Putting Emotions Before Logic

A lot of people in Japan are open to the idea of life after death. Gordon Mathews believes that this is because, for them, it goes beyond mere belief; it is a hopeful desire to communicate with their deceased loved ones.

Yearning for a departed loved one

Nick: Living in Japan taught me how much Japan is a culture of customs. And it has generally accepted the two religions: Shintoism and Buddhism. Yet, I never considered Japanese as religious people. I think the only religious person I've ever met in Japan was a Christian.

Yet, every time we returned to Japan, to my wife's family home, we go and visit her mother's grave, ohakamairi, we clean and pay our respects, we clean it and lay flowers.

She actually died before I ever met her. So I never met my wife's mother. So in a way, it's perhaps the only way I can connect to her. Yet, I don't really feel anything when I go and do this. And I guess my real intention is to support my wife and be a good husband. And I'm pretty sure my wife doesn't really sense her mother by doing this either.

I think we both like to experience some connection. And my wife's definitely not a Buddhist. But, again, when we go back to Japan, we will definitely do this. And so it made me realize it's this, I guess you call it this Buddhist religious practice without belief. And that seems to be quite common in Japan.

Gordon: It is. But I'd want to go a little bit of a slightly different angle here. For American Christians, you mentioned the only believers you knew were the Christians in Japan. For Christians, it's a matter of belief. Whereas in Japan, it's much more a matter of practice. Particularly among women in the household, because they're the ones who take care of the family altar.

The woman might be taking care of her husband's dead parents, particularly father, but still she is there giving rice every day and burning incense every day, and talking to the departed ancestors. And if you talk to the departed ancestors on a regular basis, yeah, you begin to feel something's there.

Now, like you, I never met anybody who said, ‘I am absolutely 100% convinced that my ancestors were there.’ But few people would say zero, many would say, ‘Well, every day I talk to grandpa, because my son works in construction, and I want to make sure he's okay. And grandpa may be able to help him out.’ And so it's that kind of sense.

Japan is really interesting, because ancestor veneration, ancestor worship as it used to be called, but I think veneration is a better term. It used to be directly connected to the household, and the male lineage, and so on. Now, it's much more personal. It's like you've lost somebody in your life that you loved, and you talk to them at the altar or at the grave, as you've mentioned. And these conversations are not a matter of belief, but of hope.

One of the moving interviews I had was with a woman who had lost her husband when he was in his 30s. And now she was in her 50s. But she was talking to him every day at the family altar and also at the grave when she visited it. And I asked her, ‘Look, do you really think you can communicate with him?’

And she said, ‘Look, I work in computers. I'm a rationalist. I'm a scientist. So of course I wouldn’t, but I know I will. Despite the logic that tells me no, I know that I'm going to talk to him again. I'm certain I will and I'm certain that I can talk to him at the altar.’

So hope is against logic and hope tends to win out very often. Emotion wins out which I find really moving.