Death Detergent

My partner used to get packages of vegetables from his mother’s vegetable patch in the summer, rice from the family rice fields (long since loaned out to other farmers) after harvest time in the fall. Up until his fisherman father died a few years back he used packages of dried fish too. Little by little the care packages have dwindled away except for one item that is growing: bottles of detergent.

The Buddhist funeral culture of Japan is a complex gnarly institution, an event timeline that traditionally runs 100 days from from death, wake, cremation, funeral, 35 day ceremony, and finally 100 days. Up until the 1970s it was common for Buddhist funerals to last 5 days outside of the cities. There is also the wider society net of give and take: Koden, the monetary offering to the bereaved family. Koden comes with a running scale, friends and neighbors offer less, relations and immediate in-laws offer more. Koden helps offset the cost of a Japanese Buddhist funeral which could be very expensive. To wit the grandfather’s funeral.

When the grandfather died, the family temple (Shingon) resident priest was unavailable because he was in jail. He had lost both parents at a young age and was indulged by the community and his older sister. With no sense of responsibility in life, and too much free time on his hands he took to drink and drank so heavily that he developed adult onset diabetes in college, along with a mahjong habit. When he got back to Sado and took up the temple duties he had more free time to drink and play mahjong. One early drunk morning, driving back to the temple, he hit and killed a pedestrian, and so went to jail. And because he was in jail, the other Shingon priests in Sado didn’t want anything to do with him, publicly that is, and refused to take over the funeral duties to tamp down any bad gossip.

So the family had no choice but to call Koyasan mother ship and have 2 high priests come to Sado. Instead of taking using the plane tickets that had been arranged they traveled first class train and ferry. The also brought 2 assistants to help change their robes…without telling the family. They also stayed at the most expensive hotel in Sado using hired taxis refusing the pre-arranged hotel and family transportation. All of this quickly added up to more than 2 million yen for three days of work. By the 2nd day they were too drunk to chant properly. The grandmother, not one to mince words, called them a disgrace and dismissed them, refusing to pay for the 3rd day, in front of all the very surprised guests.

Whoever said that Japanese can’t speak their mind is full of BS, or hasn’t been to Sado. So much for the high priests of Koyasan. This sense of ingrained passed down entitlement is why the Japanese Buddhist priesthood is not well liked in everyday Japanese society. Tolerated, but not well liked. After all, somebody has to take care of the family grave. As for the bereaved family, the Koden fortunately covered all the outrageous expenses.

The Koden crowd gets a generous meal, sushi, beer, sake, etc., and a gift to take home with them as a thank you for coming and paying respects…and helping with the costs. The gift is usually a package deal arranged by the funeral ceremony operator, ‘here is our catalog of funeral gift options, please choose one.’ Sometimes it is food or gift towels, in Sado these days the default gift is detergent because…well because it’s practical.

My partner’s mother is 84. Going to funerals of family relations, departed neighbors and friends of her generation is an increasingly common activity. She has way too much death detergent on her hands and sends it on to her son. Even so our collection of death detergent is not long for this world. The mother will pass on of course but so will the institution of the often, usually for the wrong reasons, maligned Funeral Buddhism.

The tragedy of ‘Funeral Buddhism’ isn’t that it’s a business network of priests, temples, funeral service companies, caterers, crematoriums and cemeteries that keep a lot of people employed and money flowing, I mean if somebody can make money off my dead body in return for a healthy local economy and a respectful sendoff, I say fine. No, the tragedy is that younger generations have inherited gutted social institutions that don’t help them make the best of things because priests and parents didn’t teach them the proper value of things. They were too busy making money.

My partner’s grandmother was the last generation who knew how, and more importantly why the social institutions worked the way they did and how to teach them. But even she saw the writing on the wall. “Life and culture isn’t about convenience, they’re a pain in ass but don’t bother mindlessly following them, keep only what’s important and has meaning to you.”

This was the generation of neighborhood grandmothers who would gather at every household for a funeral, to prepare, to cook, to clean, to help. No need for funeral parlors or banquet halls. But with smaller families and the decline of younger people staying in Sado that started big time with the 1973 oil shock, it became harder and harder to maintain and the neighborhood grandmother funeral brigade decided to disband in mid-1980s. At that point everybody started using funeral business companies that took care of everything from funeral hall to banquet hall for a higher price.

The funeral business is a cosy relationship between Buddhist temples and local funeral businesses. In Sado for example the local JA runs the funeral business side but the smarter temples rent out funeral/banquet halls that they own to JA…and get a bigger slice of the business. In Tokyo recently this cozy relationship had been upended when the Chinese financier who owns Laox Holdings, bought up 70% of the Tokyo area funeral/crematorium business, and promptly slapped on aggressive ‘fuel surcharges’ and such. Buddhist priests are paying close attention to these developments but the writing is on the wall.

Younger generations don’t have the connection to Buddhist temples their parents did because priests haven’t been doing their job. To them Buddhist funerals are just another gutted social institution, and an expensive one at that, but at least they’ll have bottles of death detergent to do the washing.

Stolen Buddhas

The day after Christmas 2019, a priest noticed a broken temple door. Inside the hall one of the Buddhist altar statues, Many Treasures Buddha, was missing. The temple is deep in the hills of the Boso peninsula, accessed by a single narrow private road with a locked chain at the entrance. “Only the locals know about the temple,” said the caretaker priest Rev. Gensho Baba who tends the temple and the small community of some 20 temple families on a part-time basis in addition to his temple in Tokyo Edogawa ward.

He called the local police who duly recorded the crime scene and started an investigation but to date (July 2022) they have yet to find any trace of the statue or any lead at all. It’s a difficult job you see, searching for an object with only a written description to go by as there was no picture or detailed measurements of the missing statue.

An isolated temple in a remote rural area, with no resident priest, with no regular visitors, and only the most rudimentary of door locks protecting the contents are the perfect conditions for the theft of Buddhist statues and other temple treasures according to Tomoyuki Ohkouchi, associate professor of Culture Property Studies at Nara University.

“The most important thing to remember is that an antique Buddhist statue is like leaving a diamond in the open. A diamond that can be exchanged for money.” Professor Ohkohchi outlined the challenges of protecting the culture property of temples without resident priests, in isolated areas with a shrinking population.

The biggest problem is the time it takes for a theft to be discovered and reported to the police. In remote rural areas is may be days or even weeks before a caretaker visits a temple or shrine for cleaning and discovers the theft. After the police are called there is the challenge of collecting evidence, the most important being what the object looks like. There is very little police can do when they don’t have pictures and measurements of a missing statue. Unfortunately this is often the case.

In 2008 local papers in Shizuoka reported a rash of 18 thefts in remote rural temple and shrines in the upper Oi river valley. There were more. Ohkohchi explains, “Prefectural police are poorly integrated when it comes to cultural theft. In that case there were similar thefts in neighboring prefectures but no coordinated effort to pursue the thieves.” There was a similar but much larger string of temple statue thefts in Wakayama prefecture in 2015, 60 in all. Fortunately the thief was caught and some of the treasures returned.

Because of this event Professor Ohkohchi works tirelessly with local communities in Wakayama promoting simple security measures to protect sacred objects. He explains, “Temple and shrine treasures represent the cultural history of these local communities, theft not only robs the temple of a state, it also robs communities of their history and identity.” The lack of coordination and sharing of information on a national level is a big problem. The Agency for Cultural Affairs made a small step in 2018 by setting up a web site that lists stolen religious items, but there is a long way to go.

Ohkohchi’s program is a simple one: the cataloging of cultural assets by photographing and measuring them, and setting up surveillance cameras of unattended temples. For important cultural objects that are hard to protect in open temples, he promotes creating accurate replicas using 3D printer technology for altar placement while keeping originals in a safe place.

But why is this happening now and why the relatively sudden increase? Ohkohchi thinks it is due to the rise of internet auction sites like Yahoo Japan Auction, “The internet makes it easy for anyone to steal and profit.”

“Basically you have a two year statue of limitations under the law (antique goods sales law of 1949)”, he explained. If returned in the first year the owner does not have to pay anything when recovering a stolen item back from a dealer, in the second year the owner pays some costs to cover dealer losses. After that the only choice is buying it back or taking the shop/dealer to court, which can take years at enormous cost because in a court trail dealers let themselves off the legal hook saying, “I didn’t know it was stolen.”

Even during the first year it’s sometimes faster to simply purchase the item. Indeed a recent high profile case was solved when the stolen statue was offered for sale on Yahoo Auction, quickly recognized and removed. Rev. Daiun Miki of Ryuhonji temple in Kyoto explained the chain of events.

The person who did it knew the area and planned it. The hall where the statue was enshrined was the only building in the temple compound without a surveillance camera, he also knew what time the gate was opened and when nobody would be around.

He seems to have kept it for a while then sold it to a local dealer who had it professionally cleaned. The local dealer in Kyoto then sold it to a dealer in Oita prefecture (Kyushu) who then put it for sale on Yahoo Auction.

Thank goodness we had given pictures of the statue to police. If it wasn’t for that, the police can’t really do much.

Rev. Miki explained that the Kyoto Prefecture police were very cooperative and have a section well versed investigating with stolen antiques. The statue is back in its rightful place with a security camera guarding the entrance.

The Edo era Bodhisattva statue holding the moon stolen from Ryuhonji temple

Professor Ohkouchi continues to work with police, communities, temples and shrines to protect and preserve local religious cultural history for future generations. “Priests and temple members should never feel embarrassed or like it’s some kind of divine punishment when a statue is stolen. It’s all about money, so protect it like you protect your money. It’s that simple.”

無敵な人

There is a internet slang Japanese expression “無敵な人” loosely explained as “a person who has no hesitation in committing crimes because they have nothing to lose socially”. There is also another very convenient expression “当たり屋” which refers to a person who causes an accident or incident for personal gain. Most people might think ‘trouble maker’ would do here, but trouble maker doesn’t capture the coldly calculated premeditation aspect of the Japanese expressions.

Both of these were on display during a recent platform incident at JR Shibuya station Yamanote line during the evening rush when trains arrive every 4 minutes. For reference Shibuya has over 700,000 people using it every day and does not yet have platform doors as the station is being slowly rebuilt in sections.

The ‘victim’ in this case was a man who dropped his wallet (which he claimed contained ¥40,000 that might ‘blow away’) and asked the station attendants to retrieve it with the magic hands that stations have on hand for such incidents. As transit YouTuber, and former station attendant, Wataru Watanuki explains in his video about the incident, a station attendant would have less than 3 minutes for a retrieval attempt before having to clear out before the next train. Attendants also have a rush hour to take care of. So after waiting for a while with the station attendants standing next to him, the ‘victim’ reached over and pushed the emergency button.

The emergency button is for emergencies, like when somebody falls on the tracks or the tracks are obstructed, basically any condition that might cause an accident. This was clearly not the case. Pressing the station platform emergency button also stops all trains on the Yamanote line. Clearly the ‘victim’ thought doing this would get him his wallet back without having to wait. He also hit video record on his smartphone to cleanly capture the astonished and now irate station attendants who tasked him about pressing the emergency button. Naturally the encounter was posted on social media and created a news event, I guess because the media thinks everybody needs the distraction.

As this things die quickly and tend to disappear from the web unexpectedly, the encounter clearly sounds premeditated as if the poster knew exactly how to goad the station attendant all while obnoxiously playing innocent victim. As Wataru Watanuki explains from personal experience, station attendants are there to ensure that train operation is safe and smooth, that is their job, not babysitting trouble makers. Stations like Shibuya are also notoriously difficult jobs because of ‘無敵な人’. A station attendant who posts anonymously as ‘On the job truths from a working station attendant’ added that JR East isn’t helping anybody when they don’t support front line employees who keep things safe.

But there is an aspect people might not be aware of, a transit user witnessed the poster dangerously attempting to retrieve his wallet on his own several times before pressing the emergency button, all while being warned by the station attendants to stand clear. The tweet said: “Completely understand why the station attendant yelled…poor thing, he ended up looking the bad one.”

That’s the problem with social media, it’s a virtual paradise for all kinds of hit and run 無敵な人. Unfortunately I think we’re going to experience a lot more of them in the years to come.

Don’t tell papa

Back when we still watched TV, I channel surfed to some kind of Japanese program with the usual mix of ‘talent’ panelists talking with an invited guest, a youngish looking president of a family construction company. He was relaxed and friendly and handsome-ish, the kind of handsome that comes from character more than looks. “I bet he’s gay,” I said jokingly. “Actually he is, I know him. He’s a really nice guy,” said my partner and told me the whole story.

There is a Japanese word 跡継 (ato-tsugi) that doesn’t translate well in English. Heir is the most common interpretation but it has a lot more cultural connotations for family run businesses and the family name attached to it. There are interesting legal institutions attached to it as well, such as a groom marrying into his wife’s family business and adopting her family name and adult adoption. These practical institutions have allowed family businesses to thrive for generations and survive all kinds of challenges.

The young man in question was due to take over the family business at some point but there was one little snag, he was gay. Like other gay men in similar ‘ato-tsugi’ situations, he didn’t really hide it, but out of respect to the family business, he wasn’t open either. He went to gay bars, hung out with gay friends, brushed off ‘when are you getting married’ questions with his friendly easy going good nature. But his mom knew, as all mothers in the world know, and knew what to do. She made a bargain.

“Look, I know you’re gay but if you find a lesbian friend who’ll agree to get married (into a family with money) and have a kid, I’ll raise the kid and you guys can live your private lives however you want.” My partner said, “His mother must have come from a samurai family,” because women from samurai families are famous for being ruthlessly practical keeping the family intact. There was one condition: don’t tell papa.

And so the young man’s gay friends all pitched in helping him find a suitable marry-able partner and planning the wedding. The couple to be went on a trip to ‘practice’ and make sure they could hold up the procreation side of the bargain. The wedding banquet ceremony was a great success with a well known tv announcer gay friend doing MC duty. Mom eventually got her wish fulfilled, twice over. Papa retired, the son took over running the business. Word on the grapevine is that everybody is happy. Papa none the wiser though I suspect he probably knows but plays it dumb.

I’ve always liked the story. To me it illustrates a surprisingly flexible and practical side of traditional Japanese culture. On the surface what seems monolithic and rigid is surprisingly loose on close inspection with lots of safety values. But that’s not really surprising, given the Shinto-Buddhist cultural foundation where nothing is absolute or black and white especially when dealing with human nature. It’s a sentiment by partner expresses from time to time in these pronoun gaga times. “I don’t want to be defined by somebody else’s idea of sexuality whatever, I just want to be me, a human being.” That’s enough for me.

The COVID vaccination experience in Japan

I saw a well dressed man getting on the Yamanote train yesterday. He was youngish and looked very professional but stood jarringly out of place without a face mask. I have not seen a person without a face mask on any train in over a year. Then I remembered, almost 4 million front line medical workers in Japan have received COVID vaccinations, he was probably a doctor. As the vaccination program ramps up in Japan we’ll see more people without masks riding public transit. A nice sign that normal life is slowly returning.

One of the interesting things about getting COVID vaccinations in Japan is that medical authorities recommend being accompanied by a friend, family member, partner, etc. Don’t do it alone. I understand why. I always feel lousy after getting my annual flu shot, sometimes less, sometimes more but always lousy. Japanese blogging their experience after getting the COVID vaccination suggest that you will feel very lousy for most of the day you get it. Lay down lousy, not shuffle through the work day lousy. Consider yourself lucky if side effects are light. I don’t look forward to it, but will do the duty when my number comes around.