Let’s Talk About … Honoring the dead

Obon season is upon us. It is when our Japanese American communities gather to share an ancient Buddhist tradition to honor the spirits of our ancestors. In Japan, it is a time when families return to their ancestral family homes to visit and clean their ancestors’ graves. It is thought to be the time when the spirits of loved ones who have recently passed away revisit their families to bid their final farewell. Ritual, tradition and customs around death give the mourning a structure and place for healing.

In mid-April, 35 of us Nikkei who had some connection to the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp, traveled by bus over two days on a pilgrimage. We wanted to see for ourselves the place where we were children, where our parents, siblings and friends had spent some years incarcerated during World War II. We had a mission to return a box that had come from Topaz and had never been opened for 75 years. We had made arrangements to view the new museum. We had a program planned to perform with taiko drums and speak with others about our experience and perspectives about Topaz, but it wasn’t what we planned that had the greatest impact on me.

The morning of our visit, we planned to have a picnic at the site where the camp barracks had been, so we cooked rice in the motel and made Spam musubi. And like any JA event, everyone brought something delicious to share. When we arrived, the parched desert sand, dried bouquets of greasewood bush and distant mountains surrounded us. We set our table — rice trimmed with takuan (pickled daikon radish), rakkyo (pickled shallots) and sunomono (pickled dish). Somehow the laughter and socializing settled into a reflective, solemn silence as we finished the meal that we knew former prisoners may have longed for. It seemed that in spite of our boisterous beginning, the grief of our family histories here pervaded the air, and the mood was suddenly matched by darkening clouds and falling rain.

Huddled on the bus, we watched as some determined souls defied the rain to search for the specific place that held their family memories. As swiftly as the clouds had come in, they disappeared and made way for the sun. Almost in slow motion, without even speaking to each other, something remarkable came together. The taiko drummers took their drums out to practice, someone turned up recordings of Japanese music. Like a siren calling to us, we all slowly gathered together in one spot.

I recognized the scratchy but familiar music of the “Tanko Bushi,” and so did others.  Before we knew it, we were children again! Our body memories guiding us to dig the coal and clap our hands in unison.

Laughter and joy filled the wide, open space that held the bones of wood, scraps of metal and rusted nails of our history. 

It wasn’t Obon time yet, but as our hearts beat with the drums, we declared our presence. We promised to never forget. And without a word, we continued to dance, honoring the dead who had been here before us.

Satsuki Ina, Ph.D. is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in intergenerational trauma. She can be reached at satsukina44@gmail.com. She is also a filmmaker (“Children of the Camps” — www.children-of-the-camps.org and “From a Silk Cocoon: A Japanese American Renunciation Story” — www.fromasilkcocoon.com). Views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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