Thursday, 22 March 2012

O-higan and o-hakamaeri

It was a rather sedate week in Akita.  Hiro's niece's graduation coincided with o-higan - the spring season of grave visiting.  I should know more about o-higan than I actually do, but it's loaded with assumptions about the role of the oldest son (but in practice about the role of the wife of the oldest son) and in such matters ignorance can be prudent.  We didn't really do anything other than go to the graduation, visit graves and proxy graves (butsudan) and go to the onsen.

Ohaka maeri - grave visiting is part of Buddist tradition - I am not sure what the animists did before the Buddhists came along.  Shinto is often described as perceiving death as unclean - which it is of course if you let a body rot - but it seems the perception is actually probably a bit more complex as it's seems too integral to the nature cycle for animists to simply class it as "polluted".     Maybe it's more a reflection of the Japanese people I know, than the reality of the situation,  but it can be quite difficult to get consistent stories about rationales for anything to do with belief systems, and what books say doesn't always ring true with my observations.  Which really begs a more methodical approach to information gathering....
But back to the observations, which I can vouch for, though not for the extent to which they are representative....

Hiro's father is the oldest son, so there was visiting his parents grave, also the hon ke (main branch of grave.  Also we visited Hiro's  brother's family grave. In addition Hiro's mother is custodian of two graves of her mothers side of the family - the should-be-custodian lives out of the prefecture and sends grave visiting food and other food a couple of times a year to Hiro's parents to show her appreciation.  We also visited Hiro's mother's family house, but just the butsudan- family shrine  - not the cemetery.  My impression might be mistaken, but it seems that visiting a grave that one is connected to, but not one's responsibility can imply that the person responsible isn't executing their responsibility of tending the grave properly.  This would be a great question for an anthropologist to probe, but there are limits to the extent to which it is prudent among ones in-laws.

The gift giving rituals that go with it are also puzzling.  When visiting a butsudan in butsudan visiting season,  people with a connection to that butsudan bring a present- usually moderately expensive biscuits or rice crackers.  The custom makes no sense to me -  a whole lot of food that are stroke or diabetes inducing with the salt and/or sugar content and the expiry dates often are not long enough to stagger them appropriately.   I guess it's not a whole lot different to Christmas really.   All presents that come into the house go to the butsudan for a few days before coming out - except the souvenirs I bring - they used to but it has evolved so as that they don't (   Partly because I still feel a bit weird lighting candles and an incense to give gifts to ancestors that I don't know  but mostly just because it's not so practical - I  usually unpack souvenirs out of a bag of my own things rather than have them in a designated souvenir bag, and then after I pull them all out i explain what things are, and they are never gift wrapped and they tend to be cheap supermarket food like black tea or toblerones that are a bit down market compared with whatever a Japanese person would think was fit for a butsudan gift...)

A further observation with ohaka maeri is that most graves in the area seem to be visited. I've  been to cemeteries in Tokyo in grave visiting seasons...and barely a flower to be seen.   The attitude seems markedly different between urban and rural areas, though it might be fairer to say the difference is between families and places that have been settled a long time and those who have not.  It's seen as a miserably pitiful situation to have no one tending one's grave... Being from a migrant country the idea of people having their life options determined by the location of the family grave, really doesn't make any sense at all.   The Ganges river is looking like an increasingly attractive option.

even though it was well before the public holiday, most graves
had been visited

a random grave with flowers

Candles, incense, flowers, food - this cemetery lets people leave
food behind - for the crows.  Cemeteries in town centres make you take
your food offerings home.

Snowy grave visiting

With my clumsiness, climbing up I wondered whether I'd be the
next funeral ...

Temple visiting - it depends on people and place whether they
have a family grave in a temple.  There were 6 or eight rows of these,
Each compartment, top and bottom,  is a family shrine.
It seems to be the custom here.  Perhaps there was a 
persuasive priest once upon a time...


Rurousha said...

So interesting!

Gift-giving in Japan baffles me. I could have a PhD in anthropology and I still wouldn't know when to give what to whom.

My impression is that Tokyoites visit graves during Obon and autumn, but not so often in spring. This isn't based on any facts; just observations during my frequent strolls through Yanaka Cemetery.

I've told The Hero that I will haunt him into seven reincarnations if he doesn't scatter my ashes on Niigata's mountains. I know it's illegal but I'm from Africa so I'm supposed to break laws.

It looks cold! The black graves, white snow and gray sky are strangely beautiful …

Cecilia said...

I wonder if cold areas are more inclined to celebrate the arrival of spring... I surely would if I lived there... It snowed quite a bit while up there - more on that later - but I need to switch to OOOO-sojie mode for the weekend visitors now!