Ask Gaijin Girl: Brilliant Advice From a Bitter Woman Always Ready to Help you With Your Life and Relationships Because She Never Has One
Dear Gaijin Girl,
I’m a first year English teacher at a primary school in Iwate. I’ve just been invited to attend the funeral of our principal’s husband. What should I expect?
Just so you know, it doesn’t matter if you teach English at a primary school or not. If you are a foreigner in Japan, you are an English teacher. It’s only a matter of time until your pillow talk includes an exasperated explanation on why you said, “Do that thing I like.” instead of, “Do this thing I like.” that will kill the romance faster than a chopstick up the nose. As grammar takes up more and more of your conversation and he takes note of new vocabulary words you’ve unwittingly dropped, you will soon begin to wonder if he is using you just to improve his TOEIC score and get that coveted, swanky overseas promotion at work. Trust me, it feels better to be used for sex. At least sex is sexy. Having to explain what predicates are while having sex? Not so much.
Sorry to hear about your principal’s loss. That’s a shame but from a cross cultural perspective, it’s kind of cool. You get to experience Buddhism in all off it’s cyclical pond paradise glory. ( I recently walked by a Buddhist cemetery that had on it’s wall an advertisement for the love hotel next door to it. On the other side of the love hotel was a crematory. That busy block represented the circle of life not found as an attraction at your local Disney park.)
You should know that you will be expected to bring money, ¥5000 (about 50 bucks) in a special “Sorry he/she died” envelope. (You can buy the envelopes at your local convenience store for a buck or more. Be careful not to choose the “So happy he died!” implying celebratory envelopes right next to them. These envelopes can look virtually identical unless you can decipher the handwritten style Kanji on the flashy chord embroidered faces. Bring a Japanese person with you to make sure, you don’t want to be the one who lets the cat out of the bag and confirm what everybody is really thinking, that nobody really liked him. Plus, it’s bad juju.
The Japanese aren’t as much religious as they are superstitious. (Though they are beyond fine with opening umbrellas indoors. So much so that if I were superstitious, I’d point a finger at all the rows of open drying umbrellas in schools and apartment buildings and, like a mechanic with his butt crack showing, pronounce, “Well there’s the cause of all your earthquakes and disasters right there.”)
I was recently in a building on grounds that were used as a prison for war criminals. Plus, it was the site of several executions during and after WWII. The building is now a shopping mall called “Sunshine City” and many people working in it are convinced it is haunted with ghosts. When our elevator stopped, opening at the 4th floor when nobody had pushed a button for it and there was no one waiting to get on, the two women in the elevator with me agreed it must have been ghosts and commented that if you were there all alone in the building at night, you could hear the ghosts marching and/or screaming. Interesting for sure, but it doesn’t answer the more pressing question, “Why would a ghost need an elevator?”
Back to funerals, don’t put anymore than ¥5000 in the envelope, or you’ll look happy he died. Also don’t wear anything shiny, hair clip, tie clip or otherwise. This is also considered a celebratory, “yay he’s dead” gesture. Wear all black, and I mean all black, preferably a bit shitty too. If you want to wear jewelry, an unflattering single string of fake pearls is your only option. Men wear a black suit, white shirt with a black tie, a la Blues Brothers. When in doubt, just think “What would I wear or do at a jazz funeral” and whatever your answer is, don’t do that.
Be prepared for very few tears and a lot of smiling and laughing by friends and family before and after the ceremony, particularly if the deceased is old. Everyone will appear to be happy in a “I never thought he’d leave!” kind of way. Some will be, for sure. Generally, the waterworks tend to flood at home after the funeral. The smiling and the laughing are a brave show to a room full of people who are also a little bit drunk or can’t wait to be a lot drunk at the after party.
If you attend the wake, expect shitty food, usually stale finger sandwiches from a catering service specializing in shitty food for funerals and wakes. (Again, if the food is good, it’s the mark a celebration. Plus, grief is a lot like flying in that your palate is shot anyway.)
A super expensive Buddhist priest with pop up midway through the ceremony, put his Rolex watch to the side and then chant a bit, 15 minutes or so, he may or may not wave around a horse hair whip, put his watch back on and then promptly disappear.
You will probably be expected to pinch ash, (not the deceased, something akin to incense ash) and raise it to your forehead with a quick prayer for the deceased.
You might also help place statues of wooden Buddhas and the deceased’s favorite flammable things, pictures, cigarettes, anime figurines, and that sort of thing in the casket before taking it to the crematory. The crematory is usually a private bus ride away from the funeral home, creating a chicken exit for those not able to stomach watching someone go into and out of an oven where guests are expected to help place the biggest bits of the remains in a box via chopsticks. (I recommend skipping this bit if your chopstick skills aren’t up to snuff. You don’t want to be the one who accidentally flung Grandpa’s backbone clear across the room and into a bin.)
Oh yeah, before you leave, you’ll be given a gift. Usually something boring and dull (hints of celebration be damned unless it's alcohol related) like buckwheat tea or new bath towels. I have a stack of these towels in my closet. No matter how hard I try and as nice as they are, I just can’t bring myself to use the “Dead Man’s “towels. I can’t shake the feeling he can see me use them. I guess I’ll have to ask him if he can the next time an elevator door at Sunshine City opens for no reason.