YOKOHAMA — Most of the time, the mosquitoes and other insects have it all to themselves. Occasionally they welcome a few human visitors who brave the cemetery’s uninviting gates, but few know of and even fewer visit this little foreign burial ground in Yokohama.
Welcome to Yokohama Negishi Gaikokujin Bochi, also known as the Negishi Foreign Cemetery. Only a few hundred meters from Yokohama’s Yamate Station on the JR Keihin Tohoku Line, its obscure location and ambiguous past have helped keep it out of the spotlight.
While its diminutive size and inconvenient location have relegated this burial ground to near anonymity, its simple appearance, scattered headstones and wooden crosses belie a complicated past.
More than a 1,000 people are buried here and most are foreigners (“gaikokujin”) and infants.
The hundreds of foreigners who came to Japan after it opened to the West and the numerous mixed-blood infants believed to have been abandoned after World War II and buried here, remain largely unknown and unremembered.
But now a group of inspired locals are determined to see that the dead, especially the infants, are justly recognized.
A memorial to commemorate them — marked and unmarked, babies and soldiers — was unveiled earlier this year.
“Rest in Peace — This monument is dedicated to the men, women and children unknown but not forgotten,” the new memorial reads.
Today, Negishi is the final resting ground for at least 1,122 people from 22 countries including Britain, the United States, the Philippines, Germany, Russia, France and the Netherlands, according to the city.
Some citizens believe the number is even higher.
“We want to heighten awareness about Negishi because if people find out about the forgotten graves here, some will come to visit. And if the number of visitors goes up, the city will have to maintain it better,” said architect Yasumi Sawabe, the memorial’s designer.
The nation’s first foreign cemetery was established in 1854, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry asked that a burial site be created for a dead 24-year-old U.S. Marine from one of his ships.
As the Yamate cemetery began to fill, the local foreign contingent appealed for a new foreign cemetery and the government decided the village of Negishi was to be the location.
Negishi was established around 1880 and managed by Kanagawa Prefecture until being taken over by the city of Yokohama in 1902. It functioned as an outlet for the overflow from Yamate cemetery, becoming the final destination for anonymous foreigners, low-ranking sailors and victims of communicable diseases as well as those who perished in the Great Kanto Earthquake.
Before it was reportedly taken over by Occupation forces, Negishi was the poor foreigner’s cemetery.
“Those who died of infectious diseases, sailors and those without money were mostly buried here. Of course there are some famous people, but it is basically a cemetery for poor people,” said Yasuji Tamura, a local teacher who has studied the cemetery for more than 15 years.
This continued until the end of World War II — when the graveyard’s most controversial residents were buried. After the war, Tamura and others believe that more than 800 infants were buried here.
“It is said that 824 babies, some the offspring of American soldiers who became close with Japanese women, were buried here,” Tamura said. “But there are no documents.”
“After the war there were many children born between Japanese women and soldiers stationed here,” Sawabe said. “There were no abortion facilities so women would have the babies and then abandon them.”
It is these infants that Sawabe and others are determined to see are remembered.
“At first we wanted to build a memorial just for those children. But the city opposed the idea and asked us to include the (adult) people who are buried here without stones,” said Seishi Yoda of the Yokohama Lions Club.
The club was instrumental in funding the new memorial and also in putting up a sign explaining the cemetery’s history in 1988.
But unlike Yamate, which is run by a foundation, Negishi is run by the city, so any memorial required the city’s approval.
Initially, the city was less than receptive to the idea of a memorial solely for the babies buried in Negishi, Sawabe and Yoda said.
So they compromised by revising the memorial’s inscription to include not just children, but other people buried there as well.
According to Hideo Nakagawa of the city’s Public Health Bureau, the city feared that creating a memorial just for the babies might create the impression that the cemetery is solely for babies, he added.
“We consulted with citizens and the Lions Club and told them we would agree to the project if it were for everyone buried there.”
Burial records from before the war have been lost and according to city statistics, only 179 of those buried after the war were babies, said Nakagawa.
However, Tamura, a counselor at Nakaodai Middle School, located adjacent to Negishi, is optimistic that the records might be preserved somewhere in the United States and is collaborating with journalists there to try to find them.
After investigating the site, he rallied students to help clean it up and investigate its history, ultimately publishing a small book about the graveyard in 1985.
“It used to be completely overrun with weeds,” Tamura said, adding that it now at least gets an annual cleaning from the city.
Negishi might be characterized as the Yamate cemetery’s blue-collar cousin. Despite its proximity to the older, more renowned cemetery, it stands in stark contrast.
Because Yamate attracts hundreds of people on weekends, the contributions roll in, making it financially self-sufficient. In contrast, on average only one or two people visit Negishi per day and its finances are the responsibility of the city.
Nonetheless, Sawabe and other citizens are happy Negishi is finally getting some recognition.
Ultimately Sawabe said he wants to see Yokohama spruce up the graveyard with some flowers and walkways — and it sounds like these hopes are to be realized.
The city plans to dust off old maps of the site, fence off areas where people are known to be buried and construct pedestrian paths — so that visitors do not have to unknowingly walk on graves.
While it is unlikely to ever eclipse its famous neighbor, Yamate, Negishi might be about to finally gain its place in the sun.