When I first picked up WHEN THE DEAD PAUSE AND THE JAPANESE SAY GOOD-BYE by Marie Mutsuki Mockett, I assumed it was about the 2011 tsunami and its effects on survivors. It is certainly about that, but not only -- or even principally -- that. It is a book about grieving, and learning how the Japanese handle grief.
Mockett is half-Japanese (her father was American) and grew up in California. But as a child she returned to Japan yearly with her mother. So she not only speaks the language but knows a lot of the customs. In addition, members of her mother's family own a Zen temple not far from the tsunami area. When her father and grandparents died one after the other, she felt a deep grief, and hoped she might learn something about how to accept it from the Japanese Buddhism she inherited through her family.
The book covers several visits to Japan and jumps back and forth between them, so that the chapters are more thematic than chronological. Sometimes, she visits a certain temple, for example, but comes back again on another trip. She is treated as a foreigner, which she is since she didn't grow up there, but when she tells her various hosts that her family has a Zen temple, the priests and others in charge of the various spiritual sites she visits change their attitude and become more welcoming. They see that she isn't just a tourist but a serious seeker.
Although I myself lived in Japan for two years and practiced Buddhism at two different temples, I did not know many of the customs and practices Mockett describes in her book. This may be because I was considered completely foreign since I have no family affiliation in Japan, and also because my Japanese was not as fluent as hers. (I was quasi-fluent, which means I missed a lot when Japanese were speaking among themselves.)
Mockett's sojourns take her to Buddhist temples of various sects But she is also interested in sites of the more ancient, matriarchal spirituality (from which Shinto is derived), which has a sometimes uneasy coexistence with Buddhism. For example, there is one Buddhist temple where the itako, or traditional female fortune tellers, return once a year. Now there are only two left. When Mockett said she wanted to visit one and asked how to make arrangements, she was advised that it was really better to see a Buddhist priest at that temple, rather than an itako.
Mockett also delves into the realm of spirits and ghosts and the rich Japanese tradition of contact with the “other world.” She visits several festivals, such as O'Bon, where the dead are welcomed home or sent back to the other world. At one point, it seems that her young son, whom she brings with her on the last journey, experiences contact with a ghost.
Nothing dramatic happens but many, many small things happen and all of these experiences turn Mockett's grief into a felt understanding that what she experiences is universal to all.