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Death in Japan
by Fosco Maraini
There are occasions in Tokyo when all the diverse cultural strands come together at once. For me the most memorable episode was of all things, a funeral – the wake of a very dear fried who died in the midst of life at the peak of his powers and personal magnetism.
I had known Masa Moroi for a long time, he had even visited me in Italy. I had only recently been to see him at the night club he owned; and I was shocked by the news of his death.
The funeral ceremony, I learned. was to take place at the Hilton Hotel. Arriving at the Hilton with me were mourners by the dozen – a cosmopolitan crowd that reflected Masa's innumerable friendships, the variety of his interests and activities.
"Their marriage will take place in the near future. May they be happy forever!"
Japanese among them seemed to be an extraordinarily mixed group, at least
as far as class divisions
go. There were what I took to be gardeners and jowled company presidents
as well as lean suave aristocrats.
We were ushered into a ballroom that had been lavishly decorated with flowers. Somewhere unseen a pop orchestra was playing a tune with a particularly pressing rhythm. On one side of the room an altar had been set up and – as is normal atJapanese funerals – a massive photograph of Masa had been placed on top.
Taken in summer sunshine, it showed him in sports shirt, radiating all his extraordinary charm. However, the altar instead of bearing the usual candles, incense, sacred Buddhist objects and images was covered with a spectacular display of flowers, fruits, vegetables, fish, wines and sake.
There was something so wonderfully clear, pure, bright, vigorous and pagan about it all – the inimitable spirit of Shinto – in the midst of a Buddhist rite.
Mrs. Moroi, an exotic beauty in her forties, greeted us dressed in a mauve, Western-style gown. Standing beside her were Masa's son and daughter, both in their early twenties. Mrs. Moroi distributed beaming smiles with a total lack of self-consciousness.
That smiles should accompany death is an old point of Japanese – or, at least of samurai – etiquette. "Masa wished it like this", Myriam (that was her Western name) said.
She invited us "to have a good time and enjoy ourselves and be gay, drink, dance, sing". She reminded us that "his spirit will rejoice if you rejoice". We moved around, slightly dazzled by it all. "Moroi est mort, vive Moroi!" said a French voice.
I mingled with the guests, and all of us, as it turned out, had been similarly moved. When the last person had paid his respects, we were invited to sit down for the feast. We took our places at tables that have been gorgeously set.
Food was abundant, conversation reach, lively, polyglot, spicy. We drank wines from as far away as Bordeaux and as close as Kofu, at the foot o Mt. Fuji.
Soon the ecumenical wake was in full swing. The curtains concealing a stage at one end of the rule were drawn aside and, before we could get over our surprise a ballet ensemble -- some 20 dangers, actors and singers -- had launched into an entertainment.
The performers danced, acted, sang with tremendous gusto and skill.Flesh with gloriously exposed and propelled us into an orbit of secret warmth. If the message Masa intended to convey to us was ex-more viva, he could hardly have been more successful.
During a brief interval, an Englishman sitting next to me said that he had once attended a similar funeral in California but, he added, "It came off very poorly we were all embarrassed." He wondered why this one should seem so natural. Yes, why?
That was to set us thinking. The two wakes reflected, we decided, two entirely different concept of death. In our society with his Judoe- Christian base, it is impossible to cavort with death on such familiar, confident, intimate terms.
In the Christian mind at least death is a gate leading to final judgment, and woe to those who take it lightly.
But in the Buddhist view of things, death is a trail to be confronted many times along the path of psychic migration; the way may be hard for all. but the final goal – Buddhahood and deliverance – shines like the sun, inviting mankind onward.
In the Shinto view, death leads to the world of the kami, where gods and mortals mingle and interfuse. Both faiths permit death to be taken with a smile, an inevitable link in the chain of generation- destruction-generation.
And so, Masa's funeral became his jisei, his deathbed poem – written not in words, but in people, music and dance.
We were his ideograms, his thoughts, languors, dreams, hopes. When the show was over, the curtains were closed. After the applause ended, there ensued a few moments of silence and darkness. Then the curtains parted again. There, bathed in green light, stood a young couple – he in dinner jacket, she in a long white gown, holding a bunch of flowers. I recognized the boy immediately; he was Masa's son.
Mrs. Moroi addressed us from a microphone at her table: "Dear friends, I am performing my duty and following Masa's last wishes. This is Sada, our son, whom most of you know well, and next to him stands Yuri – his fiancee from this moment on. Their marriage will take place in the near future. May they be happy forever!" She stopped abruptly, tears in her eyes.
We all clapped. Yuri was delightfully petite, coy in her movements, accustomed, it would seem, to floodlights and publicity. She was, I was told, a singer. "Yuri, Yuri, Yuri," her young friends began to chant. "Sing something for us. Come on, Yuri. Yu-ri, Yu-ri, Yu-ri." Yuri nodded. A microphone was brought to her.
She clasped it in her hands. Now there was total silence. She opened her mouth. Out of her parted lips, very finely, very richly with total incongruity, came a familiar song – Gounod's Ave Maria.