Community Obligations

Since my wife and I bought a house in Japan, I have become more a part of the local community than ever before. When I lived in flats, my neighbours pretty much ignored me. Now, however, I’m expected to join in.

In Japan, neighbourhoods are often divided into smaller groups called hans. In our han there are fifteen households, and upon moving in we did the correct thing and went round each of these houses introducing ourselves, and presenting a small gift with the customary words of ‘tsumaranaimono desu ga…’ which translates as something akin to ‘this is a shit gift but there you go’. The neighbours, whose average age would appear to be around 78, all welcomed us to the community, and if they were surprised or disappointed to have a foreigner moving in none of them showed it.

Apart from a community outing, our han seems to only gather for things I’d much rather avoid. These are usually announced by means of a small message board which periodically passes around the houses. This usually tells us whose turn it is to clean the rubbish collection point area, or to announce that our han will gather at an unearthly hour on a Sunday morning to clean the local parks or a few neighbouring streets. These are more or less obligatory ‘volunteer activities’ and seem to have us doing all the things I rather thought I was paying taxes for other people to do.

When one of our neighbours died, I discovered that obligations extend to a little more than just keeping the streets clean and attending social events. I was teaching a class when I was interrupted by the doorbell ringing. The students were busy with an activity so I went to answer the door and a stocky old woman from our han told me that Mrs. So-and-so from a few houses down was dead. Apparently she’d been ill for a while – cancer I think – and whilst anybody’s death is a sad event, it is hard to show great concern for someone when you have no idea who the person that has just died actually was, nor are you quite sure who the person telling you the news is. I didn’t know how to react properly and my wife was out, so I’m afraid I probably looked rather cold, muttering something like, ‘I’m actually right in the middle of class here so, you know, yes, yes, very sad and all that but I must dash!’ But I really didn’t know who had died and even when my wife later told me which house she had lived in I couldn’t picture her.

‘We’ll need to cancel some classes,’ said my wife.

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘To go to the funeral,’ she said.

‘But I don’t even know her!’ I said.

I thought I’d give it a miss but my wife insisted that this wasn’t an option, that we really did both have to go. To the main ceremony, anyway. It would look very bad if we didn’t.

The doorbell rang again and it was the man from next door telling us that all the neighbours would be going to the deceased’s house at seven o’clock that evening to light some incense or something. This part, my wife said, could be skipped by me as it was such late notice, although she still re-scheduled her own class to make it half an hour later and went to pay her respects. The following afternoon, at two o’clock, representatives from all the houses in our han gathered outside our recently deceased neighbour’s house to witness the body leaving home for the last time. The family was dressed in black suits and I realized that I had in fact spoken to the man who had just become a widower. Only once, at a community night out, but he had seemed a pleasant enough chap when completely pissed. I still couldn’t picture his wife but was quite shocked to learn that she had been only sixty-three. The widower was accompanied by his two children both of whom were younger than me. It was sad to watch, and I felt that it didn’t matter that I had never spoken to the woman who had just died – it was still nice to come out and pay our respects, to offer support, however small, to a family in grief.

A plain grey hearse was waiting outside the house and I expected to see a coffin brought out. Instead, the body was wheeled out on a stretcher, covered only by an ornately patterned sheet that looked as though it could make a nice kimono. The shape under the sheet looked pitifully small. My wife told me that when she had gone to the house to light incense the previous evening, the body was laid out on a futon for all to see.

The stretcher was put into the back of the hearse and the family bowed deeply to those who had gathered. A man dressed in mourning, and whom I didn’t know, thanked us and said that in a moment they would be leaving with the body. He said they would toot the horn loudly as they left and as they drove off could we please put our hands together and offer a prayer. We did so, and after two or three long sounds of the horn, we saw the car disappear around the corner in silence.

That evening, we were expected to attend some kind of wake and present the family with small sums of money in decorative envelopes prepared specifically for offering funeral monies. There had been some discussion among the neighbours about how much was appropriate to give. The general consensus seemed to be 3,000 or 5,000 yen for those who weren’t particularly close. I again bailed out of this part of the proceedings on account of work but I was absolutely not allowed to miss the funeral proper on the Friday.

I dressed in black suit, white shirt and black tie, as is the protocol; it is the same outfit as males wear to weddings, but for a black tie instead of a white one. We arrived at the ceremony hall at 9:30 am, nodded to a few neighbours and were allocated duties. The women were mostly in charge of bowing as guests entered, and presenting them with  packets of tea at the end of the ceremony. The men accepted the envelopes of money from guests and noted who had given how much in a register. When most of the guests had arrived we joined them in taking our seats for the service in the main hall.

A wooden altar bedecked with flowers and a couple of candles stood on a stage at the front of the hall. In front of it was a large photograph of the deceased. ‘Oh, it’s her!’ I said excitedly to my wife who told me to shut up. On either side of the altar were many large bouquets of flowers, each with an accompanying wooden sign upon which was carefully written the names of the donors. The seating took the form of neat rows of folding chairs stretching to the back of the hall and with a wide aisle down the centre. You could sit anywhere you wanted but the members of our han split up with the woman sitting on one side of the hall and the men on the other. Other guests were mingled without divisions according to sex but, for reasons I still don’t know, our han seems to prefer gender segregation.

Unfortunately, Mr Hara, our annoying photographer neighbour, chose to sit next to me. No sooner had he done so than he produced a letter to the U.N. that he wished me to translate. He’d actually brought it along to the funeral, together with a pen and, as the hall filled up, began asking me to translate certain parts of it. Even after the master of ceremonies had begun speaking, Mr Hara was asking me questions about writing a letter in English. When it was clear that we were now the only two people not paying attention he put the documents away and muttered something about ‘later’.

As the master of ceremonies spoke, odd pop music played quietly from two Bose speakers attached to the ceiling. The song was an upbeat Japanese number with a chorus about ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’. It was apparently the deceased’s favorite. The music stopped, and a monk dressed in purple and orange robes entered. He had on a gold headdress which completely covered the back of his head until, at the nape of the neck, an upside down V shape split it so that it divided into two flanks which fell upon his shoulders. The monk chanted for a while and I copied other mourners in placing my hands together in prayer at appropriate moments. After half an hour of such chanting the guests were invited to step forward to the altar to say a prayer. We took a small pinch of powder from the right side of a little black box, raised it to our eyes, and then sprinkled it onto a small burning ember in the left side of the box. We then bowed and prayed and made way for the next guest to follow suit. We bowed to the family, and a woman walked around with small, soft, tasteless white sweets for the guests to pop into their mouths.

At this point, I’m not sure what carried on at ceremony hall, because several members of our han had to make our way to the crematorium and perform more of our allocated neighbourly duties. We were to get things set up there for the arrival of the rest of the mourners.

The crematorium was a fifteen minute drive away. There, on three long tables, we helped set out small packed lunches, plates of snacks to nibble on and a selection of drinks ranging from canned milk-tea and sweet coffee to juice and sports drinks and sake and beer. As we waited for the rest of the guests to arrive, Mr Hara and a couple of other neighbours asked me all the questions they have asked me each of the two or three times we have been out together. Why did I come to Japan? How long have I been here? Where did I meet my wife? What did I think of Japan? I smiled and answered as though I had never been asked these questions before.

The white coffin arrived with the remainder of the guests, and we walked through to the area where the burning would take place. The coffin was laid on a table, with the portion showing the head remaining open. We lined up, and in turn, took a small flower from a basket provided and laid it next to the deceased woman’s head. It was the first dead body I had ever seen. She looked at peace, but I thought how awful this must be for the family. They were stoic and gracious in what must have been an extremely emotional time. How did the children feel, I wondered, about people like me who had never spoken to their mother walking up and placing a flower next to her just as she was about to leave this earth forever? Whilst I felt it nice to offer my sympathies, I also felt like a fraud. Yet, not going, I had been assured would have been a far greater insult.

When we had all laid flowers, a few guests were invited forward to begin nailing the top on the coffin. They struck a few blows before handing the hammer to another guest to continue. Finally, the family nailed the coffin closed. Before doing so, they reached in and touched the face tenderly and a few tears ran down the cheeks of the son and daughter. The family followed the body as it was wheeled out of sight and placed into a furnace.

Afterwards, as the body burned we all returned to the room with the lunch boxes. We ate inarizushi and makizushi. Inarizushi is sweet sushi rice in soggy, brown bags of fried tofu. The tofu, to me, tastes like wet cardboard, but I struggled on only because my neighbours had already begun the standard questioning about whether or not I could eat Japanese food, and I had told them I could. The makizushi I do really like. It is sushi rice wrapped in seaweed, and with some kind of filling. Today the fillings were various other kinds of seaweed, but there was no raw fish because raw food apparently shouldn’t be eaten until after the body has burned.

The meal was pleasant enough, despite the fact that I was seated next to an elderly lady called Mrs Uchida who had a face so wrinkled and liberally sprinkled with hair that she looked like a scrotum. On her left was another elderly neighbour who we were told was an absolute stunner when she was younger. They said we wouldn’t believe how beautiful she was. This was very true, because she is now a small, almost completely rotund woman of frightening ugliness and a set of teeth which are almost completely brown. I don’t mean that they have become a bit stained and yellowed over the years; I mean that they look as if she has just spent a considerable time chewing a shit.

After the food, the family went back to the crematorium to pick the bones from the ashes of the burned body. I believe they do this with chopsticks, passing the bones from chopsticks to chopsticks before placing them in an urn. I was glad we did not have to participate in this as I am sure one of the guests would have asked if I would prefer to use a fork.

As we waited I fell again into conversation with Mr Hara and a couple of the other men from my neighbourhood. Mr Hara handed me a can of cold coffee and thought it was an absolute hoot to say the word ‘drink’ in English. The other neighbours thought it was comedy gold, too, and you should have heard the guffaws when an elderly chap whose name I don’t know squeezed by and said, ‘Excuse me!’ Then they began talking about how they should introduce me to Japanese culture. Mr Hara and a man with a face like a fish eating an umeboshi shared a laugh and it soon became clear just what sort of culture they were talking about. At first there was talk of geisha, but then all pretence was abandoned and although I found it hard to follow the conversation fully, they were definitely talking about ‘female companions’ and ‘prices per forty minutes’. The man with the face like a fish explained with glee about how he had once ended up watching a show with a pair of woman’s pants on his head.

Thankfully, no specific invitation was made but it has been generally accepted by the men in our han that instead of using the group’s collected funds for a shared dinner with all members of the han, as has been the case for the last two years, next year the group should leave the womenfolk behind and go off on an overnight trip to a place where they can, as the wife of one of the men candidly said, ‘buy women’. I think I may have to be unavoidably busy with work should that actually transpire because it seems harder for me to say no to things I don’t want to do than other members of our han. At the funeral meal, for example, few people were drinking alcohol because they had things to do later in the day. When they refused offers of drinks people accepted their response. When I refused – because I thought I may go out in the car later – they laughed and poured me a glass of beer anyway. This is what would happen on an overnight trip, I am sure – they would go to a strip show or some such and do their darnedest to make sure that I got fully involved in audience participation or some such embarrassment. They would expect me to  be the pants-on-the-head guy.

The merry plotting was interrupted by news that it was time to go back to the ceremony hall. The family left carrying a small white box which I assumed contained the ashes, and we returned to where we had started proceedings. Here we went upstairs to the second floor and took our places at long tables set with yet another lunch box and more drinks. This time I sat with two of my neighbours that I like very much. They are friendly and chatty and being in their early- to mid-forties make up the only other ‘youngsters’ of our han. The deceased’s husband made a small speech and we raised a glass in his wife’s honour. We were served a small egg-pudding dish called chawanmushi and I thought we would then eat the boxed lunches that had been prepared for us. Instead though, everybody packed these into bags that had been provided and I understood that they were for taking home. In addition, and somewhat bizarrely each guest, was given a roll of clingfilm. We filed past the family one last time, offered another deep bow and collected a small bunch of flowers to add to our haul of take-out food and clingfilm.

Of course, a funeral isn’t something to be enjoyed but there is something nice about the fact that communities will still rally round and offer support to a grieving family, that they will help make sure such an awful day runs as smoothly as possible.

At three o’clock we said our goodbyes and went home to lock the doors, turn the lights out and hide in case Mr Hara popped round with his translation.

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10 Responses to Community Obligations

  1. Jono says:

    a nice, interesting read!
    where do you live in japan?

  2. AnnaTrouble says:

    Whoa! That is definitely something I’d like to avoid when we move to our new house. But then we’ll be in the same han as my inlaws and all the neighbors already know that there’s a stupid foreign daughter in law there who can’t be expected to do much of anything, because she can’t even fold the garbage nets correctly.

  3. Turner says:

    ‎”After the food, the family went back to the crematorium to pick the bones from the ashes of the burned body. I believe they do this with chopsticks, passing the bones from chopsticks to chopsticks before placing them in an urn. I was glad we did not have to participate in this as I am sure one of the guests would have asked if I would prefer to use a fork.”

    That is gold.

  4. Lisa says:

    Wow, that’s definitely an interesting and unusual experience you had there! Thank you for sharing – especially, as someone’s already mentioned, that fantastic fork comment. ^^
    Good luck with your photographer neighbour. ;P

  5. David says:

    Great article. Both informative and funny.

    Also, while this han thing must be annoying at times (are you trying to de-motivate me about moving to Japan? Although my wife told me that they didn’t really do anything in her old neighborhood), the advantage is that you get to discover parts of the culture that foreigners usually don’t unless “part of it.” I mean it’s much better to discover such things as Japanese funerals when you’re attending one where you didn’t know the deceased person.

  6. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi there,

    I second that comment about the obligation part. Every time we go to Japan, my wife and I bring a ton of お土産 souvenirs for a complicated array of people I have never met. Even here in the States, we often run into that among the house-wives here: always bringing a gift when going to someone’s house, お土産 on the return trip, etc. But at the same time, these same people also treat us well, and especially my little girl whom they adore. Obligation is a pain when it’s your turn, but it’s kind of a double-edged sword in that you can also expect help in return (except maybe from the camera-man neighbor…ha ha ha).

    Of course, obligation is merely a minimum-level social check that builds a community, for better or for worse. I know of some Japanese over the years who were genuinely kind as well and would go out of their way to help us simply because we were friends. Sometimes, I’ve even been helped by total strangers for the sake of compassion too. No doubt you have too. 🙂

    Regarding the funeral, the Buddhist priest, based on your description, sounds like a member either of the Tendai sect or one of the offshoots (Zen, Jodo Shu, Nichiren). The chanting was probably a Buddhist sutra relevant to the occasion and the followers particular “alignment” to a given Buddhist deity. That is based on my own limited experience as a Buddhist, at least. 🙂

    The chopsticks used during the funeral are familiar though. I once lost a friend in a car accident and his bereaved family (Japanese-Korean) had to go through this here in the US, but they managed to make do and underwent this same ritual. I’ve never quite understood the significance, but I do know it’s a very personal thing to touch and process a loved one’s remains. I’m thankful I haven’t had to go through it yet myself.


  7. Amy says:

    Wonderful writing. I have yet to attend a funeral in Japan, but after reading this post I’ll consider myself prepared.

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