The topic of traditions to honor our ancestors brings me back to my “small kid days” as a Sansei Okinawan growing up on the island of Kaua‘i in Hawai‘i.
On Sundays I was taught at the Christian church that sinners would go to hell. Sin included both murder and worshipping “graven images.” After church, my mother would take me to visit my grandmother, or Baban as we called her. Baban would have us go in front of the butsudan (Buddhist altar) that held the ihai (ancestral tablet) of my grandfather and other deceased relatives.
Lighting sticks of incense and putting our hands together in prayer, I would think to myself (in pidgin English), “We all going hell!”
My Baban, who has long since become an ancestor herself, had a deep feeling for those who had lived, were living, and had yet to live. With great respect to the culture of my birthplace, the closest word I can think of is “aloha.” I would like to think that it was this aloha that links all of our traditions for honoring ancestors.
I regretted not learning more from Baban when she was alive, and when the chance came up to study in Okinawa, I jumped at it. While in Okinawa I tried to learn everything I could about Okinawan traditions. I read a lot books, but the best teacher I had was my great aunt, or Obaa as she was called, who became my surrogate Baban.
Obon (July 13 to 15 according the lunar calendar) was when Obaa transformed into the holy woman of the household — a legacy of Okinawa’s ancient matriarchal culture. She made sure that the house and yard were clean for unkee (omukae in Japanese) when the ancestors were welcomed “home.” Obaa saw to it that there were fruits, awamori, and other food in the buchidan (butsudan). I think I remember Obaa putting in sugarcane stalks for the ancestors to use as canes on their journey to and from the other world.
The second day of Obon was nakanuhi, a time for offering prayers at the buchidan. Relatives would come in an out to the house bearing gifts for the buchidan. The third day of Obon was uukui (ookuri in Japanese). It was the day to send the ancestors back to the other world. Obaa would go by the house entrance and burn uchikabi or paper money for the ancestors to use in the other world.
In the evening, the village seinen dan (young people’s association) would come down the street parade-style doing eisa or Okinawan style Bon dancing. Some of the young men would come in the house and we would give them awamori and/or beer to drink and they would be on their way to the next house.
Obaa also became an ancestor several years ago when she was more than 100 years old. Writing this piece has brought back warm memories of Baban, Obaa, and other people who have gone to that other world or gusoo as Obaa called it.
Obaa talked about gusoo as if it were right around the corner. It is comforting to think of our ancestors as being right around the corner, sharing aloha with us.
Dr. Wesley Ueunten is an assistant professor in the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University. He also teaches Okinawan sanshin music in Japantown and Albany. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.