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Monday, Jan. 6, 2003


Making an exit, Japanese style

My grandmother used to say that people of her generation never expected much out of life. In her prime, her mantra was "Ikiteiru dakede arigatai (I'm thankful just to be alive)" and in her final years, that changed to "Pokkuri ikitai (I want to die suddenly and quietly)."

The term pokkuri, at once comical and resigned, is one indication of how the Japanese view death -- it's not something to be struggled against or mourned over very much, but a natural and slightly ridiculous phenomenon.

Grandma's attitude was: it's going to happen anyway so why take it too seriously? "Itsu omukaega kitemo iiyo (The messenger can come get me anytime)" was another of her favorite phrases. When she came out with it, we kids would tease her: "Obachan [Grandma], the messenger sent a message saying he's stuck in traffic and can't come by for another couple of decades!" When people came to visit Grandma and told her how well she was looking, she would smile sweetly and reply, "Ojogiwa ga warukute komarimasu (I can't seem to keel over in one go, and this worries me)."

In a country where heart failure is a rare killer (bottom of the league table after liver and stomach cancer), many wish for the pokkuri, or "korori ojo (the roll-over departure)" -- something sudden and painless that will eliminate the need for a protracted stay in a hospital. Actually, the term korori is a corruption of "cholera," that came into currency when the disease was a real threat (a threat that lasted until the immediate postwar years). Cholera victims did indeed roll over and die in a matter of days, and back then, everyone feared death's swiftness. Now their anxieties are about having to stick around longer than necessary thanks to death's procrastination.

A full life, followed by a sudden "daiojo (grand departure)" at 85 is the popular way to go, though unfortunately it doesn't always work this way. Many old people express the wish "tatami no uede shinitai (die on the tatami, i.e., die peacefully at home)," but this has now become "saidai no zeitaku (the greatest of indulgences)."

Dying on the tatami mat has other connotations: A person who was evil or violent could not expect to die on a futon, on tatami, surrounded by friends and family. It was thought that your misdeeds caught up with you in the end and that retribution would strike, whether delivered by avengers or "ten no ikari (the wrath of heaven)." In this vein, among the worst insults a Japanese can fling at another is: "Anta, tatami no uejya shinenaiyo (You, you'll never die on the tatami)." Another is "Shiso ga deteiru (I see the mask of death on your face)," meaning that all a person's ugly and evil deeds are revealed in his face, announcing that his end is near.

In the end, Grandma didn't quite get what she wished for, since she died strapped to tubes after seven months in the hospital, at the age of 78. We were desperate to hear some last words of perky wisdom, but she chose to stay silent, fulfilling another of her maxims: "Shi o mae ni shite yukotonashi (There's nothing to say in the face of death)."

As was the custom, her eldest son put money in her casket so she could tip the boatman who carried her across the Sanzu no kawa (Sanzu River) that separates this living world from the other side. If she had known the amount, she would surely have reprimanded him for wastefulness.

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