Often in class I find I am learning as much as the students. While they pick up the essentials of English grammar and usage, along with certain vignettes about British life, I am gaining too. Not merely an insight into Japan and its culture but also an alternative perspective on what it is to be human spinning around on this big rock we call home. Aside from all the surface differences, I am realising that people are people, with more in common than not.
This week I was given an insight into the Obon holiday. If I had thought about it at all it was as a nice long break in the middle of Japan’s hottest season, a chance to head home, cool my blood down a few degrees and catch up with much-missed friends and family. To sleep in my old bed under my mother’s roof again, stuff myself with sausages, roast potatoes and maybe a few Jaffa Cakes, luxuriate in the first two-week holiday since the Christmas break and tell my tales over pub tables, was my plan.
A lot of people think that Oban is just an excuse for a holiday, a chance to go overseas. They are forgetting what it means
I was told. And I thought, how comforting. I am sure a lot of regular church attenders would say the same about Christmas and how it has become an excuse for too much food, bad TV and winter sun. Every year the same predictable whines from certain quarters about people losing their connection to the true spirit of the season in favour of a rampant bout of consumerism. Remember your grandparents being happy with a tangerine and a handful of sweets for their present and feel suitably chagrined.
So, to make up for my ignorance, here is what I learnt about the real meaning of Obon. It is a three-day holiday when ancestors who have departed return to earth from heaven for a visit. Families gather, food is prepared and tombs are attended to. Stories are told about the ones who have gone. On the last day, before the ancestors must leave for heaven again, there are parties and parades, with fireworks and fires to light their way back. It sounded lovely and again I felt comforted that, perhaps instinctively, I had stumbled into doing the right thing by deciding to visit my ancestral home during the holiday.
Then I learned something else. If the relative has died within the last year, pictures of Japan’s scenery are prepared for them, alongside the food. Japanese people love nature, adore their nation’s mountains and forests, and the feeling is that maybe the ancestors – although they have been in heaven – will be missing what they had to leave behind. So they get pictures instead, to remind them of what they used to experience when they were living.
The picture an ancestor of Kyoto would wish to see?
And then I thought of all the people who have left Japan this year, many of whom will be forever without a tomb. Those living in evacuation centres who may wonder if their ancestors will find them now that the family home has been destroyed. The bereaved for whom giving their relatives’ spirits a happy send off at the end of the holiday might be too much to ask, their pain too raw so soon after the shock of the initial departure. I wondered if this year’s Obon will be a comfort to them or not.
Then I heard about an appeal that went out across Japan this week (site in Japanese) for donations of black clothing so that people could be suitably attired for a remembrance event. I could only find news reports in Japanese, but found this English translation here):
Our team have visited tohoku areas and talked with local people who have told us that they urgently need these clothes as there is a ceremony on 18th June 100days after the disaster 震災１００日め慰霊祭 and we would like to deliver as many items as possible by that date
I realised that for many, the formalities of mourning, the familiar rites and prayers being performed as close to ‘normally’ as the circumstances can allow for, will provide comfort. They meet a psychological need as important as the more immediate and sometimes more easily addressed physical ones now facing the people of Tohoku. I imagine that it would be tempting to tone down the festivities this year out of respect but I hope that they can be allowed to run to their fullest course. I also hope that they can provide relief to those who need it most.