Stunning Singapore Instagram spot with ‘cherry blossom’ archways exposes the city state’s troubled past with the Japanese
- Dating back to 1891, the Japanese Cemetery Park in Hougang contains more than 900 tombstones laid out in neat grey, white and sepia rows
- Over half the graves belong to prostitutes trafficked from rural Japan, while memorials for individuals who died during World War II are kept discreet
Singapore might be better known for its Formula 1, the Marina Bay Sands and Sentosa island, but before borders were closed by Covid-19, an increasing number of Instagrammers were tapping into a less obvious spot.
Attention was turning to the northeastern suburb of Hougang, where archways draped in bougainvilleas (which look very similar to the cherry blossoms Japan is famous for) make for eye-catching social media photography.
The Japanese Cemetery Park receives little publicity and is tucked away in a quiet neighbourhood, surrounded by the grand houses of Chuan Hoe Avenue.
Its low profile is no accident – nobody wants to upset older Singaporeans who have bad memories of the war years – and it maintains the park’s tranquillity.
Behind metal gates and bordered by mature trees, more than 900 tombstones are laid out in neat grey, white and sepia rows, their headstones, inscribed with Japanese characters, hinting at a largely forgotten history.
Among the uniform graves are more ornate designs, including statues of Shinto and Buddhist deities.
The red bibs covering the representations of Jizo – a small deity carved out of stone that protects children and travellers – stand out; it is thought the colour is used to ward off demons and evil spirits as those who died in foreign lands pass over to the afterlife.
Some tombstones dating back to the 19th century are blackened and worn.
Early in the year, the bougainvilleas bloom brilliant pink, weaving through the park to provide shade to the otherwise uncovered paths, making the graveyard a honeypot for social media photographers. Later, those colours are more muted.
The cemetery was approved in 1891, according to Singapore’s National Library Board. Three brothel keepers had sought to establish the burial ground for impoverished prostitutes, known as karayuki-san, who had been trafficked from rural Japan and made up most of the Japanese population in Singapore at the time.
The graves of these prostitutes – which account for more than half of those in the park – can be found in the centre. A plaque explains that many died of illness in poverty and initially their graves had only wooden markers, which eventually rotted.
The Mutual Self-Help Society – a group that maintained the graveyard in its early years and was established by one of the brothel owners, Futaki Takajiro (who is also buried here) – replaced these with stone markers, which lack names but bear the inscription “Seirei Bodai” (“spiritual enlightenment”), intended as a prayer for the souls of the dead.
One of the most well-known memorials, standing at the southeast end of the park, is that dedicated to Japanese literary scholar Futabatei Shimei. He wrote the first modern Japanese novel, as noted by the memorial plaque next to the rugged stele marked “Monument of Futabatei Shimei”.
Shimei, who was also a special correspondent for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, died from tuberculosis while travelling back to Japan on May 10, 1909. His body was cremated in Singapore and the ashes were returned to Japan for burial.
To the left of the park’s entrance lies one of the first Japanese known to have died in Singapore, in a white charnel house embossed with a symbol resembling the helm on a ship.
Yamamoto Otokichi was a sailor on the ship Hojun-Maru. Having survived a terrible storm at sea, he travelled the world and eventually became a trader. He moved to Singapore in 1862, becoming its first Japanese resident, according to the park’s information board.
When he died, Otokichi was buried at the Choa Chu Kang Christian Cemetery before his body was cremated and transferred to the Japanese Cemetery Park. A portion of his ashes were returned to Japan.
Near Otokichi’s final resting place is a Japanese-inspired prayer hall, which remains mostly closed to the public, although you can peek through the gridded doors at a simple altar adorned with pottery and other items.
After World War I, the karayuki-san became an embarrassment for Japan and many were repatriated as the country’s international profile grew.
With industrialisation, the Japanese diaspora became more wealthy and their graves more elaborate, some bound by miniature walls, others flanked by Corinthian-style columns.
However, the Japanese were no longer welcome in Singapore after World War II, and their population thinned out.
“After the Japanese defeated the British in the Battle of Singapore , the local population experienced more than three years of oppressive rule,” explains Aédán Mordecai, an analyst at consultancy Sibylline who studied at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “Necessities were in short supply, while everyday life was under strict control.”
Memorials for Japanese individuals who died during the conflict can be seen in the southwest corner of the park and are kept discreet.
Pretty social media pictures are one thing, but the park also has an educational role to play, says Mai Ryoto, of the Japanese Association Singapore’s First Heritage Committee.
“It is the only place where we can learn about the 130 years’ history of Japanese people striving in Singapore.
“It is a place teaching us the need to build better friendships between two countries in the future.”
Numbers attending the cemetery are far lower now than they were before the Covid-19 pandemic, as Japanese tourism arrivals remain depressed. It could take more than pink bougainvilleas to get camera-phone-wielding visitors back to the park.