A few weeks ago, I ventured deep into the countryside to pay my respects to a dead man I didn’t know.
The man had been the matchmaker when my parents-in-law wed. Most Japanese couples have a matchmaker, a nakodo-san, although his role may be a notional one. In days gone by a nakodo-san may have brought a couple together, but this isn’t as common now, and indeed even when my parents-in-law met and agreed to marry they did so without any help from their matchmaker. He was asked to play the role of the nakodo-san because he was an old and respected friend. He had died a week previously, the funeral had passed and now we, as a family, were going to pay our respects to his widow at her home.
My father-in-law drove us into the low foothills of Mount Fuji, where the bereaved family lived. It was cloudy when we set off and Mount Fuji had been completely hidden. The cherry blossoms, however, were nearing full bloom and pink and white prettiness dotted our views. But as we drove further into the country, onto higher ground, cloud became fog, the blossoms fewer and fewer on the trees, and roads became narrow tracks bordered by fields, old stone road markers and occasional houses. Blue tarpaulins were visible on several roofs, evidence of repairs necessitated by a recent strong aftershock of the earthquake which devastated north-eastern Japan on March 11th.
We turned down a road barely wide enough for our car, and pulled into the yard of a long, low house with a roof of heavy, black tiles. Two dogs on chains and one in a cage began barking. Behind them, a river full of trout gurgled and above, on a wooden beam suspended between trees, hung several pairs of deer antlers.
The dogs had alerted the owner of the house to our arrival and she was waiting on the raised step of the genkan when my wife’s mother slid open the door. I thought the widow was already at the deepest part of a reverential bow until she beckoned us in and began shuffling into the house with her back still at a right angle to her legs. Years of work in the fields had taken its toll. Had the poor woman been more chestily-endowed she would have been in danger of a life of perpetual somersaults.
The genkan was full of shoes. Children’s shoes. Thomas the Tank Engine shoes, Anpanman wellington boots and lots more tiny footwear of vivid colours took up most of the space where we were to remove our own shoes. Two young, inquisitive heads popped round a corner. Then two more. A woman in her thirties walked by with a baby in her arms. I looked at my wife. She shrugged.
The bent old woman led us into a small tatami-floored room. Fusuma sliding doors decorated with fading images of cedar tree branches separated this room from another, almost identical. The main difference was the altar which stood at one side of this room, in front of paper sliding doors. This was not a decorative butsudan, the kind of altar I had seen in my in-laws’ house. That would come later. This was the preliminary altar, if you will. It was a place for visitors to offer prayers to the deceased and after a certain period, often 49 days, this altar would be replaced by the permanent butsudan. By then, my wife said, the dead man’s soul would have entered the afterworld.
The altar we saw now was a simple three-tiered affair covered in a pristine white sheet. On the left hand side of the top tier was a silver box with a white ribbon attached to its front.
‘What’s the box for, then? I whispered to my wife.
‘His bones are in that,’ she replied.
On the right hand side of the top shelf was a small, vertical, flat-fronted wooden stake, on which kanji I couldn’t decipher had been written.
‘And what’s the wooden thing?’ I asked.
‘That’s him,’ said my wife curtly, looking a bit annoyed by my curiosity.
‘I thought he was in the box,’ I whispered.
My wife replied with a single word. ‘Later.’
She did explain later. She told me that the wooden stake was a representation of the deceased man. It was on this altar now, but would later be placed in the permanent butsudan and come to be considered as the deceased. Or something like that. When we returned to her parents house she showed me the butsudan in the living room, and pointed out her grandfather. He, too, was a little wooden stake.
Back in the nakodo-san’s house, On the middle tier of the altar, in the centre, was a large, black-framed photograph of the dead man. It was a nice photograph of him dressed in a smart black suit. The picture was flanked on either side by symmetrical arrangements of fruit, each comprising a whole pineapple, a bunch of perfectly yellow bananas, an apple and several large oranges. There were also two large lanterns made of ornate blue glass through which several colored lights could be seen gently flickering.
There were flowers and more fruit on either side of the bottom tier. Smaller fruit. A couple of strawberries and a few tangerines. In the middle was a tray upon which several small plates held various pickles. If he was anything like my father-in-law the old man would have been happy. They love their pickles, the old Japanese folk.
Directly in front of the altar was a small, low wooden table. On it was a green ceramic bowl filled with ash and holding a couple of erect, burning sticks of incense. Next to the bowl was a small bell and a stick with which to strike it. My father-in-law knelt on a plush purple and gold cushion in front of the altar. He placed a burning stick of incense in the bowl, raised his hands in prayer, closed his eyes and bowed his head before the photograph of his nakodo-san. Each of us repeated this ritual, before being asked by the deceased’s wife to gather round a small kotatsu and enjoy some tea.
One of the children brought the tea on a tray. She was a six-year-old girl who had just started elementary school, the same school my wife’s mother had attended over sixty years ago. Then there were about forty children in the class. Now, the girl told us, there were seven. She went back to the kitchen and returned with large slices of cake for each of us; sponge cake topped with whipped cream and strawberries. Then she sat in the corner trying to learn the words to her new school’s school song.
Her great-grandmother thanked us again for coming to pay our respect to her late husband and began to explain the reason why there were five children in the house. The girl who had served the tea was her grand-daughter’s daughter and lived nearby with her parents and little brother, who was now peering curiously around the corner at me. The woman who had been carrying the baby when we arrived was another of her grand-daughters. Three of the children now in the house belonged to that woman and they had returned to the family home because they had been living in Fukushima, which had recently been so badly affected by the earthquake. Their house, it would seem, was twelve kilometres outside the recently imposed exclusion zone, the area deemed not safe to be in due to radioactive leakage caused by tsunami damage to the city’s nuclear reactors. They didn’t have to leave, but felt it prudent to do so.
‘Where is their dad?’ my mother-in-law asked.
He was still in Fukushima. ‘The house is still standing,’ the old woman told us. ‘It’s just leaning over to one side.’
My wife’s parents had wanted to talk about their nakodo-san, to reminisce, but his widow seemed more keen on discussing the recent earthquake. She spoke at length, pausing once as though remembering an important detail only to say quite out of the blue. ‘I’ve forgotten his name.’
‘Who?’ my mother-in-law asked.
She looked at me. ‘The husband,’ she said.
My wife told her my name.
The old woman repeated the name wrongly. It was similar, and indeed a name, but it wasn’t mine.
I gently corrected her by saying my actual name again.
She said the other name again and we just left it at that. It wasn’t that far off and much better than one of my wife’s aunts on her father’s side who often asks after ‘Bobby’. That’s me, too.
The cake remained untouched on the table all through this chat and there was much offering and refusing when we came to leave. The old woman insisted we eat the cake while my wife and in-laws all thanked her profusely but said they really weren’t hungry. I was, but felt I might be the crass gaijin were I to say, ‘Well, I’ll just eat everyone’s then.’
My wife’s mother and father each knelt on the purple cushion again and rang the small bell next to the incense. They offered another prayer and then we were back in the car, leaving a scene I felt grateful to have been part of.