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Essay Contest

"Gratitude--A Japanese Lesson"
Christal Whelan (USA)

 When I first came to Japan, I was enchanted by the exquisite refinement of traditions such as the incense ceremony, and impressed by such singularities as the penchant to miniaturize - poems, trees, cars, and even whole landscapes. Like the sound of Basho's frog - stunning and evocative. Above all, the extraordinary appeal that Japan's religious traditions exerted on me remained a mystery to my Japanese friends and a veritable wedge between us. How could I explain my enthusiasm for the sheer abundance of forms of prayer, ritual, and meditation as found in the esoteric traditions of Shingon, Shugendo, and Tendai where mudras, mantras, and the 108-beaded juzu worked in tandem with cleansing waterfalls and purifying goma fires. All these seemed explicitly designed to engage the whole body with its myriad sensations and to quell busy minds and hearts through total engagement rather than austere renunciation. So swept up was I in new ways of thinking and feeling that I had room for little else. Only at unexpected moments - an incomprehensible phrase or a missed cue - would I realize with a shock that I was not Japanese after all and that Izanagi and Izanami were not my mythical matrix. I can easily link this cognitive dissonance to the puzzle that ancestor veneration posed for me. It was a stumbling block that I could not seem to surmount because I lacked the experience that would allow me to grasp it.
  During the year I lived in the remote Goto Islands and did research on Japan's “Hidden Christians,” I expected to find this community completely distinct from people of other religious traditions in these islands. The experience of persecution and secrecy had certainly isolated this group historically. But whether a Buddhist sect, a Shinto branch, a “Hidden Christian” village, a new, or a new-new religion, reverence for ancestors seemed perhaps the one common theme that could still bind these disparate strands and render them all transparently Japanese. Although ancestor veneration is a feature found in other civilizations as distinct as those of China and Africa, the puzzle that immediately confronted me was a Japanese one in all its concreteness. Closely related to ancestor reverence was the practice of “kuyo” or memorial services. I learned that just dying or being dead in itself, even for a very long time, would not automatically convert a person into an ancestor. According to some traditions, it took fifty years to become a true ancestor. During that time the potential ancestor was the object of great care, the recipient of numerous rites and offerings of fruit, incense, and scripture that would gradually refine the spirit and confer upon him or her the status of “ancestor.” That was precisely the point - to be an ancestor was a status to achieve but it could not be done alone. It depended on the collaboration and good will of one's descendants. Various as they might be, these memorial practices constituted tangible links in a long chain that kept the past tightly fastened to the present.
  The shift in my own consciousness towards an understanding of this cultural puzzle was a gradual one that laid the foundation for a radical change in my relationship with my own father. I attribute the possibility of such change ultimately to the persuasive influence of ancestor veneration on my own way of thinking. As a point of reference, I can recall an incident that clearly exemplifies my original attitude. Returning to Hawai'i from Japan one Christmas, my younger brother, who was then studying to be a photographer, had discovered an old family photo. Enlarged to portrait-size, it became everyone's Christmas present that year. Taken at dockside at the close of the 19th century, this sepia photograph depicted our paternal ancestors. Headed for America from Ireland, they were dressed in old coats and odd caps, young and old, and surrounded by chunky leather suitcases. My first impression when I looked at this photo was “Why on earth did my brother have to burden me with this!” The subtext to my annoyance was: “I have never met and never can meet these people, so I really have not relation to them.” I told my mother she could keep my photo, too, because I had no place for it. My little brother's gift had certainly not been prompted by any strain of ancestor reverence, but rather by a combination of retro-fashion and a post-Alex Haley search for “roots.” In a country where nearly everyone originated from elsewhere, the demand to quickly shed one's past in order to become “American” resulted in a severing of the ancestors. In exchange, the “self-made” man or woman became a model of which “self-reliance” was the virtue.
  One day my colleague at the pharmaceutical university in Tokyo where I was then employed asked me if I would be attending the “dobutsu jikken kuyo.” I had never heard of such a kuyo before, but soon learned that twice a year the university conducted a memorial service for all the laboratory animals whose lives had been “sacrificed” for the benefit of science. That afternoon, under the shade of a huge tree on campus, all the laboratory employees turned up in their white lab coats. Although no “religious” official was present, a master of ceremonies made a short speech and then read from a white scroll that listed the kinds and precise numbers of animals that had been killed: guinea pigs 400, monkeys 22, mice 700, and so on. University staff members from other departments also attended the service and stood quietly with hands folded and heads bowed. The altar erected for the ceremony overflowed with offerings. A university administrator stood nearby with a bag of bananas and oranges and passed them out to participants who formed a long queue to the altar where each one placed fruit, and offered incense and a little prayer. The entire service took no more than forty-five minutes out of the usual working day.
  Although the lives of various animals had been taken for laboratory experiments, the service implied that they had not been taken in vain. These lives were not simply used and forgotten, but remembered and honored with a precision that amounted to a ceremony of accountability. Although the expression of gratitude toward laboratory animals appeared wholly extraordinary to me at the time, I soon learned that this was just the tip of the iceberg in Japan. The more I looked around me, the more I discovered other equally remarkable examples of remembering and giving thanks. Japan's premiere pearl magnate - Mikimoto - conducts an annual memorial service for oysters. When asking about this practice, a company representative responded with the logic of a syllogism. The company makes its living from selling pearls and the pearls came from oysters. The kuyo follows naturally from those facts. I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly and felt embarrassed that I had ever posed such a question. Several years later, I was walking through Koyasan's illustrious cemetery - a who's who of Japanese historical personages. Among the tombs of emperors and shogun, I came across a remarkable sight - a large stone erected by a fumigation company dedicated to “white ants.” The cultural refrain was becoming more audible now - lives taken to sustain other lives may be an inevitable human predicament, but they should nevertheless be fully acknowledged and honored. I soon learned that memorials extended into the plant kingdom and far beyond. I witnessed a memorial service for chrysanthemums and heard of another for cherry trees whose wood had been used to make the lovely cylinder tea caddies found in many Japanese homes. More surprising yet was the fact that “inanimate objects” were likewise not exempt from ceremonious remembering. This completely smudged the line that I had always been taught divided the “animate” from the “inanimate” world. At a Buddhist temple, I watched the priests in their brocaded finery conduct a memorial service for sewing needles and chant sutras for their repose. Having saved broken needles throughout the year for this annual event, the participants who were mostly seamstresses now placed their broken or blunted needles into a soft bed of fresh tofu on the altar. This was so persuasive that I found myself thinking that if I were a broken needle, I would also like to rest in a soothing loaf of tofu. Thus, these rites serve to cultivate empathy in both the participants and observers. Whether a Buddhist kuyo for needles, a Shinto service for old combs, a yamabushi bonfire for stubby calligraphy brushes, or secular services offered by scientists for laboratory animals, nothing in Japan is deemed too small or trivial to be the object of a kuyo. More than any other single practice, this one highlights the profound sense of gratitude that permeates Japanese culture as a whole. Beneath this sentiment lies a worldview that considers all things to be interconnected.
  By the time I next returned to Hawai'i for the Christmas holidays, I had observed numerous kuyo in Japan. But it was here at home where these experiences bore their first fruits. My father and I sat quietly across from each other in our living room one Sunday swapping portions of the newspaper. At a certain point, I looked up and noticed the striking resemblance of his foot to my own. For the first time in my life, it hit me like an electric shock that my father and I were actually made of the same flesh. To any observer, this would have been an obvious enough fact given that we were father and daughter. Yet I had never actually 'experienced' this fact until that moment. Uttering to myself, “This is my father!” was nothing less than an epiphany and a definitive turning point in my life. While the English language falls short here, Japanese has the perfect words to express my feelings of gratitude upon realizing that the person in front of me was largely responsible for the very fact that I had a body at all. Those words are “okagesama de.” People use these words everyday in Japan as a response to the familiar question: “Ogenki desu ka?” “Hai, genki desu. Okagesama de.” This phrase not only expresses the sense of interconnectedness of people, but reaffirms it countless times in the daily round of exchanges. Other Japanese linguistic compounds formed with “itadaku,” “kureru,” and “kudasaru” likewise reinforce the sense of being a grateful recipient. In my own case, that brief moment of reflexivity was the start of a translation into my own cultural idiom of the many kuyo I had witnessed. Ultimately, it served as a kind of initiation that allowed me to understand the meaning of ancestor veneration as the chain of such relationships as the one I had just experienced with my father but reiterated over generations into the remote past. This awareness was only possible because of the initial conundrum that ancestor veneration had posed for me.
  Not limited to kuyo, gratitude is a cultural theme that traverses every domain in Japanese society. The indigenous psychotherapy known as “Naikan” exploits this theme exclusively in the healing of various illnesses. Used in Japanese prisons and hospitals to reform or rehabilitate, Naikan is a method of rigorous self-reflection based on the philosophy that humans are fundamentally in debt since all existence implies mutual dependency. Even though humans are cared for in numerous visible and palpable ways by others from birth, they still tend to systematically forget the many acts of kindness they have received. Naikan addresses this issue through a structured meditation on just three questions: What did I receive? What did I give? What trouble did I cause? Beginning with the focus on one's mother, the Naikan client sits in front of a white “byobu” or screen from 6:30 a.m. until 9 p.m. for a period of one week engaged in a relentless recall of memories from birth to the present moment. The meditation is divided into three-year segments punctuated by five-minute visits every few hours from the Naikan therapist who asks just one question: “What did you examine?” Besides these brief interviews, Naikan tapes broadcast into one's room during mealtimes provide the only other external stimulus. These testimonials are passionate narratives of people who have discovered through Naikan the buried treasures in the invisible world of their own hearts and emerge from the Naikan “practice” with a cleansed attitude that drastically improves their psychological state and social relations. In the case of incurable diseases, at least the spirit of the person, if not the illness itself, can be healed through the cultivation of gratitude. If one can manage to survive the fatigue, boredom, and resistance that constitute the first three days of Naikan, then vivid memories begin to well up and flood the consciousness. By the time one has itemized the expenses parents have incurred from a diaper count through college tuition, the notion of a self-made man or woman seems a convenient but absurd fiction. For everything in one's existence is necessarily “okage de” to someone or some thing.
  Visitors to Japan will justifiably continue to be dazzled as I was by the multiplicity of cultural forms. The juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern and the secular and the religious is so compelling that it is tempting to view Japanese culture in terms of rupture and discontinuity. At least that would be one way of explaining what appear to be simultaneous yet mutually exclusive worlds. However, underlying this apparent discontinuity lies a continuity of values that gives body to the many distinct forms whether they be old or new. Japan's cultural reservoir is deep and rich, and has proven its resilience and creativity historically through the ability to reinvent itself according to the demands and spirit of the times. This reinvention is never arbitrary but draws from a repertoire of values among which gratitude has long held a preeminent position in Japan. As gratitude affirms not only the complex web of human relations, but also those with the environment, it is as relevant to ancient Yamato as to postmodern Japan. My own debt to Japan for having taught me this precious lesson in gratitude is something that I will never be able to fully repay. But at least I can begin by acknowledging the debt.



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