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Home arrow Political science arrow Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty

Tending the Family Dead

While Mrs. Noda provides no more care to family members who are alive, she is not free from her caring duties, for she takes good care of the family dead. Ritual activities for the family dead are often associated with Buddhism. Yet when asked about their personal faith in religion, many people in contemporary Japan deny feeling any personal commitment to religious organizations or teachings. Nevertheless, they still take part in certain ritual activities, as they center on the well-being of the family dead and their communities (Kawano 2005; traphagan 2004). Mrs. Noda is such a person. When asked about religion, she said, “i am not very religious. Yet i offer tea at the household altar every morning. When i cook rice in the morning, i offer rice too. Every morning, i recite mantras at the altar. My natal family's religion was shin Buddhism, but i am not concerned about being reborn into a Buddhist paradise. Reciting mantras is like greeting [the family dead].”

When i visited Mrs. Noda's residence, she cooked a delicious meal for me, and when the rice was cooked, she offered a small amount to the ancestral altar before serving me. A cup of tea, beautiful flowers, and a dish of fruit were also placed near it. Mrs. Noda said, “My husband told me to offer him rice wine, so i do that as well.” The ancestral altar is the medium through which the bereaved communicate with deceased family members by making regular offerings, joining hands, praying, chanting sutras, or simply thinking of the deceased. The act of “feeding” the deceased by regularly offering food and drink creates a ritual presence of the deceased in the survivors' lives. The social and cultural importance of ancestral altars is well documented in anthropological studies conducted in early postwar Japan (Plath 1964; smith 1974). Ancestral altars have not disappeared from people's homes, although those of contemporary design have been developed to match consumers' tastes today, and thus there are more choices (nelson 2008). Despite some changes and new developments, tending the family dead remains an important part of Japanese social life.

A funeral is only the beginning of a long ritual cycle that a deceased person has to go through to become a benevolent ancestor, and memorial rites are commonly held up to thirty-three or fifty years after a person's death (smith 1974). The ritual efforts of the survivors are considered essential for the deceased's peaceful rest. Deceased persons without family are considered to become pitiable homeless spirits, as they lack the support and ritual care from the living that they need to achieve their transformation into benevolent Ancestors. Whether dead or alive, a person's well-being rests on support from the family. Some people in contemporary Japan may not believe in the existence of ancestral souls, but they still value caregiving for the family dead as an expression of family bonds. For instance, Mrs. Noda said to me, “i visit my husband's grave at least once a month, on the anniversary of his death, and during the new year holidays. His grave is only thirty minutes away from my place. Many more memorial anniversaries need to be performed for my husband, but i have already asked my stepson to take charge of them. We hold anniversary rites at a Buddhist temple. My stepchildren and their children all attend the rites. We have recently conducted my husband's thirteenth-year anniversary rite. We are already done with the thirty-three-year anniversary ritual for his first wife.” (these periodic memorial rites are typically performed to mark the first, third, seventh, thirteenth, seventeenth, twenty-third, twenty-seventh, and thirty-third anniversaries, though there are variations; see smith 1974, 95.)

Despite the postwar legal changes that equalized inheritance among siblings, memorial assets such as household altars and family graves, which are used by generations of family members, cannot be divided or shared. Only one person, most commonly a married male child, inherits the right to use a family grave, and along with his wife he is responsible for maintaining it. An in-marrying bride gains the right to use her husband's family grave. Therefore, as a bride who married into her husband's family, Mrs. Noda is obliged to maintain his family's grave and is supposed to join his family in that grave after death. However, though she tends her husband's family grave very conscientiously, she herself is not planning to join this family after death. Her situation is not simple, as she is a second wife without children, and below i shall return to this issue.

In addition to maintaining her husband's family grave, Mrs. Noda also cares for her natal family's grave in her hometown in northern Japan, a duty that is not typically the responsibility of a married-out daughter. Although she continues to venerate her parents at the natal family grave when possible, she is not its primary caretaker; that responsibility often rests on the shoulders of her married brother and his wife. During the festival of the dead held in august, when people are expected to venerate their deceased kin at family graves in many parts of Japan, Mrs. Noda takes a bullet train and returns to her hometown. She told me, “My parents and my brother are gone, and i am the only one left [in my family]. No family member is left in my hometown, and if i do not visit the grave, no one will. I visit my parents' grave at least Three times a year, during the festival of the dead and on the equinoxes. . . . In this region, it is customary to offer flowers at acquaintances' graves. Everyone carries a large basket full of flowers. When i return to my hometown to visit my parents' grave, there are many people walking around with baskets, and i get to talk to some of my acquaintances.” As Mrs. Noda's brother passed away without producing children, she is the only descendant left to provide her parents with ritual care. Although she has more than her ordinary share of ritual duties, she was not resentful about this task.

Mrs. Noda regularly visits her husband's sister's grave as well. Apparently, she was a very nice person. Every time Mrs. Noda went to see her, the sisterin-law told her not to come to her funeral or the grave. Mrs. Noda said, “i guess she did not want to be a burden, as her family's grave is far from my place, and there is a very steep path leading up to it.” Despite the sister-in-law's multiple reassurances that it was unnecessary, however, Mrs. Noda continues to visit her grave.

Although Mrs. Noda herself has chosen an unusual way of disposing of her ashes, she closely follows the typical pattern of memorializing the family dead—for example, by maintaining the household altar and her husband's family grave. She also took on the additional responsibility of caring for the natal family dead. Nonetheless, as the next section will reveal, she is concerned about overburdening her stepchildren—a concern that played a role in her selecting ash scattering for her own ending.

 
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