Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Life and Death in the Big City

Tokyo has often been called the ugliest city in the world. Looking down on it from a height, it looks like an endless expanse of LEGOs dumped at random and then jammed together into a sort of carpet of horribly mismatched blocks separated by avenues that show no hint of any pattern comprehensible to a sane human mind. Every part was created as if in a vacuum, i.e. without any attempt to blend in with its surroundings. The result is a chaotic mess that would make the designers of R'lyeh green(er) with envy.

And yet it is perhaps for this reason that Tokyo is so full of surprises; there is simply no way to predict what vistas or unexpected forms of entertainment lie in wait to leap out at the unwary.

It was my first trip to Tokyo since January, and the first time I'd been on its subway system in years. Things had definitely changed a bit. For one thing, instead of simply "Subway", the signs in the trains and stations all said, "Tokyo Metro", which was a new one on me. The old LED displays in the trains had been replaced with LCDs, too. I was also taken by surprise by the walls with automated gates on the platforms to help prevent people from falling/jumping/being pushed onto the tracks. It would've been nice to travel around a bit and maybe hit some of my old favorite haunts (like the Ochanomizu music village...*pant pant*), but the purpose of the trip was anything but fun.

My wife's 93-year-old grandmother, her last surviving grandparent, had died the day before. The woman's health had been failing for a number of years, but her mind had remained sharp as a tack right up till the end. The last time we'd seen her had been during our last visit to Tokyo back in January. Then she'd moved only with difficulty, had to wear an oxygen mask, and spent the overwhelming majority of the time asleep, but she still had all of our names straight and was surprisingly up to date on our current events. Her knack for pointed comments hadn't faded a bit, either. As it turned out, on that fateful day this month, she'd gotten up, had her breakfast normally, and then complained that she wasn't feeling well. The one son (my wife's Uncle T) who had been living with and caring for her since her husband died took her to the hospital, and she passed away quietly a few hours later. If nothing else, the end came peacefully.

For a number of reasons, the funeral had to be scheduled a full week later. Unfortunately, as it tends to happen, it coincided with my daughter's school trip to Kyoto and Nara, a once in a lifetime chance. Her school was fully prepared to excuse her, but the extended family didn't think that would be right. Instead, since I already had the day after the grandmother's passing off for my "substitute Saturday holiday / training day", it was decided that I would take both the kids to Tokyo to let them say their own farewells. My wife took the day off, too ("conveniently" missing a demonstration lesson), so it became a family event.

My wife's grandmother (and grandfather, who'd died ten years earlier) were both originally from our little rural town in Ibaraki, but they'd moved to Tokyo for career reasons soon after getting married. Uncle T, having been born and raised in the Metropolis, had little understanding of rural ways, and our visit baffled him. He insisted that no one was going to come, and that he was going to have to deal with almost all of the funerary necessities himself. We countered that pretty much the entire clan was already making preparations. To punctuate the point, a phone call came announcing that the first carload, consisting of my FIL and a couple of siblings of the grandmother, was already getting ready to head out.

Uncle T was livid. "I just don't get this!" he railed. "I grew up here in Tokyo! I don't know the names of any of my next-door neighbors, and I like it that way! We all live and die. It's just what we do! Why is it anyone else's business?"

Ironically, I remembered hearing something similar when my wife's mother died three years ago. In fact, I remember SAYING something similar. The extended family on the mother's side, being mainly based in our neighborhood, came to support us from the start (read "starting with one great aunt suddenly bursting into our house in hysterics at 5 a.m. the morning after MIL died"), but only little by little. The support and mourning seemed to be a sort of rotating duty performed in shifts. This contrasted sharply with the extended family of my father-in-law, who hail from Iwate Prefecture (in a city that was erased from the map by the tsunami last March). In accordance with Iwate tradition, pretty much the entire clan tried to converge on us all at once and shoulder our burden, and we practically had to beat them back with farm implements. In the end, the locally-based mother's side and Iwate-based father's side wound up basically hating each other. And of course, no one even bothered mentioning the branch that had moved to Tokyo. Them city slickers is just all high n' mighty n' don't give a dead cockroach 'bout nothin', anyway.

Except that that's not true. It's just that city slickers in Tokyo, as in pretty much every big city in the world, tend to have very thick walls. Despite Uncle T's griping, it wasn't hard to tell that he appreciated all the support...and even felt a bit guilty about it. Speaking of it turned out, my family's dropping in on him that day turned out to be surprisingly fortuitous. You see, in Buddhist tradition, especially in the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism, before the body of a deceased individual is moved to where it will lie in state before the funeral, there is a little ritual that is performed first to help prepare the soul for its transition...and help prepare the body so that it will be preserved for the duration of the period till cremation. Usually the rite is attended by the closest available immediate family members. Uncle T had expected to participate in it alone with the priest and attendants. As it happened, we had arrived just in time, so we were able to take part, too. It allowed my kids to say their farewells, helped bring some closure right off the bat (if there is such a thing as closure here in Japan...where people live with their dead), and did a lot to lighten Uncle T's heavy spirits.

It was still pretty hard, especially for my wife. She'd been close to her grandmother in her younger days and had even lived with her during her time in college. It had been hard enough seeing her looking so weak and frail back in January. Seeing the body lying in state, we could see just how horribly emaciated she'd become. Her face, wearing a toothy smile, looked peaceful enough, but her body was more or less a skeleton, as Uncle T said it had been for weeks. He'd kept that fact hidden from everyone...once again rationalizing it with his Tokyo, "It's our business," attitude. My wife and kids were horrified. As for me, though I admit I say this with some guilt, I felt the same way as I had when my MIL had died: If the body has become wasted to the point that life is hell, with no hope of reprieve, it's a far better thing...a far more merciful let it end peacefully. I wouldn't want to hold a tortured soul in its agony just for the sake of keeping it near me; better to say goodbye, let the suffering end as gently as possible, and then celebrate the life that we were blessed with before. My wife's grandmother had lived a long, full life and, despite her fading body, had stayed in sound mind till the end. She'd been blessed, and thus had many others been blessed. Now it was time to see her off hopefully on her way to something better.

Meanwhile, all around us, life in the ugliest city in the world went on as always, each part within its own walls, its own vacuum, without any concern for anything around it.

Kind of a shame, really. You never know what you're going to see! This very eye-catching structure buried within the morass of Tokyo is the great hall of the Rissho Kosei faith (English website here), a lay Buddhist sect, kind of the Buddhist equivalent of Assembly of God, or something like that. Apparently my wife's grandmother was a member, as she died at their hospital, and the great hall pictured above was across the street from where we performed the preparatory rites. To their credit, they neither proselytized to us nor had any qualms about performing rites associated with the Soto Zen sect, a rival branch whose teachings they do not support. Then again, they apparently do a lot of interfaith activities...including conferences with the Vatican. I never even knew they existed even though they have millions of members worldwide. Just another LEGO in the pile?


  • Interfaith is a good thing...wider and wider the circle la compagnie.

    We wish you, the wife, and the family healing and goodness.

    By Anonymous kehlwok, at 12:45 PM  

  • My sincere condolences, MM. It sounds like Tokyo is still the kind of place to take in small doses (I remember the air there would just blacken me after a day out and about). Any more developments on your 'normalization' at work?

    By Blogger Andy, at 12:11 AM  

  • My condolences to you and the family, MM.

    What you said about Iwate Prefecture - "(in a city that was erased from the map by the tsunami last March)." sounds sad but am glad your FIL's family are all okay.

    Tokyo holds much wonder for most who haven't been there, me included.

    By Blogger HappySurfer, at 1:54 PM  

  • Now that I'm FINALLY replying...
    Thanks. The funeral was yesterday. More on that later.

    As for the "normalization", my job hasn't really changed yet...except that they've suddenly tacked all these extra tasks and responsibilities onto it. The real changes are all going to happen next year.

    The relatives that live in that city (that no longer exists) actually sent a huge bouquet to the grandmother's funeral yesterday even though they're not related to that grandmother. I guess they really are doing okay in spite of all the tragic losses.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:33 PM  

  • Hey it's Olivia, I saw you'd made a second post so came here to find this one.
    I am sorry to hear of your wife's loss. Losing a close grandparent is very hard.
    I completely agree with your paragraph on the mercy of ending pain. You could have said exactly the same words for my mother.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 3:06 AM  

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