I probably have written about the rainy season before..called tsuyu 梅雨(literally “plum rain”- the Japanese ume plum ripens at this time) it begins in June and lasts for about 4 or 5 weeks. Even though it doesn’t rain every day, the humidity is really high and mold and mildew flourish. I check drawers and cupboards for bamboo and wood utensils that are have become colonies for the mold invaders, YUK! Leather shoes and belts in the closet are also in danger and need to be aired out frequently. We are still trying to avoid living with an air conditioner, but now have a dehumidifier for the worst days.
This time of year is pretty uncomfortable, but the real heat of summer doesn’t begin until after the rains end. I actually appreciate the cooler days, but I really can’t stand the humidity. Like most people around here we don’t have a clothes dryer, so I pay close attention to the weather forecast which includes a laundry index to determine when I should wash towels and sheets.
In the previous post I wrote that most conversation is about food, but another favorite topic is weather- it’s often just stating the obvious-“It sure is raining.” “Yes, it sure is.”- but it often feels like establishing common ground so you can get down to business.
A few weeks ago I was returning from a walk and passed a group of older men in white shirts
walking down our street. We exchanged greetings and as I continued walking I realized that one of our neighbors who had been very ill for several months must have passed away- the men were returning from paying their respects at his wake.
In the two years since we have been back in Japan several of our neighbors have died-I now know what to expect when this happens. The first time when Jiro explained that I was expected to attend the funeral of our neighbor- a woman whom I had never met- on a Christmas Eve, I was confused. I felt uncomfortable and awkward attending the service and subsequent banquet with people I barely knew- it felt a bit invasive and I felt guilty eating the meal. I wondered why I was expected to be there-everyone knew that I had just arrived and that I didn’t know the woman.
Jiro explained with this phrase “村八分” (mura hachi-bu) which was an exclusionary practice from the Edo-period used when someone in a community failed to follow the rules. They would be essentially shunned by their neighbors and excluded from 8 out of 10 of the community’s activities (weddings, travel, births, flood relief, coming-of-age ceremonies, nursing sick people, housewarmings, and Buddhist memorial services). The only two activities they would be allowed to participate in were firefighting and funerals. He said that it is expected that everyone chip in and participate for these events. Residents in a neighborhood community are the first line of support in times of need and I have learned that it is part of a larger organized system.
So this time I knew that we would have to be available to help if needed and that we would be attending the informal wake at the home and also the formal wake at the funeral parlor. We also attended the service on the following day and the banquet. I know most of our neighbors now and followed the lead of the older women. The men stick with the men and take care of the reception and the women traditionally help with food preparation and cleanup. Nowadays the banquet and meals are all prepared by the funeral parlor, but we still are there “just in case”.
Sitting waiting to help out- time to catch up on local gossip and tell stories. One neighbor is caring
for her 91-year-old mother-in-law. Lots of empathy and concern- several others shared stories of taking care of aging in-laws. I felt connected to these women through our common experience. Many of the women dealt with their in-laws when their own children were young and they didn’t have support services available. I can’t imagine the stress they must have felt. We are fortunate to have services to support seniors now- we can send ba-chan to day care a few days a week and she has an assigned “care manager” who tracks her progress. If her health declines, we can ask a nurse to make a house call or have another service come and give her baths. Luckily she is still relatively independent.
During the funeral service, the women whispered explanations to me and nudged me to stand in line to make offerings of incense. I just followed. The family of the man who most recently died belongs to the temple that our family does- so I recognized the monks and the ritual was somewhat familiar. I am one more step along the road of acculturation.
Even though we don’t really spend much time with our neighbors, there are many expectations beyond funerals and firefighting. The area we live in is called Inagaki-ku which is divided into three neighborhoods- Ouchi, Ryougoji, and Takabata. We live in Ryougoji- a neighborhood of about 25 houses built along a street leading to a temple. All residents belong to the same neighborhood association which is governed by a ku-cho (district leader) and several han-cho (division leaders). This is a rotating responsibility and the person who is designated ku-cho is called ku-cho instead of his name. Jiro has now been assigned as han-cho, so he is responsible for communication between the ku-cho and the 10 houses at the end of our street.
Most communication is handled by the 回覧板 kairanban, a clipboard with notices about festivals, warnings about proper garbage disposal, and reminders to drink enough fluids in summer.
The clipboard is passed house to house, everyone checks off their name and passes it on. We also have to distribute a local newsletter and a city newsletter. Some announcements are made over a loudspeaker that mounted on a tall pole at the end of our street. “crackle, crackle, hiss, crackle screech. Good morning everyone, sorry to bother you. This is the ku-cho reminding everyone to show up by 9:00 am to help pick up trash along the river. One more time: this is the ku-cho reminding everyone to show up by 9:00 am to pick up trash along the river. Sorry to bother you. screech, hiss, crackle, crackle.” There are assigned days to do weed clearing and other community maintenance. It works pretty well, but there are increasing numbers of families that don’t participate. It isn’t a problem here, but I am sure in more urban environments the situation is different.
Today there was a small summer festival at the local shrine- I stopped by and joined in asking for
blessings for our local community. May the rice harvest be abundant and the weather cooperative and may we be spared disaster.
Updating the blog seems like a chore sometimes- sorry for the long gap between entries. News: Jiro took a 10-day trip to Oregon and Washington- sounds like he had a nice visit and got lots of errands done. Early in June, we caught an amazing firefly display while bathing in outdoor hot springs. There is a new prime minister- the fourth since I arrived. It looks like the Futenma base in Okinawa will continue to be a big struggle. Japan made it farther in the World Cup than anyone expected. One day I’ll write about my favorite World Cup story- the rural town of Nakatsue-mura and its relationship with the National Team of Cameroon.