Cemeteries are generally considered spooky and gloomy, which may explain why Japanese visit the graves of loved ones on few occasions yearly, such as on the anniversary of their deaths and during the spring and fall equinox.
However, visiting the tombs of well-known historical figures has since last year been gaining in popularity, thanks to a greater interest in history and literature.
Many maps of cemeteries have been printed recently to help such visitors find their way about.
Last June, Toshima Ward in Tokyo printed 20,000 maps of Zoshigaya Cemetery, complete with illustrations of historical figures. The maps ran out within a month, a ward spokeswoman said.
Since there have been more and more visitors to the tombs of famous figures in the cemetery, including novelist Natsume Soseki, Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo and the castaway who became known as John Manjiro, who in the 1840s became the first Japanese to live in the United States, they printed another 40,000 copies, the spokeswoman said.
“Visitors used to ask only about the location of their family tomb before, but inquiries about the tombs of famous people are increasing,” said Iwao Yokoo, head of Aoyama Cemetery’s administrative bureau in Minato Ward, Tokyo. He added that the cemetery has recently distributed far more copies of its map compared with a few years ago.
Famous figures buried in Aoyama Cemetery include novelist Naoya Shiga, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida and poet Mokichi Saito.
The sprawling Yanaka Cemetery in Taito Ward contains over 70 tombs of historical figures on its 10 hectares.
According to Kazuo Igarashi, head of Yanaka Cemetery’s administrative bureau, the most popular tombs are those of the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, film actor Kazuo Hasegawa, Meiji Era businessman Eichi Shibusawa and Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama.
For Ryoichi Tanaka, 59, visiting the tombs of historical figures is a literature and history tour that can be easily done in Tokyo. He has been to most of the city’s major cemeteries, including six visits to Yanaka Cemetery.
He first became interested in emperors’ tombs a few years ago, but because most are in Kyoto and Nara prefectures, he instead decided to tour tombs in Tokyo and visit those of his favorite writers and other historical figures.
“I was curious to know what the tomb of Natsume Soseki looks like, for example,” he said, adding that he tries to read the writers’ books after visiting their tombs.
A tomb tour seems to not only arouse historical curiosity, but also to develop communication among visitors. Tanaka said he often encounters historians at cemeteries. There are also tour guides who show visitors around and fill them in on the background of tombs.
Takayuki Nakayama and his wife, who came to Yanaka Cemetery from Hitachi, Ibaraki Prefecture, weren’t initially planning to visit the site. But the couple, both in their late 30s, found the tomb of Tokugawa Yoshinobu on a map of historical spots while walking around the Yanaka district.
“I never thought of touring a cemetery because I thought it was a creepy place,” said Nakayama, who came to Yoshinobu’s mushroom-shaped tomb guarded by an iron gate with the hollyhock family crest. Yoshinobu’s wife and concubines are buried in the same spot.
Nakayama said he and his wife became interested in the last shogun because of their favorite NHK TV series, “Atsuhime,” named after the wife of the 13th Tokugawa shogun, Iesada. Because his wife is a huge fan of Atsuhime, who helped Yoshinobu become shogun, the couple decided to visit the tomb when they saw it on the map.
The TV series, which aired last year, achieved a 24.5 percent average audience rating, the highest for a so-called historical fiction series in the past decade.
“I was not into history that much before. But I am now, and here we are (at the tomb),” his wife said.
Atsuhime’s tomb at Kaneiji Temple, in Taito Ward near Yanaka Cemetery, also attracted many visitors last year. Although it was open to the public for only four days in October and November, about 1,600 people applied to visit the tomb. In the end, the temple only accepted 320 visitors over the four days, it said.
Books featuring tomb tours have also been published, prompting more people to visit cemeteries.
“Sotai Shimashou” (“Let’s Clean Moss”), a book published last March by Shueisha Co., features graves of historical figures and Japanese history. According to an editor, the first edition sold 10,000 copies, with most readers men in their 50s and 60s.
The editor, who declined to be named, said he decided to publish the book “because it is interesting to learn Japan’s modern history, including the history of both public and private figures, through touring such people’s graves.”
“Increased interest in learning about the Edo Period and in walking around old ‘shitamachi’ (downtown) districts is a major reason why grave tours are booming,” the editor said.
Meanwhile, an editor of the book “Chomeijin no Ohaka wo Aruku” (“Taking a Walk around Famous People’s Tombs”), published by Fujinsha Co. last October, said visitors are also attracted to the unique features of tombstones, which vary in shape and style depending on the period they were erected.
Some have a huge Rosetta stone-looking shape. There are also tombs with cubical and spherical stones stacked atop each other. Some Tokugawa tombs are surrounded by thick stone walls bearing the hollyhock family crest.
“You may accidentally find a tomb of a historical figure who appears in a history textbook. It’s really fun,” the editor said.