The Barges of the Dead Featured

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The Barges of the Dead Photo courtesy of Benjamin Parks

The Barges of the Dead

Donald Richie is struck by a haunting apparition at the seashore in this excerpt from his Japan Journals

The following is part of Tokyo Journal’s Living Tribute to Donald Richie who passed away on February 19, 2013. Donald Richie’s contribution was originally printed in the January 1995 edition of the Tokyo Journal. It was excerpted from Japan Journals 1947-2004 by Donald Richie (Stone Bridge Press. 2004). Donald Richie’s first visit to Japan took place in 1947. Since that time he became a celebrated film critic, author and composer, not to mention a journalist of many talents recording the changes of over half a century of life in Tokyo. Donald Richie contributed to the Tokyo Journal over the years and when asked about times in the ‘90s, Donald replied, “Frightening but exhilarating. I think everybody with a pencil should be out there taking notes.”

August 14, 1947. The sun was not up, the eastern sky was still dark and the sleeping sea was still. Walking toward the silent surf where I had walked the afternoon before, I stopped and looked, for something had changed. It was not like yesterday. The beach now held mounds of sand; it was pocked with large holes.

There was a faint light now, the eastern horizon a hazy gray, and I saw that there were many of these strange holes, as though an army had dug in during the night. Each seemed occupied, as though the invasion had been that of turtles come to lay eggs. Slowly, I walked through the growing light to the nearest and looked in.

There, like a chick in its shell, lay a small boy. In the next hole, too, another was curled, and in the next. The beach was pitted with holes and in each, a sleeping child.

What were they doing, why were they here, I wondered, standing over this small, sleeping army. I was curious but I had already learned not to be surprised. This was, after all, despite everything, still a mysterious land – the way the world had once been.

Just the day before, on arrival from Tokyo, we had walked long this beach — Kujukurihama in Chiba — and had stopped in surprise at the sight of the fishermen.

Young or old, they were all naked as they worked at their nets, helped by half-clad wives and sisters. Each of the men wore only a headband and a narrow red ribbon around the penis. They saw us and smiled, nodded. Not at all self-conscious, they went on with their work.

Maybe it was something to do with not offending the sea goddess. Going naked like that? No, wearing the ribbon. I wonder if the goddess is Benten? No. This is the Garden of Eden.

And so, now, on the next day, I was prepared for innocent magic as I stood above the sleeping children in the promised dawn of a midsummer morning.

And as the darkness drained from the sky I wondered what had happened. The beach now seemed a battlefield — for the war was only a year or two behind and thoughts came easily of bodies rolling in the surf.

Then one of the bodies stirred and a hand was thrown across the eyes. The light was now that dim gray that precedes dawn and I heard the surf, as though it, too, was just awakening.

The gray turned white and I walked across the still-cold sand, looking into the holes. The children were very young: five, eight, ten. They were still curled in their sandy nests but now in the early light they were awakening like the newly hatched.

The surf splashed and a head appeared over the rim of sand. What was it doing, this small, sleeping army? Then a wave slapped and a child sat up, dark against the brightening east. Then another and another, as though responding to a signal I could not see. Soon they were all awake, looking eastward, waiting.

I thought I knew what they were waiting for. The sky shone as though in a like expectation, and there, in the wings of the ocean, was the sun itself. As it appeared each child shifted, now sitting formally, legs beneath him — and slowly, they turned a solid black as the sun rose behind them.

Then, as the great orb rose higher and higher like some radiant balloon, the mysterious children stood and yawned, shook off the sand, became themselves again. Off they wandered down the beach, back to their lives.

Later, I discovered what had occurred. It was the beginning of Obon, the feast of the dead. The departed are welcomed into the land of the living, into their former families, where they stay until they must return to their silent land beyond the sea, three days later.

There are round dances, and the altars hold flowers, dumping and fruit. The fathers all wear proper clothing — shirts and pants or summer yukata — and were now waiting, facing the rising sun, waiting for their sons. The children had gone to spend the night, to await these barges of the dead. When the sun appeared, they went home, their invisible guests following them.

There they went, these small escorts, while the new sun shone as though for the first time. They turned and run, like a flock of plovers, all instant accord as they flew down the beach along the shouting sea, back to family, to home.

And I, my shadow black behind me, turned to look at these sandy nests which the approaching tide was filling in, one by one. tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #279 of the Tokyo Journal.

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