FANTASTIC VOYAGE: The importance of looking to the past to shape the future


Nothing makes my eyes glaze over more than the words: “When I was young…” I dislike going on trips of nostalgia through rose-tinted glasses, mostly because it sounds like an accusation heaved at my generation. And not only that, but it’s often unfounded.

According to Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” we as a people are objectively better off now than the people that came before us. (The book was written pre-pandemic).

Yet at the same time, as a Buddhist, I ascribe to doctrine written more than 2,000 years ago. Keeping tradition alive is an important part of most religions.

So how does one balance conservatism and the good old days, with the need to change and adapt? And how have things changed during the pandemic?

The Evolution of Tradition and COVID-19
For a long time, even before COVID-19, many long-held traditions had been changing in Japan. The New Year’s food — Osechi ryori — has started to fall out of favor, and the Obon season has seen a decrease in people traveling back to their ancestral home to pay respects at the family grave, to an outflux of people traveling to foreign countries on one of their only vacations of the year.

Funeral ceremonies have also changed. While funerals used to be large gatherings of family, friends and neighbors at the deceased’s home, it has changed to a one-hour ceremony at a funeral home. There is even a drive-thru funeral home!

It is in that environment that COVID-19 had struck. (I guess the drive-thru funeral home wasn’t such a bad idea after all). A lot of events in Japan were canceled, and everything took on a simplified version of what it used to be. The Obon matsuri, fireworks festivals, and the village sports day were all canceled. Funerals were even smaller than before; I once went to a funeral where there were more people assisting with the funeral than attending!

But what was more worrisome was how comfortable it all was. I’ll admit I felt a tinge of relief that I didn’t have to participate in some of the local events such as carrying the mikoshi, or portable shrine, all around town. My children’s piano recitals, which used to last two to three hours of listening to other people’s kids were cut down to half an hour.

Adapting to the Times
Once, in college, when my cupboards were particularly bare, I thought I’d make curry. The problem was that I didn’t have meat (because it’s too expensive) and I didn’t have vegetables (because I was a college student) but I figured I could make the curry with just the curry block and water. Who needs all that other stuff anyways? It’d be like someone picked out all the carrots and potatoes out of your curry. Not a big deal, right? Of course, the curry turned out to be a soupy mess. I didn’t know the starch in the potatoes thickens the broth, or how much of the flavor comes from the fat in the meat. I hadn’t properly understood the role of each ingredient and how they combined to make a delicious dish.

What I mean by the long aside, is that although we worked hard to adapt to the COVID lifestyle, as we return to normalcy, we should also look at why we had followed the traditions that we shed off. It’s easy to say: “We didn’t visit the grave at Obon during COVID and the sky didn’t fall down.”

While funerals may have become much simpler, especially when you don’t have to call distant relatives or clean your house, there is also something missing. Every time I talk to a family about how difficult funerals were before, there is always a rueful laugh about something that happened, and nods around the family as people chime in with stories and memories. There is value in coming together. There is value in working, crying, suffering and laughing together.

So as we move forward to create the new normal, it is also important to look back to the past for guidance. And what better time than Obon to reflect on where we came from and where we want to go?

Jeff Asai, a Yonsei who grew up attending the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Church, writes from the town of Asuka, Nara Prefecture, where he serves as an assistant minister at a Jodo-shu temple, Jokokuji, teaches English and lives with his wife Yae Hosokawa with their children Madoka and Yui. He can be reached via e-mail at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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