3 days ago, we got a call informing us that the grandfather of the household two houses away had passed away. We knew him fairly well. We live in a small Japanese village with very strong traditional rural rituals. One of them is the funeral.

Many of the adjacent homes have a special relationship called musubiai or kumiai, which means that they will do just about anything for their next door neighbor. In the case of a death in the family, it means 24/7 support through all of the necessary activities. For the rest of the village, it means nearly full support.

The home of the deceased is quickly turned into a base camp of sorts with two outdoor kitchens and dozens of people cooking almost around the clock for everyone. The next day, the wake was set up, villagers (including Mizuka and me) visited to pay respects and the close neighbors ran most of operations.

A side meeting was convened to pick people for the actual funeral support the next days. In the past, the grave digging and other support activities were all chosen from villagers, but for this funeral, the family had decided not to follow this tradition. It was likely that I would have been chosen for this "special duty" had it been traditional. Six men are chosen to dig the grave. They dress in white with a headband that has a little triangle on the front. (The same headband worn by many ghosts in Japanese anime.) There are various roles including a drum person, road cleaner, and others that make up a funeral procession.

This year, because we didn't have this part of the ceremony, the support crew consisting of Mizuka, myself and about 20 other people ended up cleaning the community center and hanging out in case they needed anything. At the end we helped some of the professionals who had been called in, gave or last respects and saw them off.

This was not my first village ritual, but I made a few observations.

The women worked much harder than the men. I was actually scolded and told not to help when I tried to help clean up the food with the women while the men sat around outside smoking. I don't think it was the case with everyone, but some men and women felt very strongly that there were women's jobs. (I also saw a women getting scolded for cleaning up the dishes of a man who appeared like he hadn't finished his food.)

The special relationship with the next door neighbor was probably extremely important in the past, but continues as an important formal relationship. We do not yet have such an understanding with any of our next door neighbors, but in due time it appears that we will probably be formally approached and that we will have to accept. We will have to literally drop everything to help when they are in need.

It was interesting how many functions of a community that I would take for granted in a good community are so highly formalized in rituals and how it isn't written or even precisely known by anyone exactly, but it all sort of functions. We have the shuraku, han, kumiai and various other organization sizes and everyone knows who is in each unit.

I can also see aspects of what causes the somewhat provincial localism of Japanese politics and business where local issues supersede everything else. It was like viewing a miniature version of Japanese national policy. Your next door neighbor before anything else and the village before the rest of the world.

I'm not sure how long I'm going to last here, but it is definitely a good learning experience...

19 Comments

I think it is an interesting contrast to my neighborhood which is a suburbian area near San Jose and neighbors wave to each other but really know nothing about each other. We're passingly friendly, so to speak, knowing whose dog belong to whom, but not the names of their children.

In fact, in living here 25 years, the only neighbor's house I have ever been in was my next door neighbor who was a nice old lady.

Should there be an earthquake during work hours, I would turn off my own gas main but not those of my working neighbors. I would call my friends in surrounding areas and make sure they were okay, but not my neighbors. I don't know if I'd remember how many pets each had and that I should go check on them. This is what I feel is the extent of my social duty to my neighbors. Honestly, I don't think they feel any more duty to me, either. I am somewhat comforted to hear that if your village or you suffered a setback, those around you would rally to help.

I'm not saying I would want the more formal approach, but there is definitely good survival reasoning in that formal approach, is there not?


I used to live in kyoto in "Nagaya", meaning in an old town house comlex. An old lady in our complex passed away and there was a funeral. I am a Japanese and had grown-up there, but from out of town. My wife and I did not know what we had to do as a neighbor at the funeral. By the way, my wife was educated in the US and out of town also. Our neighbors said that " you do not have to do anything because you are out of town people". We believed and we went to the funeral empty handed. It was a mistake. They talked about us for a long time in our neighborhood. They said that we were an Americanized family,who disregarded local traditions.
mi

I found the neighborhood relationships to be both sweet and annoying... I notice the close relationship breeds a nasty rumour mill as well. For example, (I could probably come up with a dozen or more of these) when my wife's parents came from Japan to visit us here in Vancouver last summer because my wife was, people didn't see my father in law around his garden, so they started spreading rumours that he was sick and in the hospital... then someone who had heard they were coming here changed the rumour into my wife being sick... it almost seems like older people in rural areas are waiting for something bad to happen so that they can get together and do something... :)

Joi, thanks for this post. You mentioned the gender roles thing and I've noticed it alot myself. I've come to have an appretiation for these things that I never had while living in the US. I wish it would get some more attention in Western media (as opposed to the same old crap like the recent Time cover story). I doubt it will happen though because its not politically correct to say that there is such a thing as "women's work" for example.

I agree these kinds of things can be annoying, but at least you feel you exist. There is something both freeing and quietly destroying about the anonymity of some suburban environments.

I was wondering whimsically about "net funerals". We can't really predict what is going to happen with internet publishing but I think it is probable that individuals will still be publishing blogs, or their equivalents, for a long time into the future and that some of these blogs will have very long standing communities around them. Not all these net friends will have real life contact. What will happen when one of these people dies? I mean, their relatives would easily be able to get access to their bank accounts etc. but often the logins to computers are kept in individuals heads. They might not even know about or understand that person's web life. Will these blogs just disappear because of non-payment of hosting fees or continue in some kind of non-updated limbo. Maybe people need to write internet wills. Do they want their site to be taken off line after a bit of an internet funeral, or archived, or handed over to someone else. Perhaps kumiai should be set up?

As for the claustrophobia of rural communities, don't you think blogs can be like that, with people constantly looking over each other's shoulders, talking about each other and sometimes bitching?? Suppose the difference is that it is an elective and, for some people, anonymous close community, rather than a compulsory one.

Very much similar to the indian traditions and rituals. Dress code may be different but the respect and emotional bondage are indifferent

It is always amazing/refleshing to find that you are also living so Japanese life and reacting to it in Non-Japanese way. I think most Japanese (me, for one) are in fact living NOT so Japanese life (ubanized, no kumiai) and think pretty much in a Japanese way.

A lot of it has to do with rural traditions. Societies which urbanized and industrialized seem to have a different outlook.

It's worth finding out about this book called 'The Valley of the Squinting Windows' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valley_of_the_Squinting_Windows). It looks at the negative aspects of rural life. According to WP: 'The novel centered around rural life and the power of gossip, and public perception which people attempted to present of the family and individual and of an inward looking society, similar to the Keeping up with the Joneses theme.'

The people from the area this book was written about (even though their names and the name of the place weren't used) were very upset, ran the author out of town and went to court over it. There are still people who are upset about the book in Delvin to this day. (It was published in 1918.)

Well that friendly anonymity is one thing I actually like about life in the states (at least Boston and the Bay Area)

Closeness is great but nosiness is way too much

On the other hand, I live in a small apartment building in Madras, India - and I find that friendly anonymity is just what goes on, and appreciate it.

But yes, village communities are far more close knit. And nosey parkers who are intent on gathering all the local gossip, who slept with whom, endless discussion about a guy's new car, an endless stream of complaints about the local kids who break windows when playing ball games or shout "too much" ..

Re gender roles, I think much of that stems from desire for peace in the household. Early on in my marriage, I often 'interfered' with the way my wife ran the house by suggesting better, more efficient way of doing things. She would get upset or depressed. I would get upset because nothing changed. To make the long story short, there are things and places (i.e. cooking, kitchen) I just don't get involved in. Project forth and I think the result is gender roles.

Personally, I like this arrangement because I don't have to do as much mundane work in the name of harmony and specialization. Should I be more fair? Idealist side of me say yes but the survivalist side of me say being selfish is like capitalism, it makes the world go round.

Well, Don, no offense, but you could also have helped your wife while keeping your suggestions to yourself. So what if you think peeling potatoes is more efficient with a butcher's knife. Just shut up and peel them ;)

Joi, thank you for the insight into Japanese traditions. Your post has reminded me to visit Amazon and check up on what Haruki Murakami has recently published.

Buyo, your comment about being immortalised on the net after your death got me thinking about what procedures online social networks have for when people die. E.g. LinkedIn now claims 3,500,000 members but an actuary would probably tell us that thousands of these would have died already according to the life expectancy statistics.

As the net comes of age, people's lifecycles need to be reflected in the information lifecycle.

No offense taken, Adriaan. If married couple is a person, my view of the person is split into *front* and *back* where I think the modern western view is to split into *left* and *right*. When seen as left and right, what you suggest makes sense. When seen as front and back, only when situations are exceptional.

What this means is that I won't peel that potato unless my wife yells at me. Until then, I don't even know what a potato looks like.

Don Park: Good to see you again!

Interesting comments on village relationships Joi.

I have only been to one funeral in Japan, it was for my wife's mother, and it left me with a bad taste in my mouth for Japanese funerals. Perhaps this funeral was a little atypical as my wife's parents were divorced. As the eldest child my wife bore a large share, if not all, of the responsibility at the wake and the funeral. What really angered me was the inane social niceties she had to perform, such as pouring tea and serving snacks to her aunts and uncles, some of whom treated her very rudely throughout the funeral proceedings. I felt that all the duties she was required to perform prevented her from mourning her mother or starting the grieving process. It took her a long time to begin to get over her mother's death and I think that the funeral not only did not help, but in fact hindered her from doing so.

Do you have any thoughts about the mourning/grieving process in relation to the ceremonial aspects of Japanese funerals?

This is how it's done in Ireland, traditionally: http://www.rootsweb.com/~irlcar2/An_Irish_Wake.htm . The traditions are a little different from place to place, but it gives you the basic idea. The crazier stuff is dying out (funeral homes, drink driving laws and all that) but many of the traditions still happen. I was at one about three years ago. Most older people think it's a pretty healthy process (other than the smoking and hard drinking). It's very hard to understand for an outsider - a lot of foreigners treat it like a bit of a joke -. I guess it's important to give other people's traditions the benefit of the doubt.

What about peoples attitudes to American rites and rituals. It seems that ceremony has taken a back seat in American funerals, yet people are easily paying 10K on a wedding. I hear people say that they "just want to be cremated" when they die. What does that mean, can't you have the ceremony and still be cremated?

My mother just passed away, can anyone shed some light on the ancient japanese customs of knowing which bone to select for my mom's family who lives in Japan.

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This is my new piece that was published today in Mumbai Mirror. Not mentioned in the article, is the fact that musubiai is a term that I came upon while trolling the net at J Ito's site. A few weeks... Read More

Joi Ito posted about the formalised social obligations in rural Japan - a bit like borrowing sugar or minding the kids, but formalised. Many of the adjacent homes have a special relationship called musubiai or kumiai, which means that they... Read More

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