Sunset at Miyajima, courtesy of Fuji Film staff
Here I stand on a street corner near my house. I try to keep the rain off my suit. The rain in Japan sometimes comes from the side due to the wind. We live in a very windy city. It`s my birthday today. I am 41. But I don`t get to celebrate it. I am directing traffic for a local funeral. The people of Iizawa get quite a thrill seeing this tall, foreign visage, mystically appearing before them through the drizzle. "Get a load of that gaijin (outside person or foreigner)," they seem to be intimating to each other, as they drive on their way. The Japanese hearse actually stops right in front of me, and asks me where the funeral is: "Where is the Takahashi`s house?" the driver asks. For a moment I feel I am in a comedy-drama about a Canadian living in Japan. Where are the cameras? Although there are no cameras, I really am in a comedy-drama about a Canadian in Japan. Not only am I directing traffic and telling the funeral goers where to go, but the hearse driver is even asking me for directions to the funeral. I guess I look like I know what I`m doing! People always look more authoritative with a lighted traffic baton in their hand.
Instead of feeling bitter about having to do this on my birthday. I try to figure out the lesson in it. I know there has to be a reason why I am forced to do this on my birthday. I don`t believe in accidents anymore. I have read too many Richard Bach and Wayne Dyer books for that.
I didn`t know the woman who died. She was 94. Being the head of our kumicho (leader of our neighbourhood group) I am required to help out with the funeral. I pride myself on being able to pick and choose which Japanese customs I will partake in, and usually I can get away with it, but not today I have to help with this one. It isn`t so bad though. I can see the purpose behind it all. Maybe that is one of the lessons. I can only opt out of Japanese customs so much. I can`t control everything. I will be required to participate whether I like it or not at times. I have always participated when I thought it would be fun. Today I have no choice though. The spirit of Japan has caught up to me.
This country is arguably the busiest in the world. Former French Prime Minister Edith Cresson, said the Japanese were like a nation of ants. It isn`t far off the mark. The people here work and work some more. Through the death of someone, Japanese people become closer. I never knew Mr. Machida nor Mr. Hatano before this weekend. Mr. Machida in fact, scared me a little. He`s a hunter, and hasn`t seemed too friendly over the years. I never want to get on the bad side of a man with a gun! It always seems that one of my friends has parked his car in the way of Mr. Machida. I have never gotten used to being in his sites nor the foul looks he and his wife have given me. Today though, I am surprised to realise that Machidasan is a nice guy and funny too. (I do my best to chuckle at each joke not knowing for sure whether that bulge under his funeral jacket is his wallet or Colt 45).
Mr. Hatano too is a laugh a minute. This is a funeral, but due to the deceased`s age, there is a festival atmosphere at times. The three of us are like a small group of errant school boys, trying not to get caught by the teacher.
Last night, after helping to direct traffic. We all met under a big tent, drank beer and joked around. I had a great time--at a funeral! Sometimes Japanese funerals are more like Irish wakes. It seems to be okay to laugh and smile as long as you don`t do it at an inopportune moment. It is a funeral afterall.
Everyone who knows anyone who knew the deceased goes to the ceremony, so you literally have hundreds if not a thousand people going to the funeral. The reason behind this, that I can surmise anyway, is that it helps to pay for it all. It also shows everyone how important this person was. On the surface it doesn`t seem logical to go to the funeral of someone you don`t know. Yet everyone who goes, pays some money, and that helps to offset the horrendous cost of it all.
Japanese society is often so closed, but occasions like this open everyone up. I was really impressed with my neighbours. They really tried to help me out, and took care of me. Not having helped with a funeral before, I really didn`t know what to expect. We are closer for this woman`s death.
It is an honour to get to pick up the bones of the deceased with long chopsticks. I missed the bus to the crematorium amd thankfully missed out on that custom! It is good luck to do it, and it is done to show the deceased that you care. I care, but don`t want to see her bones. That is a much more than I bargained for this weekend.
After 49 days, there is another funeral ceremony. We get together then too. There will be another ceremony held one year later, three years later, then seven years later and it goes on for a while with more ceremonies held at different gradually increasing intervals, until at some point no relative is still around, who directly knew the deceased.
More on Japanese Funerals: http://tanutech.com/japan/jfunerals.html
All this getting together serves another purpose too. Japan really is a nation on the edge. If you want to see how the earth was formed, how Hawaii got made for example, there are many places to do that in Japan. There are quite a few active volcanoes here. It was in Japan where I learned the term, pyroplastic flow.
We get 10% of the worlds earthquakes. I happen to live in an area that is overdo. All of this getting together serves to solidify our local group, in the event of some major tragedy. We are rocked by typhoons and occasionally a good old thunderstorm. In the event of some calamity, I know that my neighbours will dig me out, and vice versa. That is why I am standing here on my birthday. And that is why we were put on this earth, to help each other.