Saturday, April 28, 2007

 

Agni: Letter from a Japanese Crematorium

I was honored to learn that Agni is not only publishing my essay, "Letter from a Japanese Crematorium" in their Spring 2007 issue, but also that the lovely staff there had put Letter from a Japanese Crematorium up online so anyone can read it.

I thought it might be interesting for some folks who are curious to see photos of some of the places I mention. The essay essay details the events surrounding my grandmother's funeral, and a trip I took to a Japanese crematorium: cremation is mandated by Japanese law. This was really my first true Japanese funeral and I was startled to learn just how intense a process it is.



My grandmother died last year, at age 97, of old age. This photo shows us together a number of years ago. I'm two-and-a-half here. People generally look at this photo and declare: "Wow! You were a huge kid!" I really wasn't. But my grandmother was only 4 foot 8. I swear I'm pretty normal sized!



My grand father spent his early years in a temple; his birth father was a priest. Later he was adopted by an uncle who had no sons. I think my grandfather really thinks of his uncle as his father, but the early temple training stays with him. He climbed into this chair before my grandmother's funeral and announced that he had the right to hold this horse-hair whip because the temple had once belonged to him.



I like this picture of my grandfather with the wife of my mother's cousin, who is now the head priest of the temple. They aren't smiling. It's hard to get people of that generation to smile for photos--not so much because they are attending a funeral, but because this "formal" face is what you do for a photograph. I'm forever trying to capture people in candid moments.



My lovely young cousin has a flair for fashion. He's posing here in his street gear, with just a corner of his "hearse" visible in the picture. He's since sold the hearse (I learned from my trip this past April to Japan) and traded it for another black car that he says gets better gas mileage.



Presto changeo. My cousin is now in his stylish priest robes.



He's also got a wonderful voice. I took this picture on another occasion--I think for some memorial--in which he beat the drum you see hanging and chanted along with it. He's got quite a lot of presence.



My cousin's father, the head priest of the temple. I'm enormously fond of him. He's wearing his "under-robes" in this photo, and putting some finishing touches on the ceremony for my grandmother. He likes to tailor his services for individuals. He says there is a standard script to follow, but he likes to make sure that everyone receives individual attention. He, like his son, has an amazingly beautiful and reasonant voice.



It's always fascinating to watch the priests prepare. There are so many robes and layers to what they wear. But I was really amused to find these over-robes and rosary sitting next to the PlayStation controller. One of my young cousins is very addicted to video games.



My grandmother's bones fit into these 3 boxes. My grandfather wanted my mother to take the little red box (with the Adam's apple) back to America, but she said no as it's illegal to transport human remains into the country. So, the Adam's Apple is home with my grandfather. I just went to the first year memorial service for my grandmother and some of her bones were buried on the family plot. We think. We're not entirely sure. Only one of these boxes was put into the grave (or, we think it was one of these boxes). I don't know what happened to the rest of the bones. At some point I'll ask and find out.



It's not uncommon for bones to be kept at the temple for a time. This can happen if a grave isn't ready (ie, the tombstone hasn't been carved, or the plot paid for), or if someone just can't afford a plot in the first place. My cousin tells me that the "sophisticated" temples in the cities will charge "rent" to house boxes of bones like these. But our family temple doesn't do anything like that.



Some bones are held in these little cubby-holes, which are set up to receive prayers. It's eerie being in this room. I never understood what was in it as a child--no one would tell me. Finally I found out as an adult and understood why I was discouraged from going into this part of the temple.



I didn't take any pictures of the inside of the temple during the funeral, except for this shot of the altar. You can see the boxes of bones sitting up on the altar before the Buddha.



Here is a view of the temple, taken from the side of the altar. This scene has nothing to do with the funeral, but I thought it'd give you a sense of the interior of the temple. It's not terribly old by Japanese standards--I think over 100 years. My family keeps telling me that they plan to tear it down, and build a new one.



A ramp connects the temple to the house where the family lives. My cousin is greeting a danka-san, or parishionner in this photo as he is on his way to the temple. (Side note: It's not uncommon to connect a temple to living quarters in this way. It is convenient; this way, priests don't have to put on their shoes, go outside, then take off their shoes again. Shinto shrines, by the way, were originally not connected in this manner to the house of the priest. To do so would be a defilement. But things have changed, and now some Shinto shrines too have adopted this kind of connecting "ramp.")



Here I am in the hallway of a ramp connecting a Shinto shrine (near Nagoya). But, unlike the ramp connecting the temple to the living quarters, the Shinto shrine has a fountain of water just outside the door. This is so visitors, like me, can purify themselves before entering the sacred space.



I've now seen a few crematoriums in Japan, and they have all had this kind of sloping roof. It's wierd. Once you know what a crematorium looks like, you just know them when you see them.



A high tech trolley that easily slides a casket out of a hearse.



This isn't my photo of a hearse, but I grabbed it and put it over here so you could see how elaborate they are.



A not very good photo of the entrance to the crematorium. You can see the "columns of light" that are just inside the doorway. The design of the space is really, really effective. I wish I had more photos to show you of the interior, but I just couldn't bring myself to take any more pictures once I was inside. It felt too disrespectful. And by the time I was inside the crematorium, I was feeling very sober.



I mention the funeral bento in my piece. Here's a sample of one such meal. You can see that it has no meat in it, just fish and vegetables.



I took this photo on an occasion other than my grandmother's funeral. Here you can see what the "memorial dining room" looks like--the room were we take our memorial lunches. There are a number of priests in this photo. They have all removed their yellow and blue over-robes and are just wearing their black under-robes. They have a lot of layers to keep track of!



This isn't our family's burial plot, but one nearby. Ohigan, a twice yearly ceremony commemorating the dead had just passed when I arrived in Japan, and all the graveyards had been carefully cleaned, and decorated with flowers. There are a number of these memorials, the most famous of which is Obon.

Friday, April 27, 2007

 

The Ethnic Slant

I was astonished to read an editorial on MSNBC regarding the Virgina Tech massacre with the header: "Loving the US and Hating It Too." The deck reads: "For South Koreans, the story of Cho Seung-Hui underscores a nation's ambivalent relationship with America."

Oh, really? And exactly how does a mass shooting in America underscore how "ambivalent" South Koreans feel about Americans?

But behind the Korean public's fascination with the tale of a native son who made good before making spectacularly bad, was the ambivalence of the country toward the United States. Koreans have long had a love-hate relationship with America. Young people there routinely take part in protests against the American presence in their country and what they consider its unilateralism, but at the same time see the country as a true land of opportunity.


So, South Koreans look to America for opportunity, but also harbor anti-American sentiment and this has exactly what to do with a mass murderer? You mean that it's just a short step or even a short leap between protesting American policy and . . . killing innocent students?Read more »

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

 

Tokyo Old and New



Much is made of Japan's ability to combine the old and the new. Here is a shot of the Hama Rikyu, now a public park but first built as a villa for Shogun Tokugawa family in the 17th century. I sat in the tea-house pictured here and enjoyed a cup of matcha, oblivious to the behemoths behind me. After I crossed the wooden bridge across the lake, I turned around and saw the skyscrapers and couldn't resist taking a picture.

 

No Wide Smoke



In the 80s, it was taken for granted that anyone busted on a plane trying to smoke in the bathroom would invariably be Japanese. Despite their overall healthy lifestyle, the anti-smoking movement didn't seem to be catching on in Japan, and I honestly wondered if it ever would. But times have changed since I was a kid in the 70s and grew ill riding the shinkansen filled with an eerie blue vapor.



Last year, for example, it finally dawned on people that
Japanese vending machines,
while incredibly handy (benri), don't police themselves. It's incredibly easy for a child to go and purchase a can of beer or a pack of cigarettes. And thus, with inimitable ingenuity, the vending machine ID card was born.

At the same time, measures have gone into place to police smoking. Now, I'm really used to the "Second Hand Smoking Kills" ads in the States. But I wonder how the following would go over among Americans.




Here, for example, is a designated smoking booth in Hachinohe, the terminus of the Tohoku shinkansen line which, I was stunned to learn, is completely smoke free. We found this out when we asked for tickets to the "non-smoking" car and were informed that all cars were non-smoking. Who knew? The Tokaido line still has a couple of cars reserved for smokers, but people seem to feel that it's only a matter of time before these are eliminated as well. When that happens, people will have to hold their carcinogenic breaths until they stumble onto a platform, as the folks in this photo have done, and rush into a rather tightly sealed booth to get their fix.



The town of Sendai has a designated "smoke free" and "model" boulevard. In exchange for the cooperation of its citizens, Sendai has set up little "designated smoking areas." I can't imagine this ever happening in the US, though since I don't like cigarette smoke, I wouldn't mind if it happened. But could you imagine Americans ever agreeing not to smoke on 5th Avenue?



Well, apparently, not all Japanese follow the rules either, despite the whole "hive mentality" stereotype that we are used to seeing. Here's a guy puffing away. He wasn't too happy when I took his photo.

Monday, April 23, 2007

 

Uniqlo Design Project

I went to Uniqlo over the weekend to check out the merchandise. Not all of the special design project pieces are in yet (Alice Roi is apparently delayed). But I did see some of the cashmere work by Italian duo Lutz and Patmos. I absolutely fell in love with this "sweatshirt." It's a cotton/cashmere blend and which has enough weight to feel very luxurious. I thought the design was fantastic; loved the two-direction zipper, the puffed sleeves and the clever seaming on the sides to give the garment a good fit. It's the perfect thing to wear with jeans, or to wear with a dressy pair of pants or pencil skirt and heels. And best of all, it's flattering. (I bought the grey version, in case anyone cares).

Uniqlo sweatshirt

Still to come are Satoru Tanaka for men, and Philip Lim. The crowds were full and the lines for the dressing station long, aka, people are willing to wait. So far Uniqlo seems to be doing quite well and certainly the fashionistas love the merchandise. I'm increasingly excited about the quality of the goods Uniqlo is turning out. In addition to this sweatshirt, I had to pick up two crazy T-shirt dresses; one with a gathered neckline and sleeves which just looked like some kind of ironic take on a Flashdance era getup and another which looked like a baby-doll dress combined with a cheongsam. All in all really cool gear.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

 

Those amazing manicures which seem to portray a whole world are still the rage in the cities.


Here's my spring manicure.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

 

An End To Tears?

bus Abuse

When I first moved to New York, I was fascinated by all the ads in the subway: doctors specializing in perfect skin, wart removal and podiatry. I was also sort of intrigued by all the "stop domestic abuse" posters featuring either very beaten looking women, or somber teenage girls. Fast forward to today, and it's part of the visual language of New York's "openness" that I've come to accept and, for the most part, admire.

I've been critical in the past of Japan's inability to address mental health issues. So I was really pleased if somewhat stunned to see this anti-abuse campaign poster on a bus. I think that thing that most shocked me was that part of the message was directed a children; a young child wishes that she didn't have to live in a house where her father hits her mother. There is a number listed below for anyone suffering any kind of abuse to call.

Abuse2


This is interesting because in most anti-domestic abuse (or any anti-abuse poster) I've seen in the US is aimed squarely at adults. Kids are advised to stay off drugs, but they aren't encouraged to report abuse in the home via a public service announcement.

I have the feeling that we will one day soon see a very interesting news story on this subject, and we'll all have much food for thought on the right way to go about putting an end to any kind of abuse--let alone opening up the door to admitting it exists in so many forms.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

 

Pun for the Punnies

pun

So I was hanging out in Shirakawa when I saw this sign hanging outside a store. I was told it's a pun of sorts. Any guesses? I'm particularly curious to hear from you translators out there. The answer below.

The kanji are: Spring, Summer and Winter. In other words, "Autumn" is missing. Usually people say, "aki ga nai," or "there is no Autumn" when examining the sign. But "Aki" also sounds like the word for "open." So, said outloud, a person reading this sign might sound as though she is saying, "There is no open." Which means that the store, is closed. Punny enough for you?

First posted on Japundit.

 

Christopher Hill on the Plane!


Christopher Hill

United Airlines has done away with their JFK to Narita direct flight, which means that this time I ended up on a plane from Washington DC. But this new flight path turned out to be fortuitous, as none other than Christopher Hill, who I have since learned is frequently described as handsome and boyish and has become something of a media darling in Asia was on my flight. I ended up sitting next to one of Mr. Hill’s charming colleagues and we had a wonderful conversation.

I learned a lot about the 5-party talks going on right now. Oh wouldn't some of you in Korea and China liked to have been a fly on the plane cabin wall for that chat! But rather than writing about the many things we discussed on the plane, I think I'd just like to say the following.

It is very unfair that Mr. Hill managed to get off the plane with his boyishness and handsomeness intact, considering that some of us tend to deplane feeling very bloated and dirty and require several days of detox to begin to feel even remotely human. As for Mr. Hill, why, when I came off the plane, there was a herd of reporters waiting for him, and he smiled and gamely answered their questions, with a sincere smile and a hand gesture here and there, and you’d think he was Obi-wan with some Jedi Mind trick or something. I got to watch Mr. Hill (and the lovely gentleman who sat next to me) on TV for the next few days each time I checked the news. And each time Mr. Hill looked refreshed, with nary a hair out of place, shirts pressed, smile intact. You wouldn't have guessed he'd just been sitting in this metal tube for 14 hours breathing re-cycled air. And it's not like he fled to the bathroom to powder his nose or anything. I mean, I was watching.

First posted on Japundit.

Friday, April 06, 2007

 

How To Have A Japanese Wedding

HK Wedding

So, I'm getting married.

I've been pondering a question my American friends keep putting forward to me. How will I make sure that the wedding (to take place in California) incorporates Japanese traditions?

My mother's solution to this quandry was to say: "Easy. Don't register for gifts. Just ask for money." I thought this was very practical of her and my fiance rather likes the idea, though we know there will be some, ahem, less traveled folks who will find it vulgar.

Another Japanese friend of mine said. "Ask all the men in your family to make long drunken and rambling speeches." I explained that since many of the guests will be from Scotland, I imagine there will be drunken speeches, but most will be funny.Read more »

Thursday, April 05, 2007

 

How Does Change Happen in Japan?

KB Geishas

Two books I’ve recently finished reading offer portraits of women in contemporary Japan, but come to very different conclusions about their prospects.

There is the eponymous subject of the Ben Hill’s biography, Princess Masako.

“There is no happy ending to this story . . . . as the fourteenth anniversary of their wedding loomed . . . there was nowhere to go, no alternative to Masako continuing to sacrifice herself for the sake of her country’s outdated imperial institutions—and her father’s family honor . . . She will live to regret the rainy summer’s day that she surrendered to well-meant notions of duty and honour and gave up her life for her country.”


Oh, the oppressive Japanese and the poor women who live in that society.

Then there is the thesis of Veronica Chamber’s excellent new work of non-fiction, Kickboxing Geishas (Note to the publisher: Why did you put a non-Japanese woman on the cover? Or am I missing something?). From the flap copy.

“Forget the stereotypes. Today’s Japanese women are shattering them—breaking the bonds of tradition and dramatically transforming their culture . . . the . . story is that of legions of everyday women . . . who have kicked off a revolution in their country.”
Read more »

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

 

Email to the Rescue

Yesterday, I received this email from a stranger.

Ms Mockett

I came across your blog, and thinking that maybe you could help me. My hobby is Asian studies and history.
In my studies, I had in my mine what I thought was and is the Japanese woman. I pictured her as a refined, controlling yet in a quiet way and very feminine. At least the ones from a higher social class.

But if you watch Japanese tv and read the mags., one gets a different perspective. You see them dressed like little school girls. I'm not a prude, but come on. It would be hard to have a serious conversation with that person. And they seem to present an "airhead" like mentality. Tell me this is all an act, and that the Japanese woman is a lot deeper
than this. Please set me straight.


Here was my answer.

Well, as an American with a British fiance, I can tell you it is often interesting to learn how we Americans are viewed by those who've only really encountered us through the media! And the reverse is true of course; people
have astounding ideas of what the British must be like (esp the men) based on movies like "Four Weddings and a Funeral."

The truth about Japanese women is equally complex and misleading, especially if you form your opinion just through television. I imagine that as Korea grows more powerful and puts more movies and films out there (and more westerners travel to Korea), we'll start to get a firmer pictures of what Korean women are like through these mediums.

But your question comes at a very interesting time, because I've just finished reading Veronica Chambers' excellent book, "Kickboxing Geishas."
The title notwithstanding, it's an excellent look into the lives of contemporary Japanese women, and if you are really curious about learning how they are viewed by their society and how they view themselves, I recommend you read it. Mind you, I don't work for the publisher or anything like that! It's just that I agree; it's hard to distinguish between the fantasy and the reality. Chambers does an excellent job and you'll learn a lot from her reporting.

Thank you for the question.


I go through periods where I seriously consider not blogging anywhere. Discussions become heated and unruly. Difficult and umpleasant subjects dominate discussion. There was an interesting segment on NPR the other day on how some bloggers, particularly women, find cyberspace to be uncivil and sexist. I'd agree.

But then I get a question like this, that I read as sincere and honest, and I feel like I've made contact with someone and my faith in the internet is revived.

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