Aug 15, 2011

Biculturalism and Being True To Yourself

The last three days have been Obon, a summer holiday dedicated to remembering one's ancestors. My husband's grandparents died two years ago, and although we never did anything for it before we do now.

In Japanese society it is sometimes hard to draw a line between religion and cultural practices. I have no problem with secular cultural practices, but as an atheist I don't want to participate in religious activities. When it comes to things in my own country I have a good idea of what is secular and what is not. For example, I love secular Christmas, from trees to decorations to cards to lights and Santa. But I don't go to church services or sing happy birthday to Jesus.

When it comes to Obon it's a little trickier. On the first night we burn joss sticks to guide the ancestors back to the altar. The altar is obviously religious but burning joss sticks? I don't know. I participate in it, anyway, but probably because I am the only one who can light a decent fire in my family. My mother-in-law doesn't have a car so I drove her to clean the grave and to the Budhhist temple where she participated in a ceremony. I did cleaning and sat in the back of the hall for the ceremony but didn't pray, just bowed my head so I wouldn't stick out (ha! I stick out no matter what!). They deliver a box with burning incense and ashes to place on it (3 times) before praying. My mother in law made my son do that part and asked him to pray to his great-grandma for something. I wanted to opt out of that part but she made a big deal about them bringing the box to me and I did the ashes thing then put my hands together as if I was praying. It was uncomfortable to say the least.

I don't mind if my kids are interested in religion and ask questions about it. I think it is important to learn about all religions before choosing one or choosing not to believe at all. However, I would prefer that it come from them. I wish that my son has had the choice to copy his grandmother's actions or not (I wish I had had a choice!). He already knows about praying because the school takes him once a year to a big Shinto shrine. That's fine, I've just explained that my view is that it is okay to wish for things but you have to work toward them instead of waiting for someone else to drop it in your lap.

It wasn't a very comfortable time for me at all, actually, when all I wanted to do was make sure my mother-in-law didn't have to ride her scooter in the rain. I was asked for my name to be put on mailing lists and to buy a newspaper subscription. It's easier to say no to strangers than to my husband's mother, however!

I'm not sure what this has to do about bicultural parenting. I guess it's just something that we have to play by ear, setting boundaries that make us comfortable. I am well aware that my kids will learn different things from each member of the family, and although I am okay with that I want them to have the choice to practice as they see fit.

Where do you draw the line between what you are comfortable with and your host country's culture?


  1. I think this is a very interesting topic - thanks for posting about it, it was interesting to read your take on it and I hope other people reply too. I am also an atheist and my husband just...isn't bothered. His own father was interested in Christianity and so he grew up with some knowledge of it but no beliefs. His father passed away recently and had the traditional (well Okinawan traditional) type of Buddhist funeral and they had the 49-day ceremony too. I assume that the the following ones will be observed too.

    As our daughter was so young it was decided that she and I wouldn't go down for the funeral, but we did recently visit his family and had to stand in front of the family altar while his grandmother said some words. And I did what I would have done at a Christian funeral - bowed my head at the appropriate point and kept quiet while trying to be as respectful as possible. I don't know how I would have felt if asked to take a more active role. I had to swear on a bible once and felt incredibly uncomfortable but don't seem to have the same squeamishness when it comes to other religions - perhaps because they still in a way seem foreign to me.

    Because of his father's illness we didn't do an omiyamairi trip for our daughter. We booked but had to cancel and it was me that had asked him to arrange it as he wouldn't have done anything had it been left up to him. I'm not sure I wanted her to do it, because on face value it's the Shinto equivalent of a Christening/Baptism, and a part of another religion that I don't believe in. I would never have her Christened, so why would I entertain taking part in that ceremony? I had to think long and hard about my reasoning for it - I think mainly it came down to because it isn't actually about becoming a member of the Shinto religion, and it's not about "removing sin" but about a wish for a long and healthy life for her. I also wanted it for her because I do think we'll spend a good part of her life here and I want her to experience the same thing as her peers. I don't know if those are valid reasons or if it makes me a hypocrite. In the end it was a moot point as it never happened!

    We did a kind of makeshift okuizome for her and I'll probably make sure she takes part in the other ceremonies like 7-5-3. They feel to me more like the secular side of Christmas which I also celebrate. I also want her to have the opportunity to learn about all the different religions and decide later on whether she feels that one or more of them have a place in her life.

    Wow this turned into a huge long ramble. I guess I've been thinking a lot about religion and belief recently but not really spoken about it to anyone. Sorry for taking advantage of your post to spew it all out!

  2. Thank you for commenting. I'm so glad someone else is on the same page as me.

    I'm sorry for the loss of your father-in-law. It must be very emotional for your husband to lose his father as he starts his own fatherhood.

    Hi-baachan is into a certain Buddhist sect that disallowed all Shinto activities so my kids didn't do any kuihajime or omiyamairi. Now that she has passed there is no reason not to do shrine visits other than I don't feel comfortable with it.

    I do like some cultural roles that religions play. I think it is so important to celebrate those life milestones, birth of a baby, healthy childhood, becoming an adult, marriage, etc. We need an atheist equivalent though! Maybe we should start a humanist parenting network in Japan so we can celebrate with a community but not with a set of rules!

  3. I'm basically an atheist too, and I had a similar problem just after I got married. My husband's father died when DH was a boy around 8 or 9 so obviously I've never met him and have no connection to him. I went to the shrine with DH and MIL on one of the holidays when everyone goes to the shrine. His mother wanted me to wash the gravestone. I asked what the meaning was behind that and other little rites that I was supposed to help with and neither of them could tell me. I refused and was in rather a lot of trouble with the MIL. If they had just said something like "we want to wash the gravestone because it is dirty, I probably would have done it. But because I didn't know if it had some religious meaning, which I didn't believe in, I didn't want to do it.

    My DH is non religious too, so he was okay about it, but it was his father he was there to honour.

    My MIL was under the opinion that because I married my hubby I was now his "religion" too. He doesn't have one, but she doesn't seem to know that! Of course she also thought I was Japanese after marriage, so doesn't really have a clue about international marriages!

  4. I'm sorry you had a similar experience Helen! I think it's funny that Japan is really not very welcoming to foreigners, but so many people think in the old Confucianist tradition that women become the mother-in-law's item after marriage. They even wonder why I can't vote! Obviously marrying into a family doesn't mean you have to adopt their religion but my MIL doesn't know that!


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