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Saturday, Nov. 16, 2002

JAPAN LITE

'Oba-chan' mutiny brings funeral chaos


There was so much activity on Shiraishi Island, it was almost seismic. Elderly women grouped outside their houses whispering. The Buddhist priest was so busy, he wasn't answering his cell phone. Ferries kept bringing more people dressed in black.

What was happening? Funerals. Of course, funerals are common on our small island, which is more like a retirement community. Last year, my neighborhood was hit so hard by funerals, we almost didn't have enough people to pull the "mikoshi" at the Fall Festival. We had to recruit gaijin!

But one thing I can say is that people sure do pick strange times to die. The current activity all started a few days ago when the first announcement came over the island's public address system: "Mrs. Yamamoto's funeral will be tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. and Mrs. Nishihara's will be in the afternoon at 1 p.m." Two "oba-chans," 94 and 77 years old, had died on the same day! A bit of "oba-chan isshin-denshin?"

As a gaijin resident, my funeral obligations on the island are minimal. It merely means that I can't go jogging that day. Not only would I risk accidentally crashing a funeral procession, in Japan it is bad taste to show off healthiness in the face of someone else's tragedy. My neighbor Kazuko, however -- born and raised on the island and thus an avid funeral-goer -- launched into Funeral Mode the next day, donning an apron and joining the other ladies to help the bereaved with ceremony preparations.

Every night, Kazuko comes to my house to share her "moraimono" of the day. So when she appeared in my "genkan" that evening, I thought the day's moraimono would surely be the grand funeral "o-bento" -- designed and built to last for three days after the event. But when I saw Kazuko with no grand funeral o-bento, I knew something was wrong. "Today, Mrs. Higuchi died in the bathtub!" she announced. Still in Funeral Mode, she ran off to help. Collective "oba-chan isshin-denshin hara-kiri syndrome"?

The entire island was launched into funeral overdrive. There were enough rows of those official, shiny black-and-silver funeral easels gleaming in the sunlight to beam a live broadcast to Mars. Or to heaven -- a sign to lay out some extra futons.

The Buddhist priest, himself almost 70, was carrying a chair to sit on to chant sutras at the funerals, relieving himself of two days in the "seiza" position (enough to kill anyone). Clusters of people in black shuffled from house to house. A constant black cloud hovered around the port as groups waited to welcome the urns returning on special boats from the mainland.

The next evening, and three funerals later, Kazuko appeared in my genkan. "Our neighbor, 85-year-old Mrs Kawata, has died!" I have heard of the Japanese living in harmony, but dying in harmony? This was more like oba-chan mutiny. There were other theories: that someone had rearranged the days of the Buddhist calendar, assigning "tomobiki" to the wrong days. Possibly Osama bin Laden was involved.

The following day, I saw the Buddhist priest leaving the island. I was sure he was attempting an escape to Tahiti before someone else died, but it turned out that he was headed to the fourth funeral, being held on the mainland. "You must be so busy with four funerals!" I said sympathetically. "Very busy," he said, clutching his chair as he boarded the ferry. "Actually, it's six, counting the two people who died last week too."

At this rate, Shiraishi is set to become a deserted island. Well, almost. Since I am the youngest on the island, I will still be here. Committed to a lifetime of "hoji" and pulling the mikoshi alone.

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


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