Tuesday, June 30, 2009

That Which Dwells Within Us

The other day I was at my with my Japanese language tutor and we were reading a story about vending machines in Japan. Part of the story focused on the benefits of the vending machines while the other part focused on the detriment. Detriments included things like using electricity, hiring someone to stock the machine, etc, but there was one unusual thing that at first I thought I had misread. It said that vending machines are limiting face to face contact among people. While I thought this was true, I also thought… so what? Is that a problem? Apparently in Japan it is.

After a little inquiry my teacher told me that she had recently had a “student” who had been coming by lately. He was what is called a hikikomori 引き籠もり,. Which translates as someone who pulls away, or a shut in. These people exist in other countries; usually they are people who have some sort of social, physical, or mental disorder or impairment that makes it difficult for them to function outside of a confined or familiar environment that they consider safe. Japan is a leader among the world for this sort of person and China, Taiwan, and South Korea are also seeing rising numbers of hikikomori recently. Some factors that are said to contribute to it is a lack of a right of passage, which would lead to youths becoming adults and also perhaps because of the rigid systems of social ranking in Japan and other countries. Many students in Japan face enormous pressure to test well for universities and highschools and many of those who graduate find slim job prospects, which may also encourage their disallusionment.
My teacher’s student had gone to school as a normal adolescent would, but upon graduating entered his home, rarely to emerge for the past 9 years. As of lately he had expressed a desire to come back into society and so my Japanese teacher, who is also a psychologist, agreed to meet with him to start some rehabilitation.

Apparently in Japan this is very common. I did a little research and asked a few people I know about hikikomori and all of them knew someone at some point in their lives who was or is a hikikomori. By some statistics this involves about 20% of adolescent males (1% of the total population). In fact I know there is at least one at my middle school, and a couple at my elementary schools, although the most serious cases are those that carry on beyond school. At this point you may be thinking, ok, so that is a little strange, but surely its not so bad. At some point these people must emerge from their rooms to go to the bathroom, eat, shop, work, etc. The suprising truth is… not really. Some are known to have stayed in their rooms for periods measuring in years. Many needs such as food and other shopping can be done over the internet or is done by the persons mother, who then brings it to their room. Going to the bathroom may only be done at times the person feels safe, like at night. Which brings me back to the original article I was reading about vending machines.

It seems that a negative side affect of vending machines, which are growing in number in Japan, is that it enables people to remain hikikomori. It also seems that a considerable amount of business occurs at night, which creates a conundrum for owners who don’t want their machines using electricity all night long, but also have a small, but growing costumer base for late night use.

While I recognize that some of these individuals really are disturbed and really do need to be catious about social interactions, the majority are being enabled by their parents and society who has taken a passive role in allowing them to isolate themselves. I can make this argument because when you compare the statistics for urban or middle class families with hikikomori children to those of lower class or rural families the difference is noticeable. People are choosing to become withdrawn from society for petty reasons and their loved ones are allowing them to do it. Despite all that I love about Japan, this is one thing I do not.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Going Grey

Japan has a big population problems. Standing now at 127 million, the Japanese population is expected to be less than 100 million by 2050. There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost is a negative population growth at -.14 Coupled with a very low rate of immigration that equals decline.
The second is the tendancy for Japanese to marry late, and therefore have children later or not at all.
This however creates big problems as the population becomes the most top heavy in the world. Creating a large base of elderly with a small amount of young. Now it is estimated that every retired person is supported by 7 working people, by 2050 that will be 2. The future for Japan, looks grey.


A month ago Aya’s grandfather died, which while a sad event was a cultural treasure trove for me. Now considered a member or the family, I was asked to come to the wake and the funeral. Both events had some similarities with western styles and some new things for me. I would like to share those things that are most interesting, briefly touching on the similarities, while telling a bit more about the differences.

I met Aya’s grandfather one time in the summer or 08’. At that time he didn’t talk and barely stirred, which I was assured was his normal state at that stage of his life, age 90. I didn’t think too much about him even though he lived quite close to me, until this past week when Aya and I went to a movie. It was a Friday and first you have to understand that going to a movie involves an hour drive. So Aya picked me up and as we started out she told me her grandfather had become quite ill and was in the hospital. After chatting a little we decided to keep going, After 1hr he was gone. So upon having reached the movie theater we turned around and drove back. Aya went to spend time with her family while I just went home.
I am not sure what the family did that first night, but probably just consoling each other getting plans ready.

The next day, Saturday, Aya asked me if I would come to the wake, which would be Sunday evening. Of course I said yes, but when I asked her what it would be like she was vague. It must also have been Saturday when the body was prepared encoffinment, which if you have seen the new Japanese movie Departures, you will know what that entails. If you haven’t seen that movie, I recommend you do, its very good and available in most countries since it received an academy award.

On with the story; I missed the encoffinment, because I didn’t know that it was happening, but I made it for the wake Sunday night. I was a bit confused as the word for wake in Japanese is 通夜, which means “through the night” . I was unsure of what to expect. All of the next 24 hours occurs in the same building except for a 2 hour period, so assume all events are in the same place. The building used was 2 stories, and seemed somewhat like a conference hall with dining room, lobby, café’ area, and one room with tatami mats, closets, bathroom, shower and couches. The tatami room was like a Japanese hotel room.

The wake was held in a large conference room, the body at the front in a balsa casket, top open for viewing, and surrounded one all sides by many flower arrangements with small signs indicating who they were from. On one side of the aisle were family, on the other close friends. At an appointed time a Buddhist priest entered, sat, and chanted (when I asked later what he said, no one knew, they said it was very old Japanese and very hard to understand). After about 20 minutes the priest rose and turned to sit facing the crowd. He then made a brief speech about the grandfathe’s life. After his speech attendees approached the casket, burned a small amount of incense, said a prayer and then went back to their seats. As there were about 25 family members and 30 other people, this did not take very long. After which we all went to the room next door which contained a dinner and drinks. We all toasted his life, had dinner and drinks, and the crowd thinned out until just the close family remained. After which time the family, and the casket, where brought downstairs to the tatami room. Here the casket was set on an altar near the couches and candles and incense where lit. The family then prepared more food and drink and talked. The closest family stayed there for the night, sleeping on the tatami near the body, using the bathrooms and showers in the morning to freshen up. Hence, throught the night. I went home, to return the next day.

When I returned the next day at 11am the body had been returned the to large room it had been in the previous night. The exception was that this time there where about twice as many guests as the night before, perhaps nearing 100. The arrangement was the same, except that all chairs were filled. The same Buddhist priest came in, gave what I took to be the same chant and things basically proceeded in the same way.

Once it was only family remaining the employees clipped the flowers off of all the arrangements and gave them to the family in baskets. These flowers were then put into the coffin around the body by the family. This was also the last chance for people to touch him or say goodbye to him and was the only time that I saw any weeping during the entire thing. After the flowers had been put in an employee retrieved the lid, driving a nail into each corner and one into the head. The one he drove into the head he did not fully drive in. He drove it in half way, then the family shuffled past, each taking a stone block, and using it to give the nail a couple of final taps, the last person using the hammer to fully drive it in.
After this the men of the family carried the coffin to a waiting hearse outside the building and the body was transported to a cremation center. The family followed in a bus.

Once we reached the cremation center the body was unloaded and put onto a sled which was wheeled to the front of the incinerator. Here we said a final prayer and the body was slid inside and the doors closed. Then we waited for 2 hours as the body was burned. During this time we had drinks and food and just talked a bit. After two hours we all went to a room and here is the most interesting part for me.

When we entered the room the sled was in the middle with small long tables on each side with pairs of chopsticks laid on them. The close family stood on one side while the rest of the family shuffled past on the other side. The sled in the middle was still very hot and contained the ashes and bones. Family on one side passes bones to family on the other to put into trays and then people switched. Here, people were passing from chopsticks to chopsticks which is why, during meals, it is very rude to use pass things chopsticks to chopsticks. After the most of everything had been collected an employee came in and swept up the rest of the remains taking that and the trays and putting them into the urn. It was odd, but as he put in the bones he would say things like, "this is the finger and that is a piece of the skull. etc"

After the urn was packed we returned to the first building where the guests were waiting. we had another dinner and after 2 hours most people cleared out. The the urn and the close family went back to the grandparents house where the urn, gifts and burning incense have been on display for the last month. In about a week there will be an internment ceremony at the family crypt. I will be sure to write about that later.