The Family Altar

An ancestral altar where the living pay respects to the dead and appreciate the unity of all the ancestors, and the importance of family lineage.

Tsugiko Ouchi is 87-years-old, yet giggles like a school girl as she hands us a worn copy of a newspaper article. There she is in the accompanying picture, kissing her husband, Saichi, a survivor of both Hiroshima and the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

“I was visiting him in the nursing home,” she tells us, “and as I was getting ready to leave, he looked so sad. So I asked him for a kiss.” Such displays of public affection are rare here, and even more so among the elderly.

When you’re in Tsugiko’s presence, she is perpetually making and serving green tea. A silver cylinder with a tiny knob on top holds the leaves which she extracts with a small matching scoop to top off a mesh strainer. She stands as she does this, and the slight age curvature of her back is pronounced in this position. Slowly, she lowers herself to her bamboo mat and leans to the right, filling a ceramic teapot from an electric hot water dispenser. It’s just enough for five cups.

“Look at my hands,” she says turning them back and forth as though she is noticing them for the first time. “They’re big!” They are large – especially for such a small woman – but they are also soft, as though she possesses some magical moisture powers.

Everything here looks and feels like normal daily life. The kitchen is a mess from the making of organic udon noodles – served chilled in the summer heat. A desktop computer is surrounded by stacks of paper and loose family photos. Shiroi, the family’s akita seems content on his leash in the courtyard.

But nothing here is like normal life.

The ancestral altar in the living room does not belong to Tsugiko’s ancestors; it came with this house they are renting since their evacuation from the disaster zone. But still, she treats it as her own, paying respect each day by making an offering of the first morning tea, and setting Odon festival treats – desserts of sweet rice with edamame – beside fresh flowers.

Altars like this one represent the center of spiritual and emotional life for family members, and symbolize the family’s unity.

The importance of this symbolism is even more pronounced these days. Families – the Ouchi’s included – are being torn apart as men and sons (“the boys team” and “the girls team” the wife of Tsugiko’s grandson calls it) often stay in or near disaster zones while wives and daughters are sent to safer ground.

And intergenerational conflicts, too, are causing tension. “We want to talk about things, but we can’t,” Tsugiko’s son admits.

Even if – when — the government says it is safe to return to their home, it is only the older generation that wants to go back. It’s the elderly who feel the strongest connection to the land and their ancestors.

With the Obon Festival upon them this week, it is the time that people believe their ancestors’ spirits come back to their homes to be reunited with their families. It is also a reminder of the community and family ties being lost after the country’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe.

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