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Saturday, May 11, 2002


Japan's life cycle of death ceremonies

I recently attended a "kankin" ceremony to mark the 100th day since the death of my neighbor Ueda-san. The usual funeral-goers were there as well as a couple of Sweat Suit Boys. Many of the attendees were people I only see at funerals. I'm beginning to wonder if this isn't a sort of hobby. It's hard to avoid funerals when 20 people die of old age per year on our island. Add to that "kankin" ceremonies (which the locals call "kanki") and "hoji" at one, three, seven, 13 years and so on up to 50 years after death, and that's 320 ceremonies in just the four years I have been here. That's frequent enough to be called a hobby, or at least a part-time job.

There were so many of these ceremonies last week that the Buddhist priest was too busy to make it to Ueda-san's kanki.

Before I left for the ceremony, I opened the shrine in the wall of my house, which still holds the "ihai," where my landlord's father's soul resides. I'm not exactly sure how the soul gets in there, but it makes me nervous having someone's soul in my house. It makes the phrase "God rest his soul" sound more like a plea. Besides, I don't know exactly how he died. Do you think having the soul in my house could be used as evidence against me in a murder trial?

There were two sets of beads hanging near the soul. One had polished pink glass beads, which seemed too light a color for a funeral ceremony, so I took the bulky wooden beads instead.

The guests, upon entering the ceremony, prostrated themselves on the tatami floor in respect, then took a seat on the cushions lined up. Everyone except 75-year-old Suiyoshi-san, the guy with 8 1/2 fingers. He came in drunk, saluting. He passed cigarettes out to all the men while waving his 8 1/2 fingers in the air.

The local fisherman sitting next to me took out his radio and plugged an earphone into his ear. "Baseball," he said. "Hanshin Tigers are playing."

With reason, on the other side of the room, sat the women. Each had a little drawstring purse. When you see Japanese ladies carrying them, you wonder, What could they possibly fit in those little pouches? In this case: a set of glass prayer beads, a prayer book and, later, sweets they saved from the green tea they were served. Now you know why such small sweets are served with green tea: so ladies can take them home in their pouches. They couldn't do that with lemon meringue or cake.

Melon always holds a prominent place at any funeral ceremony in Japan. In this case, the royal member was the watermelon, which sat on the first shelf of the tiered funeral display. Offerings of apples, mangoes and round packaged bread with "anko" filling were stacked on the second and third shelves along with a lacquer tray holding a few veggies and a cucumber. Lastly: the bowl of rice with chopsticks stuck in vertically. On either side of the display were huge plastic pink-and-green lotus plants that lit up, something we would use for lawn ornaments in the U.S.

Once the prayers started, I held my wooden prayer beads and tried to read the sutras fast enough to keep up. But the rhythm of these chants is a mystery. There are annotated symbols with lines, circles and triangles to indicate pitch, but they look much more like road signs. I wish they had these chants available at karaoke bars so I could practice.

After prayers, I served green tea, watched the ladies pocket their sweets and was asked to come back in the evening for the second prayer session. This would allow me to brush up on my funerary skills, which I badly needed. To start with, I was informed, the wooden prayer beads are for men.

Contact Amy at amychavez2000@yahoo.com or visit the "Japan Lite" home page at www.amychavez.com

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