On March 11, 2011, novelist Marie Mutsuki Mockett woke up to the horrific news that a tsunami had hit her mother’s homeland of Japan.
Mockett had been struggling with the lingering pain of the deaths of her maternal grandparents and her American father, so the news that so many lives were lost in a place she also considered her home was overwhelming.
In the memoir “Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye,” she carefully explores how the individual, and the collective, in Japan handle sorrow.
Mockett made her first visit back to her family’s temple in Japan three weeks after the tsunami, and she continued to visit at regular intervals as part of a documentary team throughout 2013. The disaster motivated her to re-evaluate her Japanese roots and the cultural values and experiences she would pass down to her young son.
Understandably, this period of time in Japan was one of mourning for the 18,000 people who died in the tsunami. Mockett turned to religion, as many did, to find “a seed of true wisdom.” She explored many forms of meditation and enlightenment within Buddhism by learning at a wide variety of temples across the country.
At times in her book it can be temporally difficult to determine where Mockett is in her journey, but her end goal is clear. “If there was one thing I wanted … it was comfort and release from grieving. But I had learned that grief could be so persistent, it would not bend easily to cheerful reassurance.”
The juxtaposition of the intensely private culture of Japan and the openness and rituals with which its people mourn the dead discomforts and soothes Mockett in her own private journey of grief. As an insider who speaks Japanese and has a Japanese mother, and also as a gaijin (outsider) due to her American parentage, Mockett inhabits a middle space between countries. This position lets her fully participate in Japanese ceremonies yet gives her sufficient distance to explore her observations on Japanese death rites.
As Mockett walked along the beach one day in a coastal city that had been destroyed by the tsunami, she came across a small pile of children’s toys. “I thought … of how we humans try and try again to knit ourselves together, and how we are at our best and our happiest when we do. … The very worst is when we are separated.” In the course of this memoir Mockett skillfully knits together a portrait of loss and recovery, pulling together many individuals’ experience of grief into a collective search for peace.
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She lives in New Hampshire.