Local history echoes from Japan

At the beginning of July this year (2009), I attended a two day meeting in London of eighteen local and regional historians from around the world for what was described as 'the first symposium designed to look at the different ways in which local and regional history is practised in different regions of the world'. Afterwards, I wrote a report for Local History Online as best I could within the limit of 3,000 words I imposed on myself. For Local History Magazine (No.125, Aug/Sep 2009) I reduced it to 1,500 words.

This was no easy task, especially since some of the speakers I listened to and spoke with were people I wanted to know more about. Professor Connie Schulz from the University of South Carolina for example. In my report, I mentioned her contribution to the Seminar briefly but said nothing about her work with American students in Yorkshire conservation areas every other year. Neither did she. I found out because she read my news article about English conservation areas in Local History Magazine No.123 (Mar/Apr 2009, see the online version) and we had an all too brief conversation about this and other shared interests. I made up my mind there and then to write more about Connie and her work, but that I would wait until her next visit to Yorkshire. It is something I am looking forward to.

With the help of Professor John Beckett, Professor  Kaoru Ugawa  unravels the 18th century petition by villagers in Shiomava, north west of Tokyo, against the use of prisoners to repair the road through their village because they were too poor to pay.

With the help of Professor John Beckett, Professor Kaoru Ugawa unravels the 18th century petition by villagers in Shiomava, north west of Tokyo, against the use of prisoners to repair the road through their village because they were too poor to pay.

And so it was with Professor Kaoru Ugawa. He never made it into either of my Symposium reports, despite the fact that he was the man to whom I warmed the most. He spoke at the Symposium about 'Japanese Local History After the Second World War' and, to illustrate a point he was making about archives, he produced and unravelled an 18th century petition by villagers in Shiomava, north west of Tokyo, against the use of prisoners to repair the road through their village because they were too poor to pay. Listening to him, I gained an insight into a country and a culture far away and over lunch I spoke with Professor Ugawa about his contribution to the symposium. This led to him producing some family history scrolls and telling me how his family history came to be recorded at the time of an uncle's death in 1972. Later, he gave me a copy of a paper he had written in 1995, 'Local History Studies in Japan', which was published in the Rikkyo Economic Review (Vol.48, No.3, Jan 1995). Buried deep within his fifteen page paper is an account of the funeral of his uncle in 1972. It is bothmoving and beautiful:

'I would like to describe the funeral of my uncle to illustrate an old popular funeral ritual and give some idea of another world believed in by those ancient Japanese people. My uncle died in February 1972. He was a widower and had no children, so he lived with my cousin, who is a farmer in a hamlet 180km from Tokyo. My ancestors seem to have settled down as yeoman farmers in the hamlet at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The location was quite remote and isolated (and) it remained secluded until the 1980s when a motorway was constructed. To the west of the hamlet a very deep valley prevented access and to the east, north and south were steep mountains. The only passage to the outer world had been a mountain footpath. My cousin once told me that, when he was a boy, the only vehicles in the hamlet were bicycles. So neither undertakers nor Buddhist monks were available to perform the funeral service. Instead, the villagers kept the ancient rituals and traditions alive by conducting the funerals themselves.

'When any important member of the family becomes seriously ill, as did my uncle, the head of the family, my cousin, sent messengers to relatives and kin in neighbouring villages and further afield. Having been informed, they were duty bound to visit him, bringing some gift (nowadays it is just a token, something like a £5 note). When he died, my cousin again sent out messengers to report the death and to tell relatives and kin the date of the funeral. My cousin asked the local carpenter to make the coffin and neighbours to dig the grave. My uncle had felled a cedar tree in the wood commonly owned by the villagers and had kept some of the wood in the barn for his coffin. The old woman of the household, in this case my aunt, prepared a shroud. It had to be a costume for his religious journey, made of fresh white cotton. My cousin made straw sandals and cut a staff for the journey to the other world and my aunt prepared a purse, in which they put six coppers.

'In the kitchen, the wives of the neighbours were busy preparing food for family and mourners. Before night fell, the family and closest kin gathered in the bedroom, cleansed my uncle's body and put it in the coffin. They also put a dagger in the coffin to keep evil spirits away, then moved the coffin into the living room. In the evening, the elders and old ladies of the hamlet gathered, and ringing bells they sang pilgrimage psalms in unison for the soul of my uncle. This was the only religious ceremony held that night. Then, throughout the night, someone watched over my uncle and ensured that the candles and incense continued to burn.

'The next day, it not being an inauspicious day for the burial, the ceremony took place. About ten o'clock in the morning, a Buddhist monk came from the temple in the town, and the mourners gathered. The monk offered prayers for the dead and gave my uncle a posthumous name. It is the custom that when a layman takes orders and becomes a monk, he will be given a spiritual name, and thereafter he will be called by that name. In the case of a layman, he will be given a spiritual name after his death (and) when prayers for the soul of the departed are said, one must use his posthumous name. The name given will depend on the social status of the dead person. The most simple names consist of four Chinese characters, the more numerous, the higher the status. After the prayers were said by the monk, the coffin was placed on a bier and carried in procession to the graveyard. The male mourners must proceed the coffin, while the female mourners, covering their heads with handkerchiefs, follow. The order of the procession must be according to one's closeness to the deceased. Everyone was barefooted, save for straw sandals, even though the ground was covered in snow. At the gate of the churchyard, everybody present, and the coffin, had to turn three times in a clockwise direction. This is done to prevent the soul of the deceased from going back home with the mourners. After the burial of the body in the grave, all the mourners discarded their straw sandals and returned barefooted to the house. This is another ritual for keeping the spirit of the deceased in the grave.

'On returning from the burial, the head of the household offered prayers at the family altar, wherein is enshrined the souls of (my) ancestors, to inform them that my uncle had been sent to the other world to join them. In the drawing room lunch was served to every mourner by the wives of our neighbours and then each departed to their homes. After all the visitors had gone, the family asked the neighbours to sit in the drawing room and served a meal to them, thanking them for their help and assistance during the funeral service. With this, my family's funeral ritual came to an end, although the family had to visit my uncle's grave every day for a week and on the seventh day special prayers were said for the deceased. From then on, prayers had to be offered at the family altar (and) the mourning continued for forty-nine days. Afterwards, a commemoration service has to be kept after one, two, seven, thirteen years, and so on.

'While my uncle's body was buried in the grave, his soul had to make a journey of a thousand miles to the other world. The soul of the deceased is said to journey by himself in darkness. He will then reach a river which divides this world from the other, where he has to pay a toll to cross the river by boat by giving six pence to an ugly old woman. If one cannot afford the fare, she asks for one's clothes, so that one has to cross the river naked in humiliation. On the other side of the river, there is the Court of Hades. In the court are ten judges and a chief judge, in a Chinese robe with a Chinese coif on his head. The poor soul must plead guilty or not guilty. People believe that when one is born, two spirit-clerks are given. The one who sits on the right shoulder keeps a record of one's good deeds and kind behaviour, while the one who sits on the left shoulder keeps a record of one's evil deeds and misdemeanours, so that if you witness something evil or do something wrong, you should tap your left shoulder to prevent your spirit clerk from recording the incidents. Anyway, there is a mirror which reveals one's life like a television set. Their judgement are fair and very strict. If one is condemned, he or she will be sent to hell to eternal condemnation. If one is saved, he or she will be sent to paradise, where they will sit on lotus flowers in the pond of paradise'.

There is much in this account of a Japanese funeral from 1972 with which I could identify. The passing over the river and giving the money to the old ferrywoman is so close to the Greek myth of the ferryman Charon ferrying souls over the river Acheron, but only if they were properly buried and paid him the obulus, the silver coin, which was the fare.

Professor Ugawa told me that before the Second World War, domestic servants and labourers could have a week's holiday twice a year: new year and a week in the middle of August. People believed that even in Hell, the gaolers could (also) have leave for a week in the middle of August. This meant that damned souls could be released from Hell to visit their house in this world. So the first evening of that week, people would burn stems of flax at the gate of the house. On the smoke souls could make the journey to this world, and stay a week in the house, enjoying food and wine offered by the family. At the end of that week, people would again burn flax, and on that smoke the spirits make their return journey to the other world. What I have described is a popular belief of the 'other world'. Nowadays, no one believes this, and this kind of funeral service is hardly observed in the city, nor even in the countryside. However, if present generations know what used to happen, then they can see (and understand) the significance of the communal churchyard in a town or village.

Professor Ugawa shows part of his family necrology, which dates from the end of the 19th century.

Professor Ugawa shows part of his family necrology, which dates from the end of the 19th century.

Professor Ugawa's then showed me parts of his family 'necrology' (an obituary list), which was given to him by his grandfather and which had been compiled by a monk at the end of the 19th century. It traced the family back to the beginning of the seventeenth century and included a short introduction about how his ancestors came to settle in the hamlet, and to every ancestor it gave a posthumous name, later with secular name, the date of birth and age at the time of death in chronological sequences. It seems to have been compiled from the necrology of the temple and conformed by inscriptions on family tombstones in the family graveyard.

Sitting next to Professor Ugawa during the lunch break on the first day of the Symposium, and being encouraged to hold his family necrology, whilst he told me about his family history, was quite an experience. This tall, willowy, man radiated grace and kindness and in a few brief minutes made a lasting impression on me. I am absolutely sure that others who attended the Symposium will have made new friends and left with memories of conversations which will continue to occupy their mind long after the event itself has faded from their mind. This is almost certainly the ultimate value of such occasions.

I read Professor Ugawa's paper on the train, as I returned home to Nottingham, and could hear his voice speaking the words to me. I have since read his account of his uncle's funeral six times or more. It speaks to me so plainly that there is no need of pictures. I trust it will be the same with you and that you too will come to see not an event in some distant time and place, but an experience not dissimilar to those of our own ancestors and families when we all lived more rural and secluded lives. The words of Professor Ugawa remind us that local (and family) history is not a narrow, parochial, interest. It is, in fact, universal and rooted in our common humanity.

Robert Howard

25 September 2009

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