Japan's Days of the Dead

In Japan, the dead return every year in the middle of August to mingle with the living

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In America, as I recall, the dead don't come back to visit the living in any organized way, but rather choose their own occasions—which is very much in the American tradition, now that I think of it. In Japan, by contrast, where things often seem preternaturally systematic, the dead all come back each year in the middle of August, when it's convenient for the living to take a few days off.

During these days of the dead, when the living entertain throngs from the afterlife, stores close and offices are at half staff, everyone being busy honoring the dear departed, because so many more are passing away to ancestry every year that each obsequy must accommodate a greater spectral population, thereby diluting the effect on individual spirits, who last year began their clamor for due attention on Friday, August 14, when they walked through dreams, tapped shoulders in the dark, knocked on walls, and generally got it on in a posthumous way.

In the corridors of merely earthly business, where commuters both dead and alive have spent so many decades, there was a palpable and welcome absence, for the dead returned not for commerce, nor for tourism, but to mingle with relatives, drink some sake, party a bit, have some rice crackers, whatever the living offer, for the dead will eat anything after a year without a nibble; so the living all visited their ancestral graves and ladled water over the stone and left a drink and some flowers and snacks and burnt some incense and said some prayers for the ancestors, asking their intercession in the matter of, say, a red Ferrari.

Sometimes ancestors can swing such things if they have any pull on the far shore. You do see people driving Ferraris in this life (are there Ferraris after death?), though the ancestors in their wisdom seem to know it doesn't make much sense to have a Ferrari in Japan, where there are no open straightaways of any length and the standard speed limit is about 40 kph, and where the police once arrested one of the living for nonetheless courting death in a red Ferrari at nearly 240 kph on an expressway, a record for Japan. It was prime-time, front-page news throughout the land because generally not much living happens while the dead are around.

If you do see a Ferrari, it's most likely just sitting there rumbling expensively in the long lines of traffic that grow and grow, particularly during the days of the dead, because there is clearly a strong connection between death and expressways, where the living sit entombed for hours, idling and revving and idling with the air-conditioning on, looking out the windows and trying to fathom the reason, and the dead seem to enjoy the nostalgia, for it happens every year around this time, the dead traveling freely while the living edge forward on the roadway, impatient to reach the tollbooth, though everyone gets there eventually.

From Kyoto Journal (#35). Subscriptions: $40/yr. (3 issues) from 31 Bond St., New York, NY 10012.