Financial help sought to preserve Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery

March 22, 2014

By KANAKO MIYAJIMA/ Staff Writer

YOKOHAMA--Some of the nation's most prominent foreign notables are buried in a 150-year-old cemetery in the city's Yamate area, which attracts many tourists to see the varied tombs in different shapes and sizes, depending on the religion of the deceased.

But the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery has fallen on hard times financially, with the rise of the yen, and a drop in donors and surviving family members.

About 5,000 people are buried in the 18,000-square-meter graveyard located on a hill, which looks down on Yokohama Bay. The number of graves continues to increase, while donations have been declining.

On weekends and national holidays between March and December, when the cemetery is open to visitors, many tourists come to experience the exotic atmosphere of a cemetery where most of the deceased are foreigners.

Takio Saito, who heads a Yokohama Settlement study group, said, “Each person who rests here has a story, which is connected to the lives of today’s Japan.”

Among the 5,000 buried there are Charles Lennox Richardson, a British merchant who was killed by Satsuma-clan samurai in Namamugi in the late Edo Period (1603-1867); Edmund Morel, “Father of Japanese Railways,” who supervised construction of the railway between Shinbashi and Yokohama; the beer pioneer William Copeland, who established Spring Valley Brewery in Yokohama; and Eliza Scidmore, who contributed to bringing the beautiful cherry blossom trees from Japan to Washington, D.C.

There are tombs of craftsmen who introduced bread-making and photography techniques, as well as music teachers and botanists.

However, in places, galvanized sheets have been placed to prevent the slippage of fallen leaves and soil accumulated behind a tombstone decorated with a wreath.

Some tombstones look almost on the verge of collapse with their foundations buried in the soil.

The cemetery is managed by the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery Foundation, established in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) by staff members at the U.S., Dutch and British consulates in Japan.

“With a lack of financial resources, we cannot sufficiently care for the premises,” said Shisei Higuchi, the manager of the foundation.

For maintenance and improvement of the graveyard, the foundation has allocated a fee for the use of the graveyard and solicited donations from family members of the deceased, according to Higuchi.

Fund management was easier when the pound and the dollar were strong, but the yen's rise against the dollar lessened the value of foreign donations. Survivors died in succession over the years, and donors have dropped in number.

As a result, management collections were no longer able to cover the annual maintenance costs of about 15 million yen ($146,600).

Last year, about 40 percent of the cost, 6 million yen, was raised by contributions from visitors.

Meanwhile, Sowind Japan offered to finance part of the graveyard’s maintenance.

The Japanese agent for luxury Swiss watch brand Girard-Perregaux did so because one of its founding family members, Francois Perregaux, is buried there.

According to the company, Perregaux arrived in Yokohama in 1860 shortly after the port was opened to foreign countries.

He had a difficult time selling watches in Japan, where the classical temporal hour system, not the fixed time method in Europe, was being adopted.

Following Japan’s adoption of the European system in 1873, Perregaux’s business started to catch on, and he opened his store in what is now Yokohama Chinatown.

He had served as the secretary-general of the Swiss Consulate and chairman of the Swiss Rifle Association in Yokohama before he died at 43.

Sowind Japan employees, who visited the tomb on his anniversary of his death, have been concerned about its deterioration.

The company plans to remove the soil and leaves around his grave and construct a 1-meter high and about 10-meter wide concrete wall from March to April.

The construction work is expected to be completed on Dec. 18, the anniversary of his death. The company plans to seek donations from its employees.

Saito, of the Yokohama Settlement study group, said the cemetery is historically significant.

“Many historical figures who wrote important pages in the history of Japan rest in this cemetery,” he said. “I hope many people will be involved in the cemetery’s maintenance effort.”

By KANAKO MIYAJIMA/ Staff Writer
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Takio Saito, who heads a Yokohama Settlement study group, far left, offers flowers at the grave of Francois Perregaux, who is related to the founding family of the Swiss watch brand Girard-Perregaux, at the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery in Yokohama. (Kanako Miyajima)

Takio Saito, who heads a Yokohama Settlement study group, far left, offers flowers at the grave of Francois Perregaux, who is related to the founding family of the Swiss watch brand Girard-Perregaux, at the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery in Yokohama. (Kanako Miyajima)

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  • Takio Saito, who heads a Yokohama Settlement study group, far left, offers flowers at the grave of Francois Perregaux, who is related to the founding family of the Swiss watch brand Girard-Perregaux, at the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery in Yokohama. (Kanako Miyajima)
  • Around the grave of Francois Perregaux, galvanized sheets have been placed to prevent accumulated fallen leaves and soil from sliding down the slope and damaging the markers. (Kanako Miyajima)

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