Japanese Cemetery in Sandakan

What? Cemetery for the “karayuki-san”

Where? Sandakan, Sabah

Ratings: * Lost Ratings: ***

Of interest to Japanese who know about the history of this place and seen the related movie.

One place often visited by Japanese tourists to Sandakan but not by other nationals is the Japanese cemetery. While it may seem strange that a cemetery has become a tourist attraction, this Japanese cemetery is no ordinary one and has an interesting story behind it.

During the 1890s, there were already some Japanese working in Sandakan, and most of them were coolies, contract workers and prostitutes. Most of the prostitutes were young girls from poor families who were either tricked or forced by poverty to sell their daughters to work overseas. Although the girls were first smuggled into China and Russia, they were later also found in other countries. These girls were known as karayuki-san. The term, originally used by the people of Kyushu, was derived from karabitoyuki which means going with/to Chinese people and karankuniyuki which means going to the country of China. Although karayuki-san used to refer to people who sought work overseas, it later came to be associated with ladies who worked as prostitutes in foreign countries.

In 1891, there were 20 brothels and 71 Japanese prostitutes in Sandakan. The brothels were referred to by numbers and one of these was Brothel Number 8. Sandakan Brothel No. 8 (Sandakan Hachiban Shokan in Japanese) was opened by a Japanese lady named Kinoshita Kuni. Born on 7th July 1854 in Amakusa, Kinoshita Kuni was from a poor family. She later became the mistress of an Englishman in Yokohama at a young age. When her husband returned to England, Kinoshita Kuni, then past 30 years of age, moved to Sandakan where she opened a general store and a brothel. She was an influential, kind woman, fluent in English, and was known as Okuni of South Seas. Many young Japanese girls sought her guidance and protection. The girls at her brothel were much better off than those working in other brothels. At least here, they were treated as human beings…

The Japanese cemetery was built by Okuni to pray for the souls of Japanese who died in Sandakan. Most of the graves belonged to women. The cemetery was so famous that even back then, Japanese from Jesselton and Tawau who stopped in Sandakan would pay a visit to the cemetery when they were in Sandakan. Okuni also had a place reserved for herself when she was alive. This shows that she had intended to live the rest of her life in Sandakan, never to return to Japan. Her grave stones were ordered from Japan.

A book by Tomoko Yamazaki which was later adapted into a movie has turned the name Sandakan into quite a famous name among older Japanese. And this is the reason the Japanese cemetery has become an unexpected tourist attraction of Sandakan. The graveyard now only consists of a few dozens gravestones. According to Yamazaki’s book, the Japanese cemetery used to have hundreds of graves. An addition to the cemetery is a memorial to Japanese soldiers who lost their lives during World War II built in 1989.


Getting there:

The Japanese cemetery is located further up of a huge Chinese cemetery. The Chinese cemetery is further up the road leading to Agnes Keith’s House. Past the English Tea House, there is a junction to the right. Follow the road to the Chinese cemetery.

Sandakan Brothel No 8 was located at Lebuh Tiga. The place is now occupied by Borneo Dispensary.

Things to bring: Mosquito spray!

Entrance fee: -

Reference:

Sandakan Hachiban Shokan by Tomoko Yamazaki

Sandakan by Wendy Hutton

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2 thoughts on “Japanese Cemetery in Sandakan

  1. Very interesting. Last weekend I visited a Japanese cemetery in Melaka. I wonder if there used to be Japanese brothels in Melaka too?

    • losttraveller

      Not sure about that thriftytraveller. I have never heard about the Japanese being in Melaka before WW2.

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