Tama Cemetery – resting place of giants

Richard Sorge grave
The graves of Richard Sorge and Hanako Ishii.

Tama Cemetery is a great place. Like others in the city, it contains a lot of history. And photography there can be rewarding. I have to admit that I don’t know this cemetery as well as others in Tokyo. But my first visit was great. I discovered it is the resting place of many makers, shakers, and giants of Japanese history.

The cemetery is about a forty-minute train ride from Shinjuku. It occupies 128 hectares. That is a huge area, so I doubt you could see it all in one day. When it opened in 1923, its name was Tama Graveyard. In 1935, it gained its current name. During World War Two, the Japanese airforce hid aircraft from Chofu Airport there.

Admiral Togo grave
Admiral Togo's grave.

The architecture and history are impressive. In that respect, it is the same as Aoyama, Zoshigaya, and Yanaka cemeteries. There are huge kanji-covered monoliths, enormous stone lanterns, and mound-shaped crypts. Some graves have Shinto and Buddhist icons, while others have Christian crosses. A columbarium is also on the grounds. There is one thing different here. The foreign area has many graves of people who seem to have had connections to the Middle East.

As with other Tokyo cemeteries, you’ll see some people had a good sense of humor. Others wanted to express their appreciation to their loved ones after death. They decorated their graves appropriately.

Edogawa Ranpo grave
Edogawa Ranpo's grave.

No large buildings or skyscrapers are near Tama Cemetery. Trees cover the grounds. It is quiet and peaceful. Spring is said to be an excellent time for a visit. 

Tama Cemetery cherry blossom road
Cherry blossom-covered streets in spring.

Who is buried in Tama Cemetery? 

It is like a Who’s Who of Japanese historical figures. Here is an abbreviated list:

  • Araki, Sadao (1877 -1966) – a senior commander in the Imperial Japanese Army. He was also a right-wing political theorist in the late Japanese Empire.
  • Arita, Hachihiro (1884 -1965) – a government minister. He supposedly created the concept of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
  • Azuma, Ryotaro (1893 -1983) – doctor, bureaucrat, and Governor of Tokyo from 1959 to 1967.
  • Edogawa, Ranpo (1894 -1965) – author and critic. He played a significant role in the development of Japanese mystery fiction.
  • Hayashi, Senjuro (1876 -1943) – Imperial Japanese Army commander. He was also the 33rd prime minister of Japan.
  • Kaitani, Yaoko (1921-1991) – ballerina.
  • Kitagawa, Fuyuhiko (1900 -1990) – poet and film critic.
  • Kurita, Takeo (1889 -1977) – senior Imperial Japanese Navy commander during WWII.
  • Mishima, Yukio (1925 -1970) – literary figure.
  • Ōoka, Shōhei (1909 -1988) – literary figure and translator of French literature.
  • Sorge, Richard (1895 -1944) – German communist who spied for Russia and was executed during WW2.
  • Starffin, Victor (1916 -1957) – first professional baseball pitcher in Japan to win three hundred games.
  • Takahashi, Korekiyo (1854-1936) – politician and the 20th prime minister of Japan. His house is at the Edo Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum.
  • Tatekawa, Yoshitsugu (1880 -1945) – senior commander in the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II. He was also an ambassador to the Soviet Union.
  • Togo, Heihachirō (1848 -1934) – one of Japan’s greatest naval heroes.
  • Yamahata, Yōsuke (1917 -1966) – photographer of the Nagasaki bombing.
  • Yamamoto, Isoroku (1884-1943) – Admiral and commander-in-chief of the navy in World War II.
  • Yosano, Akiko (1878 – 1942) – author, poet, pioneering feminist (in Japan), pacifist, and social reformer.

Look at the names on that list. Many of those people had a massive impact on Japanese history. Togo, Yamamoto, and Sorge influenced the course of world events. There are more. Tama Cemetery is the resting place of giants.

Mishima Yukio grave
Mishima Yukio's grave.

Problems photographing at Tama Cemetery

  • Tama Cemetery is divided into blocks and rows. And each grave has a number. Theoretically, if you know that information, you should be able to find each grave. Big signboards with maps will assist you in getting to the area you need. 
  • But, in practice, it’s not always easy. Tama is enormous. The place resembles a jigsaw puzzle. Plot sizes vary. Nothing is uniform. Thick grass and weeds are in some areas. You can look at a grave and wonder if you are looking at the correct one.
  • So drop by the administration building for a map. Japanese and English are available. They have the names, block numbers, and grave numbers.
  • Some graves have problems. Take the case of Ranpo Edogawa. His real name was Taro Hirai, and his tomb bears that name. There is no chance of finding him if you don’t know that. Before you go, do your research to avoid this type of problem. Wikipedia can be a good source of information.
  • For fans of Yukio Mishima, you have bad news. You’ll be on your own finding this one. The family wants it protected for various reasons, and the staff respect their wishes. They won’t tell you where it is, and the grave isn’t on the map.
  • I need to mention one point about the English maps. They aren’t useful. Why? Because the overwhelming majority of graves have Japanese on them. If you aren’t proficient in the language, arrange help before you go.

Photography tips

  • Tama is very flat and spacious, with many types of tombstones, so any lens can work. Even long exposures can be good. The only downside is that you can’t get into the cemetery earlier than 8 am. That rules out sunrise pictures. But sunset is possible, especially in the cooler months. 
  • Last, if you take a big, heavy bag of lenses, I recommend using Tama station. It is much closer to the cemetery than Tama-Reien (about a twenty-minute walk).  

When should you go?

Many people say spring is best when the cherry blossoms bloom. I can vouch for that, as I have seen them. They are very good!

Tama Cemetery details

See the cemetery’s location and opening hours on the official website.

Other photo spots in the area

Wrapping up

There are many famous people and their graves to see at Tama Cemetery. Many of them were the makers and shakers of Japanese history. Luckily, most of them are easy to find.

Admiral Yamamoto grave
Admiral Yamamoto's grave.

Remember, it is a big place, so it is unlikely you’ll be able to see every grave of interest there. To avoid disappointment, plan your trip before you go. The more prepared you are, the more you’ll be able to see.

So, if you want an interesting place in Tokyo to photograph, or to walk, put Tama Cemetery on your list. It might be far out in the suburbs for some, but it is worth it. Please leave your questions and comments below.

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