Joi Ito, the chap who wrote that excellent New York Times article about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, posted a piece on his blog this morning about a funeral in his village. He describes the close ties between neighbours in rural Japan and the expectation that they will support each other quite extensively at funerals and suchlike.
We are in a curious position here. Hiratsuka isn’t really what you would call rural Japan anymore. A. remembers that in her childhood the hill above us was a forest full of snakes, insects and Jomon remains (really, they now have signs to these spots). There were very few houses in the whole area and five extended families, including A.'s, had been living here for hundreds of years. One family was derided by the other families as newcomers. They had arrived 300 years ago.
That has all changed now. The hill was sold to a building company and is now covered by a modern housing estate. Many people living up there lost a packet when the property bubble burst in the 1990s, but there are still plenty of Mercs and BMWs. If you walk around in the early evening, you can hear the young daughters of these households practising their pianos and violins. I don't know why that speaks so strongly to me of children being brought up in nuclear families but, put it this way, they aren't grubbing around for insects in the forest anymore. Many of these families have very few ties with the area and the local people.
However, because A.'s family have such deep roots here (apparently there are over 300 people hereabouts in A.'s extended family), we find ourselves living in a peculiarly rural and traditional suburbia. We have had deliveries of aubergine all summer from A.'s grandfather's field. (Everyday, another aubergine. We're running out of recipes fast. I feel I like I might turn into one!) Returning to Joi Ito's theme, A.'s family have loads of responsibilities to fulfil towards their neighbours. They have something called a "tonarigumi" or "kumi", which means all of the aforementioned five families help out at each other's funerals.
Not so long ago, A.'s parents were swept up in the funeral of one of the heads of the five families. This particular family were rather famous for their carefulness with their money. On one particularly notorious occasion, the local authority had been buying land so that it could build a new school for the children here. Everybody else sold at a reasonable price, but this family refused to sell for ages, until their price had been bumped up massively. The incident earned the family a new euphemistic nickname: the "avid farmers", unable to countenance selling an acre of their land because of their unquenchable passion for growing aubergines. The "avid farmers" have long been famous among their neighbours for their extraordinary expanding fields. It seems the border lines of their lands have a tendency to edge outwards, inch by inch, year by year.
Anyway, one of the great things about penny-pinchers is that they provide such excellent entertainment for everyone else. The priest at the funeral was obviously not too chuffed at his payment (the amount is left to the discretion of the family) and delivered an interminable sermon on the importance of generosity in life. He was not seen at the wake after the ceremony, which is apparently very unusual. A.'s dad came home laughing his head off because during the party there had been constant cajoling from members of the "avid farming family" for guests to eat their full, in fact more than their fill if possible. They kept appearing with bottles of sake and urging everybody to drink up. This was obviously seriously out of character and there had been some confusion among the guests until one of the catering staff whispered that the family was paying by the hour not by the amount of food and alcohol consumed. The thought of all that money going to waste obviously pained them too much and the thought of the caterers staying another hour was clearly torture. I suspect every family in the neighbourhood was chuckling about it in the evening. Aren't close knit communities wonderful？