Ami-dong: Busan’s “grave village” built by Korean refugees in a Japanese cemetery

Editor’s note: The Monthly Ticket is a CNN travel series highlighting some of the most fascinating topics in the world of travel. In October, we shift our focus to the unusual, highlighting everything from haunted spaces to abandoned places.

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

But on closer inspection, visitors can spot an unusual building material embedded in the house foundations, walls and steep staircases: tombstones inscribed with Japanese characters.

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

The conflict displaced large numbers of people across the Korean Peninsula, including more than 640,000 North Koreans who cross the 38th parallel that divides the two countries. according to some estimates.

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

A tombstone is shown outside a house in Ami-dong, Busan, South Korea, on August 20.

A tombstone is shown outside a house in Ami-dong, Busan, South Korea, on August 20.

Jessie Yeung/CNN

Many of these refugees made their way to Busan, on the southeastern coast of South Korea, one of only two cities never captured by North Korea during the war, the other being Daegu located 88 kilometers (55 miles) away..

Busan became a temporary war capital, with UN forces building a perimeter around the city. Its relative safety, and its reputation as a rare holdout against the North’s military, made Busan a “huge city of refugees and the last bastion of national power,” according to the city’s official website.

But the newcomers encountered a problem: finding a place to live. Space and resources were scarce with Busan stretched to its limits to accommodate the influx.

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

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

Jessie Yeung/CNN

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

Former refugees interviewed in Kim’s 2008 paper — many elderly at the time, recalling their childhood memories in Ami-dong — described the demolition of cemetery walls and the removal of tombstones for use 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’s markets, according to Kim.

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

An armistice signed on July 27, 1953 stopped the conflict between the two Koreas, but the war never officially ended because there was no peace treaty. Afterward, many of Busan’s refugees left to resettle elsewhere, but others stayed, and the city became a center of economic revival.

Busan looks very different today as a thriving seaside holiday destination. In Ami-dong, many houses have been restored over the years, some with fresh coats of teal and light green paint.

But remnants of the past remain.

Walking around the village, you can see gravestones stuck under doors and stairs, and in the corners of stone walls. Outside some houses, they are used to prop up gas cylinders and pots. Although some still bear clear inscriptions, others have been degraded by time, the text no longer being legible.

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

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

Jessie Yeung/CNN

And the complex history of the town — a symbol at the same time of colonization, war and migration — also appears in the imagination. Over the years, residents have reported sightings of what they believed to be the ghosts of the Japanese dead, 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 tied 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 alongside the famous cultural village of Gamcheon, accessible by bus and private vehicle.

An information center at the entrance of Ami-dong offers a brief introduction as well as a map of where to find the most prominent 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 the number of residents still living in the area.

As you leave the village, a sign on the main road says, “There is a plan to build (a) memorial site in the future after collecting the gravestones scattered all over the place.”

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