Not many people are aware that there is a Japanese cemetery in Singapore, situated in the middle of a high-end residential estate along Chuan Hoe Avenue, off Yio Chu Kang Road. Probably to avoid in stirring up any bad memories of the older Singaporeans whose forefathers had suffered or perished during the Second World War, there is little publicity of the cemetery park.
The Japanese Cemetery Park was established in 1891 as a burial ground mainly for the Japanese merchants and prostitutes that had lived in Singapore in the late 19th century and early 20th century. It was then a chaotic period in the eastern Asia, where the Empire of Japan, in the midst of Meiji Restoration, underwent rapid modernisation and military expansion. In a space of 30 years, it had defeated Qing Dynasty (1895) and Russian Empire (1905) in major battles, and had annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom (in 1879), Taiwan (1895) and later, Korea (1910).
Occupying a land-size of 7 acres (more than 28,000 square metres), it was the largest Japanese cemetery in Southeast Asia. The land was donated by three brothel owners Futaki Takajiro, Shibuya Ginji and Nakagawa Kikuzo, who also owned rubber plantations in the vicinity. The request of building a Japanese cemetery was approved by the British colonial government on 26 June 1891, and its management was handed by the Japanese-run Mutual Self-Help Society.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the majority of the Japanese population in Singapore was prostitutes, or karayuki-san, from the rural prefectures of Japan. They mostly plied their trades at Boon Tat Street (near Telok Ayer Market) and Malay Street (near present-day Bugis), which was the reason why these two streets were given colloquial names of “ji poon koi” (Japanese Street) in the older days.
Initially, almost half of the tombstones at the cemetery belonged to those Japanese prostitutes who never made it back to Japan. After the First World War, as more Japanese merchants and traders arrived at Singapore, the Japanese population generally became more well-off. Many of the merchants and traders, after their deaths, were buried or cremated at the cemetery with detailed and elaborated tombstones and memorial plaques.
The cemetery came under the control of the Japanese forces after the fall of Singapore. A Shonan Patriotic Service Association was established to be in charge of all burial services of the Japanese military casualties. When Japan surrendered in 1945, the soldiers who committed suicide or executed were also cremated here. Many memorials were erected; one of the most famous belonged to Field Marshall of the Japanese Forces in Southeast Asia Hisaichi Terauchi (1879-1945).
When the British returned after the end of the Second World War, they repatriated the entire Japanese population in Singapore. No Japanese was allowed to return to Malaya until the signing of the peace treaty in 1951. With neglect and lack of maintenance, the cemetery soon fell into disrepair. It was not until 1952, when Ken Ninomiya, the first Japanese Consul-General posted to Singapore after the war, requested a search for the war remains.
By then, the identifications of the dead were almost impossible as all the remains and ashes were enshrined together. Moreover, the efforts in the erection of the various memorials were also appreciated by the Japanese government, who decided to fund the restoration of the cemetery instead.
One of the most famous person to be buried in the cemetery was Yamamoto Otokichi (1817-1867), recognised as the first Japanese resident of Singapore. Otokichi’s life was filled with adventures, started at age 14 when he went sailing to North America. The Japanese crews were captured by the native tribe, but were rescued by a British trader John McLoughlin, who later brought them to England.
In the 1830s, Otokichi wanted to return to Japan but was rejected by the Tokugawa Shogunate. He then travelled to Macao and other parts of East Asia before settling at Singapore as a British citizen. By then, he had changed his name to John Matthew Ottoson, married a Eurasian lady called Louisa Belder and converted to Christianity. When he died of tuberculosis in 1867, Otokichi was first buried at Bukit Timah Christian Cemetery, and then moved to the Japanese cemetery. In 2005, his ashes were retrieved and brought back to Onoura, the hometown where he had left more than 170 years ago.
In 1969, the Singapore government handed the ownership of the cemetery back to the Japanese Association, which was originally the caretaker of the cemetery since 1917. In exchange for 2 acres of land in the vicinity, a Japanese school was built in Clementi at the request of the association. By 1973, no further burials were accepted by the cemetery, as part of the government’s plan in limiting the expansion of the 42 cemeteries islandwide. Saiyuji (Temple of the West), the main shrine of the cemetery with a history dated back to 1911, was given a restoration in 1986. A year later, the cemetery was officially renamed as Japanese Cemetery Park.
Published: 09 July 2013
Updated: 28 July 2017