The 16th Day- Kyureki New Year for the Dead

I work at several schools, but on a fairly regular schedule, so while I don’t get calendars for each week, I usually know where to show up and for how long.  I’ve been in Japan over 3.5 years so I’m usually ready for the events and holidays.

I should mention that while I have lived in Okinawa-ken the whole 4+ years, I used to be on an island settled by people from near Tokyo, and am now on an Island 400km west.  This island is much older, has closer ties to Chinese culture, and is very Okinawan (of the Ryukyu variety).

So at school it took me a few minutes to figure out it was a short period schedule.  I did my usual work.  Later, I started overhearing conversations about lunch (I usually don’t pick up conversations unless I try, but I was getting hungry, so lunch! was on my mind).  Then I thought I heard about how there wasn’t any today.  Huh?

Then my fourth period class ended and kids started packing up… like to leave.

I went down to the teachers room as usual and started editing while waiting for lunch to come so I could help set it up as usual… Lunchtime came and went.

Then I got a call.  And eventually I figured what was going on and was invited to share another unique experience with a friend.

The 16th Day

Although today is February 7th (in 2012… 2013’s is on 2/25) in the modern calendar, it is the 16th of the first month in the old Kyureki calendar. Here I found out this day is the spirit/ancestor/heaven New Years’.  From what I was told, and hopefully I understood things correctly (not always the case now that a lot more is in Hogen, the Okinawan dialect), this is mainly celebrated on the small western islands and not so much on Okinawa itself.  Families get together to make offerings to their ancestors and eat traditional foods at their family shrine (ohaka).

This translates into a half day for the students.  After 4th period, the kids were packing up, because they were going home.  Mothers, and other family members create the special food starting in the morning.  Then, everyone meets at their home or ohaka.  Some families only have shrines in their houses, others have house-like structures on family plots.  These shrines can house the ashes of deceased family members, or just be symbolic places for spirits to stay.

In my case, I found my way to my friend’s family’s ohaka where we wished the spirits/ancestors Happy New Year By:

  • Kneeling and clapping once to call their attention
  • Lighting incense and clasping it in our hands, then saying “Happy New Year” etc. in Japanese.  We then placed the incense sticks before the sealed opening.
  • Clapping one last time to finish.

Afterward, everyone began eating and talking.  My friend told me that if the weather is good the family will stay until late.  Today it was cold, windy, and rainy so after everyone was finished, we packed up.  He also said that many families would likely congregate from nearby ohaka, and that there would be many more people if the weather wasn’t so bad.

My friend mentioned that long ago everyone would join together at one big place, but since then families had become more separated.

Presents for the Dead

Since lunch got cut short, I was invited to my friend’s grandfather’s house.  There, extended family members came throughout the evening to pay their respects and give offerings to the deceased, then join with the others for food, drink, and conversation.

Just off the entrance to the house was another family shrine (butsudan).  Within the butusdan was a cup of sake that some people added to and a bowl with sand for incense.  In front of the alcove was also a table filled with food offerings.  The newcomers would light incense sticks, and pray as we had at the ohaka. Then they would place the still burning sticks in the bowl and join the others at a table for refreshments a few feet away.

Later, when most of the family was together, the family joined together and burned a stick of incense for each person there, then they all bowed and prayed together.  The fruit you see is also another offering.  Generally, the family will try to provide a selection of the best fruits they can find.  Unfortunately due to the weather hindering the boat, they were limited in the selection they could provide.  Still ,I’m sure the local spirits were pleased.

Just after they burned a final offering to their ancestors, including paper kami money (kabijin in Hogen) for their use to progress through the afterlife, bits of the food from the table and a little sake.  The kabijin was essentially like a napkin, but imprinted with symbols.

The foods prepared for the dead were not random.  The traditional foods included, daikon, carrots, fried tofu, boiled combu, fish cakes, and other items.  Afterward, the food was heated or served and everyone ate.  When some of the family members described the offerings, they referred to them as omiyage, which means souvenir.  To me it felt like the food, smoke, and sake were all there as reminders to those who had passed, as well as a reminder of the past.  Food is a staple of our lives, and the act of sharing it seemed a ritualized way to remember history and those who had passed before.

Here’s a quick video of the final offerings, sorry! No sound.

It was so very nice of them to invite me (and feed me!)

All in all, it was a surprise to get the afternoon off, and a real treat to be invited to take part in a special local custom.

More on Kyureki

Explanation of the day from the Okinawa Times Calendar

The Okinawan calendar, and its accompanying holidays are fading with each generation.  My friend and his brothers told me that the importance of the holidays were to bring families together.  On the small islands they are the community builders, much like the New Years I experienced earlier in the year.  These are also the chances, they told me, to share their culture with their children, and ensure the kids know the rest of the family.

Unfortunately, things are changing.  Not so long ago the 16th was a full day off for students.  They would help with preparations and have a more active part in their cultural heritage.  Today, they had a half day, and only get a taste of the previous generation.  Still, Okinawan culture is alive and well.