Module 10.2

Family Spirits?

As you get closer to your family, they will gradually let you in about family members who have passed away. Your next hurdle is to try and put together the way in which the family transforms and continues its relationships with those who are no longer physically there—the family spirits, or ancestors. This hurdle poses special challenges to deep-seated cultural assumptions, especially for those whose cultures generally evade death, deny grief, and create little room for relationships between the living and those who have passed on.

Yet, if you can make it past this hurdle, you will become aware of an important realm of the family—and Japanese society—which might otherwise have escaped you. The constant everyday care given them by the living, contributes to the subtle presence of the ancestor spirits in the family. To assist you in managing this hurdle, we have included a series of cases describing encounters with the ancestor spirits through the rituals at family graves. The order of the cases allows you to see that much in the encounter itself depends upon how “distant” or “close” the person in each case was considered by family members along a scale from soto to uchi.

1. Molly is just becoming aware of the family spirits, as she accompanies the otoosan to the family graves. Janine, who is on a return visit to her family, goes to visit the graves because someone she knew on her first visit has passed on.

  • What is it that makes Molly a witness and Janine a participant in offering incense at the graves?   Compare their perspectives in their accounts.

  • What clues does Janine’s account give as to why the family spirits are often overlooked by Americans?
  • How does Devita’ s account reveal a more uchi relationship to the family spirits? What does her account tell you about the family’s relationship to their spirits?

  • As a Japanese-American Christina’s cultural perspectives seem to be American. Yet how does the invitation to her great Uncle Tomo’s memorial service trigger a change in her perspective on her own unspoken cultural meanings? How does her account also deal with uchi versus soto perspectives?  

2. Putting things together. . . Ancestor spirits are part of the family too.

  • The subtleness of the ancestor realm (and one’s own cultural assumptions) make it difficult to notice the family relations to their ancestor spirits when one first enters a family. Janine’s letters from the family gently cajole her into awareness that the ancestors are important—moreso than the newborn infants in the eyes of the okaasan. Molly helps Otoosan clean the gravestones without really understanding what the ancestors mean to him. However, this ancestor experience allows her to gain knowledge about Okaasan which “instantly made most of the [family] pieces fit together”. Devita’s account shows most clearly the everyday interaction with the spirits, because she is considered an uchi member. Here we see that family members talk to them, feed them, inform them of what is going on, and in general “indulge” them, just as they do for the living.

  • The ancestors link the spirit world to this world and anchor the family to its past over time. For most Japanese, everyday relations with their family spirits (rather than temples, Buddhism, or any formalized religious beliefs) are the most significant link to religion.

  • All four of the foreigners above show resistance toward acknowledging the family spirits; all initially wanted to ignore their family’s relations to them (even Christina resisted this in her own family).This shows that death carries enormous (unspoken) meaning, and culture has much to do with our attitudes toward it, and toward the deceased. We suspect that our readers too, share in these attitudes, and that death, spirits, ritual and ancestors are not subjects that attract you. Our evidence is our webstats: this page has the lowest request rate in the tutorial.

Main Takeaway:

Yet even though becoming aware of the family spirits is a difficult hurdle, getting past this is enormously rewarding because it opens up dimensions of the family that link them beyond themselves.

Molly 8: I Find Out the Importance of Ancestors

The timing of the class assignment on ancestor ritual was perfect because the Otoosan was planning to visit his family’s graves the week-end after I brought up the topic of ancestors. When I first asked about going to the graves I got different answers from Otoosan and Okaasan. When I asked Okaasan what time we would be leaving the next morning she told me it would just be me and Otoosan—she had to work, and she told me, “I won’t be going this year”. I thought it was a bit strange that she only went once a year, and also that she wouldn’t take off from work for a special occasion.

So the Otoosan and I went alone to the graves (ohaka). On the way there we went to a florist and picked out some really nice flowers. We didn’t talk much through the whole ride and I wasn’t sure if the ritual was supposed to be a somber one, comparable to a funeral in American society. When we got to the graveyard, and found the gravestone, of his father and mother, I helped the Otoosan clean out all the leaves that had fallen, and old flowers he had brought on prior visits. We then washed down the stone with water, put the new flowers in, and lit the candles and incense. Otoosan got down before the gravestone with his beads and prayed for about fifteen seconds—I just watched. Then he gave me another set of beads and told/asked me to pray. I wasn’t sure exactly who to pray to, so I just prayed. When I got back up, Otoosan was kind of laughing and we went on to a temple where priests with shaved heads hummed, chanted, and beat drums. Then we set out on the ride home.

In the car I actually got some useful information from Otoosan that I had been trying to get out of everyone else for the past two weeks. He said that ideally, he would go to the ohaka every month on the day that his mother and father had died. For example, if his Okaasan died on the 26th of May, he would want to go every month on the 26th. However, he said he usually can’t because he is often too busy, although he does try to go at least once a month to make sure that the site is always pretty. He doesn’t really worry about praying to the other ancestors on a regular basis because there are too many of them, but he reserves their prayer for the “special events” like the ancestor festival in August.

My host sister Masako and I were talking about Otoosan’s ancestors on the train ride home from Kabuki the other night, and I asked if Okaasan still prays to her family’s ancestors as well, or only to those in Otoosan’s family. This is when Masako told me the whole story—Okaasan’s father died in World War II when she was only one or two years old. After this her mother got remarried to another man, and left Okaasan, who eventually ended up living with her aunt and cousins. To this day she still has no contact with her real family and doesn’t even know if her mother is alive or not. I could not believe what I was hearing! I was so shocked, and felt so sad for Okaasan, as I looked at her sleeping on the train. Masako said that this is the reason Okaasan is so independent, which I guess actually explains a lot.

I believe Okaasan has intentionally made herself perpetually busy, and surrounds herself with people as often as possible so that she never has to sit alone thinking about her past. I think that one reason Okaasan and I are so close is that I provide her with constant companionship. She looks forward to my coming home every night and is saddened by the fact that the day of my return to America is approaching quickly. While I had always respected everything Okaasan has done for the Sato family, and all she has accomplished in her lifetime, there was always something missing. I always knew how busy she was, but I was never able to understand the motives behind her constant movement. That is, until I was privy to the uchi information that instantly made most of the pieces fit.  

Janine 6: My Return Visit: First Stop, the Graveyard

During my first year-long visit in the Shinoda household I had often visited the graveyard where the family tombstones were. Katsuko and I had walked there almost daily when I first came to the village. I had also visited the graves during anniversary rituals, when the relatives came and lit incense, poured tea over the gravestone, and placed fresh flowers before the graves. I watched all of this activity and carefully took note of it, but the graveyard to me was a peaceful place at the foot of the mountain where it was nice to take an evening walk.

The year after I first visited the family the okaasan wrote me that the grandfather of the household had died. I had never met him because he was already very old and in a nursing home when I stayed in the household. Not long after that she wrote me again that an elderly relative who lived close by and often came over to the house had also died. The okaasan suggested that I could burn incense at both these graves the next time I came back to the village.

I was now planning a return trip, and wrote the family, telling them that I was looking forward to seeing the new grandchildren, since both Katsuko and Emiko (the Shinoda’s first son’s wife) had both had their first babies. But while I was thinking only of the new babies, the okaasan wrote me back, not about the new arrivals, but insisting once again that I would now be able to visit the graves and burn incense for the relatives I had known who had died.

When I did return to the village the graveyard was one of the first places the family took me, and we went immediately over to the new gravesites of those relatives who had recently died. This time when the family lit incense and placed it before the graves, they handed me the incense and I took some to light too. While before, I had looked upon these same activities as something mildly exotic, this time it seemed quite natural for me to offer the incense, and to pray at the grave when my turn came, because I had known the deceased person too. The okaasan had promised that she would tell me about the grandfather’s funeral when I came back to the household, and, true to her word, she filled me in on the ritual in exact detail.

The okaasan’s repeated inclusion of the ancestors in a social horizon which for me was inhabited solely by the living, eventually made an impact. I now had to enlarge the family to include the family spirits too. In the process I began to see that the ancestors were not simply a fringe at the edge of the world of the living, the point where people “exited” the world. Instead, it seemed to be the other way around; the ancestors were crucial to the well-being of the world of the living, and especially crucial to the family.

Although my initial tendency was to overlook the ancestors, I now see that they were just as much a part of the household as the new grandchildren, and in some ways more so (since the children were new and immature social beings, while the ancestors mentioned above had lived their lifetimes in the family). The family spirits were constantly talked to, they were fed, they received the best gifts given to the household, which were first placed before them and after that opened by the family members. And in the first year after they died, people repeatedly said that they required more “care” than a living person. They had a “presence” in the family that was subtle, but nonetheless important. They seemed to connect the past with the present; and the world of the living with those who had left that world.

Module 10.2
Family Spirits?
Comments (1)

Molly is very distant to the subject of the family spirits, when she accompanies the otoosan to visit the graves. This shows in her description of the otoosan’s activities at the graves as strange and unfamiliar. She is awkward when the otoosan gives her the beads and asks her to pray. She also knows little about who the spirits are (let alone the priests with shaved heads who chanted, beat drums and did other exotic things.) However, she tries her best to attend and even participate in the ritual. After the ritual she tries to ask the otoosan and Masako about the family ancestors, and when she asks if they really believe they ‘talk’ to the ancestors Masako tells her this is like believing in Santa Claus.

Janine’s experiences are like Molly’s, when she first came to her family, and they took her to the graves. But after Janine returns to her own country, she keeps in touch with her family, and is told that someone has died whom she had known. Through the gentle nudging of the family, she gradually stops ignoring their references to those who have died, and going to visit their graves. When she returns to the village and they take her to the graves, she finds it natural to take the incense and offer it, when everyone else was doing this. Knowing the person who died had given the offering at the grave a totally different meaning for her. Seeing how her family relates to their former members, makes her realize their “presence” in the family.

Devita 3: I am Introduced to the Family Spirits

Today we went to visit the family’s grave. We went a few months ago too, but I was very new then and didn’t really know what was going on. It took a while to figure out that the whole family has only one grave with one gravestone and, as family members pass away, their ashes are all put into the same grave. Also, I felt a little strange because they are Buddhists and I’m not, so I felt like maybe I shouldn’t be doing anything. I thought they might not like it because I’m not Buddhist. But today was completely different. I got introduced to the “rest of the family”—the grandparents who passed away, quite a while ago, I think.

Just like last time, they pulled weeds and washed the family gravestone, but now I feel more comfortable with the family, so I helped. When we finished cleaning, okaasan poured a can of beer over the gravestone and started talking. At first I thought she was talking to one of us. She said, “Here we are, back again.” But then she went on, “We brought you some beer. We remember how much you like it,” and I realized she was talking to ojiisan, the grandfather who they had said was a real beer lover. I thought it was interesting that okaasan was talking to someone who was dead, like he was right there and might answer, but then she introduced me as a new family member!

She said she was sorry they hadn’t introduced me the last time, and he and obaasan, the grandmother, must have been wondering who I was, but I was their new daughter-in-law. The thing that really grabbed me was her saying they probably had figured out that I was one of the family because I was there cleaning the grave too. She called me uchi no mono (an “inside” family member). Then otoosan lit a handful of incense sticks and we squatted down in front of the gravestone and prayed. They didn’t seem to mind that I wasn’t a Buddhist. It was more like remembering the grandparents, who they were, and what they were like.

Tonight during dinner everyone talked about ojiisan and obaasan . Now, in a strange way, I feel like I’ve met them too. Today was the first time since I’ve been here that I really felt like they were including me as a family member.

Christina 2: I Finally Put Things Together, Thanks to My (Late) Uncle Tomo

As I was writing my final paper for class I decided to take a short break to read the latest letter from home. It was from my mother, informing me: “The day that you come back from Japan, there is a memorial service for your great uncle Tomo, and I hope you are up to going.” My initial response was “Of course.” I then wondered, would the average American go to the service of a relative they saw maybe once a year after a plane ride of 12 hours? Probably not, but for me there is no question about it. It is the same feeling which compels okaasan to work so hard, or compels Japanese to offer food at the butsudan (Buddhist altar).  

This semester I thought I was merely learning about things in Japan that were not present in my American life. But when reading about ideas like uchi/sototatemae/ honne, etc. I began to realize that this is the way I sometimes think. I wasn’t aware of this at all before, because these are things I learned from my parents, which they learned from theirs; except that when I was growing up, they were unspoken rules without names. My approach to the class was wrong from the start, and it affected my learning. I treated class topics as things completely separate from my life. Until now I never connected up my American (or Japanese-American) life with things in Japan, and I failed to realize that there could be similarities in my Japanese-American family in L.A., with Japanese families in Japan. But I now see how the memorial service for my great uncle Tomo relates my family in L.A. to their ancestors. That’s still important enough to my mother (and to me) that I will attend as a family member, even if I’m jet-lagged, and even though I’m now the third generation from my great uncle.

Module 9.4
Listen Up! Honne Messages in Public
Comments (2)

Okaasan speaks out: Sweet Revenge shows a very adept use of public honne by a person whose uchi status doesn’t allow her to criticize her husband directly. She manages to get her message across by addressing a guest—a neighbor who is a hen-pecked adopted husband, and who has come next door to escape his nagging wife. Okaasan uses the adopted husband’s visit to air her grievances with her own husband—all under the guise of commiserating with the adopted husband by using her own situation (of having to put up with Otoosan’s arrogant and selfish behavior) as an example. The positions of Okaasan and the adopted husband closely resemble one another since he is like a wife, who has married into the household, and ends up being dominated by his wife (in th same way that Okaasan has to defer to her husband). Okaasan is so adept at managing her honne communication that she also manages to communicate a message of support to the guest. But the real message here is to the Otoosan, who can’t respond to her accusations in the guest situation. Yet he clearly got the message because the behavior that she complained about came to an abrupt stop.

Elena’s case shows a different way of attempting indirect honne communication. Elena has offended her host family by inviting her male Japanese tutor to her room, instead of meeting with him in the common uchi household space. But instead of Okaasan telling Elena about this problem directly, she asks her close friend whom Elena knew only slightly (and was therefore soto), to convey the honne message that she shouldn’t study with her tutor in her room. Here Okaasan makes the message indirect by removing herself as the speaker, and substituting her friend to carry the message instead. This is like the complaint the homestay coordinator passed on to Peter from his host family about his stereo being too loud. Elena was shocked at receiving this honne message from a stranger, and didn’t understand why Okaasan hadn’t told her herself. Had Okaasan’s friend been a closer friend to Elena as well, this indirect communication might have been less of a shock to her.   

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5