September 4, 2009

Customary Perspective

On a topical note, I ran across a couple of articles on nokanshi (“encoffineers”), a central theme in the Oscar-winning movie Departures. One perspective presents the nokanshi as a traditional practice that preserves the spirit of Japan’s cultural artistry—a practice that may seem irrelevant in modern times.

Such an “art” of preparing the dead body seems unnecessary in today’s modern Japan: by law, the body will soon to be cremated, so pragmatism dictates only the minimum preparation. In Departures, even the grief-numbed family of the deceased cannot fully comprehend why this art is taking place. Other funeral directors do not really acknowledge that the occupation of nokanshi even exists in modern Japan.
In contrast, a post on the Wall Street Journal describes the popularity of this specific funeral custom in light of recent commercial development.
In the past, encoffination was often a matter-of-fact procedure performed by family members, neighbors and doctors to prepare the body for the wake, funeral and cremation. It wasn’t performed as a formal ceremony or even considered a part of the proper funeral … Two decades ago, a 40-year-old company called Sapporo Nokan Kyokai, based in the northern city of Sapporo, started promoting encoffination as a formal ceremony, for an additional charge. The company had long been performing the ceremony in Sapporo, but it had begun to receive inquiries from people in other parts of Japan, where the ritual was less common. Some of these people had attended funerals in the Sapporo area and liked the proper, personal attention given to the deceased.

These two articles aren’t written in opposing terms, but they offer different perspectives on a “foreign” custom. On one hand, the nokanshi profession stems from a primal artistic urge that is an inseparable part of Japanese culture. On the other hand, the fully ritualized nokanshi is a contemporary phenomenon in its widespread form. Again, these descriptions aren’t mutually-exclusive. They remind us that foreign customs and rituals are not necessarily “traditions” that date back centuries, and yet can still be just as meaningful as traditional customs that do.

In the context of Buddhist Asian customs, it’s easy to get caught up in a romantic notion of a timeless and unchanging tradition. This often mistaken assumption provides the foundation for unskillful conclusions. For example, the false assumption that tradition equals authenticity, or that ancient means irrelevant. Some of these foreign customs have developed to address modern concerns in an urban and industrialized context. It’s a point to keep in mind when we wrestle with terms such as “modern” and “traditional” Buddhist practice.

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