Saying a Last Goodbye to Little Reiko

When my wife's 18-month-old Japanese niece died, I found comfort and catharsis in the Buddhist funeral tradition, different as it is to Westerners

By Brian Bremner

The Japanese, the cliche goes, are born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist. In other words, they tend to adopt different rituals for the big life-cycle events. To some, this suggests that Japan isn't a terribly religious or spiritually minded society. That's true, I guess, if you mean that most Japanese don't tend to identify themselves, from cradle to grave, with just one organized religion.

But from there, things get more complicated. I learned that in mid-January in Osaka. A baby, all of 18 months, had died of cancer on Jan. 19. Little Reiko was my wife's niece, her brother Satoru's youngest daughter, and a vacation playmate of my two girls.

As we boarded the bullet train on Jan. 20 to go to the family's house, I wondered how Satoru and his wife Suzuyo would cope with such grief. I worried about my wife, Yuki, of course, and imagined what it would be like for my eldest daughter, Marie, now almost five, to confront the idea that Reiko had gone somewhere else and wasn't coming back.

And to be honest, I felt anxious about how an American, who sometimes struggles to find his place within a conservative Japanese family, could provide any meaningful contribution or comfort, particularly given that Reiko would be sent off in a highly ritualistic Buddhist ceremony.


  I had been to such a ceremony before, when Yuki's father had passed away four years ago. But I was still pretty new to the family then. I got along just fine with Satoru, but my Japanese at the time only allowed for small chitchat and the usual pleasantries. I was an observer at the ceremony more than a participant, trying earnestly not to get in the way.

This time was different. Last year, we vacationed with Satoru's family on Maui and in Beijing. Satoru and I are much closer in age. He speaks English, and my Japanese has improved. We both have photos of the kids by the seaside at Maui or atop the Great Wall of China. Experiences, happy ones, had been shared by all...and, of course, with Reiko.

But the ceremony was far from a happy event. As is the custom, Reiko had been transported from the hospital to a private home, in this case to my mother-in-law's apartment. (Satoru and his family live in Shanghai, where he oversees a factory for the family business, an Osaka-based filter manufacturer.) Wearing a pretty dress, Reiko had been placed on a futon with a blanket pulled up about mid-chest. By her pillow stood her favorite things, such as a pink, stuffed rabbit and lots of Kitty-chan dolls and toys.

That night, the immediate family and their kids came over to show their support. The cousins, the eldest being six, are obviously too young to fully grasp this kind of loss. The same went for Reiko's sister, a toddler named Mari. Often, the children blitzed around the apartment as if nothing had changed. But they also spent a lot of time with Reiko, sometimes looking on impassively, other times with obvious puzzlement. They caressed Reiko's hair and cheeks or held her little hand. It was a lot tougher for the adults.


  The next day, we moved on to a nearby funeral hall. Reiko was now dressed in a white gown and placed in an unpainted wooden casket. At 6:00 p.m., a Buddhist priest arrived and started chanting sutras. Thus began the traditional tsuya -- an all-night wake. Mourners arrived, prayed before Reiko and an enlarged black-and-white photo of her that stood in the background, flanked on both sides with huge bouquets of flowers. The mourners bowed deeply toward the family to express their sympathy. Later, food and refreshments, including beer and sake, were served.

Satoru had asked my family to spend the night with his at the funeral hall. Yuki, then battling the flu, took Marie back to her mother's place. I stayed on with my youngest, Elena, who is close to Reiko's age. Around midnight, I sat with Satoru in the then-empty hall, where his daughter rested. In a mix of Japanese and English, we talked for an hour or so about his loss, the differences between funerals in the East and in the West. We both agreed that some good could come out of this, that painful experiences like the loss of the child could somehow make us stronger.

Then came the formal funeral rite the next day, with more sutras and more public expressions of sympathy by family friends. Toward the end, Reiko's casket was opened up for final viewing. We all placed flowers on her and she looked beautiful. Saying goodbye hurt a lot. She then went on to the crematorium for a brief service. And much later in the day, we returned. The immediate family, using chopsticks, placed small pieces of her bone resting on a slab of stone into a small white jar called a kotsutsubo that was handed over to Satoru and his wife.


  I will admit the Buddhist approach to grieving may seem unfamiliar, a little drawn out or too confrontational to some. Other traditions, other people, will approach things differently, and that is as it should be. But I found the whole thing strangely cathartic, which in my book is exactly the whole point of the exercise. It is better to face the loss, feel it, and start the process of moving forward. For Satoru and his wife, that will take some time, but I have no doubt that they will.

I also learned a few other things: I no longer feel like just a brother-in-law to Satoru, but a friend. I no longer feel like the gaijin in-law, the detached cultural observer, but part of Yuki's family. My own girls are more precious to me than ever. And it doesn't really matter to me if ordinary Japanese borrow from several religious systems, or hold to just one. What they have in place seems to work just fine.

And for these lessons, sweet Reiko-chan, I thank you.

Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BW Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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