On Japanese Farewell Ceremonies for Things
November 24, 2014 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Destruction and sacredness of life are often reasons for conflicts in Western culture; on the contrary, ceremonies like hari kuyo can become, even for Westerners, precious opportunities for reflection. In our habit of first producing and then acquiring, often with craving, a great quantity of objects destined to be thrown away like useless, harmful, and cumbersome rubbish shortly after their acquisition, are hidden the germs of attachment and hate that, together with nescience (avidyā), form the sad trio of spiritual poisons. We generally believe we are good custodians of the environment when hurriedly, even with a bit of resentment, we throw in the rubbish bin all that has been discarded. In transforming "removal" into "restitution," the getting rid of useless objects can instead become a stimulus, and not a mere gesture of refusal, for considering our relationship with activities, objects, and the environment, by carrying out, through decorous and at times melancholic farewell ceremonies, daily exercises of kindness and giving.
Farewell Ceremonies for Things, from Dharma World, providing context for a number of Japanese ceremonies, including Hari-Kuyo, the Festival of Broken Needles, Fude-Kuyo, a ceremony for brushes, Ningyo-Kuyo, "a doll funeral", and other ceremony for valued items, activities, and professions.
posted by filthy light thief (19 comments total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 8:26 AM on November 24, 2014

It's really challenging to get rid of stuffed animals in Japan, that's for sure. We spend about 3 months a year in Japan, and we live at my mother-in-law's place. It's the same house my wife grew up in, and most of her stuffed animals and dolls and so on are still in the house.

To even consider getting rid of these objects (clutter is a big problem in many Japanese houses) is a complicated process - we would have to go to the main Shinto shrine in town which performs these sorts of "kuyo" rites for a fee, and only at special times of the year.

Indeed, there is a day in January or February at local neighbourhood Shinto shrines devoted to burning old paperwork (receipts) and even old photographs. You can't just throw them away or shred them.

Every year when we return "home" in Japan, the first thing we do is open up the butsudan household Buddhist altar, and pray to my father-in-law. Behind us, photographs of my FIL, and my wife's grandparents stare down at us on the wall, and we pray to them too. They actually return to the house each year in August for Bon, but we are not around to see them.
posted by Nevin at 8:39 AM on November 24, 2014 [12 favorites]

Nevin, thanks for that information! I only read about hari-kuyo this morning, and saw a reference to fude-kuyo, "a similar memorial service for used writing instruments," and I wondered what other ceremonies there might be.

The only other reference to hari-kuyo I've seen on MetaFilter is a question about the general ceremony, with a thorough response from KokuRyu.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:48 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

To even consider getting rid of these objects (clutter is a big problem in many Japanese houses) is a complicated process - we would have to go to the main Shinto shrine in town which performs these sorts of "kuyo" rites for a fee, and only at special times of the year.

No wonder Japanese style tends towards minimalism. Because apparently once you bring something into the house, you're stuck with it forever.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:48 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Disposing of Blessed Objects
posted by zamboni at 9:01 AM on November 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

No wonder Japanese style tends towards minimalism. Because apparently once you bring something into the house, you're stuck with it forever.

In Canada my wife and I have arguments about how to furnish a room, that's for sure (she's more minimalist).

However, Japanese homes can be filled with clutter. Piles of newspapers and fliers, old clothes and rags, knickknacks and tchotchkes. My MIL's home has a gigantic cathode-ray television that was probably bought around 1992. We can't get rid of it because it was likely delivered onto the second house with a crane. It just died a couple of years ago, so I dug up *another* television of the same vintage that my kids can use for Wii while we are in Japan.

Although the movement is just catching on in North America, in Japan for the longest time garbage must be sorted between burnable, recyclable, batteries, "large", electronics, and so on.

Burnable garbage is collected twice a week, and is used for electricity cogeneration at the local "clean center." Recyclables are collected once a week, and I guess are recycled, although the plastic PET bottles surely make good fuel for the cogen facility.

I don't know when dead batteries are collected, so we have a bucket under the kitchen sink filled with them.

We always miss "large garbage day" so the cupboards in the house are filled with various things dating back to the 1970's through four generations - my wife's grandparents, her parents, my wife and her sister, and now some of my kids' stuff from when they were little.

We once rented a house. The landlord had had a stroke, and her family asked us to move in. The place was filled with all sorts of junk, so I spent a few months tidying things up, removing old carpets, newspapers, various pieces of junk and so on.

The guys at the clean center started to know me by name and we exchanged pleasantries. They even came by to haul some crap out of the back garden.

It was expensive to tip that junk, which is why so many Japanese homes are like something out of Hoarders.
posted by Nevin at 9:28 AM on November 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

I completely understand that for some people's belief systems the material world is devoid of consciousness or sensing of any kind so these kinds of ideas simply don't make sense or seem silly and problematic.

However a lot of belief systems actually believe in energetic forces that can reside in material objects, particularly objects that have been produced or used with a great deal of love and care. However we find among craftspeople, many that I know personally find that preparing a household object or meal with a great deal of love and care is considered to enhance it's quality.

For people who don't really believe in spiritual stuff, it totally makes sense this would all seem silly, but for those that think.. maybe.. there's a god, or a "spirit" inside humans... maybe worlds beyond ours etc... this is one of those things that should just as easily be given considered a maybe just as well as any other.

We're currently producing too much waste. If we saw household objects as significant, ensured they were produced with ethical preparations to last a long while- down to the jars and storage packages and more-- we could eliminate a lot of waste that stems from pretending objects just disappear once we are done with them. They don't. Maybe we should care a great deal more about that. Or say, make our own pottery from our own earth and then bury it when we're done with it. And then we put all the love and care we have given to the object back into the earth,enriched, rather than increasing damaging pollution through careless means of production and discarding. Taking responsibility for the whole cycle and making sure it's actually sustainable from creation to return on our own grounds as much as we can (for those who have access to a home with land they can use). Compost piles are also helpful for this, they stop being waste and become almost immediately a rich resource for new growth. There is no "waste" there are plants, there is food, and there are ingredients for new soil. We should make products that we are proud to put back into the earth because they will be taken back in to produce new growth-- not products that harm nature and plants and remain stuck that way for far too many years for the earth to process in a timely manner for living beings.

From a functional perspective there was a study recently about people's difficulty throwing darts at a picture of a face of a baby vs something else because we emotionally flinch at the idea-- and that people who were more prone to domestic violence were more likely to act out more violence on some sort of doll (voodoo doll?)... meaning that, for those who are not into magical thinking, the uses of adding empathy to the care of objects or people, even to excess, could be protective against our natural inclinations to behave with less empathy the more we go on autopilot. If we see objects as have some for of sentience, we are more likely to treat them well, and make them last longer. So regardless of whether based in fact or fiction, the mentality could potentially increase the longevity of objects in the home. While accumulating clutter to excess that is causing health problems or impairing life IS a problem- I think overall we probably could do to be more conscious of our use and discardment of objects. In fact I found learning to understand that I have a different spiritual belief system about interacting with the material world than some do, helped me make better decisions about what to keep or not and which items to see as flowing through my home/life as a butterfly flies by, or which to see as becoming a permanent part of enriching the good energy of my home/life as a family member may continue to be part of your life for many years and become a part of who you are.

I found that when I started to see my plants as sentient I was able to care for them very well, when before that I would forget about them all the time. Now I visit them to see how they are and bring them water if they need it.
posted by xarnop at 9:29 AM on November 24, 2014 [9 favorites]

(By the way, I was once the user KokuRyu).
posted by Nevin at 9:30 AM on November 24, 2014 [18 favorites]

Thanks for posting this. I'm fascinated by why one culture may or may not say goodbye to things to acknowledge a feeling, whereas another does not, and the underlying reasons/beliefs underneath all that.

So along those lines, the doll funeral ceremony, with this concept per the linked article ... it is thought by some that dolls hold memories, or even have souls.... and this concept per the linked thread .. ....Many things in Japan, including inanimate objects, or said to have a tamashii, or soul, including houses, trees, large rocks, and even dolls... is fascinating/beautiful.

The doll funeral reminds me of a ceremony that I have only read about, which is a ceremony to say goodbye to miscarried and aborted fetuses. The reason it reminds me of this is because of the images, rows of statues that look like babies dressed in caps and holding pinwheels. If anyone is interested in this ceremony, I thought this article about it was thoughtful. The person who wrote the article felt that there was not a way to acknowledge/process her feelings within her culture, so she traveled to Japan to participate in the ceremony; she bought and left sweets and toys for the miscarried fetus (mizuko or water child) that she never had a chance to say goodbye to.
posted by Wolfster at 9:30 AM on November 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

(By the way, I was once the user KokuRyu).

Was there a funeral?
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 9:48 AM on November 24, 2014 [15 favorites]

There is a section in the book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Kondo, where you take objects that you are going to give away by gathering them together, clap your hands to awaken them, thank them for their service and tell them that you are being sent off to be of service elsewhere. I read that, and felt a sense of RELIEF that I could let things go. This week is a lot of decluttering of my house.
posted by jadepearl at 9:59 AM on November 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

Related concept: tsukumogami, which is what happens when you don't dispose of objects properly.
posted by sukeban at 10:39 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is great, and closely related to something that's been on my "how do I handle getting rid of this complicated object" mind lately. Thank you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:37 PM on November 24, 2014

I can't find it right now, but there's an economics idea (from the environmental activist end) that factors in cost of disposal to the cost of production.

And the doll festival makes me think about the parade scene in Paprika.
posted by ana scoot at 1:48 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

ana scoot: I can't find it right now, but there's an economics idea (from the environmental activist end) that factors in cost of disposal to the cost of production.

One phrase is life-cycle cost analysis (LCCA), which is generally applied to construction projects, as detailed in this 50 page PDF from Stanford University Land and Buildings (October 2005).

Some people are trying to bring that idea down in scale with the notion that there is no such thing as "throwing away" something, because there is really no "away." Landfills require land to fill, incineration takes energy to make energy.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:04 PM on November 24, 2014

This is a fascinating subject. A timely post, too, as a friend just commented on how they had a pin-cushion for broken needles on their altar at home. Thanks.
posted by ob1quixote at 2:30 PM on November 24, 2014

(By the way, I was once the user KokuRyu).

Nice to see you back.
posted by ersatz at 1:55 PM on November 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thought so, Nevin. Glad you came back.
posted by glasseyes at 4:23 PM on November 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

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