By Masako & Stan Fukawa
Graveyards and cemeteries, like museums, archives and national monuments, provide travelers with a wealth of information. We found this to be the case in Vietnam. The Japanese communities of the pre-sakoku era1 have long disappeared but there are many graves in church yards with Japanese names. We also found graves of Japanese men in rice paddies being tended to by either descendents, friends or the country. We went in search of their stories.
In Vietnam, the Japanese settled mainly in the port towns of Hoi An and Da Nang. Of the estimated 300 Japanese living in these quarters in the 1600s, the majority were Christians who went back and forth to Japan with the traders who exchanged Japanese silver for gold, silk, spices and gunpowder. Hoi An, like Ephesus in Turkey today, was a major trading port but due to the silting up of the river on which it is situated, can no longer be visited by ocean-going vessels.
With the closure of Japan to foreigners and their influence, Japanese Christians who were expelled migrated to South East Asia. Over 100,000 left Japan in the first half of the 17th Century, approximately 71,000 aboard Japanese ships and about another 30,000 on foreign ships, and multiplied the numbers of permanent residents in this area of Asia. Among the immigrants were some samurai who were greatly prized for their military skills and experience by the ruling elite of the area who were engaged in internal and external wars. The descendents of these early migrants, both Christians and non-Christians, are off-springs of local and Japanese parents. (Madalena Ribiro, The Japanese Diaspora in the Seventeenth Century. According to Jesuit Sources. Bulletin of Portuguese-Japanese Studies, 2001).
Our knowledge of Vietnam prior to our visit was based mainly on the news reports of the Vietnam War. We call it the Vietnam War but the Vietnamese refer to this era as “the French War” and “the American War”. Unlike the many war cemeteries in Europe, we did not see any for American or Canadian soldiers who fought in Vietnam.
Closer to home, gravesites of pre-WWII Nikkei can be found in cemeteries in the coastal towns of British Columbia. Many of the people buried on Vancouver Island no longer have descendants living nearby. To pay respect to the Nikkei who made their lives on Vancouver Island and have long since passed on, the BC Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples Federation conducts an annual bus tour to the cemeteries in Chemainus, Port Alberni, Nanaimo, Duncan and Victoria during Obon, the lantern festival, when spirits of family ancestors are believed to return.