Living in Greater Tokyo, the world’s largest concentration of urban humanity, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that even the dead are hungry for space. But I was still a little shocked when I found that the ‘koen’ marked on Google maps, near where we had just moved, turned out to be a vast suburban cemetery. Needing to feel good about the move, I decided not to be put off. The precincts of gravestones are on tracts of flat land carved out of wild bamboo-clad forest. There were enough footpaths winding up through the thick bamboo that I could convince myself the place was intended for wholesome leisure as much as incense burning and ohaka maeri.
My wife and I took our daughter, then two, on a few walks, trying to keep her from running about madly between the rows of polished marble stones. Training myself for a 10km race, I found a 5 km loop that took me through the cemetery. I became aware that I wasn’t the only person using the place for non commemorative purposes: I would pass walkers, cyclists, and even the odd runner – and not clueless gaijin like me. But still, the longer I went without seeing another, the more uneasy I grew. Pushing myself on a sweat-soaked second lap, I felt especially awkward if I passed a family piling out of their estate car en route to pay their respects.
My discomfort started to wear off with the arrival of the diggers. First, a section of trees had been felled. Then these monstrous machines appeared and began excavating, flattening the ground for another tract of graves. Family visitors had no problem passing workmen in hard hats, so why should they mind a solitary runner?
I began to see that the cemetery was designed for the convenience of the living as much as the dead. The wider paved avenues were for cars to drive along, so people could stop as close as possible to their family grave. There were two toilet blocks and an ample choice of vending machines. I started to notice adverts on the buses and train lines for this and other suburban cemeteries. It started to hit home to me what a goldmine burial grounds must be for their owners. In these uncertain economic times, what market could be more reliable than the dead?
It would be tempting to take a cynical view of corporations making profit from people’s desire to inter their loved ones in a convenient location. On the other hand, there has always been a death trade, and I could see that the necropolis on my doorstep was an example of how the interests of the living could be balanced alongside those of the dead. The once wild parkland had not been carelessly swept away to pack in as many graves as possible. Far from it: creating a cemetery in which people still feel they can run and walk children or dogs is no mean feat. It requires a serious piece of landscaping, with the subtle use of raised and lowered ground separating the functions of mourning and leisure. As is usual in Japan, a tranquil surface conceals hidden depths of expertise, planning and attention to detail.
Still, we are human, and old instincts die hard. To flaunt any form of physical prowess in a cemetery still seems an act of transgression; a case of rubbing it in as per the classic trick or treater’s joke that asks why the skeleton couldn’t go to the ball (answers on a postcard please).
Irrational as I know it is, I can’t shake the feeling that after dark a cemetery definitively becomes the home of its permanent residents. So, public space or not, you won’t catch me running or even walking through this local park at night – in fact, you might say, I wouldn’t be seen dead doing it.