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Death lingers throughout Japan’s hottest month

by Kaori Shoji

August is the month of death in Japan, what with commemorations marking the 1945 atomic bombings (原爆記念日, genbanku kinenbi) of Hiroshima (the 6th) and Nagasaki (the 9th) coming early in the month, the shūsenkinenbi (終戦記念日, end-of-war memorial day) on the 15th and the Bon holiday (お盆, o-bon) — which is usually associated with the return of the dead — generally from the 13th to the 15th. The whole month is geared to remind everyone in Japan that even in the midst of life and summer’s extreme heat, there is death.

Not that the Japanese are morbid about it. We know that elsewhere in the world (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), August means long, lazy days spent in bikinis and swimwear on the beach with nothing whatsoever to do except sip on a chilled drink every 30 seconds. OK . . . so? Most of us have gotten over our vacation-challenged inferiority complex (no, really!), and the fact that we make do with just two or three days off during Bon, which is not really a holiday because so much of it is spent in crammed trains and on jammed highways getting to and from our respective jikka (実家, parents’ home). Once there, there’s a pile of family and Bon duties to fulfill and ancestral tombstones to polish. And before we know it, the yasumi (休み, rest time) is gone, up in incense smoke like it never happened.

My grandmother used to say August was so eventful and busy it was better not even to think about taking time off. “Isogashikushite-inaito gosenzosama ni mōshiwakenai (忙しくしていないとご先祖さまに申し訳ない, It would be disrespectful to the ancestors not to keep busy),” was her way of putting it. While growing up, some Augusts felt as though we were either greeting the souls of the dead or sending them off, for this is also the month of o-sōshiki (お葬式, funerals). Statistics show that the ill and elderly are better able to withstand the cold than the intense heat and humidity of the Japanese summer. Consequently, this time of year it’s kaki-ire-doki (peak business time) for Buddhist temples and sōgiya (葬儀屋, funeral homes) up and down the nation. On the fringes of my earliest memories of summer are the sight of adults going off to some o-tera (temple) or other, dressed in uncomfortable black suits and discreetly wiping sweat from their faces with freshly ironed handkerchiefs.

After a funeral, it’s the custom to throw a handful of salt onto the mourner before entering a home, a purifying ritual known as o-kiyome (お清め). The children waiting at home can look forward to kōdengaeshi (香典返し), a gift from the bereaved family to the mourner to thank them for the obligatory cash donations they have made. The gifts are usually boxes of cookies, wagashi (和菓子, Japanese sweets) or something that can be torn into right away. The adults change out of their mourning garb, relax and open an alcoholic beverage while the kids dig into the snacks, and the droning of semi (蝉, cicadas) (another reminder of death, for they spend years in the soil before hatching only to die within a week) outside always seems to grow louder after a funeral.

Despite the death/Bon rituals and work-as-usual mode, there’s a sense of a truce to an August in Japan. The dead make the journey from the Yomi no Kuni (黄泉の国, Land of the Yellow Spring — or the afterlife) to rejoin the living for a brief spell. In that time, it’s popularly believed that jigoku no kama no futa mo shimaru (地獄の釜のふたも閉まる, even the lids of hell’s caldrons are shut). Things slow down almost imperceptibly and the general feeling is that it’s OK to be a bit slipshod or leave work before 9 p.m. to hit a biagāden (ビアガーデン, beer garden) before going home. Some Japanese say they’d rather not take time off, as they prefer to savor the casual, quiet atmosphere of the office.

My otōto (弟, younger brother) actually prefers the kaisha (office) to any other venue. “Yasumi no aidawa nani shite ii ka wakaranai (休みの間は何していいかわからない, I don’t know what to do with myself on my days off)” is his habitual phrase. He professes that it’s common among himono otoko (干物男, dried-fish-type guys, or men with no love life to speak of)” in their 30s.

I don’t know about the rest, but I do know that my brother, after finishing the double duties of sentaku (洗濯, doing the laundry — and hanging the items out the veranda) and sōji (掃除, cleaning — little more than running the vacuum cleaner for a few minutes), slides into goro goro (ごろごろ, lying about) until Monday rolls around. During the hottest month, he goes to work, finishes before 8 p.m., hits the gym and then goes out to a neighborhood izakaya (居酒屋, Japanese-style pub) for a few rounds. In the summer, my kid brother is a happy man.