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08 January 2017 @ 11:39 pm
Happy? New Year's  
New Year's, the biggest holiday in Japan, has never struck me as being a religious event until this year. Certainly, we always pray at the shrine, but it seems like a sort of minor, token ordeal compared with all the cooking we do at home, the family gathering, giving the kids their presents, making rounds to see all the relatives. . .

Then, suddenly, Yossi's grandmother passed away the week before.

It wasn't a sad event so much as a sigh of relief. She had been at the point where she couldn't remember the faces of her family. She could no longer eat and her time spent listlessly in a bed reminded me of a movie I watched once about death, where before you die, you chose your favorite memory to take with you and recall nothing else. She had her last memories with her and was ready to move on.

Knowing that I would be seeing Yossi's family soon, I knew I had to prepare for what kind of Japanese customs there are surrounding a death in the family. The first thing I did was go to my grandmotherly friends and ask them what to do.

The first woman told me the Japanese phrase for 'My sincere condolences' is 'Goshushosama degozaimasu.'
After committing that to heart, the second woman said you would never say that to someone in your family. It's too formal.
They all agreed that I should not say 'Happy New Year's!' to anyone. In fact, I should be careful not to express any celebratory phrases at all. Meaning my birthday was probably out of the question.
I had some candy canes that I was going to bring as a souvenir from the USA. When I showed them to my grandmotherly friends they all gasped and warned me against it. Red and white are the colors of happiness and celebration. You would not dare give them to someone who's family member has just passed away.

Instead, a couple of the ladies said I should give money. You can buy an envelope dressed in black and white cords. Depending on how close you were to the deceased will determine how much to give. On the front of the envelope you write 'Goreizen.' They went to work drawing a picture of it and showing me how to write the kanji. However at the same time, two other ladies said that since the funeral is already over, the time for giving money has passed and it would be seen as rude to provide it so late.

They were also divided on whether I'm still allowed to send my New Year's cards, as Yossi's family is in mourning, and I'm part of his family, but I'm personally not in mourning.

I was at a serious loss for what to do. . .

Then one person said to me wisely, "Ask your mother-in-law what to do. Just by asking her, you will show her that you share condolences with her. And she will be happy to tell you about her customs. In fact, it might even help the situation for her."

All the ladies in the room agreed to this and I thanked them all for being my grandmothers.

So I packed the candy-canes as a snack for the car, I bought a special envelope just in case, and I didn't send any more of my New Year's cards but I brought them with me just in case. I was looking forward to asking my mommy-in-law what to do.

So what happened? Nothing I expected at all!

Instead of driving straight to the Hina's, we decided to stop by Yossi's uncle's house. His uncle had been in charge of the wake, and so he had taken a week off of work. Usually he's working even on holidays, so Yossi hadn't seen him in 3 years. We really wanted to meet up. On the way to his house is Yossi's aunt's home, and they're always having a party there. As we drove in, a horde of 7 kids were running around together outside. When they saw me they started saying 'Hello.' What else was I supposed to do? I took out the candy canes and gave them all away.

Then Yossi's aunt came out, dressed all in black. At first I thought maybe Japanese customs were so strict that you have to keep wearing black the whole mourning period. I wondered if I was ok wearing my bright red winter coat, but then I remembered Yossi was beside me wearing a pink sweatshirt so I must be ok! As we talked, the aunt mentioned she had to be on her way. I realized she'd just dressed up to go somewhere. And then it turns out she's coming with us? I had no idea what was going on, but I wasn't sure how to ask. Then we all got out of the car at Yossi's uncle's and the person who answer's the door is Yossi's mom! Also wearing all black. What's going on? Isn't the funeral over?

We were all ushered in to a room where Grandma's ashes were being kept. I looked at Yossi, my eyes hopefully conveying my question 'Is it ok for me to be here?' and his eyes giving a firm answer 'Yes, just follow me.' We sat down in front of Grandma and fruit was put at her altar where a giant picture of her smiling face sat, staring down cheerfully at all of us.

Suddenly there was a knock at the window. The window? It was a sliding glass door which was opened in haste and a priest came in wearing deep purple robes. My eyes looked over at Yossi again, but this time there was no answer. What I found out later was that we'd all become involved in a Hoji.

After a person has passed away, ceremonial services are performed on the 7th, 49th, and 100th day after death. It just so happened that Yossi and I had arrived on the 7th day, which he hadn't thought of either, and when we told everyone we were going to his uncles, they just assumed it was for the Hoji service. When I heard that the funeral was over, I thought that meant Grandma was already in the ground, but apparently her soul still may be lingering over the ashes, so until these ceremonies are finished, she will be in the uncle's house under her smiling picture.

At first I was intimidated to be in the presence of a real priest. Everyone was at their utmost polite, and I wasn't sure if I could follow accordingly. He gave me a look, then asked my mommy-in-law who I was. Usually I'd butt in and answer myself, but I didn't know which form of the word 'wife' to use, and I was wearing an awfully conspicuous red bulky coat. I let everyone else talk for me. We all sat down in seiza position. And then to my surprise, the priest apologized for coming early and started talking about how cold it was and how busy everyone is these days. We served him tea and chatted with him until everyone had gathered. No one mentioned Grandma at all, but my aunt asked if this season was busy for priests and he said off-handedly that yes, a lot of old folks can't handle the change in weather and kick the bucket. I was kind of shocked to hear these kinds of words coming from Japanese people's mouths.

Finally I got up my nerve and apologized in the politest way I know about my horribly red coat. Yossi mentioned under his breath that he was embarrassed, too. Everyone just smiled at me and said not to mind. I felt immensely better after that.

The ceremony started. I expected a lot of sitting while the priest spoke in a language too religious for me to understand. Yes, that's exactly what happened for the first five minutes, but then we were all given sutra books to chant from. My karaoke skills came in handy here and I was able to chant along without knowing at all what I was saying. I loved listening to the priest's voice. He was vibrating his vocal chords deeply, in a way that made the room seem to vibrate. I could imagine all of our voices making these vibrations in the space around us, and including Grandma, connecting with her through out voices. All the while she smiled down at us from her picture. I didn't feel any sense of sadness or mourning, just a kind of cheerful respect. I tried to calm my mind and just feel the vibrations, but I was so nervous about following the words and doing the right thing that I couldn't keep focused at all. I have some ways to go if I ever want to get better at meditation.

So finally the chanting was over and we offered incense to Grandma while saying prayers for her. The uncle made a mistake and put his incense in the wrong place. Someone else made a mistake and put the incense box down the wrong way. Yossi was hesitant to let me try, but his mom gave him a nod and I took my turn praying for Grandma. I didn't make any mistakes, but at that point I didn't think it mattered anymore. How often do we get a chance to perform these ceremonies? How can Japanese people even be expected to remember? After the ceremony, everyone began asking the priest a lot of questions like how often to pray, and how long to keep the fruit on the altar, and how often to add a bit of rice to her food platter.. . The priest had to pull out a guidebook to answer some of the questions. Yossi's mom was bummed that she couldn't visit a shrine for New Year's, so the priest told her it would be ok to visit a temple on New Year's eve instead and hear the gong ring 100 times before the stroke of midnight. None of us had ever done that before, so we mused it over. I realized that I wasn't the only one feeling awkward and out-of-place. And I realized the reason the priest was so friendly and informal. It's his job to make these situations as smooth and comfortable as possible.

So I started asking my own questions. What are the little white balls under her picture? Apparently they're mochi that the uncle makes every day to give to Grandma in place of a meal. While her soul is still hanging around the Earth, she need to symbolically eat symbolic food once a day.

Finally, the priest left. Grandma's fruit was divided up among us. I wondered if it was ok to eat food that had been symbolically already eaten by the dead. . . Anyway, I took it. We all went outside to say goodbye when suddenly Yossi realized he hadn't been able to chat with his uncle as originally planned. We went back in the house and asked to sit around together for a bit. Yossi's uncle invited is back in to Grandma's room! Again, I felt awkward, but I started looking at her picture and her urn not as this ritualistic Japanese cultural phenomenon, but as just some lady in the corner laughing and watching us. A part of the family. With that in mind, we chatted a while until we all started yawning. Then finally we went on to the Hina's.

Does it end there?
New Year's eve, I didn't tell anyone about my birthday, but they surprised me with two cakes. I don't have any pictures because I honestly wasn't ready for it at all.

New Year's day, I knew we weren't going to be visiting a shrine, so I got up like any other day-- to find the traditional New Year's food prepared and ready at the table. My niece's mom even went out in the garden and gathered sprigs and berries to garnish our plates with. Everything on the table was red and white! After a hearty breakfast, we went to the park to fly kites. It felt like a real New Year's to me! Only it was missing the religious element. Maybe that was something that I don't pick up on because I'm not Japanese. I didn't feel like anything was missing from our holiday time. I wonder how the others felt.

As is our custom, Yossi and I took a road trip involving hiking, adventuring, and hot springs. At one point I wanted to go to a botanical museum. You had to walk through a temple to get to the museum, and I felt Yossi's hesitance at treading on sacred ground. All the people around us were here to pray for the New Year. To my non-Japanese eyes, I just see them as sight-seers, having fun, getting their fortunes, letting their kids run around the temple grounds. But suddenly I had to separate out the 'fun' from the 'religious' from the 'celebrating New Years.' It's okay for Yossi to go to a Buddhist temple, but it isn't okay for him to bring mourning to a Shinto shrine. Yossi is forgiven for wearing pink and eating auspicious food, but you should not exchange holiday greetings with him. I could see that us walking through the temple grounds were okay, but I thought it probably wasn't okay for him to be around all those people celebrating the New Year. We took a jog around the perimeter instead.

When I got back to Kobe, I found some cards for Yossi from friends who didn't know about his Grandma. I'm still not sure if I should let Yossi see them. Or should I wait until 100 days has passed? Thank all of you who gave me cards, I put them all over my room and they make me smile. But with Yossi's situation I realize how each New Year's card is in some way slightly religious. And the cards in my room sent from my friends around the world are not religious in the least bit, they're about love, peace, generosity, best wishes... I'm not Japanese enough to see what a paper in the postbox has to do with a shrine and life versus death.

I went to work last week. In the US, I probably wouldn't have said 'Happy New Year' a week after the event, but because this is Japan I said it in a big loud voice in English as I walked in to my school. It's nice to find places where English and Japanese can overlap, even if the holidays are completely different. I felt like my outburst was a friendly way of participating in a culture that isn't mine. However, my manager took me aside a few minutes later to remind me that one of the staff's father had passed away the summer before and my words could be interpreted as very rude.

It hit me again that the New Year's holiday in Japan is actually grounded in religion.
I suppose this is how Japanese people feel when they realize Christmas isn't all just about Santa.

A bit of culture shock. But a good learning experience.

Jennifer