Japanese Cemetery Park
Forgotten souls, forgotten memories. Cemeteries are places where the dead lay to rest eternally, a place where they lay a piece of their heart, encased by their soul and memories.
When Yio Chu Kang comes up in conversations, chances are that people will be talking about private housing estates or famous eateries in the vicinity. However, if one were to venture further in, you might be able to stumble upon the Japanese Cemetery Park, which, unbeknownst to many, is the final resting place of around 1000 Japanese souls, all of whom came from different walks of life.
Here is where the final chapter of their stories end, the pages curled with words, written with heartfelt emotions and intriguing stories.
History of the Japanese Cemetery Park
Established in 1891, the Japanese Cemetery Park was used to serve the burial needs of the Japanese residents in Singapore. In 1891, three brothel keepers, Futaki Takajiro, Shibuya Ginji and Nakagawa Kikuzo obtained permission from the government to build a cemetery for the destitute Japanese prostitutes who breathed their last in Singapore but had no final resting place.
The founders of the cemetery were also rubber plantation owners, hence they used some of their land to serve as land for the cemetery. As a reminder of their deeds, there are still two huge rubber trees commissioned as heritage trees within the compound of the cemetery.
After World War I, industrialisation grew at an astonishing pace in Japan, and hence the composition of the Japanese community here evolved to include people from other sectors, such as agriculture, retail, fishing. The cemetery later grew to include the tombs of these people. 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.
It is now the largest and most well-preserved Japanese cemetery in Southeast Asia, measuring approximately 30,000 square metres, and houses around 1000 graves. The cemetery was closed to burials in 1973 and named a memorial park in 1987. The Singapore government transferred custodial rights over the cemetery to the Japanese Association in 1969. Today, the Japanese Association continues to manage the affairs of the cemetery.
Directions to the Japanese Cemetery Park
Take buses 43, 70, 70M or 116 from Serangoon MRT Station and alight at Blk 133 (B63201). Cross the road and walk towards Limbok Terrace, as seen in the picture below.The Japanese Cemetery Park is located right beside Limbok Terrace but the gate is at the other side, so walk through the narrow path below, passing by a children’s playground until you see the main gate of the cemetery, which is directly opposite a row of houses.
Exploring the Japanese Cemetery Park
Given my past experience of exploring other cemeteries such as Bukit Brown Cemetery, which was well hidden among nature and not very well-maintained, I was expecting the Japanese Cemetery to show similar signs of disarray. Instead, I stepped into what seemed like an extremely peaceful, tranquil and well-maintained cemetery park. Without the tombstones, it could have easily passed off as a charming and copacetic park for the quaint neighbourhood.
Japanese stone sculpture at the entrance.Walkway with gorgeous petals.Rows and rows of tombstones, with a glimpse of private housing in the background.Pigeons resting on one of the tombstones.If you look at the pictures carefully, you might notice that each tombstone, regardless of its opulence, has a yellow chrysanthemum placed in front of them. I’m guessing that the Japanese Association, which maintains the place, sent people to place the chrysanthemums for the graves. These flowers are highly regarded in Japan, and add a melancholic yet sentimental Oriental touch.This prominent structure in the Cemetery Park is the beautifully constructed Prayer Hall, built in 1986. Sadly, it is out of bounds of visitors, but you can sit on the cooling smooth stone ledge outside the hall for a rest.
Tombstones of Significant People
The tombstones in the Japanese Cemetery Park display varying levels of opulence. The carvings on some of the graves are unrecognisable due to weathering, yet there are some tombstones which are of higher quality and take on the resemblance of memorials to commemorate significant figures.
The tombstone with perhaps the most interesting story belongs to Yamamoto Otokichi, the first Japanese resident in Singapore. Otokichi, also known as John Matthew Ottoson, was born in Onoura Village at Chita District of Owari in 1818. In 1832, he was a sailor on board the ship “Hojun-maru”, which sailed from Ise Bay to Tokyo. The ship drifted out of the sea at Toba in a storm. Otokichi managed to survive the disaster and was washed ashore at Cape Alava on the west coast of the United States after one year and two months.
He eventually travelled around the world but Japan’s isolationist policy at that time denied his return to his home country. Even after being rejected by his home country, he stayed proud to be a Japanese and helped promote the opening of the country. He later became a successful trader. In 1862, Otokichi moved from Shanghai and stayed in Singapore with his Malay wife to become the first Japanese resident here. He died at the age of 49 in 1867.
In February 2004, Leong Foke Meng of the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), with the help of the National Environment Agency (NEA), helped to uncover facts confirming Otokichi’s remains at the Choa Chu Kang Government Cemeteries. On 27 November 2004, Leong, together with Mihama Town and the Japanese Association, initiated the exhumation of Otokichi’s remains at the Choa Chu Kang Christian Cemetery. The remains were later cremated and ashes stored at the columbarium of the Japanese Cemetery.
On 17 February 2005, a delegation of about 100 residents from Mihama Town visited Singapore and brought back to Japan a portion of Otokichi’s ashes, realising the home-coming of Otokichi’s remains after 173 years.Count Hisaichi Terauchi’s memorial.
The onset of the Japanese Occupation during World War II 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. Famous author Futabatei Shimei’s memorial in its own corner at the eastern side of the cemetery.
Among the other graves and memorial stones of the notable is one that is a memorial to novelist Futabatei Shimei in the south-eastern corner of the grounds close to Count Terauchi’s grave.
Futabatei Shimei’s work published in 1887, Ukigumo (Floating Clouds) is regarded as Japan’s first modern novel and he was returning from Russia as a special correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper at the time of his untimely death in 1909. The memorial has apparently been a venerated spot, particularly with visiting Japanese newsmen.Kantaro Ueyama’s memorial.
The large and unique lantern-like tombstone next to Futabatei’s memorial belongs to Kantaro Ueyama. Kantaro Ueyama, who perished in a plane crash at Sembawang in 1942, was the first son of inventor of the mosquito coil, Eiichiro Ueyama.
A Place of Peace and Tranquility
Various walkways tastefully decorated by nature.A stone carving of “平安”, which means “Peace”.A memorial for the war dead.The memorial stones erected by Japanese Prisoners of War in memory of those who lost their lives during the war.
Even though this place is a cemetery with numerous tombstones and memorials, it is tastefully landscaped, and enjoys a peaceful existence within the quiet residential district. The walkways are beautifully decorated with flowers, and the tombstones are surrounded by lush greenery. Taking a walk on the grounds of the Japanese Cemetery Park is invigorating and peaceful.
Afterthoughts on the Japanese Park Cemetery
It was raining the whole time I was inside the cemetery park, and it added a melancholic yet beautiful touch to the place. While sitting outside the prayer hall waiting for the downpour to cease, I took the chance to observe my surroundings. The sun hid behind the clouds, bathing the damp surroundings with pale light, creating shadows that blended in with the surroundings. Looking at the tombstones, one can almost imagine the stories of the countless dead behind the graves and memorials.
Living in a huge metropolitan city means that I am used to the fast pace and efficiency of the city, yet I appreciate the unparalleled calm and tranquillity offered by this haven. This is a place that I will visit in the future whenever I need some detoxing from the tiring city life. The only pity is that the many boards at the cemetery don’t offer English translations, and my Japanese isn’t proficient enough to understand all the stories of the people who lay to rest on this peaceful piece of land.
The Japanese Cemetery is different from the other cemeteries in Singapore, because it provides a resting place for the alterity and displaced. People say that a picture speaks a thousand words, but the Japanese Cemetery Park speaks of a thousand different stories for the Japanese subaltern, each and every one so fateful and intriguing.
It is a place where the voiceless are spoken for, a place where forgotten souls are remembered, a place which holds the heart and memories of a thousand different souls.
Japanese Cemetery Park Address
Address: 825B Chuan Hoe Ave, 549853
Opening Hours: 8AM – 7PM
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