When I lived in Japan in the early 1990’s I learned quickly about taking my shoes off at the front door. This custom made me bitter. It was inconvenient.
Instead of embracing the beauty, learning about the history of this custom, I let myself think of it as an annoyance.
After living there for many months, I was invited to go with a student and her family to the country. It was the anniversary of her uncle’s death so many gathered at her grandfather’s country home far from Tokyo. The weekend was filled with talk, food and celebration. A time for me to learn about more Japanese traditions.
After a big meal, (I ate most of it because of the language barrier and although they cook for thousands, they don’t eat as much as this American girl) we all got in cars and drove to a cemetery. I stood back from the family as they paid their respects to their uncle, who had died over ten years earlier.
Keeping to myself and observing this Japanese custom I watched as one of the relatives lit a cigarette and proceeded to stamp it out on the tombstone after tapping ashes right on top. Then another relative pulled out a can of beer and proceeded to pour the beer over the tombstone. I thought I was witnessing some ancient ritual steeped in symbolism and spirituality as I watched one woman wash the tombstone with an entire can of beer.
My student stood next to me and I asked about the significance of the beer and cigarette, ready to learn something deep and powerful.
Oh, my uncle loved to smoke and he was a big drinker, she told me. So much for deep meaning and significance.
Some rituals just are done because we think they make sense not because they have profound meaning. And right there in the Japanese sunlight, on a hillside far from everything, it made sense to a group of relatives and to a twenty something American tourist.
Although I don’t leave my shoes at the door of my own home very often, every time I vacuum I think of how sensible it would be to embark on this Japanese custom here in Seattle. And I know I definitely won’t be wasting a perfectly good beer to wash a gravestone any time soon, instead I’ll raise my glass in honor of the one who has gone before me. That is a ritual I can relate to…Kampai!
by J.G. McGlothern