Normally I like to post pictures with my essays on this blog but the nature of this subject prevents that.
To begin with, let me start by saying that February 10th 2009 marked the first full moon of the Chinese New Year. On Okinawa that particular date is of great importance. This is especially true if your family lost a loved one during the preceding year. It marks the first New Year in Heaven for the departed. According to local traditions, it’s a time for the family to gather and remember.
Such was the case for our household. This October last, we lost my wife’s grandmother on her mother’s side of the family. She had been bed ridden and living in a nursing home for the last several years. It wasn’t that she was an invalid; it’s just that at 99 years of age, she couldn’t care for herself or her house anymore. The house was an old style traditional Okinawan farm house in the countryside, that couldn’t be efficiently or economically brought up to the standards a woman in her condition needed.
For example, being an old style house, it had a privy out back along with the shower and laundry room. Now don’t get the idea that just because it was out back behind the house that it didn’t have modern plumbing. When the house was originally constructed forty plus years before, that was the case but through the years, she and grandpa did make some necessary improvements. For example, a few years before she became bed ridden, the kitchen floor, which was at a lower level than the rest of the house, was raised and the interior made barrier free.
Anyway, her husband passed on a few years before and she would have been alone. None of the other close relatives lived near enough to check up on her regularly so a decision was made to care for her in a home for the aged. When I retired from active duty a few years later, we took up residence at the house but by that time Obaa, or “granny” had developed more conditions related to her age that precluded her ever coming home. Still we cared for the house and made sure that everything remained just as it was, not only for her benefit but for the various ceremonies related to Ojii’s or grandpa’s passing only a few years before.
The Okinawan culture is a hybrid of sorts. It is a unique blend of many Asian cultures and even though they are technically Japanese, the culture is most strongly influenced by China. Even though Buddhist temples now dot the landscape, Taoist traditions are prevalent and along with the indigenous shamanistic practices, this blend of tradition and faith permeate virtually every aspect of the culture. Even though I’m an outsider and practice a different faith, I still believe it important to respect the traditions that these people hold dear.
The day started early. My wife who seems to be a lunatic at times and being the time of the full moon was up at 2am cooking and preparing the traditional dishes required for the day’s events. At sunrise I began cleaning the yard and preparing the area for the day. My in-laws arrived around 8am and from there we went to the family crypt at the village edge to cut weeds and police the area. My mother-in-law placed fresh flowers at the tomb and prayed to her ancestors for success in the coming year.
Even though my wife prepared a feast, the tiny kitchen couldn’t quite handle the whole load so certain traditional items were catered. Fortunately for us, one of her cousins is in the business of catering events of this sort. The catered items included a large selection of fish tempura, san-mai-nikku, kamabokko, gobo and tofu. Guests started arriving around 10am. Each of them came first to light a little incense at the Butsudan or family altar found in most Japanese homes and offer a prayer. Each left a small amount of money in an envelope and then dined on the traditional fare. Some stayed and fellowshipped for hours and others stayed only a few moments.
By mid afternoon, the Sake and Beer started to flow, first with some of the gentlemen guests and then with my wife’s uncle and father who of course had to join in. I quit drinking a few years ago and missed out on all the fun. This fellowship continued well into the evening hours. My mother-in-law whose mother’s passing we were commemorating acted as the hostess while my wife and her aunt, my mother-in-laws younger sister, prepared dishes for what seemed to be a never ending flow of guests. My limited Japanese precluded me from participating too much but I made myself useful in the kitchen washing and drying a never ending supply of dishes.
The last guest of the day departed around 9pm. From that point on it was just myself, my wife, my in-laws and my wife’s aunt and uncle. It was late in the evening and too much sake had flowed for them to make driving home an option. Futon’s were spread out on the tatami matted floors in the ichi and ni-banza’s, first and second rooms, but the fellowship, as well as a little more consumption of sake continued well into the night.
Later this year, in accordance with the local traditions, we’ll gather again for Ojii-San’s nana-kai-ki, or the seventh year since his passing. A few short months after that, we’ll all gather again for Obaa-San’s first full year in heaven. From that point after, we’ll gather periodically to commemorate the lives of these two people. This will continue until the 33rd year of their passing. In addition, there is also the Seimei festival in April. This is when local tradition says that families visit the departed at the gravesite and have what could best be described as a picnic with the ancestors. Let us not forget the Obon holidays in August wherein the spirits of the ancestors are invited back into the family home for a three day visit.
These traditions may seem strange to most westerners but they have hundreds of years of practice and meaning to the people of Okinawa. Here it’s all about family. Maintaining these traditions and more importantly, the family honor is in large part of the glue that has held this culture together through the centuries.
Here's a nice little photo I took earlier in the year that's available through my association with Zazzle. Check it out as well as some of the other items we offer. Every little bit helps to support this and my other blogs and websites.