Book Review: Where The Dead Pause And The Japanese Say Goodbye – A Journey By Marie Mutsuki Mockett
Its pages are often full of a light that illuminates a fundamental human experience!
On Friday 11th March 2011 at 2.46pm local time the 9.0 magnitude Tōhoku Earthquake, the most powerful on record to have ever hit Japan, struck off the Pacific Coast of Tōhoku triggering Tsunami’s some of which reached up to 133 feet (40.5 metres) and travelled up to 6 miles (10 km) inland. Nearly 16,000 people were killed, over 6,000 injured and just over 2,500 people are still missing. It is against this back drop that Mutsuki Mockett weaves her way through a landscape of grief; that of her own personal, complicated, grief at the loss of her beloved father, and that of the people of the region from where some of her ancestors came.
Having been brought up in the United States with a Japanese mother and American father and though she asserts in her book it is not, Mockett’s view of the world which she tries so hard to resolve, is that of a mixed race child; a child of two cultures. Though encouraged by her paternal grandmother to learn all she could about Japan and her Japanese ancestry the inherent Japanese attitude towards a ‘hāfu’, as mixed race people are termed in Japan, is not made explicit but occasionally emerges as an underlying theme from the pages of Mockett’s account.
Mockett’s journey begins with a visit to her family’s temple in Iwate Prefecture. What comes across very quickly is that beneath the imperturbable veneer surprisingly the Japanese are not so different from anyone else. They have their family disagreements and don’t always agree with the way the world around them turns including, surprisingly, some of the social mores of Japanese society, and they weep and mourn just like everyone else. This is important for Western readers right at the start of the book as it helps to create a way in through what can often seem like an impenetrable barrier of cultural difference for which Japanese society is so often renowned.
Nevertheless the narrative, which takes the reader on a journey through the landscape of grief, mourning, loss and the twilight world expressed as the realm of transition between this world and the next as they are perceived and experienced by the Japanese, really is very different from the Western experience. And yet this also helps to create a subtly felt emotional and experiential bond between the reader and the characters that inhabit the pages of Mockett’s book in a way that is both strangely disorientating, especially in some of the more mysterious moments in the book, and a cathartic shared experience.
Mockett covers not just the personal aspects of the experience of loss but also the more mundane practical aspects of the Japanese journey after death and also delves into the experience from the point of view of those who are the shepherds of the death, dying and bereavement process; the priests and their practices, training and views. Their attitude may jolt some readers with its abrupt practicality, which may seem less than sympathetic but which in Buddhist terms can be understood as practical rather than ‘idiot’ compassion; less pandering to and allowing damaging emotions to continue unchecked and more encouraging of the pragmatic approach, though with an eye to at least allowing for some healthy grieving.
The various branches of Japanese Buddhism are covered as are the rigorous training regimes that their priests undergo with some travelogue included covering Mockett’s visits to the headquarters of Sōtō Zen at both Eihei-ji Temple and Sōji-ji Temple, and esoteric Japanese Shingon Buddhism’s Mount Kōya to sample some of the same rigours albeit for only a few days rather than the years required for priests in training. She also touches on Pure Land Buddhism, various Matsuri (festivals) and especially the importance of one of the pre-eminent festivals in Japan, O-bon (the Festival of the Dead), visits Osorezan, or Mt. Doom, in the far north of Japan in Aomori Prefecture which is the main portal to the world of the afterlife for all Japanese dead, and undertakes a visit to its blind mediums (otako) who fulfill much the same function as Western spiritual mediums.
The book culminates with a fascinating and eerie episode that takes the reader beyond the human realm into the realm of the other, the numinous, which leaves one with a sense that we can’t always understand everything that happens, and perhaps in a healthy way we are not meant to…
In conclusion this book isn’t the morbid travelogue one might expect from someone seeking to assuage her own grief. Its pages are often full of a light that illuminates a fundamental human experience, that of loss and all it entails, including of course a great healing which, if the reader is open to it, can be found walking hand in hand with Mockett as she leads the reader through this immensely fascinating and varying landscape. A book that is as enlightening as it is practical.
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2015
Available from all good retailers and online stores such as Amazon.co.uk
Photo by Stephine Badini
Finalist for the PEN Open Book Award
Finalist for the Indies Choice Book of the Year Adult Nonfiction
Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.