From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "'Almost as Japanese as Haiku" (December 31, 2003)
A collection of articles by Lafcadio Hearn, who, at the end of the nineteenth
century, set off for Japan, never to return.
The Atlantic Monthly | September 1891
At The Market of The Dead
by Lafcadio Hearn
T is just past five o'clock in the afternoon. Through the open door of my
little study the rising breeze of evening is beginning to disturb the papers on
my desk, and the white fire of the Japanese sun is taking that pale amber tone
which tells that the heat of the day is over. There is not a cloud in the blue,—not even one of those beautiful white filamentary things, like ghosts of silken
floss, which usually swim in this most ethereal of earthly skies even in the
A sudden shadow at the door. Akira, the young Buddhist student,
stands at the threshold slipping his white feet out of his sandal-thongs
preparatory to entering, and smiling like the god Jizo.
"Ah! komban, Akira."
"To-night," says Akira, seating himself upon the floor in the posture of Buddha
upon the Lotos, "the Bon-ichi will be held. Perhaps you would like to see it?
"Oh, Akira, all things in this country I should like to see. But tell me, I
pray you, unto what may the Bon-ichi be likened?"
"The Bon-ichi," answers Akira,
"is a market at which will be sold all things required for the Festival of the
Dead; and the Festival of the Dead will begin to-morrow, when all the altars of
the temples and all the shrines in the homes of good Buddhists will be made
"Then I want to see the Bon-ichi, Akira, and I should also like to
see a Buddhist shrine,—a household shrine."
"Then will you come to my room?"
asks Akira. "It is not far,—in the Street of the Aged Men, beyond the Street of
the Stony River, and near to the Street Everlasting. There is a butsurna there,—a
household shrine,—and on the way I will tell you about the Bonku."
So, for the
first time, I learn those things concerning which I am now about to write.
From the 13th to the 15th day of July is held the Festival of the Dead,—the
Bommatsuri or Bonku—by some Europeans called the Feast of Lanterns. But in
many places there are two such festivals annually; for those who still follow the
ancient reckoning of time by moons hold that the Bommatsuri should fall on the
13th, 14th, and 15th days of the seventh month of the antique calendar, which
corresponds to a later period of the year.
Early on the morning of the 13th, new
mats of purest rice straw, woven expressly for the festival, are spread upon all
Buddhist altars and within each butsuma or butsudan,—the little shrine before
which the morning and evening prayers are offered up in every believing home.
Shrines and altars are likewise decorated with beautiful embellishments of
colored paper, and with flowers and sprigs of certain hallowed plants,—always
real lotos flowers when obtainable, otherwise lotos flowers of paper, and fresh
branches of shikimi (anise) and of misohagi (lespedeza). Then a tiny lacquered
table,—a zen,—such as Japanese meals are usually served upon, is placed upon
the altar, and the food offerings are laid on it. But in the smaller shrines of
Japanese homes the offerings are more often simply laid upon the rice matting,
wrapped in fresh lotos leaves.
These offerings consist of the foods called somen,
resembling our vermicelli, gozen, which is boiled rice, dango, a sort of tiny
dumpling, eggplant, and fruits according to season,—frequently uri and saikwa,
slices of melon and watermelon, and plums and peaches. Often sweet cakes and
dainties are added. Sometimes the offering is only O-sho-jin-gu (honorable
uncooked food) ; more usually it is O-rio-gu (honorable boiled food); but it
never includes, of course, fish, meats, or wine. Clear water is given to the
shadowy guests, and is sprinkled from time to time upon the altar or within the
shrine with a branch of misohagi; tea is poured out every hour for the viewless
visitors, and everything is daintily served up in little plates and cups and
bowls, as for living guests, with hashi (chopsticks) laid beside the offering.
So for three days the dead are feasted.
At sunset, pine torches, fixed in the
ground before each home, are kindled to guide the spirit-visitors. Sometimes,
also, on the first evening of the Bomatsuri, welcome fires (mukaebi) are
lighted along the shore of the sea or lake or river by which the village or city
is situated,—neither more nor less than one hundred and eight fires; this
number having some mystic signification in the philosophy of Buddhism. And
charming lanterns are suspended each night at the entrances of homes,—the
Lanterns of the Festival of the Dead,—lanterns of special forms and colors,
beautifully painted with suggestions of landscape and shapes of flowers, and
always decorated with a peculiar fringe of paper streamers.
Also, on the same
night, those who have dead friends go to the cemeteries and make offerings there,
and pray, and burn incense, and pour out water for the ghosts. Flowers are placed
there in the bamboo vases set beside each haka, and lanterns are lighted and
hung up before the tombs, but these lanterns have no designs upon them.
on the evening of the 15th only the offerings called Segaki are made in the
temples. Then are fed the ghosts of the Circle of Penance, called Gakido, the
place of hungry spirits; and then also are fed by the priests those ghosts having
no other friends among the living to care for them. Very, very small these
offerings are,—like the offerings to the gods.
Now this, Akira tells me, is the origin of the Segaki, as the same is related in
the holy book Busetsu-uran-bongyo—
Dai-Mokeuren, the great disciple of Buddha,
obtained by merit the Six Supernatural Powers. And by virtue of them it was
given him to see the soul of his mother in the Gakido,—the world of spirits
doomed to suffer hunger in expiation of faults committed in a previous life.
Mokeuren saw that his mother suffered much; he grieved exceedingly because of her
pain, and he filled a bowl with choicest food and sent it to her. He saw her try
to eat; but each time that she tried to lift the food to her lips it would change
into fire and burning embers, so that she could not eat. Then Mokeuren asked the
Teacher what he could do to relieve his mother from pain. And the Teacher made
answer: "On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, feed the ghosts of the great
priests of all countries." And Mokeuren, having done so, saw that his mother was
freed from the state of gaki, and that she was dancing for joy.' This is the
origin also of the dances called Bon-odori, which are danced on the third night
of the Festival of the Dead throughout Japan.
Upon the third and last night there is a weirdly beautiful ceremony, more
touching than that of the Segaki, stranger than the Bon-odori,—the ceremony
of farewell. All that the living may do to please the dead has been done; the
time allotted by the powers of the unseen worlds unto the ghostly visitants is
well-nigh past, and their friends must send them all back again.
been prepared for them. In each home small boats made of barley straw closely
woven have been freighted with supplies of dainty food,
with tiny lanterns, and written messages of faith and
love. Seldom more than a foot in length are these boats; but the dead require
little room. And the frail craft are launched on canal, lake, sea, or river,—each with a miniature lantern glowing at the prow, and incense burning at the
stern. And if the night be fair, they voyage long. Down all the creeks and rivers
and canals these phantom fleets go glimmering to the sea; and all the sea
sparkles to the horizon with the lights of the dead, and the sea wind is fragrant
But alas! it is now forbidden in the great seaports to launch the
shoryobune, "the boats of the blessed ghosts."
[It is related in the
same book that Ananda having asked the Buddha how came Mokeuren's mother to
suffer in the Gakido, the Teacher replied that in a previous incarnation she had
refused, through cupidity, to feed certain visiting priests.]
...It is so narrow, the Street of the Aged Men, that by stretching out one's arms
one can touch the figured sign draperies before its tiny shops on both sides at
once. And these little arkshaped houses really seem toy-houses; that in which
Akira lives is even smaller than the rest, having no shop in it, and no miniature
second story. It is all closed up. Akira slides back the wooden amado which
forms the door, and then the paper-paned screens behind it; and he tiny
structure, thus opened, with its light unpainted woodwork and painted paper
partitions, looks something like a great birdcage. But the rush matting of the
elevated floor is fresh, sweet-smelling, spotless; and as we take off our foot-
gear to mount upon it, I see that all within is neat, curious, and dainty.
woman has gone out," says Akira, setting the smoking-box (hibashi) in the middle
of the floor, and spreading beside it a little mat for me to squat upon.
what is this, Akira?" I ask, pointing to a thin board suspended by a ribbon on
the wall,—a board so cut
from the middle of a branch as to leave the bark along its edges. There are two
columns of mysterious signs exquisitely painted upon it.
"Oh, that is a
calendar," answers Akira. "On the right side are the names of the months having
thirty-one days; on the left, the names of those having less. Now here is a
Occupying the alcove, which is an indispensable part of the
structure of every Japanese room, is a native cabinet painted with figures of
flying birds; and upon this cabinet stands the butsuma. It is a small lacquered
and gilded shrine, with little doors modeled after those of a temple gate,—a
shrine very quaint, very much dilapidated (one door has lost its hinges), but
still a dainty thing despite its crackled lacquer and faded gilding. Akira opens
it with a sort of compassionate smile; and I look inside for the image. There is
none; only a wooden tablet with a band of white paper attached to it, bearing
Japanese characters,—the name of a dead baby girl,—and a vase of expiring
flowers, a tiny print of Kwamron, the Goddess of Mercy, and a cup filled with
ashes of incense.
"To-morrow," Akira says, "she will decorate this, and make the
offerings of food to the little one."
Hanging from the ceiling, on the opposite side of the room, and in front of the
shrine, is a wonderful, charming, funny, white-and-rosy mask,—the face of a
laughing, chubby girl with two mysterious spots upon her forehead, the~ face of
Otafuku. (A deity of good fortune.) It twirls round and round in the soft air-current coming through the
open shojis; and every time those funny black eyes, half shut with laughter, look
at me, I cannot help smiling. And hanging still higher, I see little Shinto
emblems of paper (gohei), a miniature mitre-shaped cap in likeness of those worn in the sacred dances, a
pasteboard emblem of the magic gem (Nio-iho-shu) which the gods bear in their
hands, a small Japanese doll, and a little windwheel which will spin around
with the least puff of air, and other indescribable toys, mostly symbolic, such
as are sold on festal days in the courts of the temples,—the playthings of
the dead child.
..."Komban!" exclaims a very gentle voice behind us. The mother is standing there,
smiling as if pleased at the stranger's interest in her butsuma,—a middle-aged
woman of the poorest class, not comely, but with a most kindly face. We return
her evening greeting; and while I sit down upon the little mat laid before
the hibashi, Akira whispers something to her, with the result that a small
kettle is at once set to boil over a very small charcoal furnace. We are probably
going to have some tea.
As Akira takes his seat before me, on the other side of
the hibashi, I ask him:
"What was the name I saw on the tablet?" "The name which
you saw," he answers, "was not the real name. The real name is written upon the
other side. After death another name is given by the priest. A dead boy is called
Ryochi Doji; a dead girl, Mioyo Donyo."
While we are speaking, the woman
approaches the little shrine, opens it, arranges the objects in it, lights the
tiny lamp, and with joined hands and bowed head begins to pray. Totally unembarrassed by our presence and our chatter she seems, as one accustomed to do what
is right and beautiful heedless of human opinion; praying with that brave, true
frankness which belongs to the poor only of this world,—those simple souls who
never have any secret to hide, either from each other or from heaven, and of whom
Ruskin nobly said, "These are our holiest." I do not know what words her heart is
murmuring: I hear only at moments that soft sibilant sound,
made by gently drawing the breath through the lips, which among this kind people
is a token of humblest desire to please.
As I watch the tender little rite, I become aware of something vaguely astir in
the mystery of my own life,—vaguely, indefinably familiar, like a memory
ancestral, like the revival of a sensation forgotten two thousand years. Blended
in some strange way it seems to be with my faint knowledge of an elder world,
whose household gods were also the beloved dead; and there is a weird sweetness in this place, like a shadowing of Lares.
Then, her brief prayer over, she turns to her miniature furnace again. She talks
and laughs with Akira; she prepares the tea, pours it out in tiny cups and
serves it to us, kneeling in that graceful attitude—picturesque, traditional—which for six hundred years has been the attitude of the Japanese woman serving
tea. Verily, no small part of the life of the Woman of Japan is spent thus in
serving little cups of tea. Even as a ghost, she appears in popular prints
offering to somebody spectral teacups of spectral tea. Of all Japanese ghost
pictures, I know of none more pathetic than that in which the phantom of a
woman kneeling humbly offers to her haunted and remorseful murderer a little cup
"Now let us go to the Bon-ichi," says Akira, rising; "she must go there herself
soon, and it is already getting dark. Sayonara!"
It is indeed almost dark as we
leave the little house: stars are pointing in the strip of sky above the street;
but it is a beautiful night for a walk, with a strong breeze blowing at intervals
between long pauses, and sending long flutterings through the miles of shop
draperies. The market is in the narrow street at the verge of the city, just
below the hill where the great Buddhist Temple of Zoto-Kuin stands,—in the
Motomachi, only ten squares away.
The curious narrow street is one long blaze of lights,—lights of lantern signs,
lights of torches and lamps illuminating unfamiliar rows of little stands and
booths set out in the thoroughfare before all the shop-fronts on each side; making two far-converging lines of multicolored fire. Between these moves a dense
throng, filling the night with a clatter of getas that drowns even the tidelike
murmuring of voices and the cries of the merchant. But how gentle the movement!—a pressure soft as a flowing of tepid water: there is no jostling, no rudeness;
everybody, even the weakest and smallest, has a chance to see everything; and
there are many things to see.
"Hasu no hana!—hasu-no-ha!" Here are the
venders of lotos flowers for the tombs and the altars, of lotos leaves in which
to wrap the food of the beloved ghosts. The leaves, folded into bundles, are
heaped upon tiny tables; the lotos flowers, buds and blossoms intermingled, are
fixed upright in immense bunches, supported by light frames of bamboo.
"Ogara!—Ogara-ya!" White sheaves of long peeled rods. These are hemp-sticks. The
thinner ends can be broken up into hashi for the use of the ghosts; the rest must
be consumed in the mukaebi. Rightly all these sticks should be made of pine; but
pine is too scarce and dear for the poor folk of this district, so the ogara are
"Kawarake!—Kawarake-ya!" The dishes of the ghosts: small red
shallow platters of unglazed earthenware; primeval pottery wrought after a
fashion which now exists only for the dead,—pottery shaped after a tradition
older than the religion of Buddha.
The lanterns, —the "bon"-lanterns,—which will light the returning feet of the
ghosts. All are beautiful. Some are hexagonal, like the lanterns of the great
shrines; and some have the form of stars; and some are like great luminous eggs.
They are decorated with exquisite paintings of lotos flowers, and with fringes
of paper streamers choicely colored, or perhaps broad white paper ribbons in
which charming suggestions of lotos blossoms have been scissored out. And here
are dead-white lanterns, round like moons; these are for the cemeteries.
"O-Kazari! O-Kazari-ya!" The venders of all articles of decoration for the
Festival of the Dead. "Komo-de-mo!—nandemo!" Here are the fresh white mats of
rice straw for the butsumas and the altars; and here are the warauma, little
horses made out of wisps of straw, for the dead to ride; and the waransha, little
oxen of straw which will do shadowy labor for them. All cheap, cheap,—oyasui!
Here also are the branches of shikimi for the altars, and sprays of misohagi
wherewith to sprinkle water upon the Segaki.
Exquisite scarlet and white tassels of strings of rice grains, like finest beadwork; and wonderful paper decorations for the butsumas; and incense sticks
(senko) of all varieties, from the commonest, at a couple of cents a bundle, to
the extremely dear, at one yen,—long, light, chocolate-colored, brittle rods,
slender as a pencil-lead, each bundle secured by straps of gilded and colored
paper. You take one, light an end, and set the other end upright in a vessel
containing soft ashes; it will continue to smoulder, filling the air with
fragrance, until wholly consumed.
"Hotaro-ni Kirigisu!—okodomoshu-no-onagusami!—oyasuke-makemasu!" Eh! what is all this? A little booth
shaped like a sentry box, all made of laths, covered with a red-and-white chess
pattern of paper; and out of this frail structure issues a shrilling keen as the
sound of leaking steam. "Oh, that is only insects," says Akira, laughing;
"nothing to do with the Bonku." Insects, yes—in cages! The shrilling is made
by scores of huge green crickets, each prisoned in a tiny bamboo cage by itself.
"They are fed with eggplant and melon rind," continues Akira, "and sold to
children to play with." And there are also beautiful little cages full of
fireflies,—cages covered with brown mosquito-netting, upon each of which some
simple but very charming design in bright colors has been dashed by a Japanese
brush. One cricket and cage, two cents. Fifteen fireflies and cage, five cents.
Here on a street corner squats a pretty blue-robed boy behind a low wooden
table, selling wooden boxes about as big as match-boxes, with red paper hinges.
Beside the piles of these little boxes on the table are shallow dishes filled
with clear water, in which extraordinary thin flat shapes are floating,—shapes
of flowers, trees, birds, boats, men, and women. Open a box: it costs only two
cents. Inside, wrapped in tissue paper, are bundles of little pale sticks, like
round match sticks, with pink ends. Drop one into the water, it instantly unrolls and expands into the likeness of a lotos flower. Another transforms itself
into a fish. A third becomes a boat. A fourth changes to an owl. A fifth becomes
a tea-plant, covered with leaves and blossoms.... So delicate are these things
that, once immersed, you cannot handle them without breaking them. They are made
"Tsukuri hana!—tsukuri-hana-warima-senka." The sellers of
artificial flowers, marvelous chrysanthemums and lotos plants of paper,
imitations of bud and leaf and flower so cunningly wrought that the eye alone
cannot detect the beautiful trickery. It is only right that these should cost
much more than their living counterparts.
High above the thronging and the clamor and the myriad fires of the merchants,
the great Shingon temple at the end of the radiant street towers upon its hill
against the starry night,—weirdly, like a dream, strangely illuminated by
rows of paper lanterns hung all along its curving eaves; and the flowing of the
crowd bears me thither. Out of the broad entrance, over a dark gliding mass
which I know to be heads and shoulders of crowding worshipers, beams a broad band
of rich yellow light; and before reaching the lion-guarded steps I hear the
continuous clanging of the temple gong, each clang the signal of an offering and
a prayer. Doubtless a cataract of cash is pouring into the great alms-chest; for
to night is the Festival of Yakushi-Nyori, the Physician of Souls. Borne to
the steps, at last I find myself able to halt a moment, despite the pressure of
the throng, before the stand of a lantern-seller, selling the most beautiful
lanterns that I have ever seen. Each is a gigantic lotos flower of paper, so
perfectly made in every detail as to seem a great living blossom freshly
plucked: the petals are crimson at their bases, paling to white at their tips;
the calyx is a faultless mimicry of nature, and beneath it hangs a beautiful
fringe of paper cuttings, colored with the colors of the flower, green below the
calyx, white in the middle, crimson at the ends. In the heart of the blossom is
set a microscopic oil-lamp of baked clay; and this being lighted, all the flower
becomes luminous, diaphanous, a lotos of white and crimson fire. There is a
slender gilded wooden hoop by which to hang it up; and the price is four cents!
How can people afford to make such things for four cents, even in this country of
Akira is trying to tell me something about the hyaku-hachi-no-mukaebi, the
Hundred and Eight Fires, to be lighted to-morrow evening, which bear some
figurative relation unto the Hundred and Eight Foolish Desires; but I cannot
hear him for the clatter of the getas and the komagetas, the wooden clogs and
wooden sandals of the worshipers ascending to the shrine of Yakushi-Nyori. The
light straw sandals of the poorer men, the zori and the waraji, are silent; the
great clatter is really made by the delicate feet of women and girls, balancing
themselves carefully upon their noisy getas. And most of these little feet are
clad with spotless tabi, white as a white lotos. White feet of little blue-robed
mothers they mostly are,—mothers climbing patiently and smilingly, with pretty
placid babies at their backs, up the hill to Buddha.
And while through the tinted lanternlight I wander on with the gentle, noisy
people, up the great steps of stone, between other displays of lotos blossoms,
between other high hedge-rows of paper flowers, my thought suddenly goes back to
the little broken shrine in the poor woman's room, with the humble playthings
hanging before it, and the laughing, twirling mask of Otafuku. I see the happy,
funny little eyes, oblique and silky-shadowed like Otafuku's own, which used to
look at those toys,—toys in which the fresh, child-senses found a charm that I
can but faintly divine, a delight hereditary, ancestral. I see the tender little
creature being borne, as it was doubtless borne many times, through just such a
peaceful throng as this, in just such a mild, luminous night, peeping over the
mother's shoulder, softly clinging at her neck with tiny hands.
this multitude is the mother. She will feel again to-night the faint touch of
little, hands, yet will not turn her head to look and laugh, as in other days.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1891; At The Market of The Dead; Volume LXVIII—no. 407.