Saturday, March 7, 2009

More for March

A well kept family grave plot in a Buddhist temple near our home

More for March? More of what? I can hear your brains working and see your furrowed brows. Be perplexed no longer. As in February we shared some Fun Facts for the month, we have More for March in today’s blog.

First in the month, on March 3, is Hina Matsuri (in English, Doll’s Festival). Also known as Girls’ Day, this celebration honors daughters. Elaborate, kimono-clad ornamental dolls representing the Emperor and Empress and their court are displayed in tiers with prayers for girls’ health and happiness. Often grandparents purchase these extremely expensive doll sets upon the birth of a granddaughter or at least in time for her first birthday. (As an aside, unlike Boys’ Day in May, Girls’ Day is not a national holiday.)

White Day on March 14 is the male counterpart to Valentine’s Day. On White Day, men are supposed to return to women white chocolates and other white candies in appreciation for the Valentine’s chocolates they were given a month earlier. Some cynics say this was concocted in the 1970s by scheming candy makers looking for ways to increase sales. Could be. After all, we hear that with automobile sales plummeting in the United States, car dealers are offering all kinds of amazing incentives to potential customers—almost anything for a sale.

March 20 will be remembered in a much more serious way than White Day is observed—if it is observed. (It hasn’t quite taken root like Valentine’s Day.) This year marks the fourteenth anniversary of the sarin nerve gas attack on five Tokyo subway trains during the morning rush hour of March 20, 1995. Twelve people were killed and thousands were injured (some of whom are still in comas or remain completely debilitated). Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, is on death row and awaiting the sentence to be carried out for these crimes that shocked the nation to its core—and, I might add, resulted in a profound suspicion about religion of all kinds in the hearts and minds of not a few Japanese.

Spring Equinox Day also falls on March 20. The most important obligation for this national holiday is that people clean up their family graves, even if this means traveling considerable distance. Generally, these graves are small plots with black or gray granite stone markers into which all names of the persons whose ashes are interred are carved. Sometimes as many as ten names appear on a single marker. When the markers are washed, grass clipped, and fresh cut flowers arranged in vases at the gravesite, a black-robed Buddhist priest arrives to recite okyou, sutras to the dead, while incense is burned. It is said that the length and elaborateness of the chanting depends upon the amount of money a family is willing to pay for the priest’s services. While there are many devout Buddhists who also keep their ancestors’ memories alive at their home butsudan (family altar), this obligatory visit to the family grave on March 20 fulfills one-third of the year’s minimum requirements for Japanese Buddhists. Wilted flowers will be left in vases until a windy day carries them away, until the biggest annual Buddhist festival called Obon in August, or perhaps until Fall Equinox Day in September.

From my perspective, however, March 20 signals that the cherry blossom-viewing season is just around the corner. And with that, spring is indeed on its way to Japan.