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Bon ancestor worship going to the dogs

by Amy Chavez

It’s almost Bon, the festival of the dead, a time when the spirits return to their ancestral homes. On our island, that’s a lot of returnees. With the population dying off so rapidly, the ratio of spirits to living people is so great that at Bon, the living become a minority.

And not just the people’s spirits that come back, apparently. Last year, my next-door neighbor’s dog died, and she put out offerings during Bon at his grave in back of her house. I also put out offerings for the dog as a good neighborly gesture. With the current pet boom, where the number of pets in Japan has surpassed the number of children, you can imagine that in another decade, Bon will have gone completely to the dogs.

But traditionally, at Bon Japanese people pray to their ancestors. Unless you’re a “gaijin” like me and don’t have any Japanese ancestors. Luckily, however, one of my neighbors offered me one of hers. Let me explain.

I was in the post office the other day, and while I was busy confusing the postal workers with my international parcels, the older lady next to me was withdrawing funds from her postal bank account. While I waited for the postal workers to unconfuse themselves, I watched the woman count out the bills — 500,000 yen.

Then she approached me. But instead of giving me the money, she whispered: “My mother died last year. You can use her garden.” She said this with a twinkle in her eye that told me she had found out through the grapevine that I was looking for a place to put a vegetable garden. So we left the post office, and I followed her and her 500,000 yen to the said garden plot.

“Here it is,” she said. “My mother worked in this garden until she died. You can take it over now.”

“Can I pay you something for it?” I asked, hoping she was already feeling rich enough.

“Oh, no, you may use it for free,” she assured me.

“That’s very kind of you,” I said, relieved, “but I must give you something to show my appreciation. Perhaps my first sown vegetable?”

“Well, OK then,” she said, “please make an offering to my mother at Bon.” And she and her 500,000 yen took their leave.

Ancestor worship as payment? This was something new. I wrote it down on my calendar along with my other bill payment due dates. After all, who knows what would happen to me if I was late in this payment? Perhaps she’d curse my vegetables.

Then I started thinking — where exactly do I make the payment? There was no address as to where to send the offering. Japanese people usually put offerings of fruit, along with some lit incense, in front of the grave of the deceased. But in this case, I had no idea where the deceased lived. And I surely didn’t want to confuse the postal workers with another parcel with an unusual destination.

So I decided I should leave the offering in the vegetable garden itself. But standing alone in a garden, lighting incense and making an offering to a spirit surely requires proper posture, deep bowing and an ironed apron. And do you think I’m supposed to chant? I don’t know any chants, except the refrain to the “Hanya Shingyo.” Perhaps it would be OK if I just hummed the parts between the refrain. You see, unless I make it really obvious that I am making an offering, my neighbor’s mother up in heaven might look down and think, “Who the hell is that gaijin in my garden?”

So this year at Bon, I have a dead dog and a neighbor’s mother to worship. If I continue to pick up a spirit each year, they’ll soon outnumber the ones in my liquor cabinet. And I just might have to purchase a few bottles of Mad Dog.