Japanese Cemetery Park
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The Japanese Cemetery Park at 22 Chuan Hoe Avenue was established in 1891 to serve the burial needs of Japanese residents in Singapore. Said to be the largest and best-preserved Japanese cemetery in Southeast Asia, the site measures 30,000 m2 and has an estimated 910 tombstones. Those interred here include Japanese businessmen, professionals, tradesmen and prostitutes who plied their trade in Singapore, as well as a number of war dead from World War II. The cemetery was closed to burials in 1973 and named a memorial park in 1987.
In 1891, three brothel keepers, Futaki Takajiro, Shibuya Ginji and Nakagawa Kikuzo, obtained government approval for a cemetery for destitute Japanese prostitutes who died in Singapore. Called karayuki-san (meaning ‘going to China’ or ‘going overseas’), these women formed the largest segment of the Japanese population working in Singapore between 1870 and 1920. Many came from the rural areas of Shimabara Peninsula in Nagasaki Prefecture and Amakusa Islands in Kumamoto Prefecture.
The founders of the cemetery also owned rubber estates, and combined six acres of their own land with another two acres of adjoining public land for the graveyard. The tombstones of the karayuki-san account for almost half of the gravestones in the cemetery, and are later constructions that were installed to replace the original wooden markers that had decayed.
After World War I, the industrialisation of Japan advanced at a great pace. Investments in Singapore and Malaya increased, leading to the creation of an affluent, middle-class Japanese population in Singapore. The presence of the karayuki-sans became a growing source of discomfort, and the Japanese government repatriated large numbers of them from 1920. These changes in the composition of the Japanese population here were reflected in the evolution of the cemetery, which grew to include the tombs of those involved in agriculture, retail, mining, publishing, fishing and other trades.
As the community became wealthier, the architecture of the tombs took on more ornate and elaborate styles. Design features included stone sculptures of Jizo (a Japanese deity) or Corinthian-styled columns, and plots were also demarcated with fences and gates. In 1929, the community set up a memorial stone for author Shimei Futabatei, who had died on a ship in the Bay of Bengal in 1909. His body was cremated in Singapore, and his ashes sent back to Japan. A memorial marker was also built for Takeshiro Nishimura, a prominent author who lived in Singapore from 1902 until his death in 1942.
Another noteworthy grave is that of Yoshio Nishimura, the managing director of Ishihara Sangyo Koshi, an iron ore mining company in Malaya. Nishimura, who died in December 1934, was president of the Japanese Association and committed suicide while under investigation by the Special Branch on suspicion of espionage. His funeral was attended by five hundred mourners and was the largest ever held at the cemetery.
The Japanese Occupation
The onset of the Japanese Occupation ushered in a new phase for the cemetery, with tombs and memorials constructed largely to commemorate the war dead. The best-known military memorial is that of Field Marshall Count Hisaichi Terauchi, the Supreme Commander of Japanese Forces in Southeast Asia. Terauchi, who led the conquest of Southeast Asia, was under detention at the Renggam prisoner of war (POW) camp in Johor when he died on 12 June 1946. He was cremated in the Japanese Cemetery and his ashes returned to Japan. A memorial, carved out from stone in Singapore and red granite from Kota Tinggi, was erected for him by Japanese POWs.
Other memorials include those dedicated to Japanese military casualties, soldiers who had committed suicide after the Japanese surrender and those executed as war criminals. According to Japanese sources, soil from the execution grounds in Changi Prison was secretly moved by translators to the memorial site. The memorials were clandestinely constructed by POWs, transported to the cemetery and installed with a dedication ceremony attended by senior Japanese military figures on 18 May 1947.
On 30 March 1955, the Japanese government built a memorial for 135 Japanese war criminals executed in the Changi gaol for wartime atrocities such as the Sook Ching massacre. A monument for 79 war criminals that were hanged in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Malacca, is located next to it. In the vicinity of these stone markers is a memorial for Japanese who died in POW camps in Singapore, Johor, and the Riau Archipelago. Japanese war veterans have also commissioned and contributed a number of memorials. They include monuments for the 4th and 5th Guards Regiments who were part of the siege of Singapore.
In the early years, the cemetary’s graves were maintained by the Mutual Self-Help Society. The society comprised mainly of women from the prostitution trade and was initiated by Futaki, one of the founders of the cemetery, during the late 19th century. After the demise of three founders of the cemetery, the society assumed full custody of the cemetery. In 1917, the Japanese Association took over the running of the cemetery, with this role transferred to the Shonan Patriotic Service Association during the Japanese Occupation. After the war, Japanese military and civilian personnel were repatriated by the British and the cemetery was left in disuse.
Despite the uncertainty over its future, Zhang Ya Gong, the cemetery’s Chinese caretaker since 1944, continued to tend to the cemetery. He had taken over from his sister who had been caring for the cemetery since its early years. As an expression of gratitude, the Japanese Association allowed Zhang to be buried in the Japanese Cemetery when he died in 1960. After his death, Zhang's adopted son Lim Keok Kee took over as caretaker.
In 1951, Singapore resumed diplomatic relations with Japan after the signing of a peace treaty. The Japanese government decided against removing the ashes of their soldiers from the cemetery as it was impossible to identify the ashes that had been enshrined together, and also because of the efforts that had gone into the construction of memorials in the cemetery. Instead, the government provided funds to restore parts of the war memorials and graves in 1955.
The Singapore government transferred custodial rights over the cemetery to the Japanese Association in 1969 and in exchange for land to build the Japanese School in Clementi, the association returned two acres of cemetery land to the Singapore government. Today, the Japanese Association continues to manage the affairs of the cemetery.
In 1973, the Japanese Cemetery was one of 42 cemeteries gazetted for closure to further burials. The Japanese Association made renovations with donations from the community and their foreign ministry. The cemetery was renamed the Japanese Cemetery Park in 1987 and is promoted as a heritage site and nature park to tourists and visitors. Among the upgrading works completed was the reconstruction of the old Saiyuji temple as the Singapore Temple Hall in 1986.
A memorial stone garden was added in 2002, and in February 2005, a ceremony was held to commemorate the recovery of the remains of Singapore’s first Japanese resident, Otokichi Yamamoto (also known as John Matthew Ottoson). Part of Yamamoto’s remains are buried in the cemetery.
1891 : Founding of the Japanese Cemetery.
1893 : Precursor of Saiyuji (Temple of the West) built.
1911 : Saiyuji (Temple of the West) established.
1917 : Japanese Association takes over management of cemetery from the Mutual Self-Help Society.
1929 : Memorial stone for Shimei Futabatei erected.
15 February 1942 – 15 August 1945 : Cemetery under management of the Shonan Patriotic Service Association.
April 1947 : Monuments to Hisaichi Terauchi, the Supreme Commander of Japanese Forces in Southeast Asia, army and navy personnel and prisoners of war.
1953 : Singapore government transfers control of cemetery to Japanese Consulate
1957 : The Japanese Club begins repair works in cemetery.
1960 : Saiyuji is rebuilt after termite infestation.
1969 : Singapore government transfers custody of cemetery to the Japanese Association.
1973 : Cemetery closed to new burials.
1980 : Monument to the Japanese Soldiers of Nanyo (Southeast Asia) erected.
1986 : Saiyuji is rebuilt as Singapore Temple Hall.
24 May 1987 : Memorial to the members of the 5th Guards Division erected.
1987 : Renovation works at the Japanese cemetery completed, and cemetery made a public memorial park.
2002 : Memorial stone garden added.
2005 : Plaque on Singapore’s first Japanese resident, Otokichi Yamamoto, installed.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2012 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.