Yokohama ceremony to remember 'the war to end all wars'

On Tuesday, Nov. 11, at 11 a.m. local time, millions of people around the world will pause for two minutes of silence to remember the 16 million soldiers and civilians who perished in the First World War, along with millions more killed in conflicts around the world since.

While memorial services in London and other European cities most directly affected by the “war to end all wars” that started 100 years ago will be the focus of global attention, here in Japan several hundred retired and serving soldiers, sailors and airmen, as well as civilians from around the world, will also gather in Yokohama on Sunday, Nov. 9, to honor all the fallen of past conflicts.

This year’s Remembrance Day service on the 9th follows the British tradition of holding ceremonies at graveyards, cenotaphs and other memorials on the Sunday closest to Nov. 11 — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the time hostilities officially ended on the Western Front in 1918 — rather than on the 11th itself. Many other Commonwealth and other countries commemorate the fallen on the 11th regardless of what day of the week it falls on.

The cemetery in Hodogaya Ward is run by the London-based Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) and is tended by Kengo Kobayashi, himself the son of a Japanese war veteran who fought in the World War II Burma and Guadalcanal campaigns. It is home for eternity to over 2,000 individuals, primarily from the Second World War, and in some cases their family members. It is without doubt one of the most picturesque and best landscaped graveyards in Japan.

Largely separated by nationality along Commonwealth lines, with Australia, New Zealand and Canada all having their own smaller sites off to one side of the main British area, the site is huge in comparison to Japanese cemeteries containing similar numbers of graves.

The grave of each man, woman or child within is separated from the next by a rose plant, or perhaps another flowering bush particular to a region related to the deceased.

The graves of a small number of fallen Indian troops are situated in a particularly quiet corner halfway up a small slope leading toward the area where the majority of postwar graves lie.

Despite the fact that the U.S. has never been a member of the Commonwealth group of former British territories, in a small building to the rear of where attendees will gather in front of the Sword of Sacrifice on Nov. 9 is a large urn containing the remains of several hundred men, mostly Americans.

The names of all those whose remains are known to be stored in the urn can be found inscribed on the inner walls, and this site serves as the centerpiece of U.S. Memorial Day services for their own fallen, which take place annually on the last Monday in May.

“I feel that the urn and all the remains of all those who died during the war are done in a solemn, proper and beautiful location at the Yokohama War Cemetery,” says Terrence Noonan, a retired U.S. Navy veteran and Japan resident. “It doesn’t matter that it is in the Commonwealth site, as it reminds me of the ‘gardens of stone’ national and state cemeteries back in the United States. Hats off to the people that maintain the site for their unappreciated, quiet work.”

The main ceremony each year, however, remains the Remembrance service.

To the right as onlookers face the main Sword of Sacrifice — a symbol often initially mistaken for a cross — on Nov. 9, around 20 embassies linked to the Commonwealth past and present will be represented.

On the opposite side a similar number of retired servicemen, civilians and schoolchildren representing organizations as varied as the Royal British Legion, the British School in Japan and U.S. veteran associations will also line up to pay their respects.

Priests, imams and rabbis from local churches, temples, mosques and synagogues will take turns to speak in a variety of tongues to the attendees. Two minutes of silence follows. To the sounds of bagpipes, the laying of over 50 wreaths by groups on either side of the Sword of Sacrifice will then begin.

With the main ceremony over, a number of those representing specific embassies and organizations will head off to their own smaller areas representing their respective countries. Attendees will then retreat to an area near the main entrance for drinks and nibbles. There, war stories’ will be exchanged, contacts made, old friends recognized. And for most, it will then be a case of heading home.

Yet, while the majority of those heading attending services in Hodogaya remember those who have been killed in all wars since the opening shots were fired in 1914, few, if any, are aware of any smaller services of remembrance being held elsewhere in Japan.

One such service, however, will be the simple laying of a wooden cross with a single poppy at the grave of Cmdr. Alfred Pattison, a Briton who first arrived in Japan in 1897 as a naval adviser. Pattison returned to the U.K. in 1901 before coming back to Japan as defense attache in 1906.

Within a year of his return, he was dead as a result of a flu pandemic. His remains were placed in Aoyama Cemetery in central Tokyo and tended for over a century by a Japanese family linked to a Japanese admiral who knew the commander. Since 2012 the site has been maintained by the CWGC.

It was a similar story with a British Royal Artillery officer named Maj. (Brevet Lt Col.) Richard Boger. Quite likely the successor to Pattison, but termed “military attache” at the time, Boger too died at his post of disease, in 1910. His grave is just a stone’s throw from the resting places of famed Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn and one of Japan’s literary giants, Natsume Soseki, in Zoshigaya near Ikebukero.

Boger, like Pattison, will receive at least one visitor, who will lay a simple cross, even though both men died in the run up to World War I.

As far as other European nations are concerned, neither the French nor German embassies were able to provide information on specific gatherings or respects paid at any graves here of their own nationals lost in wartime.

The same applies to Japan, both at home and overseas. Few graves of individuals anywhere are maintained by Tokyo, with Japan having no equivalent of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

On a recent visit to Japan by a contingent from the U.K.-based Burma Campaign Association, visitors took in the Hodogaya Commonwealth site and both Yasukuni Shrine and Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery in Tokyo. The main focus of the trip was a meeting between a British veteran who fought in Burma and one of his former Japanese foes, but the government’s lack of interest in maintaining the graves of individual fallen Japanese troops in Japan and across Asia was an issue that came up repeatedly.

“I don’t know why Japan doesn’t have a system to maintain individual graves for the fallen like other countries do,” Akiko Macdonald, a Japanese U.K. resident who organized the Burma Campaign Association trip, said at the Hodogaya site. “Yes, we have memorials and everyone who has died in war is recorded and enshrined in Yasukuni Shrine, but we have nothing like this. It’s a real shame.”

Paying your respects

Those wishing to attend Remembrance ceremonies this year should head to the Yokohama War Cemetery at 238 Karibacho, Hodogaya-ku, Yokohama. The nearest stations to the cemetery — also known as the British Commonwealth Forces Cemetery or Hodogaya Cemetery — are Hodogaya and Kannai. Taxis can be found outside both stations. Buses to the site also run from near the north exit of Kannai Station.

The cemetery should not be confused with the famous Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery in Yamate, where a number of early graves of Western military visitors and others from the 19th century were interred. These remains and graves were largely lost in the devastation of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake.

Mark Buckton is Tokyo branch secretary of the Royal British Legion. Comments and story ideas:

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