The official and American observance of Memorial Day is to honor people who died while in the military service. In the Japanese American community, Memorial Day was adapted to be a way to honor the ancestors. Those who know some Japanese call it â€œhaka mairiâ€ which means â€œvisiting gravesâ€.
At least this seems to be the case in Los Angeles, because if you go to Evergreen Cemetery this weekend, you’ll find all these J-A families making their annual (or for some semiannual) visit to their dead ancestors. Lately, some people have made this event into a little family reunion, and I’ve seen people show up at different cemeteries with food and lawn chairs.
Everyone brings flowers. Some leave food or drinks. If they have vets who died in combat, they might bring flags. For whatever reason, my family never brought out a flag, but in the community the veterans are a big deal because the 442nd and the veterans groups are significant. My family and the families familiar with the Japanese rituals clean off the headstone, pour water over it, and trim the grass.
After visiting all the relatives’ graves we’ll go and eat lunch at a restaurant.
This is pre-theistic ancestor worship, where you believe that the spirits of the dead are in the sky, and are looking down at what you’re doing. Maybe they’re laughing at you, or upset, or just hanging out with the other dead. So you’d better clean up that headstone really good and pray.
If all this hakamairi wasn’t enough ancestor worship, it’s only a few months until the Obon festival, when you honor your dead ancestors again, and make another visit to the cemetery. People with religion can wait until Rosh Hashanah or Day of the Virgin, or start early with Easter and make another visit. If you have a dual- or tri-religion family, you can visit three or four times a year. Ancestor worship is on the decline in Japan due to its being outlawed, but still going strong in parts of America.
(The Ancient Cult, was by Lafcadio Hearn, 1904.)