The Lone Jew at a Japanese Buddhist Funeral

When you fall in love, asking your future husband what kind of a funeral he would want for himself is probably not the first thing you’d think of asking. And it certainly wouldn’t have been on the top of my list either except for the extraordinary situation we faced the summer of 1989 when both Aki’s paternal grandmother and grandfather passed away within 3 weeks of each other. Suddenly I was thrust into the “black” limelight. Aki told his family that I was a journalist. Which was true. He didn’t mention that he we were thinking of marriage.

From The Wagamama Bride, a memoir in progress:

What is expected of me at Aki’s grandfather’s funeral? I have no idea. Black umbrellas carpet the courtyard facing the ceremonial hall, the ancient Honjo temple.  Hundreds of men are dressed in black suits. A number of women are similarly attired in mourning uniforms— stiff black crepe dresses topped by a rows of pearls. July’s tsuyu season brings a sudden downpour of rain. 

Peering into the interior of the temple, I see so many gold-leaf decorations trailing down from the ceiling to adorn both sides of the Buddhist altar that I squint. Then as my eyes adjust to the central deity inside, a large gold statue of Buddha, I  ask myself: Can you really live with this? As a Jew, can you in your heart of heart visit a temple that flagrantly displays an idol, a golden Buddha? I push the thought out of my head. The Ten Commandments make it clear that idol worshipping is a no-no. But I don’t have to worship the Buddha. I don’t even have to look at him. My camera, with its telephoto lens  dangles from a strap on my shoulder It weighs on me as I abandon all desire to photograph a funeral where my role is not clearly defined. I’m not here as a journalist or a tourist or a gawker.  The sensation of holding Tsuneyoshi Wakabayashi’s frail hand in mine is too fresh in my memory.

Below the scalloped grey rooftop of the ancient Honjo temple, bushes are shaped into perfect spheres, palm trees touch the sky, and hydrangeas in luscious, almost surreal shades, of periwinkle blue line the path to the graveyard.  

I join a long line of people who pay their respects by walking up to the coffin.  I bow once to the priest striking a ceremonial gong, then I bow once more, offering Aki and his parents eye contact without a smile. Or was I supposed to avoid eye contact and just smile? Getting the expression on my face right, not too sad, not too happy,  is no easy feat. Especially when I suddenly notice amongst the Wakabayashi family members, a blond woman with fine Irish features looking at me straight in the eye. I think she’s smiling at me. Or maybe I’m hallucinating.

And so attending the funeral of Aki’s eminent Grandpa Tsuneyoshi Wakabayashi, the inventor of the rice polishing machine, was an experience bordering on the surreal. I grappled with my role here, as it occurred to me that “to death do us part” might be an understatement, according to both Japanese Buddhist custom and Torah laws concerning funeral rites and burial.

Author: admin

I'm a Tokyo-based artist and writer of a memoir in progress, The Wagamama Bride, based on nearly 30 years of life in Japan. The inspiration for this memoir is rediscovering my Jewish roots in Japan--thanks to Chabad.