An Unfortunate Summer

This summer has been pretty eventful for me an my family, but unfortunately not in a good way. It started off pretty well, although lonely for me. Ryoko and the kids went to Japan back in mid-April for two months for a long stay home. She didn’t get to go home last summer because of her pregnancy, so she had a very long vacation this year. In June I went to Japan to spend two weeks there with them, and then we came home together.

So things were somewhat back to normal here in Texas, although Ryoko was worried about her mother’s since she hadn’t been doing very well health-wise while we were there. Then Monday the 16th, we got a call from Ryoko’s sister at about 2 AM. Ryoko’s father had found her mother unconscious. She was in the hospital and may be dying. A later call confirmed our worst fears: after 45 minutes of attempting to recussitate her, Ryoko’s father asked the doctors to stop. Even though her mother hadn’t been well, her death was by no means expected. This was a big and tragic shock to the entire family.

Ryoko was devastated, but we had little time for emotional responses. We had to frantically try and get to Japan in time for the funeral. Thankfully United gave us discounted tickets the next day, but I still had to ask my parents for a $5000 loan for us to all go there. In my mind I was mostly going just as support for Ryoko, but it turns out that I personally had an obligation to go: since I married into Ryoko’s family (very literally, as I am listed as their son by marriage in the national family register, which is the Japanese equivalent of birth certificate/national ID) I am now the oldest (and only) son and am one of the chief mourners.

We got there on Wednesday night in the middle of the wake or vigil, where her mother is on display in the home and friends and family visit to pay their initial respects. Thursday morning was the actual ceremony, where three priests from the local temple (Ryoko’s family is of the Shingon sect of Buddhism) came and performed a ceremony which was pretty incomprehensible to me despite my fairly fluent Japanese. I just followed the lead of my brother-in-law and did what he did. It involved lighting incense, sprinkling some ashes, and lots of bowing. The priests read some sutras (an example of the heart sutra, which is usually read at funerals is here, with a closer-sounding but weird video here) and hit some drums, bells, and cymbals a few times. During the ceremony any non family members come to the entrance of the house to pay their respects. They light a stick of incense and give an envelope called kouden or a condolence gift: always containing money, the amount being determined by how close you are in relation to the deceased. The chief purpose of the money is to help cover the cost of the funeral, which can be exorbitant in Japan. (Starting at Â¥1M [about $10K] and going up from there. This is especially so if there has not already been a death in the family previously, so a butsudan Buddhist altar has to be purchased. These alone start at about Â¥1M also.)

After the ceremony was over, the casket was opened and all the family members placed items in the casket to be burned with her (everyone is cremated in Japan): items such as clothes, personal effects, and things she loved like certain foods and lots of flowers. They were all things for her to take with her into the afterlife. After the casket was closed I was one of the pallbearers and helped carry the casket to the hearse. Since they are cremated, the casket is very simple – just a box of unfinished wood – although very sturdy and and sanded very smooth. Also the casket has no handles, so we had to hold it on the bottom. It was quite heavy, a little difficult for four to carry, though not a problem for six.

After that we followed the hearse to the funeral home for the cremation. This was only attended by about 20 people, all close relatives. The priest came and pronounced a final blessing on the body, and then the casket was put into the furnace. We then waited upstairs for about an hour, which surprisingly is all the time it took. The remains were brought out of the furnace and there is a special ceremony where all the family members take turns using chopsticks to place the remaining bones into an urn.

We then took the urn back home, where a special altar is built. It has a large picture of her mother framed in black, and the urn is placed in front of it on a lower level. There are places for incense to be burnt (during the 49 day mourning period the incense must not be allowed to ever go out) and to place a special dish of food which is prepared and changed every day.

In the evening, there is a special formal dinner at the nearby high class hotel. In the place of honor sit the priest from the temple and six older gentlemen who are all neighbors near Ryoko’s home. They handle a lot of the logistics of the actual funeral so that the family members aren’t too burdened during this time. During the dinner, the chief mourners (Ryoko’s father, her sister, herself, and me) don’t really get to eat much. We have to go around all the tables refilling their drinks (A very important Japanese custom at formal dinners. In general you shouldn’t refill your drink, but wait for or ask someone to fill it for you.) and thanking them for attending.

After the dinner the actual funeral is over. However for the family, the work is just beginning. For the funeral itself, the house is literally transformed. Pretty much the entire lower story of the house is emptied out to make room for the casket, the mourners, the ceremony, etc. Most of the furniture that was moved out is being stored at various neighbor’s homes. Anything that can’t be moved out has white curtains placed in front of it, etc. So the next morning is spent moving all the furniture back into the house. Then the office work begins. For every kouden that was received, a kouden-gaeshi (return gift) must be sent back. In keeping with Japanese custom, this also is money. The amount you send back is precise: if x is the kouden amount received in yen, then the amount returned as kouden-gaeshi is (x – Â¥1000) / 2. I asked Ryoko why they don’t just subtract that amount from the initial amount given and save them all the work? That’s just how things are done in Japan, was the reply. My suspicion is that there is some mutual trust and intimacy implied by this gesture: “I’ll give you more money than you really need, and I trust you enough to give the extra back” kind of idea is my guess how this tradition started, and then after generations of repetition it became formalized. Some of the extended family came to help out with this paperwork, and it took about two days. I wasn’t able to help out with this kind of stuff at all, so I watched the kids (Karisa and Eren, plus my two nieces aged 9 and 4) upstairs.

That’s pretty much it for the Japanese funeral. After that the mourning period lasts a full 49 days (7 weeks) with the priest visiting once on each week anniversary to read some sutras, etc. When that is over, the urn with the bones will be removed from the house and placed in the family gravesite in a final ceremony.

Even with that, there was still a lot of work to do at the house. Ryoko’s mother ran a catering business, and her father isn’t capable of (or even licensed to) do it himself. So there were lots of things that needed to be gotten rid of, or at least moved out of the house to the store (it has now become a de facto storehouse). I helped with that kind of stuff. The harder part is the finances. The family received enough kouden to cover the entire funeral, which was great. However, Ryoko’s mother had always handled all the finances of the family herself, and so nobody (not even her father) knew how much money was where. When the bubble economy collapsed in the 90’s, Ryoko’s frugal mother had squirreled away money in over a dozen different accounts, so that the family wouldn’t lose too much if any single bank collapsed. Plus she had invested in several insurance policies for her grandchildren, which all needed to be canceled. So after that Ryoko and her father spent pretty much all day going from one bank to another while I watched the kids.

I only got a week off from work, so I had to go back to Texas (I got back late yesterday) while Ryoko and the kids will stay in Japan until the end of August. I’ll be going back myself at the end of August to help Ryoko with the kids and the trip back. So for now I’m living the lonely bachelor life for another month. I just wish there were more that I could do. I feel so useless there not being able to help with anything practical except for heavy lifting and babysitting.

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2 Responses to An Unfortunate Summer

  1. Peter says:

    I am very sorry to hear about Ryoko’s mother. I found your description of Japanese funerals and customs very interesting.

    I wish we could hang out and ease the loneliness, but it’s 800 miles to your place. But if you’re ever up for an online game, we can always play. :-)

  2. admin says:

    I thought that any non-Japanese would be interested in the details of the Japanese funeral, so that’s why I included them. I wish I had some pictures of the altar, etc. I should probably have some when Ryoko comes back, so I can scan and post them then. Also interestingly, Shingon is one of the two esoteric sects of Buddhism in Japan, so they use things like mandalas and have a lot more ceremony, symbolism, etc. then say Zen Buddhism. In fact the Shingon sect and the Tendai sect (another esoteric Japanese Buddhism) are the only sects of Buddhism in the entire world that still use the old Siddham script for their sutras and prayers (known in Japanese as bonji 梵字). My father-in-law has some sutras written in it, but the easiest way to see it is to go to the cemetery at a temple. There the gravestone is for the entire family, with the ashes for each deceased relative being placed inside. Then there is a 4-ft wooden plank a little smaller than a fencepost for each individual. These name-markers will have the individuals ‘new name’ in both the Siddham (or Sanscrit if a different sect) and Chinese characters. One of the primary responsibilities of the priests at a temple is to periodically replace these name placards after they get a few years old.

    The new name is called kaimyo 戒名, and evidently is given so that the spirit of the deceased will not return when family members mention their name. I don’t understand the details behind the new name, but usually one distinguishing character from their name is included in the new name for quick recognition. For example, Ryoko’s mother’s first name is Emiko 英美子, so the character 英 was included in the new name.

    Another interesting fact is that since the body is cremated, they don’t embalm the bodies in Japan. However since there is usually 3 to 5 days between the death and the actual cremation, usually they put a lot of dry ice in the casket to keep the body from spoiling and beginning to smell.

    I’m always up for online gaming. What do you play? I’m no good at RTS games, but I really love FPS games.

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