My first trip to Japan was for a funeral.
When we arrived in Japan, the sun had set. The city lights of Osaka looked exactly how I’d always imagined Japan would look at night. Colorful and loud. Beautiful, in their own way. I watched countless unintelligible advertisements and brightly-lit office buildings zoom by the train window as an alien voice made announcements over the loudspeakers, likely detailing upcoming stations but she could have been narrating The Great Gatsby for all I knew.
I was entranced by the way my fiancée, Aiko, navigated the overwhelming train and subway maps. I knew she was at home here, but my complete inability to understand anything that was going on was a very humbling experience.
At the train station closest to her parents’ house, I dragged the suitcases off the train and set foot into this strange new world for the first time. Seeing it from a window was one thing. Walking through it, taking in the new smells, the sight of things familiar yet not, was a completely different experience. It was late in the evening and there weren’t many cars out, but several people were walking about. I was struck by how everyone looked the same. I don’t mean that in any insensitive way. In America you’ve got a myriad of different hair colors, eye colors, skin colors, and so forth. Here, everyone had black hair, pale skin, and dark eyes. That feeling of being an outsider sticks with you.
After navigating a twisting maze of narrow streets and alleyways, passing scores of closed shops and quiet bars, we arrived at her parents’ home.
The living room was cloaked from floor to ceiling in white cloth. In the middle on the floor was a rather plain wooden box, just the right length for an adult to lie down in. Behind the coffin, up on a pedestal, was a large portrait of the mother-in-law I would never meet, along with flowers of all colors and plaques with Japanese writing on them I’d likely still be hard-pressed to understand. The room smelled of incense and flowers.
Family members filled the room, sitting on cushions on the floor, sobbing and consoling each other. I don’t remember meeting my future father-in-law Mr. Nakata or sister-in-law Yuko at all. Instead, I remember being asked if I wanted to view the deceased. Aiko was translating, but not very well. She had a lot on her mind. I froze for a moment, terrified to do something that would be considered rude or offensive.
I sat down on one of the cushions, convinced I was doing it wrong and everyone would be offended. In all honesty nobody noticed or cared how I sat down. I slid up to the coffin and peered into the little glass window that had been left right above the face. She looked so young. Peacefully sleeping. White flower petals filled in the spaces between her body and the sides of the coffin.
I realize now, looking back, this was the first time I had sat so close to death.
After closing my eyes and saying a silent prayer, I backed away and sat in a chair in the kitchen. There was sushi, and I was encouraged to eat. Aiko had introduced me to sushi only a few weeks prior, and I’d fallen immediately in love with it. I grabbed some chopsticks and dug in. It was the first thing I had eaten in twenty four hours.
A man across the room shot me a stern look and said, in Japanese, “Hen na gaijin.” I didn’t need a translator for that. “Strange foreigner.” Then he smiled at me. He knew I was the odd man out in the situation. He knew exactly how lost and confused I was with all of this, and he made it a point–even though he spoke not a word of English–to do everything he could to make me feel comfortable.
That man was Aiko’s uncle. He’ll forever be known as “Hen na Ojisan”.
The next few days were as blurry as the first. I shared a meal with the family, unable to identify a single thing I ate. I downed it all anyway, terrified of being rude. I remember being utterly lost when a Buddhist priest came by to perform a ceremony for the deceased. I watched my uncle-in-law carefully and followed his lead. I remember him handing me some prayer beads. I remember the family crying at all times of day and night. I remember Aiko’s sister getting mad at me for nothing more than being in the same room with her. I remember making a mad dash to find some black shoes because I hadn’t brought any.
But the thing I remember most clearly was the next to last day of my stay. The day we went to the crematory.
The ride was silent. The narrow streets made me nervous, but the driver was an expert. There was frilly lace everywhere in the taxi, protected from the passengers by thick sheets of clear plastic. We drove through city streets and out into the countryside, up a mountain until at last we came to the cemetery.
I had no idea what was going to happen. I don’t think I could have prepared for this moment if I’d studied it for weeks beforehand. There are things you can never understand until you’ve lived them.
At the crematorium, we stood around the coffin as words were said by one of the staff members, then he rolled it away to be burned. We sat around in a waiting room, though I wasn’t sure what we were waiting for. I assumed it was for a box of ashes. There was a vending machine in the waiting room that served hamburgers. It grilled them right before your eyes, through a small glass window. Something about that machine existing in a crematorium made me laugh on the inside. It was like a dark, cruel joke.
After an hour of waiting, wandering around the lobby and gazing out at the Japanese countryside through the large windows, we were called together. I followed the family into a cold, stainless steel room with a concrete floor. All of us stood to one side. There must have been twenty family members present in all, but I was too nervous to count.
When everyone was lined up, a door on the far end of the room opened and out rolled what looked like a hospital catering cart, covered with a pile of ashes and bone. I realized with a churn of my stomach that this was the exact same cart the coffin had rested on as it was wheeled off to be incinerated. That was my future mother-in-law. And everyone was grabbing chopsticks.
They passed the chopsticks around, each person picking up a bone to put into a small container. I froze with fear. Being close to a dead body was hard enough. Using chopsticks–which I wasn’t the most skilled user of at the time–to pick up the bones of the deceased and put them in a box was something I was not about to do. Any number of terrible outcomes flashed through my mind. What if I slipped and flung her jaw across the room? What if I dropped it on the concrete floor and it shattered?
Aiko’s uncle turned to me and held out the chopsticks. It was my turn, he gestured. I swallowed, nodded, and approached the charred remains. I was surprised at how white it all was, even the ashes. I grabbed what seemed to be a small finger bone and quickly dropped it into the container before I over-thought the situation and screwed something up.
When it was over, I went outside for some fresh air. I was trembling uncontrollably, even though it was all behind me. Aiko’s uncle came outside with me and patted me on the back. All he said was “OK”, but the way he said it I knew exactly what he meant. It wasn’t a question. It was a reassurance.
It’s been nine years since that ordeal, but I haven’t forgotten a single detail of that funeral. I can still see the ashes and bone in my mind as clear as the day I had to overcome my fear of failure and put them in the box. Since then I’ve gotten married, lived and worked in Japan, had four children, and gotten to know my Japanese family much better. My uncle-in-law was one “strange uncle” indeed, and I’ll always hold a special regard for him for helping me find a way through the turmoil of that first trip to Japan.