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The following articles were originally published in The Shelbyville News in the column “Letters Home:  A Hoosier in Japan.”



Send questions and comments to me at toddjayleonard@yahoo.com.

Book Description

Letters Home

What types of holidays do Japanese people celebrate? What is the educational system like in Japan? What are Japanese festivals like? What are some of the customs and traditions of the Japanese people? Professor Todd Jay Leonard, writing from the perspective of living and working in Japan, provides in this fascinating book the answers to these and many other questions.
Letters Home: Musings of an American Expatriate Living in Japan delivers a firsthand account of daily Japanese life through the eyes and personal experiences of Professor Leonard who has enjoyed an ongoing relationship with Japan and the Japanese people for nearly twenty-five years. 

This anecdotal book of essays, written in the style of personal letters, offers commentary on a wide range of topics and issues including culture, history, education, language, society, and religion of modern Japan from the point-of-view of an American expatriate who has made Japan his home. 

The author’s friendly, down-to-earth, yet authoritative, style of writing will transport you to modern Japan, where you will learn about the customs and traditions of this most fascinating country. This book can be enjoyed by anyone who has an interest in learning about Japan and its people.http://www.amazon.com/Letters-Home-Musings-American-Expatriate/dp/0595283098/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1299907225&sr=1-2

Japanese funerals have ancient traditions


In my last column, I commented on various funeral customs practiced in Japan. I would like to continue that theme in this column, as there are several more traditions that I believe you will find culturally different and, at the same time, interesting.

In Japan, it is customary and socially correct to make an offering of money to the deceased person’s family when attending a funeral. This money is called “koden,” with the amount given dependent upon how close you were to the person, your social position in the community and/or your own financial ability.

The usual amount of money offered is around $30 to $50. It is extremely important that the money given is put in a special envelope that has black and white cords elaborately tied around it. Also, the bills should be old and well-worn — not new. Offering a new bill as a funeral offering could give the appearance that the death was expected and you had time in advance to prepare “new” bills for the occasion.

The opposite is true when offering money to a wedding couple; only new, not-yet-circulated bills should be given. This shows that you made a special effort to visit the bank in order to prepare crisp, new bills, which shows you approve of the wedding. Used bills for a wedding could convey that you are not that pleased about the union.

The subtlety involved in these types of cultural practices make it very hard for an outsider not to offend people on some level. These cultural cues are based on a long tradition, practiced amongst a very homogenous group of people. Japanese people intuitively know such implied hints and can read a situation instantly, relying on their own cultural background and knowledge “to do the right thing.” Outsiders like me, on the other hand, must fumble around and learn by trial and error.

America, with its patchwork quilt of ethnic groups, could never have such indirect customs, due to the wide variety of cultural backgrounds that have fused together to make the United States the country it is today. An American bridal couple would not give it a second thought if someone gave them a $100 bill that had been in circulation; the hidden meaning, so apparent in Japan, would have to be more direct for Americans to get it (e.g. putting no money in the envelope — now, that would get an American’s attention).

The cost of a funeral in Japan, like in the United States, can be exorbitantly expensive. The monetary offering paid by each attendee helps to defray the cost incurred upon the family. In return, in order to cancel out any obligation to the person giving the monetary gift, the family then prepares a small gift for the attendees as a token of their profound appreciation for the generosity extended to them.

These gifts are usually valued at $15 to $20 and are wrapped in white, gray or black paper; usually included in the gift bag is a note of appreciation from the family. The attendees are handed these gifts as they leave the funeral.

In the past, I have received telephone cards, coupons to exchange for rice, handkerchiefs and hand towels in such instances. Japanese social etiquette requires that a gift of money be reciprocated, in some way, hence the reason why the family is obliged to offer guests a token gift at the funeral or soon after.

In addition, it is important for the attendees to write on the offering envelope in very light, even gray ink. Again, to use a rich, dark ink would suggest that the death was expected and the person writing had ample time to prepare the ink from an ink-stone. In the old days, it took much time and effort to prepare the “sumie” ink to write letters.

Using gray ink conveys that the death was such a shock that the person had no time to properly concoct the ink and hurriedly mixed it, resulting in a dull, grayish-colored ink.

A woman at my university is a master calligrapher, and she is always ready and willing to help me with these calligraphy-related duties. When she writes on a funeral envelope, it is ever so light, and her writing is so beautiful — a work of art. My Japanese writing, in contrast, looks like it was done by a 3-year-old.

Nowadays, stores offer a huge assortment of items to make these necessary tasks easier. One can purchase a pen that automatically writes in a grayish ink. All supermarkets and convenience stores have a section that sells the various types of envelopes needed for these culture-specific obligations.

Just as there is an assortment of envelopes for funerals, there are those for weddings and other happier occasions that come in red, white and gold.

The more elaborate envelopes signify the amount of money placed inside it. It would be strange to use a highly decorated envelope with only a small amount of money placed inside it. So, there are all kinds of envelopes to choose from — from the very plain to the ostentatious — depending upon the size of your offering.

Funeral customs in Japan are steeped in tradition that often goes back to ancient times. Of course, the burial custom in Japan is to cremate the deceased and then place the ashes in a family altar at a grave site (and not bury the person in the ground, like we normally do in the United States).

This custom has its origins in Buddhism, but is also done out of practicality. The scarcity of available land, and the exorbitant cost of land, makes it impractical to bury people in individual plots.



Monday, August 29, 2005

A woman is attending to a family grave at a Japanese cemetery. The ashes of many generations are interred into the same gravesite, both according to long-established custom and because of the scarcity of available land in Japan. Submitted photo