The yellow flag outside the door — life or death


One thing is as sure as death: You will receive mail long after you die. My mother, who passed away three years ago, still gets direct mail ads and catalogs in the mail even though I’m pretty sure she’s not going to buy anything.

I’m guaranteed to get spam in my email inbox long after I’m gone, so I’m going to leave my password to my family so they can close my account for me. The last thing I want to worry about when I’m dead is spam. As a matter of fact, I’m hoping they issue me a new email address after I die, something like amychavez@heaven.com. The “provider,” so to speak, will be so good that all spam will be blocked before it gets within ballistic missile distance of Heaven and all spammers will be sent directly to Hell to live together with Internet viruses.

In some ways, I envy the elderly who are able to pass away without an entire record of their existence on Facebook. In the online world, your death is bound to be announced over Twitter, and your Facebook friends are likely to know you’re dead even before you do. Maybe the Internet is the answer to “lonely death” in Japan, where the elderly die alone in their houses, after which days or even weeks may pass before anyone realizes they’ve passed away.

I’ve never really understood why they call this “lonely death.” If you live alone, you probably are going to die alone. If many people are present in your home at your death, is it called a “party death?” It seems to me that the problem isn’t so much of people dying alone in their homes as their children or relatives failing to call and check up on them.

This problem of “lonely death” (or failure to use the telephone, whichever you prefer) is surely what inspired our island’s “yellow flag” system. The elderly are given a yellow flag to hang outside their doors every morning. If the flag is out, that means they are OK. Every evening, the person takes in their flag, and then puts it out again the next morning.

I know what you’re thinking: What if they forget to take the flag in at night? Or what if they put out the flag, then fall and break a hip and can’t bring it in? Or what if they die after putting the flag out? In all these cases, the flag would stay up for days or weeks and everyone would think the person inside was fine.

But this is the system that the community chose and spent a lot of time, effort and money to install. First someone would have had to design the rectangular flag (and achieve consensus), then choose the yellow color (imagine the stubborn old man who preferred red!), and then install a hanging device outside the door of each house (after much deliberation as to whether it should go to the right side of the door, or to the left). Among all the meetings, varied opinions and forced conundrums, in the end, everyone is just happy to have finally achieved consensus. Whether the system actually works or not is no longer the point.

Oh, well then, in that case it all makes sense! Of course it does.

So it was no surprise the other evening when my neighbor mentioned that it had been a few days since she had seen Mrs. Yamakawa, a 90-something-year-old woman who lives a few doors down. Was her yellow flag outside her door? No, but it hadn’t been for a year or more now. The neighbor knocked on Yamakawa-san’s door — no answer. She called out her name — no answer. So she decided to go inside the house and, lo and behold, Yamakawa-san was dead. When the island doctor was called in, he said she had probably just died that morning, so everyone felt slightly better.

But this is the power of community — everyone watching out for each other rather than relying on those self-absorbed, overworked, over-stressed adult children living in the cities who don’t call home.

Island communities tend to be very close-knit. My next-door neighbor Kazu-chan brings food over to me all the time, and I just now realize that more than just being nice, she’s really also checking to see if I’m still alive. If I answer the door, then everything is OK. And even though I’m not even close to being elderly, she has good reason to be concerned: If the foreigner next door dies, you’ve got a problem. Who you gonna call? Imagine all those overseas phone calls! In a foreign language! And what about the time difference? And then there is the problem of what she should do with my body. Send it back home? Bury it in the backyard? Since she and I both have houses on the port, the temptation for a quick sea burial would be far too great.

The truth is, as foreigners we should leave specific instructions for our community, just in case something does happen to us. So I’ve prepared the following letter for my neighbor in case of my sudden demise:

Dearest Neighbor Kazu-chan,

The season has turned quite chilly/hot (circle one), I hope you are feeling well. I’m sorry for my sudden departure at such a busy time for you. I’m not sure what to do with myself either, so please contact my family in the U.S. at the phone number on the back of this letter. Just say these English words: “Amy, Heaven!” and give them my new email address.

If no one answers the phone, contact a priest in Japan who is able to make reservations with St. Peter as soon as possible.

If you have no luck finding a Christian priest, please contact the Buddhist priest here on the island so that he can put in a good word for me to Amida Nyorai so that I may enter Amida’s Pure Land instead.

I understand there is a river to cross in order to get to the “other shore,” and I hope this won’t be too big of a problem (I can swim, at any rate). Even if I do make it to the other shore, however, there is no guarantee of entry. You see, I have accrued merit from doing good deeds while here in Japan, but I’m not sure I have enough to enter the Pure Land. (Why do they never tell you exactly how much merit you need to get into the Pure Land? Do foreigners need more merit than Japanese? Do our merits expire with our visas?!).

In the case that I am some merit short, do you have any you could give me? With all the favors you’ve done for me over the years, I’m sure you are overflowing with merit. If not, could you go to the temple and do some shakyo sutra copying to gain some for me?

Thank you for your help. Please take care and don’t catch a cold.

The gaijin next door,