Commonwealth War Cemetery, Yokohama

Few Canadians realize that Canada played a role, albeit a small one, in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War. In the summer of 1941, Britain asked Canada to provide reinforcements for the garrison at Hong Kong (until 1997 a British colony) and, in addition to a small complement of service troops, Ottawa sent two infantry battalions: the Royal Rifles of Canada, whose men came largely from the Eastern Townships, Quebec City, Gaspe and Northern New Brunswick, and the Winnipeg Grenadiers from Winnipeg. All together, approximately 2000 Canadian soldiers were sent to Hong Kong.

The colony of Hong Kong fell under Japanese attack on 8 December 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. With a pitifully small air force, no heavy weapons, and a nearly non-existent navy, the British garrison could only hold out for so long. They surrendered to the Imperial Japanese army on Christmas Day, 1941. Those who survived the Battle of Hong Kong were now prisoners of war.

My uncle Cecil, of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, was one of them.

In captivity, the Canadians, along with units from Britain, New Zealand, Australia, India and Pakistan faced appalling conditions with many falling ill to dysentery, diptheria, and a host of other diseases brought on by ill-treatment and malnutrition. In 1943, many of the Canadians were carried on ship and sent to Japan to work as labourers. POW camps were set up in various parts of Japan, including Senai, Niigata, Kawasaki, the Omine coal mine near Nagasaki, and the Nippon Kokan Shipyards at Yokohama – all of these held Canadian troops at one time or another. While my Uncle survived his captivity in Japan, many of his comrades from Winnipeg, Quebec and New Brunswick did not. These men are buried in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Yomohama, about six kilometres inland from the Yokohama shipbuilding docks on Tokyo Bay.

Rebuilt since the war, Yokohama is an industrial city southwest of Tokyo and is still the major seaport on Tokyo Bay. The cemetery is located in the Hodogaya-ku district of Yokohama, a working-class part of the city a short taxi ride from the Hodogaya railway station. The taxi is much more convenient than a bus, and moreover a taxi company is located about 50 metres down the street from the cemetery, so there is plenty of taxicab traffic to hail when it’s time to leave.

There is a small gate at the entrance with a small white sign at street level indicating that this address, 238K Ariba-cho Hodogaya-ku Yokohama, is the location of the cemetery. A shaded walk down a long lane, downhill, gives no impression of the beautiful park that awaits at the bottom. Indeed, our taxi driver told us that many residents in the neighbourhood go for walks through the cemetery, because of its beautiful grounds.

The Yokohama cemetery is nestled in a breathtaking location, tucked in a small valley surrounded by hills that completely block the view of the sprawling industrial city that surrounds it. The cemetery is terraced, with different sections holding the graves of soldiers of different nationalities. The main section, on the valley floor, is the British section, which easily holds the largest number of graves. The Indian-Pakistani section is located above, on the right, and above that lies the newer terrace that holds graves from the Korean War, including several Canadians from Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Each terrace has a stone Cross of Sacrifice overlooking the graves but for the Indian section, which has a small obelisk cenotaph instead.

A separate terrace down a laneway to the east hold the combined New Zealand and Canadian graves, row on row. Unlike Second World War graves in France, which are marked with white headstones, the solid brass markers used at Yokohama are mounted at ground level on a white masonry base. A Maple Leaf on each marker denotes a Canadian. In total there are 1555 graves in the Yokohama Commonwealth War Cemetery. In addition, the Yokohama Cremation Memorial, at the south end of the British section, houses an urn containing the ashes of 335 soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Commonwealth, the United States of America and the Netherlands who died as prisoners of war in Japan.

Travelling to the Yokohama War Cemetery isn’t difficult, but care must be taken. Ideally, one should reach the Hodogaya Station by train and then a taxi from there – the taxi stand is across the street from the train station’s street exit. To get to Hodogaya, one should take the JR Yokosuka (Blue) Line. Coming from Tokyo, one can change to the Yokosuka Line at Shimbashi station, or you can change lines at Yokohama station, the main East Japan Railway station in Yokohama. The taxicab company near the cemetery can be reached at 045-731-6233.

These photographs were taken with a Canon AE-1 program with a standard 50mm FD lens on Ilford Delta 400 film. The prints were developed on Ilford RC paper with a Pearl finish.

I am indebted to Sawa Ito and Julian Wick of the iAnywhere and Sybase KK offices in Tokyo for acting as my guides in our visit to Yokohama in October 2011.

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