The View from Japan
Torii gate



Commemorating the Dead

by Tim Young

From SIF SATELLITE issue 42, Fall 1995

huge Buddha statue in Nara

I haven't been looking forward to this. But I might as well make the best of it.

Why I've been dreading it, I'm not sure. I've never been fond of "special" days; I find myself preferring the day-to-day grind. Nonetheless, here I am at my in-laws' house, sitting at a long, low table with an 83-year-old Japanese man whom I've never met. Although I'm not sure what to sayespecially since I have to speak Japanese to him I try to strike up a conversation.

"Did you know Grandfather very well?" I ask. He wasn't my grandfather--I never met him--but since I'm a representative of his family by marriage, I can call him that.

"Yes," says the man. "I'm his wife's cousin." He says some things I don't completely understand, and something about how the dried-up creek that goes past the house was once a fairly deep stream. Then Grandmother comes in.

She's happy to see her cousin, for the first time in years. They check on each other's ages; he 83, she 86. I don't try to follow their conversation. Soon other relatives arrive, and then it's time to go.

We are on our way to the Buddhist temple for a memorial service, or houji, commemorating the 13th anniversary of Grandfather's death. Or, more accurately, the beginning of the 13th year since his death; it has actually only been 12 years. It's a different way of counting. The previous houji was for seven years, and then next will be the 17-year houji. It will continue on every anniversary ending in 7 or 3, and end with a houji marking 40 years. Buddhists believe the souls of the dead must be remembered over a long period so that they can rest easily.

Chieko, our three kids, and I arrive at the temple by car a few minutes later. Many of the local relatives have come directly here. All are dressed in black. Most Japanese men have in their closets a black suit reserved for funerals and weddings; the only difference is the tie. Black for funerals, white for weddings. The white necktie has always seemed ridiculous to me; against the obligatory white shirt, it's a chameleon that makes the wearer look tieless. Nonetheless, I have one. Like I said, obligatory.

Soon we are entering a sort of lobby in one of the buildings. The entrance has an area of about 1 meter by 2 meters for removing our shoes and putting them on wooden shelves to either side. Then there are several steep wooden stairs, which come almost to two-year-old Christy's waist, leading up to a room a little smaller than the average school classroom. The floor is covered with tatami, woven straw. Everyone sits down and drinks tea. I give baby William a bottle; he's out like a light.

I manage to stand up with the baby in my arms and follow the rest of the groupfriends, children, spouses, easily forty peopleinto the main hall. To our left is the back wall of the room, its windows letting warm sunshine into the chilly temple. To our right, closest to the door, is a large, tatami-floored area with square, violet pillows, zabuton, facing towards the priest's area, which is directly across our path from the windows. We five walk past the central area to another kneeling area on the other side. So the two halves of our group are facing each other, with the priest in the middle.

William and his cousin Akane are both asleep; we put them on zabuton next to us, with coats over them. The shaven-headed priest walks in from behind the altar, bows, kneels, and begins to chant. While chanting, he steadily pounds a hollow wooden instrument known as a mokugyou or wooden fish. I've never gotten close enough to one to notice the aquatic resemblance...

BONG! His right hand still pounding the fish with a small mallet, the priest has taken a long, thick wooden stick with an ornate black handle and struck a big, black metal cauldron-like instrument called a kinsu. William cries. Chieko picks him up. Akane doesn't stir.

An oblong box is being passed among the group. On the left side of the box there is burning incense; to the right are flakes of incense. Each person reverently picks up a small portion of with their thumb and first two fingers and sprinkles on the smoldering incense to the left. Four-year-old Jenny won't be left out, which means Christy insists on doing it as well.

Ten minutes turns to fifteen turns to twenty. The girls are squirming a bit, but so am I. My knees hurt, and I'm losing feeling in my feet. But kneeling is the only acceptable position during such a ceremony, so I have to, as Japanese so often say, gaman suru endure. To distract myself from the pain, I look around the room. Above the priest hangs a large square of golden ornaments. Mostly they are small and bell-shaped, hanging on thin golden chains.

The priest has a small altar in front of him, from which he may be reading the words to the chant; I'm not sure. About two meters beyond that altar stands the varnished main altar.

It may seem odd that I'm even here. I'm not Buddhist. Yes, I'm here because I'm part of the family. But some of them might not be Buddhist, either. In Japan, religion is much less a matter of commitment than Westerners are used to. Perhaps this is because neither of the two main religions, Buddhism and Shinto, insists that followers have only one religion. In fact, Japanese who say they have no religion get married in Shinto (or even Christian) ceremonies and have Buddhist funerals. It is also said that the concentration on economicsand therefore materialismin Japan since World War II has sapped the country of its spirituality. This unmet need is blamed by some for the rise of Aum Shinrikyou and other cults.

Twenty-five minutes. As I'm moving my toes in hopes of locating them, the priest finishes chanting. "You can relax," he tells us. Many of us switch to a cross-legged sitting position. "My feet went to sleep!" says the man behind me. I'm a little surprised. I thought Japanese were used to kneeling on the floor. Perhaps not so much among the younger generation.

The priest gives a short talk about Chieko's grandfather. Maybe it's the language barrier, but I don't get the impression that people are even thinking about him very much today. On the day of his previous houji, six years ago, there were some tears before the day was over. But today I don't sense that this is anything but an obligatory ceremony and a chance to get together. But then, even Japanese fluency wouldn't help me to know what's in his wife's thoughts, and the thoughts of each of his children.

When the priest is finished, we all get up (or stagger to our feet, as the case may be) and put our zabuton back into the closet near the door. Returning to the bright sunshine, we enter the temple's cemetery and file past the stone where Grandfather's ashes are kept, each of us sprinkling rice and water on it. There are flowers in two thin metal vases, and incense is burningflaming, actuallyin a small black object, perhaps 25cm wide and 18cm high, which resembles a small temple building with a roof. The incense isn't supposed to be flaming--it's a little bit windyand since the little box has a roof, it's hard for us to put more sticks on incense in without burning our fingers.

I couldn't help but be amused when I learned that our noon meal would be served at a building connected to a Shinto shrine! Chieko insisted that that building isn't Shinto, and yet it is part of the shrine. That's a distinction I've been able to make no sense of. All I know is that I can't imagine attending a Christian funeral and then eating lunch at a synagogue or mosque. But this is Japan. Not only did we eat at a Shinto shrine after a Buddhist memorial service, but as I go around the room at the shrine, engaging in the customary courtesy of pouring drinks for the guests, I'm a bit surprised to see the Buddhist priest there as well. I offer him some beer, and he accepts.

Japan is nothing if not ecumenical.

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