Ami-dong: Busan’s ‘Tombstone Village’ Built by Korean Refugees on a Japanese Cemetery

Editor’s Note – Monthly Ticket is a CNN Travel series that sheds light on some of the most fascinating topics in the world of travel. In October, we’re focusing on the quirky, spotlighting everything from (allegedly) haunted spaces to abandoned places.

Busan, South Korea (CNN) — At first glance, Ami-dong looks like an ordinary village in the South Korean city of Busan, with colorful houses and narrow lanes backed by looming mountains.

But on closer inspection, visitors might spot an unusual building material embedded in the houses’ foundations, walls and steep stairways: tombstones engraved with Japanese characters.

Ami-dong, also called Tombstone Cultural Village, was built in the depths of the Korean War, which broke out in 1950 after North Korea invaded the South.

The conflict has displaced huge numbers of people across the Korean Peninsula, including more than 640,000 North Koreans crossing the 38th parallel separating the two countries, according to some estimates.

In South Korea, many citizens have also fled to the south of the country, away from Seoul and the front lines.

A tombstone displayed in front of a house in Ami-dong, Busan, South Korea, on August 20.

Jessie Yeung/CNN

Many of these refugees headed for Busan on South Korea’s southeast coast – one of only two cities ever captured by North Korea during the war, the other being Daegu, 88 kilometers away ( 55 miles)..

Busan became a temporary wartime capital, with UN forces building a perimeter around the city. Its relative safety – and reputation as a rare resister to the northern army – has made Busan “a huge city of refugees and the last bastion of national power”, according to the city’s official website.

But the new arrivals found themselves faced with a problem: finding accommodation. Space and resources were scarce with Busan pushed to its limits to accommodate the influx.

Some found their answer at Ami-dong, a crematorium and cemetery that sits at the foot of the rolling mountains of Busan, built during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. This period of colonial rule—and Japan’s use of sex slaves in wartime brothels—is one of the major historical factors in the bitter relationship between the two countries to this day.
During this colonial period, Busan’s habitable plain and downtown areas near seaports were developed as Japanese territory, according to an article in the city government’s official visitor’s guide. Meanwhile, the poorer laborers moved further inland, near the mountains – where the Ami-dong Cemetery once housed the ashes of the Japanese dead.
The headstones bore the names, birthdays and dates of death of the deceased, engraved in kanji, hiragana, katakana and other forms of Japanese script, according to a 2008 article by Kim Jung-ha of Korea Maritime University.
But the cemetery area was abandoned after the end of the Japanese occupation, according to the city’s visitor guide – and when refugees poured in after the start of the Korean War, these graves were dismantled and used to build a dense collection of huts, ultimately creating a small “village” within what would become a sprawling metropolis.
Many tombstones are engraved with the names, birthdays and dates of death of the deceased Japanese.

Many tombstones are engraved with the names, birthdays and dates of death of the deceased Japanese.

Jessie Yeung/CNN

“In an emergency situation, when there was no land, there was a cemetery, and people seemed to have felt they had to live there,” said Kong Yoon-kyung, professor of urban engineering at Pusan ​​National University.

Former refugees interviewed in Kim’s 2008 article – many elderly people at the time, recalling childhood memories of Ami-dong – described demolishing cemetery walls and removing headstones to using them in construction, often throwing away the ashes in the process. The area became a center of community and survival, as refugees tried to support their families by selling goods and services in Busan markets, according to Kim.

“Ami-dong was the boundary between life and death for the Japanese, the boundary between rural and urban areas for migrants, and the boundary between hometown and a foreign place for refugees,” he wrote in the log.

An armistice signed on July 27, 1953 ended the conflict between the two Koreas – but the war never officially ended as there was no peace treaty. Subsequently, many refugees from Busan left to resettle elsewhere, but others remained as the city became a center of economic recovery.

Busan looks very different today as a thriving beach vacation destination. In Ami-dong, many houses have been restored over the years, some sporting new coats of teal and light green paint.

But the vestiges of the past remain.

Walking through the village, tombstones can be spotted under thresholds and stairways, and at the corners of stone walls. On the exterior of some homes they are used to support gas cylinders and flower pots. While some still bear clear inscriptions, others have been patinated by time, the text is no longer legible.

Many tombstones are no longer legible after decades in the open.

Many tombstones are no longer legible after decades in the open.

Jessie Yeung/CNN

And the complex history of the village – simultaneously a symbol of colonization, war and migration – also looms large in the imagination. Over the years, locals have reported sightings of what they believe to be ghosts of the late Japanese, describing kimono-clad figures appearing and disappearing, Kim wrote.

He added that the folklore reflected the popular belief that the souls of the dead are linked to the preservation of their ashes or remains, which had been disturbed in the village.

The Busan government has made efforts to preserve this part of its history, with Ami-dong now a tourist attraction next to the famous Gamcheon Culture Village, both accessible by bus and private vehicle.

An information center at the entrance to Ami-dong provides a brief introduction, as well as a map showing where to find the most important tombstone sites. Some walls are painted with images of tombstones as a nod to the village’s roots – although several signs also ask visitors to be quiet and respectful, given how many locals still live in the area.

Leaving the village, a sign on the main road reads: “There is a plan to build (a) memorial place in the future after collecting the gravestones scattered all over the place.”

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