Japan is a culture with many superstitions, especially surrounding death and the funereal ceremony that follows. Japanese funerals are highly stylized rites, conducted by a Buddhist priest according to the traditions of the Buddhist religion. A wake is held for the deceased, during which friends and family come to pay their respects. A special meal is served, and afterwards, the immediate family and close friends accompany the body of the deceased to the crematorium.
Many symbolic rituals are performed during the mourning process. For purification, a small mound of salt is placed on the threshold of the home of the deceased. In some cases, after cremation, family members use chopsticks to pass the charred remains of the deceased from person to person, until they are placed at last in the crematory urn for burial. An offering of food is often placed on the graves of the deceased, with a pair of chopsticks standing upright in it.
One of the strangest superstitions associated with the funeral ceremony is the practice of hiding one’s thumbs by wrapping the other fingers around them whenever a funeral procession passes by. The Japanese word for thumb is oyayubi, which, when literally translated, means “parent finger.” According to Japanese superstition, if you happen to see a funeral procession passing by and you forget to hide your thumbs, you will not be present to comfort your parents when they die.
My father died while I was in Japan. I knew that he was ill, and for that reason I paid a farewell visit to my hometown to see him one more time before I left for Tokyo. I’ll never forget him standing in the doorway of my childhood home, waving goodbye. I didn’t know it then, but that would be the last time I ever saw him.
About three months after my son was born, I was beginning to feel like myself again, and the prospect of making the trip home to see my parents didn’t seem so impossible anymore. One evening, I decided that I was ready to bring my baby home to meet them, so I hopped on my bicycle and headed over to the Hotel Metropolitan to use the international pay telephone. When I called my parents’ house to tell them the good news, my older sister answered the phone, and I immediately asked how my father was doing. After a short but dreadful pause, she said, “Oh no, you don’t know...” She gave the phone to my mother, who tearfully told me that my father had died ten days earlier, and had already been buried. In that instant, all joy was extinguished.
It seems that our nameplate had fallen off the mailbox, and when the Western Union deliveryman came with the telegram, he couldn’t figure out which apartment was ours, so he left without delivering it. I didn’t learn of my father’s death until that fateful evening almost two weeks later. Such a cruel twist of fate. Much of my memory after that is a blur, but somehow I remember thinking on the long ride home, that I must have forgotten to hide my thumbs.