Stroll through history: Japanese cemetery in China

Fallen leaves form a carpet of yellow at the Japanese cemetery within the Sino-Japanese Friendship Garden on Oct. 11 in Fangzheng, China.
PHOTO: The Yomiuri Shimbun

I left Harbin, in Heilongjiang Province, northeast China, and headed east along an expressway that ran through fields. After a little more than two hours, I arrived in the town of Fangzheng, which was called Homasa by the settlers who came here from Japan as part of a national policy after the establishment of Manchukuo in 1932.

"Many of the Japanese settlers died and we all carried their bodies to the creek. There were many piles of bodies - mostly women and children. Most of them died of hunger," said 88-year-old Li Decai, remembeing Fangzheng right after the end of World War II. It was unimaginable from the town that could be seen today.

Japan sent nearly 270,000 settlers to Manchukuo, but their lives changed drastically following the Soviet invasion on Aug. 9, 1945. Those who lost their houses and land fled on foot toward cities such as Harbin.

Approximately 15,000 of those who had settled in what is now the eastern area of Heilongjiang, close to the border with the Soviet Union, were detained at the evacuation centre in Fangzheng on their way to Harbin, and more than 5,000 of them died from cold and hunger.

It is said there were more than 4,000 "left-behind orphans and women" who were displaced and had no choice but to marry local people or become adopted by them.

Just outside Fangzheng, there is a small park called the Sino-Japanese Friendship Garden. People from the Manmo Kaitaku Heiwa Kinenkan (Manchuria settler peace memorial museum) in Achi, Nagano Prefecture, visited the park on Oct. 11 this year. Nagano had sent 30,000 settlers - the largest number of any prefecture.

At the end of the park and covered with fallen leaves, there was a three-meter-tall stone monument with the words "Fangzheng Japanese cemetery" engraved on it.

In 1963 a left-behind woman living in Fangzheng found many human bones while cultivating the fields, the bones of Japanese people who had died at the evacuation centre.

The wish to bury the bones properly was conveyed to the central government through local authorities, and a public cemetery was created with the approval of then Premier Zhou Enlai.

This is said to be the only cemetery created by the authorities for Japanese war dead in China, where there is strong anti-Japanese sentiment.

Hidefumi Terasawa, 61, the assistant director of the museum, has visited the cemetery many times. His parents moved to China as Manmo settlers, and his eldest brother died when repatriating from Manchukuo, in an area that now falls within Jilin Province.

"To us, this cemetery is a cemetery for all the Japanese settlers who died and could not return to Japan," said Terasawa as he quietly prayed.

I could hardly believe what I saw as I walked through the centre of Fangzheng: There were Japanese signs on the shops, with words like "supermarket" and "baby goods."

Active exchanges between Fangzheng and Japan began in the 1970s as left-behind Japanese started returning to Japan. A private Japanese-language school was established in 1993 and many local people have learned Japanese.

More than 30,000 people from Fangzheng have travelled to Japan for work or to study. It is said that the local people started putting up Japanese signs voluntarily, to appeal for closer relations with Japan.

Despite this, deteriorating Japan-China relations have cast a shadow over the pro-Japanese town.

When local authorities built a memorial monument for the Japanese near the cemetery in 2011, an anti-Japanese group that claims the Senkaku Islands of Okinawa Prefecture are Chinese territory daubed paint on the monument, and the monument had to be removed.

Local people felt this wouldn't have happened if the history of Fangzheng had been conveyed correctly, so they made a movie together set in Fangzheng, about a woman who was raped by a Japanese soldier and had a miscarriage, then raised a Japanese boy who had become an orphan. It was titled "Houtushenhen" (Deep traces left on the ground) and was released last summer.

Nian Tingyu, 21, a vocational school student who appeared in the movie as an extra, said: "It's about my own town but I didn't know anything about left-behind orphans. The movie made me interested in the history of exchange with Japan."

Not all of China is anti-Japanese. Not only did I reaffirm this obvious fact, but I also felt strongly the necessity for us to avoid destroying the bonds between Japan and China developed in the northern land.

Cemetery protected from Red Guards

The Japanese cemetery in Fangzheng was made by the Chinese and has been maintained by them.

According to Zhao Xichen, a 79-year-old Beijing resident who used to work for the local government in Heilongjiang Province and was in charge of the cemetery, the gravestone was made in Harbin and then brought to Fangzheng by ship, which took over 10 hours.

Members of the Red Guards, who worshiped Mao Zedong, tried to destroy the cemetery during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), but local authorities and people protected it through such measures as building a fence around it.

In 1995 a cemetery for adoptive Chinese parents was made near the Japanese cemetery with donations from left-behind orphans who had returned to Japan.

The two cemeteries were developed into the Sino-Japanese Friendship Garden, together with a museum that displays material introducing the history of exchange between Fangzheng and Japan.

In the 1980s, Chosaku Fujiwara from Iwate Prefecture gave technical guidance to the people of Fangzheng for cultivating rice in cold regions. Today Fangzheng is known as one of the best rice-producing regions in China.

■ Left-behind orphans and women

Some people had no choice but to remain in China due to the death of relatives or separation from their families in Manchuria before and after Japan's defeat in World War II. The Japanese government defined children who were younger than 13 at the end of the war and born to Japanese parents as "left-behind children" and identified approximately 2,800 of them. The government established no definition regarding women who were left behind, and their total number is unknown.

■ Guide to Fangzheng

There are several travel agencies in Harbin that offer tours with Japanese-speaking guides. The cost for a one-day tour from Harbin is approximately 2,000 yuan (about S$434).

The Sino-Japanese Friendship Garden is not currently open to the public, and advance permission from the administrator must be obtained through travel agencies for visitors of tours. There are settlements in Fangzheng and in surrounding areas where houses in which the settlers used to live still remain. Some of the residents of the houses will allow you to look inside.