Ancient tombs reflect cultural exchange

Cross-cultural gravesite: A local resident takes care of tomb of Banjiro, in 1665, in her garden in Hoi An.

VNN – The tombs of families of Japanese traders who died in Hoi An in the 17th century have been cared for by generations of local people. They have become a cross-cultural project for researchers from the two countries. Hoai Nam reports.

Vietnamese and Japanese cultural researchers from Hoi An’s Centre for Cultural Heritage Management Preservation and Japanese universities have been seeking the families of three Japanese traders who died and were buried in Hoi An in the 17th century.

Their tombs, which have been preserved by local people in Cam Chau Commune, attracts Japanese residents and tourists.

According to the centre, Japanese businessmen stayed in Hoi An as their second home over 400 years ago when the port town was well-known as a busy trading centre.

Researcher Vo Hong Viet said there were 40 Japanese tombs in Hoi An, but three in Cam Chau Commune were the largest and easiest to access from Hoi An.

“We have been working with Japanese researchers in our search for information about their relatives in Japan for years, but we have yet to find any descendants,” Viet said.

“The centre, with support from the Japan International Co-operation Agency, renovated the three tombs and cleared access paths for visitors and local people,” he said, adding that local people living near the three graves cleaned them regularly as their ancestors.

“We take information from old data recorded at the centre to restore headstones carved in English, Japanese and French,” he explained.

Japanese Professor Kikuchi Seiichi from the Showa Women’s University said the descendants of the defunct Japanese businesses could not be found in Japan.

“It’s such a long time ago so I was unable to find their relatives,” he wrote in an email.

Tani Yajirobei is believed to have died in 1647, and his records include the oldest and clearest information related to his life, including a love affair with a local woman.

It’s evidence of the prolonged existence of the Japanese community in Hoi An, with ancient architecture, a bridge and culture that have been preserved for over a century.

Viet said following the trail, Tani Yajirobei had been called back to Japan following a ban issued by the Emperor on oversea businesses. However, he returned to Hoi An in an effort to find the woman he fell in love with. While he was there, he fell sick and died.

He was buried in a green paddy field with his tomb facing northeast towards his homeland in Japan, Viet said.

He said the story revealed the close relationship between Japanese traders and Hoi An’s residents during a wealthy period of development at the commercial port in the early 17th century.

Evidence of old love: The grave of Tani Yajirobei, which was built in 1647, with Japanese carved scripts. Stele is the oldest and clearest information related to a love affair between him and a local woman in Hoi An. — VNS Photos Cong Thanh

The other tombs were inscribed with the names Banjiro (1665) and Gusokukun (1629).

According to data from the centre, the last ship left Hoi An in 1673 to repatriate the Japanese traders, but some of them stayed and died in Hoi An.

The three tombs were restored in 1928 by Japanese Professor Kurita Katsumi and the Japanese community in Indochina, before Hoi An restored them in 1997, 2000 and 2003.

Authorities in Cam Chau have assigned a local farmer, Tran Van Ha, to take care of Tani Yajirobei’s tomb in the middle of the rice field.

“My grandparent passed away and I look after the tomb of Tani Yajirobei as my ancestor. I visit the grave on the first and middle day of the lunar month and whenever I go farming,” Ha said.

The three tombs feature Japanese architecture and writing.

Nguyen Van Lanh from the city’s information centre, said the appearance of the Japanese business community in Hoi An helped promote regional trade in the central and southern parts of Viet Nam in the 17th century.

Hoi An’s port was a busy trade centre for silk and ceramics from Asian and European countries.

Lanh said a Japan quarter with 60 houses was built in late 16th century when the first Japanese businessmen arrived and settled in the town. Some of the Japanese tradesmen married local women.

Researchers from Hoi An’s Centre for Cultural Heritage Management Preservation said a stone stele in a cave in Ngu Hanh Son (Marble Mountains) near Da Nang has an illegible inscription of the names of five Japanese-Vietnamese families.

Japanese and Vietnamese researchers are working together to preserve the Japanese architecture in Hoi An.

Researchers are also looking into the history of ancient Chinese tombs in Cam Chau Commune, and a mysterious stone stele in Hoi An. — VNS

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