Death and life in Japan

In Japanese culture there is no clear distinction between life and death. The concept has been well expressed by Kato, who commented that in Japan 'there is a continuum between the living and the dead that makes it difficult to draw clear lines' (Kato, in Martinez 2004: 207). As has been suggested, probably the easiest way to explain this intricate phenomenon is that of the Taoist symbol of yin-yang. The yang (white) never exists purely as yang, but it is always inclusive of some yin (black) and vice versa. Simply stated, for a Japanese person, 'death' is present in a neonate as much as 'life' is present in a sick old man (Kasulis 2004). Such a strict interrelation between life and death appears even clearer by observing Japanese everyday life. A few examples are quoted below.

A notable example is that of the 'cherry blossom festival', which is one of the most important events of the year in Japan. People gather together in parks to celebrate the blossoming of cherry ('sakura') and plum trees. It is also an important moment of reflection on life and death. As Drazen has pointed out in a book called Anime Explosion!:9

The blossoms (which someone has linked to the human flesh) appears only for a brief time, then fall to the ground. This is the ultimate reminder that human life is very impermanent, but that, for the short time it is here, it can also be very beautiful.

Edward O. Wilson has called this sophisticated understanding of the biological, 'biophilia' (Wilson 1984). The term was originally employed to describe the love for nature manifested by field biologists, or naturalists. This occurs as a result of deep-seated emotions, which most of the time are spontaneous and they manifest themselves as a pre-reflective mode of our being. Similarly, other authors have written about a Japanese 'ecocentric' view of human existence (Shaner 1989; Yuasa 1993; Kasulis 2004).

Japanese intimate encounter with the natural world is an integral part of its ancient written history10 and has been frequently expressed with the dictum mono no aware, which literally means to show a 'sensitivity to things'. In Buddhism, for instance, there is a similar expression, which is called to imitate 'the child-like mind', or to show 'one's original face'. As Yasuo Yuasa has observed: 'The child-like mind is originally intimated with his/ her world . . . The emotional ties between the child and the environment are powerful and often uncontrolled' (1989: 124). Also Shinto mythology is rich in references to a pantheistic/animistic world-view and in Shinto ritual practices there are many elements which emphasize the encounter with oneself, others and nature in a cultivated harmony.11 At the core of this phenomenon lies the unifying activity between subject and object, which will be better discussed in the following paragraphs. For instance in 'calligraphy, dramatic theatre, flower arrangement, or the martial arts, one might be instructed to act "naturally" (in Japanese shizen ni) in order to become intimate with paper, brush, audience, flowers, or opponent respectively' (Yuasa 1989: 103).

A critique of Japanese love for nature has been put forward by Japanese psychiatrist Takeo Doi, who commented that this could be interpreted as a response to something unsatisfying about the pattern of Japanese social behaviour. In his view, the deep-seated desire for harmony (wa) is usually left unfulfilled by a Japanese social consciousness that routinely separates, albeit unconsciously, the outer (soto) public face of social obligations (omote) from the inner (uchi) face reserved for more intimate relationships (ura). He concludes that since Japanese are afflicted with this splitting of consciousness they 'seek to become one with nature precisely because of this affliction' (Doi 1986: 155-6). For him:

Only this would explain why Japanese feel able to breathe again when they confront nature, and why, strangely enough, they recover kokoro (heart, mind) that is much more human than the kokoro they have when they relate to other human beings.

The perception of life and death in the country emerges even more clearly from the very peculiar way in which Japanese deal with the problem of abortion with images of Jizo, the protector of children. Small statues of the size of little children are placed in cemeteries to apologize to a fetus to be aborted, and as focus of prayers for the soul of the fetus to be reborn into better circumstances. As Patrick Drazen has observed: 'there is a belief (which the West simply does not share) that nothing irretrievable has been lost by an abortion, and that there may be a greater good in the long term (2003: 209). Nevertheless aborted children have a different status from newborn infants (mizuko). In dying, they 'go back' to the world previous to life. This can be seen as an anticlockwise process. But where do they go? William LaFleur in his Liquid Life (1992) pointed out that in medieval Japan there was a special place for unborn children. This was called the Sai-no-kawara (or 'the Riverbank in the land of the Sai').12 He wrote:

The sai-no-kawara was envisioned concretely as a riverbank where dead children were gathered. They were thought to be miserable because, on the one hand, they could no longer be with their beloved parents in the land of the living and, on the other hand, they could not cross the river, which is taken to be the boundary between them and a good rebirth.

Moreover, he observed:

The sai-no-kaware is not a place found on our eartly maps. It lies in some 'other' world or in something of a borderline location between this world and others . . . Modern people may tell themselves that such locations are 'symbols' of intangible events in some unseen and other world, but it seems fairly clear from the kind of cultic activities that take place in such empirical Sai-no-kawara that they have popularly been taken as real nexi with other kinds of space - that is, interstices between the physical and the metaphysical.

All over Japan there are various locations, which are called 'Riverbank of Sai'. One of these is the Nembutsu-ji in Western Kyoyo where curiously there is no river at all. The label is used here to indicate a 'place of power'.

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