Reflections on Japanese Culture, Writings

“I don’t want to spend eternity with my husband,” Kumi begins out of nowhere. “Thirty years is more than enough. I still have, what, fifteen, twenty more years with him? I think that’s more than long enough. Don’t you agree?” Kumi sighs and stares into her teacup as if waiting for an answer from the tea leaves.

“What brought this up?” Jun retorts as she picks up a piece of her cake.

Looking concerned Sumie says soothingly, “Kumi dear, Taro is nice enough. He’s demanding, I know, but so are all men. But I’ve never heard him yell at you like my Kenji does.” She puts her teacup down and peers into Kumi’s face.

“You have nothing to complain about, Kumi. You’ve done better than most. He’s now what, a vice-president? In any event, why the sudden interest in eternity?”

“I have – had – an old friend,” Kumi resumes, still staring at her tea leaves, “someone I’ve known longer than I’ve known you two. She was much older than me. When I was growing up in the country, she was like a big sister to me. Anyway, she passed away last week, and I attended her funeral. Her son’s done well, so it was an elaborate affair. I went with her family to her husband’s grave and watched her urn put next to his.” Kumi stops and lets out another sigh. “While the priest was reading the sutra I thought, ‘Well, my time will come soon enough.’ It was then that it hit me – do I want my ashes next to Taro’s? To spend an eternity with him?”

Kumi looks up, eyes staring into nothing, two teardrops slowly sliding down her cheeks. Jun and Sumie exchange glances.

Gently, Sumie tries comforting, “Of course, dear, you…”

“You are serious, aren’t you?” Jun interrupts, quickly swallowing her cake. “Of course, you don’t have to spend eternity with Taro if you don’t want to.”

“Wait. Jun, don’t be rash. Of course Kumi has to be buried with Taro. Where else? My point is, he’s not so bad. I know it was an arranged marriage, I know he’s not the most caring man, but he’s been a better-than-average husband. He certainly treats you better than my husband treats me. Don’t you agree, Kumi dear?”

“My point is, uh…” Jun searches for the right words. “OK. I saw this TV program the other night. What was it called? You know, the one that focuses on changing social mores? Anyway, according to them, more and more women are getting together to buy graves. Friends want to be buried with each other rather than with their husbands. Not to mention mother-in-laws.” She turns to Sumie, “Are you looking forward to spending forever with Kenji’s mother?”

“Please, Jun, we weren’t talking about me.” Sumie becomes uncharacteristically agitated, “Don’t get me started with my mother-in-law.”

Kumi, for the first time, shows some interest, “My mother-in-law is nice to me.”

“There, you see. Your situation isn’t so bad, dear.”

“But she’s civil with me only because her mother-in-law was really nasty to her. Otherwise….” Sumie fingers her teacup and looks up, “Come to think of it, she told me once that her brother had split their father’s ashes into two and put one half in the grave he had bought for himself. He didn’t want to be buried with his step-mother.”

“This can get complicated, I see. I suppose in a contentious family a person’s ashes can end up in several places. For all you know your mother-in-law’s nephew might split the half into another half, and so on and on,” Jun smirks. “Good thing we’re not Christians – there’ll be a lot of scrambling around looking for body parts when it’s time for the dead to rise.”

Kumi giggles while Sumie gives Jun a warning look. Ignoring her two friends, Jun plows ahead, “Do you know that in America they are offering to put ashes on a rocket and shoot it to the moon? When the rocket hits the ground and explodes, the ashes will be scattered, so to speak. I suppose if there’s enough demand, the moon will become a grave yard.”

“You’re joking!”

“No, no. I heard it on the radio. If you like the idea of being scattered about in San Francisco, you can have the ashes put in a fireworks shell, shoot it up, and have them scattered in the Bay – you know, end it all with a spectacular bang.”


“Crazy American ideas,” Jun laughs, “In any case, you can go to the moon for $12,500. If you want, they can even send you to outer space. It’ll cost more, but you can wander around space for eternity, not be bothered by husbands or in-laws,” Jun throws Sumie a knowing look. “I wonder if they’ll give a discount if you wanted only a part of your ashes to go to the moon.”

“I never know when you’re kidding, Jun,” Kumi laughs for the first time. “But you seem to know a lot about these things. How come?”

Now it’s Jun’s turn to stare at her tea leaves and sigh. “You’re always saying how nice it is that I don’t have a husband, or a mother-in-law. Well, that is a plus for being single, but there are minuses. What to do about my grave is a case in point – something that’s been on my mind lately.” She takes a long sip of her tea. “Of course, I could buy my own grave – I’ve saved enough for that – but there’ll be no one to look after it. My parents’ grave – my older brother’s now – is always a possibility, but I don’t know if I want to spend forever with my brother and his squabbling family. The only other option is to buy a locker at a temple and pay for ‘eternal care,’ which, to them, means fifty-years. After that I guess I’m off to a mass grave.” She attempts a smile that fails.

Now all three stare down at the their teacups.

After a while Sumie breaks the silence, “You know, we’ve been friends for a long time. When was it, fifth grade, when we swore to be friends for life? We were inseparable through high school. They used to call us the ‘three monkeys,’ remember?” She stares into a distance. “Then we went our separate ways, but we’ve managed to meet once a month like this ever since. So many years – we shared everything. It’s like each of us lead three lives but not really. Now, here we are talking about death and….” She stops. A smile appears as if she remembered some secret. She looks at one friend then the other, “It just occurs to me, maybe, we should consider, well you know, uh, we could….”

Kumi looks up, “What are you trying to say?”

“Kumi, Sumie doesn’t want to spend eternity with her mother-in-law.”

They all stare at each other. Kumi opens her mouth, then closes it. Then Sumie, with a tentative smile, nods.

Jun laughs. “Well, shall I look into buying us a grave?”

Jun and Sumie turn to Kumi, who can’t quite suppress a smile, “Now I feel kind of bad for Taro. But I’ll get over it.”

— May 10, 2000, Stanford

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