The idea of having public burial grounds was very foreign to the country of Japan. It wasn't until the Meiji Era that the concept traveled over from the West. The city of Tokyo established Zoshigaya Reien Cemetery in 1874. The cemetery was needed desperately as a ban on cremation, which was the normal burial practice of Japan, had been enacted in 1873. Zoshigaya is located in Minami-Ikebukuro, Toshima, Tokyo and covers 25 acres with over 9,000 burials. Today, it is maintained by the Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association. As we look at the history of this beautiful and unique cemetery, we will also discuss the burial practices and customs of this area.
Before the cemetery was here, the land was an estate owned by the Shogun. The Shogun was the Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Japanese armies and so basically the de facto ruler of the country. During the Edo Period, which was from 1603 to 1868, the estate was used as a training ground for the Shogun's hunting falcons. One of the falconry mews, which is basically a giant birdhouse, is still located within the graveyard. When Tokyo claimed the grounds, the government named the graveyard Zoshigaya-Asahidecho Bochi after the name of the city in which it was located at that time. Bochi is the traditional Japanese word for graveyard. The name was changed to Zoshigaya Reien in 1935 as the word Reien more accurately described the cemetery. Bochi is more associated with temples or shrines, while Reien means a spiritual park.
Most gravesites in Zoshigaya are traditionally shaped meaning they contain a couple of low stone steps topped by an upright stone and this upright stone is where the family name is carved. This stone in Japanese is known as a boseki. Some bosekis have a round family crest known as a kamon. These crests feature birds, leaves or geometric symbols. Other gravesites have pagodas, small stone lanterns and bonsai trees. Wooden grave tablets that bear the dead person's afterlife name are common as well and known as sotoba. Private gardens are found within most gravesites and family members bring offerings of beer, sake, incense, flowers and business cards are dropped into slots of mailboxes by visitors.
There are several religions represented in Zoshigaya. Christian crosses are seen, particularly in an enclosure for deceased members of the Society of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo. Buddhists burials make use of the sotoba. During the Buddhist funeral, the dead person is given their afterlife name, a kaimyo. Shintoism was a religion that was connected to the imperial government and was the state religion until 1945. During the Meiji Era, the government saw cremation as a Buddhist practice and that is why it was banned for two years leading to the need for Zoshigaya. The Torii Gate is a symbol of Shinto that you may see on some graves.
There are many government officials and well-known people buried here. One of the government officials is Hideki Tojo who was the Prime Minister of Japan during World War II. He is credited with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. General Douglas MacArthur ordered the arrest of war criminals after Japan's unconditional surrender in 1945 and Tojo was one of them. Tojo tried to commit suicide before his arrest by shooting himself in the chest. He missed his heart and recovered. He was tried for war crimes and took full responsibility and said at his trial, "It is natural that I should bear entire responsibility for the war in general, and, needless to say, I am prepared to do so. Consequently, now that the war has been lost, it is presumably necessary that I be judged so that the circumstances of the time can be clarified and the future peace of the world be assured. Therefore, with respect to my trial, it is my intention to speak frankly, according to my recollection, even though when the vanquished stands before the victor, who has over him the power of life and death, he may be apt to toady and flatter. I mean to pay considerable attention to this in my actions, and say to the end that what is true is true and what is false is false. To shade one's words in flattery to the point of untruthfulness would falsify the trial and do incalculable harm to the nation, and great care must be taken to avoid this."
The poet Hachiro Sato is buried here. One of his more famous works is writing the lyrics to composer Yoshinao Nakada’s haunting song “Chiisai Aki Mitsuketa” (“A Bit of Autumn Found”). He also wrote the songs "I Found a Tiny Fall" and "Mother," which have been sung at some point by every Japanese child. The Hachiro Sato Memorial Museum has his used guitar and a replica of the space where he created his works. He also collected beer jugs and the museum acquired that as well. He died in 1974. An inscription on his grave reads, “Futari de miro to subete no mono wa utsukushiku miru” (“When seen by two, everything is beautiful”).
Natsume Soseki was one of Japan's best-loved novelists. He wrote the book, "I Am a Cat." He also wrote haiku and fairy tales. Soseki is considered one of the greatest writers in modern Japanese history and he was so popular that from 1984 until 2004, his portrait appeared on the front of the Japanese 1000 yen note. He was born in 1867 in Tokyo. He was born late in life to his parents who were in their 40s and 50s and they already had five children, so they did not want him. He was adopted by a childless couple when he was almost one, but when they divorced when he was nine years of age, he was returned to his birth family. His mother welcomed him at that time and she died when he was fourteen. His father pushed him into architectural studies at college, but he loved literature and wanted to write. A friend encouraged him and taught him how to write haiku and he was off and running. His works centered on themes that spoke out against the Westernizing and industrialization of Japan, the conflict between duty and desire, fighting against economic hardship and group think versus individuality. He died from a stomach ulcer in 1916.
Kyoka Izumi was a novelist and playwright. He is most known for his Kabuki plays. You've probably heard the term Kabuki Theater at some point. Kabuki plays are classical Japanese dance-dramas that are known for the stylized drama and elaborate make-up worn by the actors. The word Kabuki is interpreted at avant-garde or bizarre. Izumi was born in 1873 and his mother enjoyed sharing with him picture books at a young age, which influenced his later work. He lost his mother when he was only nine and it devastated him. She shows up as characters in many of his works. His first story was published as a serial in a newspaper in 1893. It took time for his writing to become popular as it was very different and is described as surrealist critiques on society. He died of lung cancer in 1939.
Yumeji Takehisa was a poet and painter. He was born in 1884 and his childhood home has been preserved as a museum. His first love was poetry, but he knew there was no money in it, so he took up drawing and painting and was entirely self-taught. His work was very popular among the regular people, but the elite were very critical, particularly because he was very boisterous about how pretentious artists were. He died young at the age of 49 in 1934. His grave is marked with an obsidian asymmetrical stone covered in a graceful calligraphy.
Koizumi Yakumo was an author born in 1850 as Patrick Lafcadio Hearn on the Greek Ionian island of Lefkada, for which he was named. He was Irish by his father and Greek by his mother. He adopted Japan as his home in 1890. Yakumo wrote Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, which was a collection of Japanese ghost stories. People compare his work to that of the Brothers Grimm. The Kwaidan book became the basis of an Academy Award-nominated film of the same name in the category Best Foreign Language Film. For ten years, he lived in New Orleans and he began working as a news editor for the Daily City Item there in 1878. As editor, Hearn created and published nearly two hundred woodcuts of daily life and people in New Orleans. These were thought of as cartoons and it immediately increased the circulation of the paper. This made the Daily City Item the first Southern newspaper to introduce cartoons. He died in 1904 from heart failure when he was just 54.
Ogino Ginko was the first woman physician to practice Western medicine in Japan. Ogino was born in the Musashi province in 1851. She married young, at the age of 16, to the son of a wealthy banker. Soon after, something that at first glance would appear to be a bad thing, led to her changing the course of her life to the benefit of the women of Japan. Her husband gave her gonorrhea and she was incredibly embarrassed by her visits to male doctors. Because of that, she decided to become a doctor to spare other women the embarrassment. She graduated from a private medical academy that was all male, pushing back against a ton of prejudice and mistreatment. She had to petition for three years after she graduated to be allowed to sit for the medical practitioner's examination, which she did in 1885. She became the first registered female doctor in Japan and opened the Ogino Hospital in Yushima, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. She married in 1890 and moved with him to Hokkaidō in 1894, where she ran a medical practice. She returned to Tokyo in 1908 when he died and ran a hospital. Ogino died of atherosclerosis in Tokyo in 1913.
Nakahama John Manjiro was the first Japanese man to visit the United States. He visited America quite by accident, literally. He was fourteen and out fishing when he was shipwrecked in 1841. He was rescued by an American ship that took him to Hawaii. He then ended up in Boston. He learned English, which made him able to work as a translator. He traveled back to Japan and served as translator when Commodore Perry's Black Ships sailed into Yokohama Bay in 1853. Perry was coming to get Japan to open itself to the world. Manjiro told the Shogunate, "America greatly hopes to enjoy a deep and abiding friendship with Japan. America does not come with suspicious designs but with a full and open heart." The Shogunate was convinced and discarded the laws of over 200 years' standing and took the first step toward opening the country. Manjiro was able to convince Japan to accept the Japan-United States Friendship Treaty. President Coolidge said of Manjiro, "When John Manjiro returned to Japan, it was as if America had sent its first ambassador. Our envoy Perry could enjoy so cordial a reception because John Manjiro had made Japan's central authorities understand the true face of America." Manjiro then became a professor at Tokyo Imperial University. He died quietly on November 12, 1898, at the age of 71.
Many cemeteries around the world have sections dedicated to Asian burials that give us an idea of what cemeteries in Asia look like, but nothing compares to actually walking down the pathways, beneath the twisted and old trees and surveying the stone slabs that mark the final resting places in Zoshigaya. There are few symbols, unlike American cemeteries, but the ones that are here are very Japanese in theming and meant to respect the deceased. No matter the country, all cultures wish to honor their dead and that is something we all share in common. And that was just a little about the stones and bones found here.