Zōshigaya Cemetery: a famous graveyard

Zōshigaya cemetery was established in 1874, shortly after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. This Meiji Restoration brought with it a lot of changes in policy, one of these policies prohibited burial in the centre of Tokyo, so many new and large cemeteries were opened on the outskirts of the city. Among them Zōshigaya cemetery (9,000 graves), but also Yanaka cemetery (established in 1872, 7,000 graves) and Aoyama cemetery (established in 1872, 14,000 graves), the 3 major cemeteries inside of the 23 special wards.

If you are looking for a beautiful cemetery where you can wander and see many beautiful and culturally important graves, Zōshigaya is probably not the place to go to. Even though it is pretty hyped up in the Ikebukuro area and quite some Japanese tourists visit this cemetery, I found it in a general sense rather flat and uninteresting. I found Yanaka cemetery a much more special and inviting place. While I would recommend Yanaka cemetery for every traveller, Zōshigaya is probably only interesting if you live nearby, if you are into cemeteries, or if you wish to pay your respect to any of its residents.

What makes Zōshigaya cemetery stand out is the people who found their last resting place in this 10 hectare green plot. Zōshigaya cemetery is the place with the most names that I actually heard of before coming to Japan and these names are also interesting from a foreign perspective. While Aoyama cemetery is known to have the most foreign graves, Zōshigaya is the cemetery with graves you can relate to (unless you are a hardcore Japanophile, in that case feel free to go to Aoyama).

Many cats running around on the cemetery

When I visited (on a sunny Saturday afternoon) I saw many people with a map to hunt for famous people. Astonishingly there were quite some younger couples among them. It all has to do with some very famous people who will be here for eternity. If you would like to visit, keep in mind that the map they have available at the administration office is only in Japanese. Furthermore, the markings on the graves are also only in Japanese (very few exceptions in English) and there are no information panels.

The famous graves at Zōshigaya cemetery: (google map at the bottom of this page)

1. Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916)

One of the most important figures in Japanese literature, regarded as the greatest writer of modern Japan. I read his work when studying Japanese and I am happy to be able to pay my respects for the beautiful novels he wrote.

Known for: Kokoro (1914), Botchan (1906), I Am a Cat (1905)

Name in Japanese: 夏目 金之助 (Natsume Kinnosuke)

Characters on the grave: 夏目 (at the bottom, read right to left)

Location: plot 1-14-1-3


Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904)

He was one of the first writers introducing Japan to the outside world. His work is easy to read and keeps you engaged. However, he has also been accused of painting a too exotic picture of Japan, which still lingers on. I often wondered while living in Japan why people in the Western world keep referring to Japan’s strangeness. While strange customs are to be found in every country, why singling out Japan for that? The answer is Lafcadio Hearn. Look no further than the first page of his book “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan” (1894).

Known for: Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1903), Japan: an Attempt at Interpretation (1904), Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894)

Name in Japanese: 小泉八雲 (Koizumi Yakumo), he took on this Japanese name after marrying in Japan

Characters on the grave: it says 小泉八雲 in full (from top to bottom)

Location: plot 1-1-8-35


Nagai Kafū (1879-1959)

I was introduced to Nagai Kafū through the works of Edward Seidensticker. In his books about Tokyo he kept referring so much to Nagai Kafū that I just had to check him out. His novels are famous for their depictions of life in early 20th-century Tokyo, especially the wrong side of town.

Known for: Geisha in Rivalry (1916-1917), A Strange Tale from East of the River (1937), Sumida River (1911), American Stories (1908)

Name in Japanese: 永井 荷風

Characters on the grave: it says 永井 荷風 in full (from top to bottom)

Location: plot 1-1-7-13


John Manjirō (1827-98)

John Manjirō was one of the first Japanese people to visit the United States. This was actually by accident as his fishing boat was wrecked and he was picked up by an American whaler ship bringing him to Honolulu. He was an important translator during the Opening of Japan leading up to the Meiji Restoration (1868).

Known for: legendary link between East and West before the Meiji Restoration (1868).

Name in Japanese: 中濱 萬次郎 (Nakahama Manjirō, family name is Nakahama), also known as ジョン万次郎 (John Manjirō)

Characters on the grave: it says 中濱 萬次郎 (Nakahama Manjirō) on the small stone in the middle from top to bottom (a bit difficult to read)

Location: plot 1-2-10-1


Other famous grave include Takehisa Yumeji (竹久 夢二, plot 1-8-9-32), a famous painter that liked the Kototoi Dango in Mukōjima. The grave of Ogino Ginko (荻野 吟子, plot 1-1-5-23), first licensed and practicing woman physician of western medicine in Japan, is also well visited as her grave features a big statue. Finally, Tōjō Hideki, Prime Minister of Japan during much of World War II, can also be found on this cemetery. Usually his grave is left of the maps to explore the cemetery for obvious reasons.

A couple of pointers for visiting a Japanese cemetery:

  • Graves are usually part of Buddhist temples and located on their temple grounds, Zōshigaya cemetery is an exception to this rule.
  • Most graves are for families: one large stone monument features name of the family written top to bottom, or left to right, ending in 家 (family) and/or 之墓 (grave of).
  • There is a space for flowers, incense, and water in front of the monument, and a chamber/crypt underneath for the ashes. Names of the persons are written on the front or side. If they are written in red, they are still alive!
  • Long narrow wooden strips are often placed behind the grave (called sotoba) and are related to various memorial services that are held after death.
  • There are no specific rules you have to take into account when visiting a graveyard in Japan (except if you want to go all the way and go and clean the gravestone), just be quiet and respectful.

Note: Japanese last names are placed first.

In practice

4-25-1 Minamiikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo

Closest station:
Toden-Zoshigaya Station – 1 minute walk (Toden line)
Higashi-Ikebukuro Station – 3 minutes walk from exit 3 (Yurakucho line)
Ikebukuro Station – 12 minutes walk from East exit (Yamanote line, Saikyō line, Shōnan-Shinjuku line, Seibu Ikebukuro line, Tobu Tojo line, Marunouchi line, Yurakucho line, Fukutoshin line)

Opening hours:
Always open
The administration office is open 8:30-17:15

Entrance fee: free

When to best visit? Spring or autumn

Why visit? Graves of Natsume Sōseki and Lafcadio Hearn.

Web: (in Japanese) (English info sheet on the website of the Bureau of Construction from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government)

In the neighborhood: Gokokuji temple

Name in Japanese: 雑司ヶ谷霊園