Otokichi – gathering inspiration from a tombstone.

Author: Vincent Especkerman / Posted: 27.11.18, 21:12:03

Writer’s block is a bit like the flu. It hits when it hits. You can’t imagine what you did to contract it so you stop wasting your time trying. You just have to learn to deal with it.

Deal with it???

The flu, we go see the doctor. What do we do when we are hit by Writer’s Block?

For me, I’ve got my own bag remedies. Over the years I’ve tried green tea, meditation, mantras, baroque music, potato crisps.

I also have a few secret places where I’ve always managed to find ideas for my stories: my WC, Changi Beach, Expo and Bishan Park, to name a few.

But the idea for the book I am presently working on I got from a cemetery! More precisely, The Japanese Cemetery.

On one of my wilderness walks, I found myself passing the Japanese Cemetery in Chuan Hoe Avenue, which is close to where I used to live as a kid in Parry Avenue.

On a whim, I had decided to take a stroll through the cemetery grounds. The layout of the place was oh so Japanese – so systematic!

What I saw there was pretty much what we’d expect to see in any cemetery. Which are tombstones, potted plants, religious shrines, incense urns and the like.

But one particular tombstone caught my eye. It was the one holding the remains of one Otokichi Yamamoto.

A plaque in front of the tombstone gave a short eulogy describing him as the “first Japanese resident in Singapore”.

There were other interesting morsels.

It also mentioned that he was involved in a shipwreck that launched him on an adventure of a lifetime. And because of the austere policies of the government of the day, he was not allowed to return to Japan. Yes, he was later to be instrumental in the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Amity between Great Britain and Japan, which was one of the catalysts that opened up Japan to the outside world. And finally, that he ended up here in Singapore.

The facts were intriguing. But they were disjointed. Standing there under the blazing sun, I was not able to see how they were boned together.

But ever mind! My imagination had been fired up.

I continued with my brisk walk home. But I knew that I had to find out more about this mysterious character called Otokichi Yamamoto.

When we speak of the Japanese in Singapore, most Singaporeans, especially those from the older generation, would think of Japanese soldiers running around with guns and bayonets. They were all over the place during World War II.

Now I learned that there was this colourful Japanese character who lived in Singapore not long after it was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles. That was about a century before WW II.

This Japanese was not the aggressor, he was the victim. And a victim of his own government! And this guy was not about rifles and bayonet and wars; he was about trade, diplomacy and peace.

What I found most incredible was that for 22 long years, Otokichi was rejected by his own government for something that was not his fault. Yet, as fate would have it, Otokichi would later be instrumental in opening up Japan to the outside world.

It was only after The Shogun government realised what an invaluable asset Otokichi could be working on the side of Japan that it offered him “amnesty” to return to Japan.

By then, too much water had flown under the bridge. Otokichi declined the offer and decided instead to cut his own path through life, which took him to Shanghai and later ending up in Singapore.

And even from his base in Singapore, Otokichi would continue to provide consultancy to facilitate trade and diplomatic initiatives to connect Japan and China with the rest of the world. It showed just how big-hearted this man was!

The book I just posted is an attempt to reconstruct the life of Otokichi. I tried to capture the joys, the frustrations, the tragedies and the triumphs he went through.

Otokichi was such a rare human being and a gift to the world. We, in Singapore, should be proud to have a man like Otokichi as part of our history.


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