The area around the banks of the Hija River in the town of Kadena, Okinawa Prefecture, is dotted with graves that are left unattended with no one to inherit them, posing a growing problem for urban development and safety works.
Ownership of 90 percent or more of the 116 graves within nearby Yarajoseki Park, which is operated by the town and is soon to undergo renovation work, is currently unknown.
Carved into the cliffs below housing operated by the prefecture, where work is being urgently conducted to prevent rockfalls or the cliff collapsing, graves where the identities of the owner and the remains interred are unclear have left authorities at a loss regarding how to proceed.
In Okinawa, many graves are overseen by family members, and those with knowledge of the situation point out that amid Japan’s low birthrate and graying population, cases of graves no longer being maintained are likely to increase.
Designated a park in 1979, Yarajoseki is scattered with graves that appear to have been made after World War II.
In order to conduct large-scale works in the park, the Kadena Municipal Government judged that the graves would need to be moved, and in fiscal 2016 about ¥11.55 million was spent on establishing whether or not they were in use.
Despite making inquiries and monitoring the graves during occasions such as Shimi — an observance in April when Okinawan family members gather in front of the family tomb — there was no sign of any owner for 107 of the graves, 30 of which contained bones or funerary urns.
In the Mizugama neighborhood near the park, a number of graves of unknown ownership are located at the foot of a high-rise prefectural housing building.
The prefectural housing division is keen to proceed with engineering work to roll out safety measures in the area, due to the risk of the cliff collapsing, but despite erecting signboards and publishing notices for a number of years, the division has not received any information about the graves.
Under the Graveyards and Burials Act, landowners of unmanaged graves can transfer them for reburial if they receive no response for a year after publishing a notice seeking ownership information in the central government’s official gazette.
Town authorities published notices in April of last year and posted signs in front of the graves.
But, while the legal arrangements for transfer and reburial have been made, those responsible for the work remain concerned and note that “the extent of the cost of reburials for a large number of graves is not yet known.”
Prefectural authorities in charge of taking safety measures on the cliffs below the prefectural housing, on the other hand, take the view that while the work has been postponed until now, the risk of rockfalls has increased due to factors such as the effects of typhoons, making further delays no longer possible.
As a last resort, the policy has been to proceed with safety works while trying to avoid activities directly above the graves.
■Years of neglect
So far, municipal authorities within the prefecture have been at a loss as to how to deal with neglected graves in cases where there are no longer family members to manage them.
The situation within the prefecture contrasts starkly with the rest of the nation, where it is much more common to set up graves within cemeteries, such as those operated by temples.
It is all too easy for graves to become unmanaged or abandoned for many years in Okinawa, where a preference remains for individual graves within a family resting place.
There are also many unauthorized graves, to the extent that it is unfeasible for most municipal or prefectural authorities to accurately assess the scale of the issue.
In addition to having a negative effect on their surroundings, neglected graves cost time and money if they are reburied at an alternative location.
“We know there are a lot of them in the mountains, but we have no way of finding out who is connected with them,” said a town representative from the north of the prefecture.
“Unless there’s a problem with them, it’s hard to get involved,” they added.
In urban areas where residential land development is underway, the need for effective measures is urgent.
Seven years ago, the Urasoe Municipal Government in the prefecture estimated that of around 7,000 graves in the city, 300 or so had not been maintained for many years.
The Okinawa Municipal Government receives inquiries about four to five times each year from building contractors or residents regarding unknown graves found on newly purchased land.
While the Naha Municipal Government estimated 16 years ago that among the around 17,000 graves in the city, roughly 1,100 were unattended or unused, “the numbers are definitely growing higher than that now,” an official said.
In principle, landowners are responsible for paying any costs incurred to perform reburials for neglected graves.
Since such graves are also found on privately owned land, parties involved are often concerned over potentially escalating costs, as well as delays of at least a year due to procedures such as the publishing of notices in the official gazette.
■Chaotic postwar years
Well-versed in the city’s history, Kadena’s former Superintendent of Education Katsuo Iha, 79, believes that many of the graves located across the Hija River area were likely to have been erected in the chaotic postwar years, without permission from landowners.
“Graves are thought to have accumulated in the area at a time when land was requisitioned for U.S. military bases and there wasn’t anywhere to live,” he said.
“In most cases the family members who attended them may have passed away, or the graves may no longer be used after remains were transferred elsewhere,” Iha suggested.
According to Hajime Kinjo, a consultant specializing in grave-related issues, “it typically becomes hard to find a successor to manage individual graves in family tombs after around three generations.”
“The only solution is to prevent the graves from becoming neglected by erecting them together in cemeteries that are managed by authorities or private companies,” he added.