Other than the magnificent cemetery of Okunoin at Koya-san, the only other cemetery that I knew I wanted to visit in Japan was Yokohama’s Foreign General Cemetery. This cemetery’s history in intimately connected to the opening of Japan after centuries of isolationist policies. As many know, Commodore Perry arrived in Japan in 1853 and handed a letter from the U.S. President Milton Fillmore, demanding that the shogunate open Japanese ports to the American ships. Perry returned the next year with even more ships, and while in port a sailor on the USS Mississippi, 24 year-old Robert Williams, died. Perry requested land for burial, specifically a place that overlooked the harbour, and was granted a place within the boundaries of Zotokuin Temple (which has since moved to a different location). Williams plot was moved to a different plot just three months later, and the few foreign deaths in the meantime were brought over to the same land on the Izu peninsula.

However, in 1859 some Russian sailors were killed by nationalists, and the shogun government bought some land next to Zotokuin temple to be a cemetery for foreigners in Japan, as it was clear that with more coming, there would be more deaths. The tomb to these Russian marines is the oldest in the cemetery, although very little remains of it now. Due to different burial practices, and the need to differentiate between the different graves, all the Japanese graves in the cemetery were moved to a different location in 1861, and the Chinese graves were moved in 1871. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 destroyed many of the graves at the cemetery. Currently there are about 5000 people listed as being buried here, with about 3000 graves covering 18,500 square metres.

Unlike many other cemeteries that I have visited, this one has very limited opening hours, being Saturdays and Sundays from March to December, from 12-4 p.m. Similarly, in bad weather, it will likely remain closed, which I understood when I got there. The entire cemetery is on a bluff that slopes down the hill sometimes quite steeply. Although there are stone steps and reinforced areas, most of the paths are hard-packed dirt, which I imagine would be very difficult to keep a foothold in when wet. As rain was forecast for Sunday, I decided to play it safe and go Saturday afternoon. When I arrived at the cemetery I came across what was the original front gate (this is near the bottom of the cemetery). It happens to be where the oldest graves are found, but this area is out of bounds for most visitors. The main gate, at the top of the hill, had several cheerful workers calling out to passers-by to come visit the foreigner cemetery. With a donation of 200 yen I was given a small map with notable internments, and was allowed inside. To the right of the main gate is a small building that has displays about the foreign settlement in Yokohama, as well as a small section of very well-done photographs. After that, it was on, into the cemetery.

While very multicultural/multilingual in scope, this cemetery was indeed very western, with familiar iconography throughout, from crosses and draped urns, to broken pillars and above ground tombs. Being a port city, it is not surprising that quite a number of graves had anchors, both real and inscribed, throughout the cemetery. While some older headstones (slab-type) were propped up against the walls, many were still standing, and clearly repaired. Very different from many western cemeteries that will now lay the slabs on the ground to prevent damage or injury. Some Japanese tourists to the site were quite interested in the different symbols and tombs, and a worker there explained the significance of broken pillars and urns to them. Notable graves also had a small plaque on the ground near to them, so they were easy to find.

As only a very small section of the cemetery is open to visitors, I had to struggle not to climb over chains and other barriers that were erected everywhere to keep people to main path. However, I realized that perhaps not all sections of the cemetery have been properly reinforced to ensure the safety of visitors, and that many of the off-limits sections contained much newer graves. I would love to be able to explore the rest of the cemetery, but I guess that will be another day.

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Quality of Monuments: Good. There’s a lot of variety, and certainly more detail than the foreign graves in Tokyo’s Aoyama Cemetery. A lot of Russians are buried here, as evidenced by the large number of orthodox crosses throughout the cemetery. Many broken gravestones have been repaired and uprighted, although the text is not always easy to read. Some newer, very recent monuments are interspersed with the older ones.

Cemetery Grounds: On a fairly steep hillside which can make exploring a bit hazardous, even within the cemetery grounds that are open to visitors. The graves are set quite close together so it can be difficult to maneuver around them. There are a lot of crows here, resting and fighting in the trees above, so beware of “gifts” from above, there was plenty of evidence of bird droppings everywhere, some of it very fresh.

Visitors: Quite a few when I was there, as they were being actively recruited by staff at the main gate, but it was not a large amount. If you take your time going through there will be plenty of instance where you are all alone in the cemetery.

Photographer notes: Lots of interesting stones and markers here, and provides a fascinating history into the early years of the foreign community in Yokohama. The bird droppings are unfortunately everywhere, which can make photography of certain memorials not so attractive.


Cemetery: The Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery

Inaugurated: 1859

Location: Yamate Naka-ku, Yokohama. Take the Minato-Mirai subway line to Motomachi-Chukagai Station. Exit number 6 will take you to the top of the bluff, walk through America-yama Park. Takes about 3 minutes. I got off at street level and walked up the bluff which allowed a great look at the sections of the cemetery that are closed off to visitors.

Hours: Saturdays and Sundays from 12:00-16:00, from March to December. Closed in case of inclement weather. A 200 yen donation is required.