A journey to say goodbye in Tohoku

Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye

Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye

When the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye
By Marie Mutsuki Mocket
(New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2016, 336 pp., $16.95, paperback)

“Perhaps it is possible, then, to see through more than one set of eyes …” Expected to speak and behave as a Japanese once she boarded the plane from America, author Marie Mutsuki Mockett was immersed in a duality of cultures from an early age. Acutely aware of being identified as a gaijin (foreigner), especially with her mixed heritage, she would try to blend in, follow her mother’s lead, and absorb all that she could from Japan. “When the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye” is a deeply personal journey through grief as Mockett comes to terms with the loss of her American father and Japanese grandfather and embarks on a spiritual pilgrimage that Japanese have traveled for centuries.

After her grandfather dies in January of 2011, Mockett and her mother make plans to return to Empukuji, the family’s Soto Zen temple, located in Iwaki. When the earthquake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region, the intensity of the nuclear disaster and recovery in Fukushima delays the ritual to bury her grandfather’s bones at the temple. With the loss of thousands of lives in the region, the disconcerting devastation shakes up the teetering grief Mockett had been carrying since the unexpected death of her father. To allay the overwhelming grief and settle the lost souls of Tohoku, Mockett navigates through the region to explore the role of the spiritual leaders in the aftermath of the tsunami and traverses “the old spiritual paths in Japan laid down by ancient pilgrims.”

Throughout her journey, Mockett meets numerous characters who share their experiences and spiritual grounding as the Tohoku region recovers. Kaneta Taio, a priest from an inland temple Tsudaiji, was first called upon as bodies were discovered to perform hundreds of cremation ceremonies, including owakare, or the great parting ritual. After which, Café de Monk, a mobile café he sets up at temporary shelters and a nod to jazz artist Thelonious Monk whose music he plays, becomes a haven where baked goods and strong coffee are served, and the survivors’ stories are heard. When her young son Ewan joins her, his curiosity and spontaneity warms the crustiness of a temple caretaker Crab Lady and Fuzzy-headed priest; and provides solace for a grandmother living in temporary shelter and mourning the sudden loss of her granddaughter Hina.

To understand the ancient spiritual practices of Japan, Mockett tours the temples, meets fellow seekers and guides, participates in zazen meditation, confers with head priests, and listens to unexplainable encounters, or ghost stories along the way. She joins a film crew at Sai no Kawara, a riverbank lined with Jizo stone statues that are adorned with a red bib and hat, that meet the souls of children who have died; descends the dark underground at Kiyomizu to see the Great Buddha; lights toro nagaishi or floating lanterns at Matsushima; and seeks Osorezan (Mount Doom) where the dead cross the river to say her own goodbyes.

The expansive and deep delving memoir “When the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye” spans the vast cultural terrain with Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s delightful engaging descriptions of the people she meets and paths that she crosses. And through her narration, we begin to see a recovering landscape with a new set of eyes.

Mockett was born and raised in California to a Japanese mother and American father, and graduated from Columbia University with a degree in East Asian languages and civilizations. Her memoir was a New York Times Editors Choice, a Barnes and Noble Discover Pick, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2015 and a finalist for the Indies Choice Best Book for Adult Nonfiction for 2016. Her first novel, “There Picking Bones from Ash,” was shortlisted for the Saroyan International Prize for Writing, and a finalist for the Paterson Prize. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, National Geographic, Glamour, and other publications.

Mockett will speak at an event titled “Japanese Rituals & Remembrance: The Floating Lantern,” Saturday, Aug. 6, 1 to 3 p.m., at J-Sei, 1285 66th St. in Emeryville, Calif.

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