Kan’ei-ji Temple and the Monument for Dead Insects

Kan’ei-ji Temple or Tōeizan Kan’ei-ji Endon-in (東叡山寛永寺円頓院) is a Tendai Buddhist temple in Tokyo, Japan.  It was founded during the Kan’ei era (1624–1644), specifically in 1625, by the Buddhist monk, Tenkai. Kan’ei-ji Temple tells us a lot about Japan’s rich culture and history. But perhaps one peculiar feature of Kan’ei-ji Temple is a monument erected for the insects that died for the sake of science!

Kan’ei-ji Temple

Kan’ei-ji Temple was constructed to rival Enryaku-ji in Kyoto’s Mount Hiei, also from the Tendai sect. The temple’s main object of worship is  Yakushirurikō Nyorai  (King of Medicine Master and Lapis Lazuli Light). He is considered the Buddha of healing and medicine in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Kan’ei-ji Temple was named in reference to the Enryaku-ji’s location on top of Mount Hiei (Tōeizan means “Mount Heiei of the East”). The name also references the era during which it was erected.

Tenkai’s project was supported by the shogunate: in 1622, none less than Tokugawa Hidetada donated the land on which it stands. Of the 15 Tokugawa shōguns, six are buried in Kan’ei-ji cemetery near the Tokyo National Museum. They are Tokugawa Ietsuna, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, Tokugawa Yoshimune, Tokugawa Ieharu, Tokugawa Ienari, Tokugawa Iesada and Iesada’s wife Tenshoin.  The cemetery is closed to the public today, but it can be seen from the street.

The once-great temple complex used to occupy the entire heights from the north to the east of Shinobazu Pond and the plains where Ueno Station now stands. It was made to ward off evil spirits that were believed to come from that unlucky direction. Kan’ei-ji Temple is a testament to the wealth, prestige, and power of the temple and its over 30 buildings.

An unlikely monument shares the limelight of all the great shoguns interred at Kan’ei-ji Temple. In 1821, an aristocrat, Sessai Matsuyama, commissioned the erection of a monument for the spirits of all the crickets, flies, and grasshoppers that had been killed in the writing of a scientific text,  an anatomical study of insects (Chuchi-jo), that Matsuyama himself  had sanctioned.

Monument for insects. | alde

The Chuchi-jo would become famous for its realistic rendering of the insects, but Matsuyama was plagued by guilt at having caused the deaths of so many insects or maybe wanted to honor the tiny living creatures for their contribution to science.  So he ordered a monument built to commemorate them. The stone monument is designated as a historical monument by the Tokyo City government.