Accident damages historic Japanese American cemetery

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TOMBSTONES DAMAGED ­— Several Colma Japanese Cemetery tombstones were damaged by a single-vehicle accident Oct. 24. photo by Derek Tahara/Nichi Bei Weekly

TOMBSTONES DAMAGED ­— Several Colma Japanese Cemetery tombstones were damaged by a single-vehicle accident Oct. 24. photo by Derek Tahara/Nichi Bei Weekly

A delivery van crashed through a fence into the Japanese Cemetery in Colma, Calif. Oct. 24. The accident damaged or destroyed around eight tombstones and a number of other markers in the oldest section of the cemetery, according to Seiko Fujimoto, executive director of the Japanese Benevolent Society of California.

Fujimoto said a delivery van plowed through the fence on Hillside Boulevard and ran around 100 feet into the cemetery Oct. 24 at around 2:30 p.m. Fujimoto said she is thankful the driver was uninjured, but she lamented that the accident damaged some of the oldest graves in the cemetery.

According to Fujimoto, the old graves in “Section One” date back to 1901 and run up to the 1940s. The section contains a number of graves for babies who died without ever being named and victims of the Spanish Flu pandemic. She added that the cemetery plot was purchased with funds Issei community members raised, as well as a bit of money from Emperor Meiji, who gave money to the Japanese Benevolent Society in response to the 1906 earthquake.

While some say the graves in the oldest section of the cemetery look “neglected,” Fujimoto said they have been kept with minimal beautification to highlight the hardship Japanese American pioneers first faced immigrating to the United States.

“The graves there look shabby, dirty. Some of the headstones are tilted … but we are not neglecting them,” Fujimoto told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a phone interview conducted in Japanese. “(The people buried in Section 1) struggled. I want to show Japanese Americans started from here.”

Some headstones are just concrete and the names etched into them have been worn away by elements over the years. Fujimoto, however, said the Benevolent Society has paper records of everyone buried at the cemetery and they are now in the process of identifying the families.

“They’re all most likely in Japan,” she said. “But we should nevertheless find them and let them know.”

More than a week after the accident, Fujimoto said she is waiting for the respective insurance companies to fully assess the damage. Until then, she was asked not to touch the damaged graves until they have completed the assessment. For now, she hopes to keep people out of the graveyard and has asked a caretaker who lives adjacent to the cemetery to monitor the premises.

News of the damage has spread in the Japanese American community as visitors to the cemetery have seen the damage. Diane Matsuda visited the cemetery Oct. 29 to visit her father interred in the cemetery’s columbarium.

“As I was driving toward the entrance, I noticed a yellow tape on the fence, so I walked over to see what was going on,” Matsuda said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “I saw crumbling pieces of what headstones were, or severely cracked and irreplaceable pieces of family graves sprawled everywhere.”

Matsuda expressed she was “totally shocked and disheartened” by the damage to the cemetery. She noted the annual community clean-up, organized by the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, was started in part to ensure that the oldest section of the cemetery was cared for.

“Many of the people laid to rest in this section of the cemetery are our Issei community members and those whose remains were transferred from the World War II concentration camps. Many of them no longer have family who can visit them,” she said. “I am unclear what caused this serious injury to our community but want to make sure that we protect whatever remains can be recovered from this disaster. The individuals buried here deserve our respect.”

Fujimoto is unsure how the cemetery will be repaired. However, while waiting for the insurance companies to report back on their investigations, she said she has also contacted gravestone masons in Japan to discuss potential future next steps.

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