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In the Red

Posted by Dave Bull at 1:45 PM, February 5, 1995

I spent a very enjoyable few hours the other day walking around part of 'Yanaka', one of those few districts of Tokyo that yet retains much of a flavour of the 'old days'. A friend and I had come to see the narrow back streets, the tiny shops, the many temples ... all the things are no longer found over in the modern part of the city where we live. Part of our route took us through one of the large graveyards that dot the area. It was very peaceful in there, with the roar of the surrounding city being almost completely muted, and as we strolled aimlessly along the bushy lanes that separated the groups of graves I for one, was somewhat amazed that such a huge 'undeveloped' area was still allowed to exist in this metropolis.

Presently we came to a part of the graveyard that overlooked the neighbouring railroad tracks, but even there, the peaceful feeling still remained with us, and we stood and watched the different trains going back and forth below us just like a display in a large toy shop. After a while, we turned to resume our stroll, and some marks on a nearby gravestone caught my eye: red lettering, standing out sharply from all the rest of the dark-coloured names. My companion explained what the red colour signified - those were the names of family members who had not yet died. When that particular gravestone had been erected, it had been prepared with the names of all those who were expected to one day 'reside' in this plot, presumably thus making it unnecessary to take it back to the memorial shop for re-engraving each time somebody in the family passed away.

This was interesting enough for me in its own right, but a closer investigation of the information carved on the stone turned up something more intriguing ... The gravestone was for a Christian family, and the names were those of four women, apparently a mother and three sisters. This seemed not to make sense at first. Although a surviving spouse would expect to be buried together with the partner who had passed away, as might a son, it would not normally be expected that daughters would be. In Japanese tradition, when a girl marries, she legally joins the family of her new husband, and would presumably be buried together with that family. Why then, were these girls' names carved on this stone? A bit more investigation of some other stones in the family group turned up the answer. These people were very Christian. These girls had no plans to get married and join somebody else's family ... They were not only 'small s' sisters, but 'big s' Sisters - nuns.

Now, should I be 'careful' what I say next? I don't have a particularly high opinion of organized religion, and perhaps some of you who read these little scribbles will be a bit upset with my ideas. But I suppose that if I don't say what I really think, there's no point in writing these essays ...

How is the life of those sisters being spent? It depends on your point of view. By their own standards, and probably those of most of their associated Christian community, they are spending their life wisely. They would perhaps use such phrases as 'self-sacrifice', 'service to God', 'service to humanity', etc. etc. They chose to set aside such 'normal' human activities as getting married, having a family, and exploring the wonders of this world, in favour of a life of dedication to their religious practices, and the promise of rewards in a 'next' world.

My standards differ. I have no belief in a 'next' world, and although I wish to behave as a responsible member of my community, and am certainly willing to extend assistance in such cases as I am able, I will not 'sacrifice' myself in the pursuit of such activities. I do not find the concept of 'self-sacrifice' a particularly noble idea.

But actually, it is not the thought that any one of the women in that family took up that type of life that bothers me. It is the fact that all of them did. Why should this be different? It is different because it tells me that those women did not make that choice of such a distorted lifestyle of their own free will. In an ideal world, each of us as we approach adulthood and the time when we must make decisions on how to make our way through life, would look at the world around us, look inside and consider our own needs and desires, and choose a path accordingly. If any particular person were to choose the life of self-sacrifice of a nun, then so be it. I would have no quarrel with them. Their life is their own, to use as they see fit. But to see that all three girls in a family have chosen that same route ... tells me that they did not make the choice of their own independent volition. Obviously, from a very young age, those girls were programmed to make such a choice by their parents and the people around them. By their parents' standards: they were educated well, and made a good choice about how to spend their life. By my standards: they were brainwashed, and simply did as their parents planned. They did not grow up to be independent human beings, but now exist merely as appendages to their parents' lives ...

I have two siblings, one brother and one sister. Simon lives an independent life in Germany, working as a musician. Sherry lives on the west coast of Canada, married and also happily working. I of course, live with my two children on the other side of the world, here in Japan, doing this and that ... None of us are living a life that could have even been foreseen by our parents, let alone planned by them. The very fact that we three siblings are leading such different lives tells me that my parents did something very right in bringing us up - they did not blindly program us with their own values and desires. They simply gave us a framework of values ... and then left us alone to sort things out as we saw fit.

The parents of those three sisters, on the other hand, obviously felt it their mission in life to inculcate those girls with their own values. In their eyes, those young children were not human beings, but simply clay to be molded into such shape as they chose. I hope I cannot disguise my disgust at such a philosophy ... and my horror at its consequences: adults who walk around the world looking to all intents and purposes like 'normal' people, but who are in reality, intellectual zeroes; beings without any ability to think for themselves, without any ability to understand what it means to be human. Beings who are capable of no other behaviour than simply following their so-carefully programmed track ... Truly, little more than animals ...

My companion and I discussed some of these ideas as we walked on through the graveyard, away from that stone with those names outlined in red. And as we passed by the seemingly endless rows of grave markers, each one a reminder of our own eventual fate, I offered up my own little prayer of thanks (To whom? you may well ask. I don't know!). Thanks that I had escaped the fate that befell those women. Not that they became nuns, for perhaps they have indeed had a life useful to somebody, but that they lost their humanity, their human-ness, in the process. I find it truly appropriate that their names are already carved on that gravestone, for in one way, they actually died many years ago, back when their parents took away their right to their own life ...

(February 1995)


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