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...