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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Death Rites

My neighbour died last week. He was a truly amazing man who made an effort to include us in community events. If you understand the Japanese group mentality, then you have an idea how big that is for an outsider. I attended his funeral, and saw some of the Japanese mourning procedures and thought I would share them with you. Bare in mind, Japan is both Shinto and Buddhist, and people are buried  according to one or the other, but there are similarities between the two. The ceremony I attended was a Buddhist one.

The deceased is laid out with their head facing North. The kimono is worn with the right side over the left - the opposite of how it's worn in life. All orifices are stuffed with cotton. Shortly after the person dies (or shortly before), you wet their lips. We did it using strips of paper, but I've read online that Shinto practice uses cotton swabs on the ends of chopsticks.We then lit an incense stick and placed it in the pot above his head. Then you ring a little bell three times and clasp your hands in prayer.

The following day was the Cremation Ceremony. I didn't go, partially because I didn't know if it was open to the public or not - despite the fact that there was a sign with all the info - and partially because I didn't want to handle my neighbour's bones with chopsticks. After cremation, family and friends pick the bones out with chopsticks. Sometimes, they pass them from one person's chopsticks to another, which is why it's considered a faux pas to pass food chopstick to chopstick.

The funeral was held two days later at the temple near my house. When you arrive at a funeral, the first thing you do is sign in at Reception. Then you hand over your condolence money. Depending on your relation to the deceased, or the relation of the person you know to the deceased (example, when I went to a teacher's fathe's funeral, the relation would have been father) the amount in the envelope increases. I believe the highest is around $500 US.

Since my neighbour was both super-important and super-popular, the temple was packed and I couldn't see anything that was going on. People who were related to the deceased sat in benches in the front. I assume some people who were early got the leftover seats. Everyone else sat on cushions. 

At the funeral, the monk chants and the deceased is assigned a new Buddhist name. As with religious figures' chanting all over the world, it was completely indecipherable. I'm not even sure if the chant was in Japanese. There were also two "instruments:" a bell, and something which sounded like a car wheel falling over. Then there were some speeches- by the Mayor, the head of town hall, the deputy head of the NPO Sports organisation, and the deputy head of the festival team. He'd been the Head of both organisations that put forth deputies as speakers.

After that there were the messages. In Japan, if you can't attend an important event, you send a message. A sample of the messages is read at the event. Apart from the sample, the names of all the people who send messages are also read.

After the messages, the monk started chanting again and they passed around little pots of incense. From the right side of the container, you take a pinch of incense between your fingers, raise it towards your forehead, and then lower it into the little raised bit on the left side of the pot. I believe you repeat this three times. Then you clasp your hands.

I'm not sure when a Japanese funeral ends. The last time I went to what I now believe to be a prayer ceremony/wake, people just left when they felt like. This time, the son was speaking, when people just started to dissipate. When the lady I was with got up to leave, so did I.

At the end of the funeral, you receive a gift for attending. It's usually something household-y like coffee. Also in the funeral gift is a packet of salt. You dust this salt over yourself and in front of the doorway in case you've brought any spirits from the temple with you.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A year on

Sunday marked a year since the earthquake-tsunami-meltdown. It's been a tough year, emotionally and physically, living in the disaster area, but not.

On Sunday there were ceremonies and moments of silence. At 2.46 pm (the time of the quake), fire trucks sounded their sirens followed by a "mokutou" - where everyone bowed their heads and payed their respects. There were also lighting and candle ceremonies in the prefectural capitals, and prayer services throughout the region.

Ad for a lighting ceremony in my prefectural capital, Morioka, Iwate.


I haven't been out to the coast since the 3 days I spent there last March. So my impressions of the coast come from friends and TV.

It seems much of the road network is back up. Some of the train tracks have been fixed, but I'm not sure how much. The airport in Sendai is running. People are rebuilding. There is still a long way to go. A long, long way, but everybody is dealing with it.

We're still on setsuden - electricity conservation measures. Noone seems to know if or when power plants will generate enough energy to support East Japan again. But we seem to be getting by on what we have. Everyone is conscientious about energy use.


I can't explain the emotion I feel in regard to the disaster. I lived through it, like people all over Tohoku. I live way too many miles in land to have been in danger of tsunami, but I went through the thousands of earthquakes with everybody else. My colleague and I started joking that anything under 6.0 wasn't even worth the time. It sounds offhand and callous, but when you experience 100 earthquakes in a day, you have to deal some way.

It's hard for me to deal with the coast. My TV broke and I didn't get a new one. That's partially because I don't want to pay NHK's ridiculous licensing fee. But it's also because there's tsunami are coverage every day, and I can't take it. I guess it's different when you've been there. You've seen my tsunami area pics. Imagine travelling to somewhere - somewhere you've been before, where there used to be houses and buildings and schools - and there's nothing. There's not even debris, no grass, just dirt, as far as your eye can see. I still can't get down to Ritz (Rikuzentakata) where my colleague, Monty Dickson, was claimed by the tsunami. I just can't face the place.

It's still hard to deal with how unaffected I was. I'm an hour inland. One drink fell over in the drink machine and an antenna fell off at work. We ran out of New Zealand Cheese and toilet paper. (My town is a farming town, so we were good for food.) We ran out of gas. The power went off. The trains didn't run for a week. The shinkansen (bullet train) didn't run for over a month, and then when it did run, it ran an hour slower. Due east of me another colleague spent her post-tsunami days cutting up cloth to cover dead bodies. I got off easy.


I am still glad I was here. I am still glad I AM here. Living through the past year has taught me so much about the human condition. About who I become in a bad situation. About how far I can go before I can't take any more. I know how I can be helpful, and how it all feels. And I understand that when the world crumbles, all you can do is to keep moving as best you can. Never forget, no, always carry those memories with you. They make you stronger and better. But always keep moving.

Thank you, Tohoku. I will keep moving. ありがとう日本。続きます。
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