719, Xu Baoguang reported that the stones had been rearranged, and now fit the standard Chinese system, with the reigns simply alternating left and right, extending outwards from the earliest kings at the center, to the latest at the edges. A similar set of tablets erected at Engaku-ji were temporarily rearranged only when Chinese envoys were about, and were then placed back into the standard Ryukyuan order when the envoys had left.[3]

In 1527, a pair of stelae were erected at the gates to Sôgen-ji declaring that all who enter, even the reigning king himself, were expected to dismount before passing through the gates. The eastern of these two stelae survives today.

The temple was a branch temple of Engaku-ji, the chief Rinzai temple in the kingdom, which was located just outside the grounds of Shuri castle. The grounds of Sôgenji covered more than 1230 tsubo, following a layout with a Chinese flavor, but surrounded by a distinctively Ryukyuan stone wall. When Chinese investiture envoys came to the kingdom, before visiting the castle, they would take part in a ceremony here at Sôgenji in honor of the previous kings. The main buildings of the complex were arranged in a square around an open plaza; entering via the gates to the south and proceeding north, one would first encounter the zendô, or "front hall." Passing through it, one comes to the central plaza, flanked by a West Building (西庁) and East Building (東庁), and with the main shrine (正廟) straight ahead to the north. It was within this building that all the kings of Ryûkyû, from Shunten to Shô Tai, were enshrined, more in the manner of a Chinese Confucian or Daoist temple than that of a Buddhist temple. The kuri (monks' quarters) was located just east of the main shrine building, north of the East Building.

Each time that Chinese investiture envoys came to Ryûkyû to invest a new king, a yusai memorial ceremony would be held at Sôgen-ji mourning the spirit of his late predecessor. The ihai memorial tablet would be placed out, along with offerings for the spirit of the late king, before which the new king would then perform a full kowtow (three kneelings, nine bows). The Ming or Qing lead and vice-envoys would then light incense in front of the memorial tablet and make an offering of liquor. Another Ming/Qing official would then read out a formal memorial statement, and then ritually burn the document. Finally, the heads of the investiture mission would perform a partial (one kneeling, three bows) kowtow toward the memorial tablet. This was followed by a formal banquet.[4]

Many of the temple's buildings were declared National Treasures in 1933, but were then destroyed in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, leaving only sections of the stone walls/gates intact. Some restoration work was undertaken in the early 1950s, the first major project to restore cultural properties damaged in the war.[5]


  • Kerr, George. Okinawa: The History of an Island People. Revised Edition. Tuttle Publishing, 2000. pp109ff.
  • "Sôgenji" 崇元寺. Okinawa hyakka daijiten (Okinawa Encyclopedia). vol. 2. Okinawa Times, 1983. pp610-611.
  1. Gallery labels at Tamaudun.[1]
  2. Plaques at former site of the Tenshikan, Naha.[2]
  3. Gregory Smits, "Ryukyu and its Geo-cultural Context," presentation at Interpreting Parades and Processions of Edo Japan symposium, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 10 Feb 2013.
  4. "Sappôshi kankei chôsai ni tsuite"「冊封使関係調査について」, Fee nu kaji 南ぬ風 5 (2007/10-12), 14.
  5. Tze May Loo, Heritage Politics: Shuri Castle and Okinawa's Incorporation into Modern Japan, 1879-2000, Lexington Books (2014), 159.