Dream of the Water Children: The Black Pacific

Mizuko – and Negishi Cemetery

a headstone at Negishi Cemetery. Photo from Debito.org credited to “CF.”

 

In 1853, Commodore Perry intruded the Japanese and Okinawan islands with demands, and finally landing and then the following year again, after repeated threats and failed negotiations with the Japanese Bakufu, demanded a gravesite for one of their sailors who died on board one of the American ships. This was the birth of the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery in Kanagawa Prefecture,  just down the road from the future famous Elizabeth Saunders Home for Mixed Race Children, which was a well-known place where mixed-race babies were given up to during the World War II era. During subsequent years, through many battles with Russian and Chinese military, as well as trade relations, the number of foreigners dying in Japan, alongside Japanese soldiers, became too large and the cemetery grew to house the graves of many kinds of foreigners in Japan.

As one can expect, the main and largest area of the cemetery is dotted and crowded alternately, with large gravestones, some ornately decorated, while others are more modest. On the side areas are older graves where the non-official, non-governmental, and non-high-ranked soldiers and their families are buried. From many European, Southeast Asian, and East Asian countries alongside the Americans. Often, the American soldiers buried here were those that were too poor to leave Japan after having resided in Japan for a few years, while others grew ill and died.

In a large grassy area, for years, there had been overgrown area that was often unkept and ignored. It turns out that this was a fairly “hidden” area, disguised both in discourse and in upkeep of the cemetery. These were the graves of mixed-race babies from the years following the Asia-Pacific/World War II era.

In some places, one can see these makeshift wooden crosses to mark the graves of the babies.

In the 1990s, the local population became increasingly frustrated over the cover-up by the local government. For years, many locals had been celebrating and commemorating the babies who had passed away during those years. But on the official information board that was to inform the public of what this site represented, there is scant mention of them. And the numbers of them, of course, were vastly reduced.

A local historian, Yasuharu Tamura, had been doing research on the area since the 1970s, and knew of several families and students who had worked to keep the memory of the aborted and killed babies alive. When the local governments were asked about the discrepancies and the general sloppy and unkept shape of the grassy areas, for decades, the local officials claimed that there was “no proof.”  When families and actual people know of the existence of these children, and there is still said to be a lack of proof……..then we understand further, how “proof” is also a precarious tool of domination and governments and nations play.

When one visits the cemetery (I myself have not been there but have watched videos, documentaries, and also spoken with those who have visited), one can see the large grassy area. If we don’t look closely, we don’t notice most of the graves. In some areas, one can see some small makeshift wooden crosses where the graves are.

It has been counted that there are variously, in the least, over 800 to 900 graves and more. The problem now, is the recognizability of some of the graves. On all but a few, there are no names or comments. One can imagine the trauma and shame of having to abort (or kill a baby already alive), and then secretly come to this site to bury your child or children.

It was not only the issue of mixed-race-ness, of course.  In the context of occupation, it is about giving birth to the occupier, the destroyer of your country, the one that killed your family in part or whole, through bombs, the ones who took away their soldier-boys and have them never to return, or return with PTSD and without a limb or the minds and hearts they remember from before the wars, the nation that bombed your nation for a year and burned everything in site, the ones that made you starve. This, not the soldier’s memory, is what civilians remember. Now that nation occupies you, is wealthy and lords it over you, takes over your streets, takes women at will, humiliates you while they smile. They are attractive to you, and do not have to obey your country’s laws.  They are overlords. These reminders also inform the way a woman may think of the birth of a child fathered by the Americans during this time.

In addition, the dark cloud of puritan sexualities and the role of women within militarist and Christian cultural contexts, mixes with Japanese histories of nation-building and the use of women’s bodies. Many of the women who gave birth to these babies, worked in the district in Yokohama, just outside the gates of the US military base, where basetowns and their economy-cultures, grew and created the bars and brothels where many of the women worked to feed their families. In many cases, these women were the breadwinners of the family, as the many men who could work were often having to work for small salaries on the military bases or became homeless. In this context, the women were still looked upon by general society as shameful.

So in secret, many of these women would wrap scarves around their head and other disguises in the middle of the night, to take their babies, often hidden in bags that looked like something else, to the cemetery and secretly bury them. In some cases, it was the grandmother or sister or brother who would do this. Through the years, the ceremonies to remember continued. Of course many mothers were said to have gone insane, while others refused to be involved in any memory of their infants that they aborted, or perhaps killed after birth. Other mothers just left their infants in the streets or on a bus or train, or took them to monasteries and orphanages. Still others, as mentioned in my previous post, did more drastic things. Trauma and shame has many ways of practice.

In the late 1990s, the Lions Club of Japan, had taken up the task of committing to changing the circumstances around the silencing of this memory of the Yokohama Foreign Generals Cemetery, and demanded that the grounds be made clean and honorable, and the placard changed to reflect reality. As one can guess, it has not been easy.  Historians and activists, such as Tamura, have admonished the Japanese officials to think about conscience and to ask if it is right to make this invisible. Steps have been made, however, for the better, even if the official reason was mainly to “bring tourists to the cemetery.”  This is not only a Japanese issue, of course, when it comes to the tactics of forgetting and remembering in nations. But it does not mean we fight any less.

Official site for the cemetery: http://www.yfgc-japan.com/history_e.html

Japan Times Article (English): http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/1999/08/25/national/headstones-mark-yokohama-haunt-for-the-unknown/#.WYOxQ9MrI18

“They Came, They Saw, They Democratized” from Japan Times:  http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2002/04/28/general/they-came-they-saw-they-democratized/#.WYOxkdMrI18

Article in Japanese: http://www.kanaloco.jp/article/114888 

 

 

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