In mid-July I was invited to share the O-bon Festival with a village family. A major holiday, this “Feast of the Dead,” is celebrated for eight days in Japan; on Okinawa it is limited to three. It marks a reunion with the spirits of the dead family members who return to the world of the living for a visit.
The eve of the first day was a time to visit family tombs. Every family has one. It may be a simple small cave dug into the hillside, or an open jar of bones placed in a marked natural alcove in the side of the hill. The wealthy often built a concrete structure that might have been more expensive than their house. A standard design had a turtle-shaped dome and a small door similar to the tunnel entrance into the more familiar Eskimo Igloo.
In a different era, it was the job of the youngest unmarried woman of the family to enter the tomb and cleanse any remaining flesh off the bones of departed family members. The bones were then placed in decorative vases in the rear of the tomb, cleansing the spirits for their visit to the earthly world and making room for more family members. Cremation has begun to eliminate this ancient practice, although I have heard that some traditional families in rural areas might still practice this. Ikeshima? I don’t know.
I arrived in the afternoon of first day of the feast, when the family gathers for a meal in their shrine room (chashitsu, a small formal tea room) in their home. My hostess welcomed me with gracious bows as she pointed for me to enter. She wore a beautiful kimono of colorfully patterned silk, her hair meticulously piled high on her head, held there by several large combs. A broad sash, obi, circled her waist several times. I bowed in return, thanked her, “Domo arigato gozaismasu.” She smiled at my more formal “thank you very much,” not just “thanks.”
I placed my white bucks (I was in tropical white uniform) alongside the row of getas (Japanese wooden sandals) on the single step leading into the raised chashitsu. The room was small, 9ft x 9ft, with no furniture except the low table in the middle of the room. The purity of the atmosphere was enhanced by the pale off-white light that filtered through the rice paper sliding doors, and the strong odor of incense that burned in a small dish in the Tokonoma.
The Tokonoma, a shrine-like recess in the wall, was decorated with a single vase with long pussy willow-like branches that stretched high above its rim on one side next to the burning incense. A vertical scroll with large hand-painted Japanese Kanja characters that said “something suitable for the season,” hung on the back wall. The Tokonoma was unquestionably the focal point of the room.
I was seated at one end of the table facing the shrine. Four family members were seated, two on each side of the table. The guest of honor’s place was opposite me where he would be framed by the Takonoma at his back. Others, when looking at him, would then see him as if he were included in a three dimensional religious scene. In this case, of course, the seat remained empty, having been reserved for the expected ancestral spirit. There was a small dish of cut fruit set at each place—including the empty seat of honor.
The ladies spoke in subdued tones, half Japanese, half English, trying to explain key points of the holiday. I had a basic idea what to expect, but when the moment came, I confess that I entered a whole new dimension.
One of the women at the other end of the table suddenly thrust her arms out over the table, palms down, and let out a loud SSSSHHHH. Everything stopped. She continued the SSSHHH-ssshhh gradually lowering the volume as well as her hands until they were touching the table.
There was a long pause, and then she whispered in a barely audible voice, “Ghosto come.”
When I saw the intensity on the face of the others as they directed their attention toward the empty seat, I just knew that all of them felt a new presence. For a moment, I wasn’t sure about me! The rising hairs on my arms sent me into a physical shudder.
Part of me wanted to get out of there, part of me wanted to stay. Low level conversation in Japanese continued for a while as we ate the fruit on our plates. I was no longer involved. I found myself thinking, “Are they talking about the spirit— or talking to him?”
After an eternity of fifteen minutes or so, the ceremony was over. We thanked each other for the opportunity to share the O-Bon, and I returned to the station. The religious rapture I saw on the faces of the Japanese ladies when the spirits arrived reminded me of the look on elderly Italian ladies kneeling, reciting the rosary, in the wooden pews of St. Bernard’s church at home. Though each communed with a very different Great-Spirit, they both seemed at peace in their own world.
The second day of O-Bon was more like a family reunion, where they exchanged gifts and payed homage to their ancestors. The final day was a time for gay festivities, shows, and dances that lead up to the final send-off. Sugar canes were cut to length and placed outside the tomb as walking sticks to assist their ancestors in their return journey to the land-of-the-spirits.
In return for the wonderful O-Bon experience, I invited a small group to share an American holiday. I always considered Halloween and Thanksgiving as uniquely American, but I ruled out Halloween as too close to O-Bon. They might think we were “making fun of it.” So, the Mayor’s party of six joined us for our “Coast Guard Loran Station Thanksgiving Holiday Dinner.” The four women were dressed for a special occasion in their colorful formal kimonos. The men wore suits and ties.
Our skilled cook took pleasure in preparing a traditional meal. We had a huge carved turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, dressing, the whole works. While the mess hall lacked traditional decorations beyond a centerpiece of fruits and nuts, the aroma of roasting turkey and pumpkin pies stirred hints of homesickness in many of our young crewmen who were thousands of miles from home.
Our guests joined our key petty officers and me at a head table. After the round of normal bows, they shook hands, and then giggled with their fingers appropriately covering their mouth, lest they offend.
The women looked nervous as they watched and copied the mayor’s every move. They all seemed overwhelmed with the abundance of food, and confused by the complications of using knives and forks.
Everyone was intrigued. They all enjoyed the taste of turkey, ham, and all the veggies, but they loved the pumpkin pie. Their animated expressions and rapid Japanese chatter told me they understood and enjoyed our house-boy Seiji’s rendition of the “Story of American Thanksgiving.”
When the ritual cigars were offered at the end of the meal, the women, seeing the Mayor take one, did the same. By the time I noticed, they had already followed the mayor… and lit up. I didn’t want to embarrass them, so I said nothing. After three or four puffs, lots of smoke, and a few coughs, one lady ceremoniously placed her cigar in an ashtray, the others followed. They very graciously took it all in stride. It was a great day for everyone.