Tashmioo’s Tomb: Please Pray for Him


“A tomb now suffices him for whom the whole world was not sufficient.” ~Greek Proverb

“We know little of the things for which we pray.” ~Geoffrey Chaucer

Tashimoo's Tomb

Tashimoo’s Tomb

“Tashimoo,” the large white sign, sized and placed to be easily seen from the frequently traveled road on Torii Station, began. “Please pray at this blacksmith’s tomb because he made tools for farmers.”

I had driven by this “tomb” probably at least 50 times, and with each pass, my curiosity grew. Who was this blacksmith, and who was responsible for placing and maintaining this sign on an active United States Army station? And where exactly was his tomb at this site? All it appeared to be was a small rise in the ground, serving as root foundation for a very large shade tree and associated sub-tropical jungle.

Deciding to stop and explore his resting place on foot, I realize that this tomb appears to be very old, and basically has been reclaimed by nature. Oddly situated next to a modern American style gas station where a woman was loudly vacuuming her car, I can find no real trace of what I would consider an Okinawan tomb, at least not like those ubiquitous turtle-back mausoleums seen all over the island.

Okinawan Turtleback Tombs (Yomitan)

Okinawan Turtleback Tombs (Yomitan)

Turtle-back tombs are exactly one of those things that make Okinawa…oh so Okinawan. They line hillsides along the coasts, prime property for what in essence are neighborhoods of the dead. But they are not seen in other parts of Japan; they were introduced only in the Ryukyus through Okinawa’s long and prosperous seafaring tradition with China.

Turtle-back tombs or turtle shell tombs (Japanese: 亀甲墓, kamekō-baka) are a particular type of tomb commonly found in some coastal areas of China’s Fujian Province and in Japan’s Ryūkyū Islands. In the original Chinese form, the tomb main chamber’s roof is made to look like the carapace of a tortoise. A vertical stone tombstone bearing the name of the deceased is placed where the turtle’s head would be, and serves as the “door” access to the burial vault.

Smaller, More Literal Turtle Tombs in  China

Smaller, More Literal Turtle Tombs in China

In the Ryūkyūan island chain, the turtle-back tombs are thought to have been introduced from China in the late 17th or early 18th century, but there are academic claims that reach back to their origins in Okinawa to the 15th century. The Ryūkyūan version has the same overall shape and layout, but on a much grander scale. Whereas in China the tombs are for individuals, in Okinawa the enhanced size of the body of the “tortoise” serves most often as a family tomb.

Why a turtle? In China, the turtle has long been considered a sacred animal. The reptile’s shape, with its flat plastron (the belly of the turtle) below and its domed carapace above, is said to represent the universe, at least as it appeared to ancient Chinese. But the interpretation in the Ryukyus has the tomb shaped to resemble a woman’s womb. One of the Eastern Buddhist ideas surrounding death is that it is only another form of rebirth, or a means of returning from whence you came.

Turtle-Back (China) or Womb (Okinawa) Interpretation

Turtle-Back (China) or Womb (Okinawa) Interpretation

Okinawa 2015, Kadena Tombs, broken burial urns WMOkinawa 2015, Kadena Tombs, overgrown and reclaimed WMBy the 20th century, the turtleback tomb became the predominant burial chamber in most of the Ryūkyū Islands. These tombs contain a burial vault, where bones of many generations of a particular family could repose. In the long-standing tradition of burial in Okinawa, a coffin and body are placed in the central part of the tomb and the vault is sealed with a massive stone. The newly deceased remains there for some number of years until wholly decomposed. At that point, the bones would be washed, usually by young female relatives of the deceased, placed into a large earthenware vessel, and stored on shallow tiered shelves lining the back and sides of the vault’s interior based on seniority. Larger tombs offer up to 150 square feet of burial space.

Preserved Tombs on Kadena AFB

Preserved Tombs on Kadena AFB

Okinawa 2015, Kadena Tombs, large shaded tomb WMOkinawa 2015, Kadena Tombs, overgrown tomb WMThere are large preserved tombs on Kadena AFB, complete with placarded information. Stopping there one day, I find a substantial picturesque tomb and a brief, generalized explanation describing the aged, intriguing structure. Although the signage claimed that the tombs were still being utilized today, a closer inspection of their interiors clearly shows that no one is home, living or dead. I can only imagine, perhaps, that the family was whipped out in totality during the Typhoon of Steel which occurred here back in 1945….

Empty Tombs

Empty Tombs

WWII Intelligence on Okinawan Tombs

WWII Intelligence on Okinawan Tombs

That spring, during the Battle of Okinawa, many Okinawan civilians sought refuge from naval and air bombardment of the island inside their ancestors’ tombs (as they also do for typhoons). Later, many of these tombs were also used by the Imperial Japanese defenders of the islands in essence as reinforced fighting positions. (See Turtle Back Tombs for an excellent overview of the role the tombs played in WWII) Pre-invasion military analysis of Okinawa included instructions on the explosive firepower required to destroy such tombs. When you consider the propensity of the Japanese to use the tombs in military roles, grave danger emanated from the literally thousands of turtlebacks that dotted the island of Okinawa.

Militarized Tombs 2

Okinawan Tomb along the Hiji River showing scares of War

Okinawan Tomb along the Hiji River showing scares of War

14560717418_1a6bcfc297_bUnfortunately, war often presents just such dilemmas: should the destruction of local culturally significant sites be avoided at the risk of increased casualties, or should they be leveled to discourage their use and save as many of the invasion force as possible? The way it went, it is the Okinawan people who suffered most. And doubly so. The Japanese, who cared nothing for the welfare of the Okinawan people, occupied, militarized, and sacrificed this island chain as a way to simply slow the Americans down on their march northward to the Japanese homeland. The Japanese were directly responsible for the destruction of almost every important Okinawan cultural relic, either by their own hand or by placing such sites in the crosshairs of the American invasion force. The desecration of tombs – many which were destroyed on the mere suspicion of being military strongholds or hideouts – was a terrible and lasting affront to the Okinawans.

Shiimii Observance at a Family Tomb

Shiimii Observance at a Family Tomb

In Okinawa, where highly superstitious and spiritually attuned people actively engage in ancestor worship, the tomb is not only a place for resting the dead, but a place of tangible joy and transcendent comfort for the living.  One such event is known as Shiimii. Each spring at the beginning of the third Lunar month (the Okinawans still use the traditional Chinese measure of time to mark cultural events) Okinawans participate in memorial services of a sort for their ancestors. But these observances are much less solemn that you might think. The practice is, of course, based on Chinese traditions passed along to the Ryukyus with the Chinese tombs. During this festivity, blood relatives gather at tombs in a family reunion, but one which includes both the living and the dead. The entire site is cleaned and neatened; weeds are pulled, trees are trimmed, bushes cut back and debris and trash removed. Irritated forebears, upset at the tidiness of their eternal home, are believed to cause illness or even death when their descendants don’t take good care of the family tomb or participate in important annual ceremonies which take place there. See Banzai for more on the rituals and rites of honoring the dead in Okinawa.

Buddha Standing Guard

Buddha Standing Guard

Once the site is presentable, a brief ceremony is held which includes prayers and the burning of imitation paper money for the dead to use in the coming year. Then a picnic is enjoyed at the tomb. Family members unpack special Okinawan ceremonial foods like mochi, fruits and pork, along with beer, saké and awamori. Offerings are made first to the resident ancestors, and then the extended family consumes the rest graveside. Children are seen laughing and playing while the adults appreciate their adult beverages. Often a strummed sanshin, the traditional Okinawa three-string instrument, offers a musical background where time-honored folk songs are sung in hogen, the local dialect. This joyous time, one which strengthens and reaffirms kinship and ancestral ties, is cherished by the Okinawans.

Modern Gable-Style Tomb

Modern Gable-Style Tomb

But there’s less and less of the turtleback tombs being constructed on Okinawa. More recent trends, given the exorbitant cost of purchasing land and building large kamekō-baka are to build gables, smaller tombs that more resemble a shrine or small home than animal. And given the reduced floor space available, cremation is now the norm.

Scattered Earthenware and Bones

Scattered Earthenware and Bones

Tashimoo's Tomb

Tashimoo’s Tomb

Okinawa Apr 2015, Tori Blacksmith Grave, bones shells and urn fragmentsTashimoo, the blacksmith of Yomitan, had neither. His tomb is crudely formed by stacked chunks of ancient coral. Moving up into the manmade elements of his hillside grave, I spy fragments of earthenware and what appears to be bone fragments, possibly animal, but maybe not, scattered in a leveled area immediately against a small coral wall. The site, adjacent to a busy road serving the base’s gas station and across the street from the construction site where the new base headquarters is going to be, is quite shaded and tranquil.

Tashimoo's Tomb

Tashimoo’s Tomb

And he still has people stopping to pray. In my few moments of silent contemplation of this man’s life – and death – I focus the very nature of his tomb and the fascinating Okinawan interpretation of the circle of life. And I reach a necessary conclusion.

Tashimoo's Tomb

Tashimoo’s Tomb

We all can only hope to be as lucky to be so well-remembered.

Beauty & Honor Entombed: Ishigaki’s Toujin Grave Site


“At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done.”  ~ Simone Weil

Remembering and Honoring on Ishigaki

Remembering and Honoring on Ishigaki

Stunningly beautiful.  Emotionally moving.  Serenely set.  Imagine, at great expense and personal effort, accepting the wrongs of those far-removed and in the past so that future generations can realize a nobler future through such splendor.  On Ishigaki Island, this happened not just once, but twice, with amazing effect.

Shisa Lion Dog at Toujin Tomb

In 1852 the American-flagged ship Robert Bowne was carrying Chinese laborers – “Coolies” as they were known at the time, a derogatory slang term for unskilled Asian workers, usually of Chinese or Indian descent – from mainland China to California.  The 410 Chinese indentured servants, realizing during the voyage that they were essentially slaves, successfully mutinied and made a break for the Southern Ryukyu Islands, landing on the beaches of Miyako Island.

Chinese Indentured Servants built most of America's Railroad

Chinese Indentured Servants built most of America’s Railroad

After most of the Coolies had found refuge ashore, some of the remaining members of the crew took back the ship and set sail without haste, abandoning those left behind, including some of the ship’s crew.  The Ryûkyû Kingdom, seated at Shuri Castle on Okinawa Island, long had a proud tradition of aiding castaways, and ultimately welcomed the Coolies, even at great risk of further Western involvement in their island archipelago.

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Toujin Grave, stunningly beautiful Chinesel tomb WM

Initially, the people of Miyako cared for these hundreds of castaways at great burden for such a small and lightly populated island.  Weeks later, the warships USS Saratoga, HMS Riley, and HMS Contest appeared on the horizon, bent on retribution.  After making port, American and British troops seized as many of the Coolies as they could find, though some escaped and fled elsewhere.  Being hunted as mutineers, 128 of the accidental Chinese immigrants were shot dead or committed suicide over capture and slavery.  When the three warships departed the Ryûkyûs, it was with only 70 captives of the original ~380 who escaped.

Chinese Coolies

Chinese Coolies

While the survivors eventually received protection from the royal Shuri government, many quickly caught the plague, for which they had no exposure or immunity, and died one after another, suffering and afraid far from their native homeland.

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Toujin Grave, beautiful Chinese dragon's head WM

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Toujin Grave, beautiful Chinese dragon and characters 2 WMThe local Yaeyamians, being an open, friendly, peaceful and very superstitious people, erected the Toujin Tomb (or Toujinbaka in Japanese) in 1971 in memory of and to help console any restless and cheated spirits of those Chinese who so distraughtly agonized and perished.    Toujin is an archaic Chinese term for continental Asian peoples; the tomb can also be referred to as the Tang People’s Memorial, echoing the southern Han ethnic makeup of the Chinese entombed there.

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Toujin Grave, visitors to the beautiful tomb WM

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Toujin Grave, Jody poses in front of the most beautiful monumentIt, by FAR, is the most beautiful burial place that I have ever visited.  The mausoleum, conceived with unmistakable Chinese influence, is intricately decorated with brightly-color and heavily-lacquered tiles depicting dragons, horse riders, and other Chinese appeals, amidst well-maintained gardens along with a few other gravestones and monuments.  The structure is amazingly well-maintained, and in the right light of day (we visited about 5 pm in July), it has the appearance of being brand-new.  The vault is immediately emotionally moving, even though there is no English provided to enhance a Westerner’s understanding.

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Toujin Grave, Chinese wise men adorn the tomb WM

But that is only half the story of the Toujin Tomb site.  Although the kindness shown to the fleeing Chinese slaves is a testament to the benevolence of the Yaeyama people, the same can’t be said concerning three Americans who crash-landed just off the coast of Ishigaki in the spring of 1945, less than four months before hostilities ended with Japan.

Tuggle, Tego and Loyd in Better Times

Tuggle, Tego and Loyd in Better Times

15 April 1945 0730H:  On this day, USS Makassar Strait, a US Navy aircraft carrier, launched ten strike mission against Ishigaki airfields using bombs, napalm, and high-explosive rockets.  Heavy anti-aircraft ground fire resulting in the shoot-down of Avenger #31 (Bureau No. 68767).  The crew consisted of pilot Lieutenant Tebo, and his two enlisted crewmembers:  Loyd and Tuggle.

ishigaki_map_noted_zoom2

All three suffered horrendously.  Two were quickly beheaded after being tortured, but for Radioman Loyd, his terrifying ordeal had only begun.  Flaunted through the city center of Ishigaki and castigated by an angry mob eager to place blame for the death and destruction raining down from above, in Loyd was taken out personal and dreadful vengeance.  He was publicly executed by multiple stabbings from the bayonets of numerous Japanese soldiers and sailors, many of whom would go on to face war crimes charges.

A VC-97 TBM Avenger

A VC-97 TBM Avenger

The summary execution of these American Prisoners of War (POW) led to the conviction of 41 Japanese soldiers and sailors on war crimes charges, seven of whom were eventually put to death.  It may strike some as an injustice and undue escalation of violence, but like General LeMay is often quoted, if the United States had lost the war, then most of the American military and civilian leadership would have been likewise tried as war criminals [quote paraphrased].  To the victor go the spoils, but in this case, it seems that everyone involved eventually suffered.

Memorial to the Aviators Lost in WWII

Memorial to the Aviators Lost in WWII

Decades after this dark affair, a local professor, Takeo Shinohara, recognized the collective need of the Ishigaki people to remember this black chapter in their history and attempt to make amends, much as was the case of the Coolies in the Toujin monument.  Thanks to these active pacifists, the fate of these three Americans is now openly acknowledged in an attempt to console the wounds of both East and West.  A fitting memorial honoring the memory of the Americans who were killed was christened in 2001 on the very same grounds as the Toujin TombTwo engraved plaques, in English and Japanese, describe the events that befell Ishigaki in the spring of 1945.  The English text reads:

On the morning of April 15, 1945, in the closing days of World War II, a Grumman TBF Avenger, assigned to the carrier USS Makassar Strait, was shot down off the costs of Ishigaki Island by the Imperial Japanese Navy.  The three aviators parachuted in to the water near Ohama and swam to a coral reef where they were captured by Japanese sailors.  After being interrogated and tortured they were executed during the night at the foot of Mount Banna, at the Imperial Navy Headquarters.  The torture of prisoners of war was a violation of the Geneva Convention, the rules of war signed by the international community in 1929.  Vernon L.Tebo and Robert Tuggle Jr. were beheaded.  Warren H.Loyd was beaten and stabbed with bayonets by numerous numbers of sailors and soldiers.  This incident was a tragedy which took place during war.

LT Vernon L.Tebo, 28, a Navy pilot of Illinois

Aviation Radioman 1st Class Warren H. Loyd, 24, of Kansas

Aviation Ordnance 1st Class Robert Tuggle. Jr., 20, of Texas

To console the spirits of the three fallen American service members and to honor their deaths, we jointly dedicate this monument in the hope that this memorial stone will contribute to the everlasting peace and friendship between Japan and the United States, and that this monument will serve as a cornerstone to convey to future generations our keen desire for eternal peace in the world and our determination to renounce war.

August 15 2001

The Joint Committee of Japanese and American Citizens to Honor the Three Fallen Servicemembers During World War II.

If more peoples of the world would similarly concede, perhaps not their direct culpability in the past, but in their collective inheritance of wounds good and bad, we all could, perchance, realize better futures.  I remain overwhelmingly affected by both these monuments, and have gained a new-found respect for those Japanese, Okinawans, and Yaeyama who truly wish to positively transform the world.  One monument at a time.

Loyd, Tebo & Tuggle

Loyd, Tebo & Tuggle

Address: Toujin Grave/Kannondo Temple 1627, Arakawa, Ishigaki City (Ishigaki-shi), Okinawa Prefecture 907-0024, Japan, Tel: 0980-82-1535.  The site is positioned right across the road from the Kannonzaki viewpoint (with its disappointingly small and closed-off lighthouse), and Fusaki beach lies just a kilometer further up the road.

For more information, see:

http://wiki.samurai-archives.com/index.php?title=Robert_Browne_Incident

http://www.shipleybay.com/archives/Memorials/Ishigaki/Stars_and_Stripes_2001-06-24.pdf