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Ashes to diamonds and the cost of death

by

Special To The Japan Times

‘Where do we go when we die?”

Every child, or the child in all of us, asks that at some point, with parents and philosophers saying this or that in reply: “We go to heaven,” “We merge with the Absolute,” and so on — or, to borrow the language of ancient and not-so-ancient Japanese nationalism, we “fall like cherry blossoms in spring” and are “reborn seven times into this world of men to continue destroying enemies of the Emperor.”

Nothing we say about death, of course, passes scientific muster, however satisfying it may be on other fronts. Scientifically speaking, our knowledge of post-death is as close to absolute zero as anything pertaining to our lives and our universe can be 200,000-odd years after a select group of animals first distinguished themselves with certain traits to which today we affix the adjective “human.”

This may seem (in fact probably is) an unnecessarily high-flown introduction to a rather homely item in Shukan Post magazine about a recent increase in the number of people who abandon — “forget” — funerary ashes in anonymous public places. But when you consider that among those early defining human traits was ceremonial reverence for the dead, the story becomes more than a mere police matter.

It is that too, to some extent. Ashes come under the same protection the law accords corpses, and abandoning a corpse is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. But there’s a way around that. What if you simply forget the ashes — on a train, say, or on the grounds of a temple or shrine, or anywhere, really? Why, such a mishap could happen to anyone! Even if the ashes do get traced back to you — not impossible, given DNA testing — you’ll suffer nothing worse than embarrassment.

This sort of thing is happening lately with striking frequency, Shukan Post finds. In Saitama and Chiba Prefectures alone, between January 2013 and August this year, 21 “forgotten” funerary urns drew police attention. How many others do not draw police attention?

There’s no way of knowing, but the immediate motive seems to be poverty, and poverty is rising. A traditional funeral is monstrously expensive, running well over ¥1 million, and even the stripped-down “natural” funerals increasingly popular nowadays — the ceremonial scattering of ashes in the mountains, at sea and so on — are cheap only in comparison. If you’re a part-time worker living on a part-time salary — 38 percent of Japan’s workforce now fits that description — and hard-pressed, as many part-timers are, to marry and start a family, you may well tell yourself that your deceased mother or father is after all beyond caring what you do with the remains.

A brief item in Spa! magazine highlights a delicious — or terrible — irony. Some dog and cat owners become so attached to their pets that a pet’s death can cause serious emotional trauma. Spa! points out a relatively new symptom of pet loss syndrome: a desire to have the pet’s ashes made into a diamond. (Actually the magazine’s article is about a shyster who shamelessly exploits that desire for fraudulently exorbitant profits — but that’s by the by.)

Do our pets then mean more to us than our parents? That’s surely too large a leap, but anecdotal evidence does suggest weakening human ties together with a deepening affection for pets. Shukan Post invokes the usual suspects: urban anonymity; the nuclear family detached from the aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents who once stretched the range of a child’s affections and made contact with death more likely at a phase of life in which awe comes naturally.

Human beings are vastly different now than they were — 200,000 years ago certainly, but even as recently as, say, November 1970, when the novelist Yukio Mishima committed ritual suicide over what he saw as Japan’s postwar emasculation and the Self-Defense Forces’ failure to be what he said they should be: “the soul of Japan.” Mishima had a view of life and death that resonated feebly in his own time but had a long and honored past behind it, and may have a future ahead of it. In 1966 he said, “In feudal times we (Japanese) believed that sincerity ‘resided’ in our entrails, and that if we need to show our sincerity we had to cut our bellies and take out our visible sincerity.” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a declared admirer of Mishima’s, observed with disgust in May 2012, seven months before a rousing electoral victory thrust him into office for the second time, “In schools there are teachers telling children, ‘Only fools put their lives on the line for their country; just value your own life.'”

It’s impossible to know at this stage what Japan’s new security legislation will mean in practice — a role for the SDF commensurate with Mishima’s hopes for them? In an op-ed piece in the Asahi Shimbun early this month, the well-known nationalist manga artist Yoshinori Kobayashi was as sharply critical, though for different reasons, as more liberal opponents have been of the bills’ content and of Abe’s manner of shepherding them through the Diet. Abe has assured lawmakers and the public that there is no question of a military draft, notwithstanding the SDF’s expanding role amid Japan’s shrinking population — because a draft, Abe said, was prohibited by the Constitution’s ban on “involuntary servitude.” That, said Kobayashi, amounted to an insult to servicemen and women. “Defending the nation,” he said, “is a sublime task” — not “involuntary servitude.”

A draft there will inevitably be, says Kobayashi, and the sooner that fact is faced, the better. Military exigency aside, a draft will enable all citizens to partake of the sublimity of defending the nation. One wonders in passing why someone with such views never himself volunteered to serve. Be that as it may, he argues that the potential threats Japan faces are from China and North Korea, and he deplores the tightened bond the new laws implicitly forge between Japan and the United States, with the attendant danger of Japan becoming embroiled in American-led global conflicts of no direct concern to it. Japan, he says, should reduce its dependence on the United States and learn to defend itself.

Is war glory or carnage? Sublimity or atrocity? Necessity or archaic relic of primitive thinking blind to the sublime value of each individual life? In other words: Are ashes merely ashes?

Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.