In the Red ...
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 ... things 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
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
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 sisters in that family took up that type of life that bothers
me. It is the fact that three 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
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 ...