During difficult times, it is always comforting to know that you are not alone, that others have stood where you stand, have gone through what you’re going through and come out the other side. Regardless of how adventurous we feel when first we board the plane that takes us from home, the route that is new for us is nonetheless well travelled. While it is sad to say there is nothing new under the sun, there is often safety in numbers. This feeling, this understanding of the part we play in the unfolding of history, returned to me with increased clarity recently when I visited the Foreign Cemetery in Yokohama. Founded in the grounds of Zotokuin Temple, the first body to be interred was that of US sailor Robert Williams who died aboard the Mississippi, one of Commodore Perry’s infamous Black Ships, in 1854. His body was later moved, and the honour of oldest resident falls to two Russians, Roman Mophet and Ivan Sokoloff, who were murdered by Nationalist Extremists in 1859. The cemetery stands on the Bluff, a hill in the Yamate district of the city, and commands a stunning view.
Open to guests on weekends and national holidays between March and December, visitors first encounter a stanza from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard” engraved in English and Japanese on the gateposts. “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike th’inevitable hour, The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” An apt piece considering that many of the residents were great and glorious in their fields. A small museum just inside the gate introduces us to some of the more noteworthy buried here including John Reddie Black, who had a huge influence on journalism in Japan, John Diack, a railway engineer who was instrumental during the early days of the Japanese rail network and Charles Richardson whose death on the Tokaido in 1862 sparked the Anglo-Satsuma war.
These men, and the hundreds of others here, came to Japan to seek fortunes, knowledge, adventure, and never left. As I stand and read the names, dates, hometowns, my imagination is filled with daydreams of men my own age stepping from their ships into an amazing new world, full of hopes and fears, confronted by many of the issues I have dealt with in making Japan my home. Language, culture, the daily struggle to get by, to learn, to fit in. Some things never change. It is heartening to know that 150 years ago John Diack travelled from Aberdeen to Yokohama and made his home here. I have company on my own journey. Yet it is reassuring to remember that some things have changed. Though I may have to contend with xenophobic taxi drivers, an immigration department that yearns for the days of a closed port policy and customs officials who suspect me of smuggling and terrorism, at least I don’t have disgruntled samurai hacking at me on the Tokaido. It is rare that we can step outside our subjective bubble and locate ourselves in some kind of context.
For me, Yokohama Foreign Cemetery is a special place because the peace and tranquillity, as well as the reality of the bodies fading to nothing beneath the grass, allow me that privilege. Between the gravestones and monuments I can read the continuity of existence. I can see bonds between me and the generations that have gone before. I can glimpse for a moment my station in humanity.