15 MAY 1993, Page 15


Harriet Sergeant discovers that some

Japanese pay a high price for their preservation of ancient values

Tokyo `IT'S TIME you experienced traditional Japan,' said my Japanese neighbour. 'Why don't you visit a temple?' Like many Japanese she believes old Japan, with its Confucian values of austerity, obedience and restraint, to be in every way superior to its modern counterpart. Temple life, she assured me, would epitomise these virtues. She found me one in a castle town in a remote part of the country. I prepared to step back into Japan's past.

The temple dominated a neighbourhood of twisting lanes lined with traditional Japanese houses. Large, old and made of Wood, it had, like Buddhist temples all over Asia, a copper-tiled roof that curled up at each corner. In the courtyard hung a gigantic bronze bell. To the left stood the priest's house. A dog on a chain barked at me as I pushed open the shoji screen and shouted a greeting. Nobody answered. On one side of the hall a series of tatami-mat- ted rooms, stretching the length of a tennis court, joined the house to the temple. The other side looked out over a Japanese gar- den. Finally, the priest's wife came out of the kitchen to welcome me. She was in tears. It hardly seemed an auspicious beginning. That night over dinner I met the priest. Despite the vastness of the house, we ate in the kitchen, a small, stuffy room without a view. Takashi Yamamoto, or 'the Revd. Yamamoto' as the English translation on the back of his name card proclaimed him, offered me a bottle of sake in which float- ed gold flakes. 'Very good for the health,' he enthused, and offered me a cup. His brother-in-law, a large man with a crew cut and also a priest, questioned me on my domestic arrangements. Was it true that I employed a maid? 'High-class life!' he said admiringly. Mrs Yamamoto gave me a Wistful look. She had spent the meal serv- ing us. Now she was washing up. The brother-in-law continued. In my absence, did the maid act as a second wife and was I on the lookout for other husbands? Mrs Yamamoto hastily poured us more sake. The brother-in-law then asked my age. This la produced further incredulity. Why had I waited so long to have children? Thinking it time to make some personal remarks of my own, I asked him the same question. The brother-in-law looked shamefaced. He admitted to having been a bit of a playboy. When he eventually did marry, he and his wife produced but one daughter. 'We have tried and tried but it's just not much fun with an old wife,' he said. I wondered if this was the Japan my neighbour had wanted me to experience. The Reverend explained that the temple had been founded 400 years before by his ancestor and passed down from father to son ever since. 'I am number seventeen in line,' he added. In Japan, temples are inherited and run like a family buisiness. The brother-in-law, seeing my astonish- ment, murmured that he represented the 24th generation of his temple. No such thing as a calling existed. Neither of the men expected to perform good works. They did not even know what I meant by the expression. The temple was a lucrative concern. Every prayer and blessing had its price carefully recorded by Mrs Yamamo- to in the accounts book. Confused by a religious institution which eschewed chari- ty and priests who were playboys, I went to bed. Outside, I glimpsed my lacy under- wear hanging up to dry between the white tabi and kimono of the priests.

Over breakfast, the Reverend explained the reason for his wife's grief. Their only son, a dutiful and conscientious boy in his first year at university, had stopped eating two months before. Now he had to go to hospital. The prospect of inheriting the temple had caused his despair. 'Can't he do something else?' I asked, amazed to discov- er number 18 in line suffering from a west- ern ailment like anorexia nervosa. The Reverend did not bother to answer; his son had understood the situation clearly enough. The only option to taking over the temple was suicide. Mrs Yamamoto apolo- gised for 'surrounding you with tearful faces'.

During the morning, elderly Japanese arrived to celebrate the temple's main festi- val of the year, the traditional Japan that I had come to see. The congregation sat on the tatami mats covering the floor of the temple. The old women had brown faces and wore shirts and trousers in faded prints. The old men, many with shaved heads, knelt straight-backed throughout the service. It was unseasonably hot. The wooden screens which formed the walls of the temple had been pushed back. A warm wind rattled the slates above my head on which were written prayers for the dead. The candles on the altar flicked over the Buddha, surrounded by chrysanthemums and sacks of rice. On either side, the Rev- erend and his brother-in-law knelt chant- ing. They wore robes of black gauze over white kimonos. A novice priest, who was learning the business before taking over his family temple in Kyoto, faced the altar while knocking together two sticks in time to the chant. The service commemorated friends or relatives who had died that year. Two old women cried quietly into handker- chiefs.

I returned to the house. In the hall, women knelt on the floor preparing dishes `You car; never find a police series when you want one.' of food for the 80 parishioners staying that night. The kitchen took on a backstage atmosphere as the priests left the altar for a break. The Reverend complained of 'let- ting off steam' under his robes. He stripped to his vest and joined us at the kitchen table, laden with presents of food and drink from parishioners.

The novice priest, eating a strawberry, explained the difficulties of banging two sticks together. 'It takes years of practice,' he assured me. The brother-in-law intro- duced me to his wife. She wore a purple dress with a boutonniere on her breast and enquired if I had been on the Orient Express. Did passengers wear black tie all day, even, for example, at breakfast? She and her husband planned to spend two weeks in Europe. As this seemed 'an awfully long time', they had decided to break it up with a ride on the famous train. They were busy buying a new wardrobe, the main purpose, it seemed, of the trip. The brother-in-law had just acquired a black tie from the local department store. Could I please explain about cummer- bunds? Just then, a loud drumming erupt- ed from the temple. Hastily, the priests finished their beer, pulled on their kimonos and returned to work.

That night, after the parishioners had fallen asleep on their futons, the Reverend and his wife questioned me. They knew nothing about anorexia nervosa. Japanese newspapers and magazines, unlike their British counterparts, never addressed the subject. I mentioned that a member of my family had the disease. The Yamamotos exchanged glances. Were these things dis- cussed in the West? they asked. Did they not have friends with similar problems? I returned. Their faces grew anguished. Mrs Yamamoto seized the dictionary from her husband, looked up something, then pushed the page at me, her finger nail dig- ging a line beneath the phrase 'mental ill- ness is hereditary'. She fixed her eyes upon my face and said, 'My daughter has reached the age when she can expect to marry. If people heard of my son's illness, no one would marry her. We have told no one.' I stared in stupefaction, started to contradict her, then lost heart. Mrs Yamamoto regarded me sadly. 'You live in a more open society, don't you?' she said, and got up to make more tea.

Before going to bed, I wandered outside and climbed the steps to the temple. Two huge paper lanterns hung in front of the doors. I paused beneath them. They cast a soft and magic light. Before me stretched a scene from old Japan: the courtyard, the twisted fir tree, the fire bell and, beyond, the narrow winding lanes with their wood- en houses and open gullies. This was the idyllic view of rural Japan held by many Japanese who live in cities, like my neigh- bour. They chose to ignore the robustness which made it so attractive and the person- al sacrifice which has allowed it to last so long.