Monday, February 15, 2016

Going Places Singapore - A walk among the tombstones

Yup. Heard a lot about the Japanese Cemetery. Not seen it myself.


A walk among the tombstones

The largest and best-kept Japanese cemetery outside of Japan is right along Yio Chu Kang Road. Who knew?

By Wei Lien Chin     |     12 Mar 2015

There are few countries in the world more deserving of being called a “melting pot” than Singapore. Since its founding, the city-state has attracted people from all over the world to do business and make a living. Evidently, things have worked out pretty well for us.
But here is where it gets tricky. With immigrants come different customs, and with different customs come the need for different burial grounds when they pass away. Fortunately, finding a delicate balance between different burial grounds in the land-scarce Singapore is a juggling trick that city planners here have pulled off with skill. There are cemeteries for Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, war heroes, and even one tucked away in Choa Chu Kang specifically for Jews. Little do Singaporeans know that Japanese immigrants to Singapore in the 19th century also had a cemetery to call their own.
Never heard of the Japanese Cemetery Park in Singapore? You aren’t alone. Unless you live nearby or are a member of the Japanese Association, the Japanese Cemetery Park is little known to anyone outside of Chuan Hoe Avenue off Yio Chu Kang Road.
To learn more about this place, we paid a visit one quiet Friday morning and spoke with the sole caretaker, who’s been there for the last half a century.
Grave history
The Japanese Cemetery Park is one of the oldest existing cemeteries in Singapore. Like most burial grounds, this one has an interesting story to tell.
Between 1870 and 1920, the majority of the Japanese immigrants to Singapore were not businessmen, tradesmen and professionals, but prostitutes, orkarayuki-san, which translates to “Miss Going-Overseas”. During the Meiji era, many Japanese girls from Shimabara Peninsula in Nagasaki Prefecture and Amakusa Islands in Kumamoto Prefecture were sold to work in Southeast Asia. And because the trade was generally frowned upon, those who passed away in Singapore had nowhere to go – not even back home.
As such, three brothel keepers, Futaki Takajiro, Shibuya Ginji and Nakagawa Kikuzo, decided to do something about it. After obtaining government approval, a 30,000 sq m land was set aside for these women. In fact, even today, about one-third of all 910 graves in the Japanese Cemetery Park belong to karayuki-san who worked and died in Singapore.
By the time the Second World War came to a close, many Japanese merchants and traders were interred at the cemetery, even the ashes of Japanese soldiers. That’s because, when the Japanese surrendered in 1945, soldiers based here were either repatriated, trialed and executed, or jailed in internment camps. Some jailed soldiers either died from natural causes or committed suicide. Their bodies were in turn brought over here for cremation and burial. Over the years, many memorials were erected in memory of these soldiers who fought in the Second World War, and some prisoners-of-war even took it upon themselves to build three memorials in the western corner of the cemetery, and buried the ashes of approximately 10,000 nameless soldiers collected from the destroyed Bukit Batok Memorial.
Paper cranes which signifies peace in JapanToday, the park remains one of the biggest and best-kept Japanese cemeteries outside of mainland Japan. There is even a prayer hall that was fully restored in 1986 by the authorities, complete with Buddha statues, paper cranes (which signifies peace), a prayer box out front for donations and clean, spotless floors, just like the shrines in Japan.
But time has caught up with some parts of the cemetery, including the broken tombstone of a Japanese soldier. Even though it has been mended, the gaping wound looked like it was damaged with deliberate brute force. We ventured deeper into the cemetery to find out more from the caretaker.
Keeper of the deadThe path leading across the graves
All burial services at the Japanese Cemetery Park ceased in 1973. But a caretaker continues to maintain the premises, 24/7.
Lim Keok Kee, 77, has been sole caretaker of the Japanese Cemetery Park for the last 55 years. His father before him worked on the little-known burial ground as an employee of the Japanese Association in the 1930s. According to Keok Kee, his father took on the job back then because “he couldn’t find work when he first arrived in Singapore from China”. When asked if unemployment was the same reason why he also chose to become a caretaker, he replied, “In 1960, my father fell ill, so he wanted me to take over the job. Also because I grew up here.”
“Here?” I asked, astounded.
Graves are located relatively near to residential houses“Yes, here, in the cemetery,” Keok Kee said, and he wasn’t kidding. Keok Kee literally grew up on the cemetery grounds as a child, and the family even has a small shed at the back of the premises that looks like a kampung. Keok Kee has since expanded the size of the shed, but back in the day, the family home doubled as a cremation facility for the deceased. That's because the entire family was part of the caretaking business here. Keok Kee himself helped his father cremate the dead when the deceased were brought in. “Of course, last time there weren’t that many houses around here,” he recalled. “There were a lot of trees because of the plantations. Nowadays, people live here like it is nothing.” And he’s not wrong. In fact, a resident could look out of her second floor window and see the grave of Terauchi Hisaichi, the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army.
These days, however, Keok Kee’s responsibilities are fewer. Now that cremation has been off his to-do list for the last 42 years, he mostly busies himself with fallen leaves, the occasional piece of rubbish, and memorabilia left behind by visitors at tombstones – and there are a lot of those.
According to him, tour buses come by every once in a while, packed with Japanese tourists, and many of them leave offerings. From incense and flowers to paper cranes and oranges, he has seen (and collected) it all. On the day of our visit, someone even left a sponge cake from Fukusaya, a historic cake shop in Japan. “[Some of] these things have to be cleared after some time,” he said. “Or else the animals will get to them, and it gets messy.”
And what about the broken tombstone of the Japanese soldier?
“Did you fix it?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, and he spoke no more.
Closing time
Every evening at seven o’clock, Keok Kee’s last task is to usher the last visitors out and close the gates to the cemetery. And since the streetlights go only as far as the front door, the entire cemetery is drowned in darkness when the night falls.
People naturally tend to stay away, save for the occasional cyclists and dog-walkers. Yet that doesn’t mean caretaking is a job for the lonely, at least not to Keok Kee. With his trusty dog (which couldn’t stop barking at the photographer), the few occasional helpers and the residents nearby, it is difficult to feel lonely these days.
“Besides, I have a lot of work to keep me busy,” he said as he pointed in the general direction of the 910 graves he oversees, including the grave of his father. That grave is located at the back and separated from the rest. It is not difficult to spot, since it is the only Chinese grave on the premises. He, however, declined to talk much about his father, preferring instead to go on with the day’s activities.
And with that, we left him to his work.
Notable graves
Grave of Yamamoto Otokichi located next to the prayer hallYamamoto Otokichi
Yamamoto, also known as John Matthew Ottoson, was the first Japanese resident in Singapore when he migrated here in 1862. Noted for his bravery, he was once a deckhand onboard Hojun-maru when the ship drifted out to sea at Toba in a storm. It took one year and two months for the shift to drift to America. Miraculously, Yamamoto, then just 14 years old, survived.
Ueyama Kantaro
Ueyama is the son of Ueyama Eiichiro, the inventor of mosquito coils. He died when his plane crashed in Sembawang airport in 1942.
Terauchi HisaichiThe grave of Field Marshal Count Hisaichi, Commander for the Southeast Asian troop
Field Marshal Count Hisaichi, the Supreme Commander for the Southeast Asian troop during the Pacific War, died of illness in Johor Bahru after the war and is buried here.

Weng Ya Zhang
Former caretaker and Keok Kee’s father, who received special permission to be buried here in 1960.

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