Death in Japan


On a man sized tray lay the bones of that which but a short time before had been the body of my brother in law. Taking a pair of long chopsticks, the priest expertly sifts through the skeleton, making comments on the various parts. He pays special attention to the throat bone that has remained intact through the cremation, an auspicious moment apparently, but I’m not sure why.

Tatsu was certainly a round peg in a square hole. I had heard about him, of course. And I knew something of his struggles to gain acceptance from his father. As the eldest son, much was expected from him.

My first and only meeting with him was brief and awkward. It seemed he was always working or on a business trip whenever there were family gatherings. His young son and his wife were there, but no Tatsu. Probably at the cajoling of his father, he made an appearance, but dressed in samurai costume. He had taken some time to prepare the outfit and he took trouble to explain that he had wanted to impress me with his period play. I really did not know what was going on. The icy, glacial stare from father did not help to diffuse the situation at all.

I thought of my own dysfunctional family…..

Tatsu worked in an industry which killed him. The hospitality business is one which demands and encourages the consumption of alcohol which to many Japanese people is more of an apparent poison than to others. There is an enzyme lacking which leads to intolerance. The effects of even a miniscule amount of alcohol send the drinker into an over reactive state that causes immediate flushing along with other symptoms. The irony is that the after work drink, followed by the “second party,” is an inescapable right of passage enforced by the office hierarchy with no party pooping allowed. Be part of the industry that sells the alcohol and you become awash in it yourself. What killed Tatsu at the age of 39 was chronic pancreatitis exacerbated by heavy drinking.

We do not often think of death, do we? We look upon our bodies and the spirit that animates us as being on an infinite continuum. A trip to forever. The reality is that everything that is born, must die and that everything we have, must be surrendered. It seems rather silly then, doesn’t it, that we spend most, if not all, of our lives in the pursuit of things to get, things to have and things to become.