Aug 18, 2020

The Legacy of Renkoji Temple - Ashes of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose

Renkoji Temple stands in a quiet residential area in Tokyo and at first glance looks rather simple and unassuming. It seems just like one of the many neighborhood temples that dot Tokyo, till you peep inside its usually open gates. Inside, you will find a very life-like statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. 

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian revolutionary and freedom fighter had a very deep connection with Japan. Very few people know about the small but significant influence Japan had on India’s freedom struggle and the Azad Hind Fauj. 

During World War 2, In a quest to find support for a free India, Subhas Chandra Bose first traveled to Germany and then decided to ask for support from an Imperial Japan. He made the long and arduous journey from Germany to Japan in a submarine. As soon as he landed in Japan, he was granted a meeting with Prime Minister Tojo who promised him full support in his fight for India’s independence. Bose assumed the mantle of leading the Indian Independence Movement from outside India and supported by the Japanese aid and influence, proceeded to revitalize the Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army or INA) that was originally created using Indian soldiers who were taken prisoners of war by the Japanese during their campaign in South East Asia. The resurrected INA fought alongside the Japanese soldiers against the British forces in Burma, Imphal and Kohima and for a short while managed to turn the tide against the British.

Unfortunately, things changed with Japan’s defeat in World War 2 and on 18th August 1945, three days after Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender, Netaji boarded a plane, supposedly to escape to Manchuria. The sequence of events is somewhat clear till this point, but after this point, there are many theories. The most accepted theory is that the plane caught fire over Taipei and Netaji lost his life in the plane crash.

It is widely believed that his ashes were brought back to Japan where they were handed over to the priest at Renkoji temple for safekeeping. His ashes remain interred there to date. Besides Indian dignitaries, members of Netaji’s family have also visited the temple and Netaji’s daughter Anita Bose Pfaff has also requested the Modi government to conduct a DNA test on the ashes kept there. She along with a large fraction of people believes that her father did indeed lose his life in the plane crash. 

Image - Wikipedia

Every year, on 18th August, the purported death anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the inner sanctum of the temple is opened to the general public and a memorial service is held inside in Netaji’s honor. Last year, I had the opportunity to visit the temple and witness the ceremony.

The Renkoji temple belongs to the Nichiren sect of Buddhism and is inspired by the Goddess of Wealth and Happiness. The alter is indeed magnificent but what makes it significant for us Indians is the huge photograph of Subhas Chandra Bose kept at a place of prominence. Beside it is a tall wooden plaque with his name written in Japanese. On that day, the alter was beautifully decorated with huge candles making the gloomy interior radiant.

wooden plaque with Netaji's name written in Japanese 

The ceremony was officiated by the head priest and Buddhist sutras were chanted for more than an hour. During the ceremony, the silence was absolute, and we were asked to respect the dignity of the occasion and not click any pictures. I was touched by the sincerity and reverence with which the Japanese pray for the soul of someone who does not belong to their country and whose ashes they just have in their safekeeping. After the prayers, we were allowed to go up to the altar and pay our respects. 

The complete altar with the chair on which the priest sat to officiate the ceremony

On the right of the altar, surrounded by incense and flowers was a small box that contained the purported ashes of Netaji. The box is usually kept inside but is brought out once a year every August 18th. 
Although the Indian Embassy in Tokyo pays for the upkeep and maintenance of the ashes, the head priest at the Renkoji temple considers it a great honor that they have been given this responsibility

The ashes 

Amongst the motley crowd of Indian visitors, you will also find a few Japanese whose families in one way or the other have been associated with Bose and the INA. When we spoke to them, they had wonderful tales to tell about Netaji’s association with their fathers and grandfathers. It was heartwarming to see how much he is still revered there and how his tales of valor have been passed on to the younger generation. 

Outside, in the temple grounds, behind the bust of Netaji are plaques carved with words from Indian dignitaries who had visited the temple, right from Rajendra Prasad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and most recently Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The Indian government began the process of declassification of files related to Bose on 23rd January 2016, but even now the controversy continues around Netaji and whether the ashes at Renkoji are indeed his. 
All controversy aside, I find it a matter of immense pride and honor to see one of our freedom fighters remembered with such reverence outside our country. 


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