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Tribute to the Missing
By Tanya Bricking
Advertiser Staff Writer
In Japanese culture, the body and the soul are forever connected, even in death.
So for a search for nine people missing from a sunken Japanese fishing vessel to be called off, as the U.S. Coast Guard plans to do today, it is a blow not just for those hoping for survivors. It is a devastating lag in an intricately choreographed process of mourning.
Families who visited the site this week where the USS Greeneville rammed and sank a high schools training trawler called out the names of the four missing students, two teachers and three crewman as they threw flowers out to sea.
Surviving crewmen pleaded for the missing to be found.
After searching waters off Oahu in an area about the size of Maine, the Coast Guard announced last night that it will suspend its search today and leave the Navy to continue an underwater search with a sonar-equipped robot that will plunge 1,800 feet to where investigators hope to find the sunken Ehime Maru.
The Japanese government has been among those pressing the United States to salvage the ship. But the pressure is more than political. It is heightened by Buddhist tradition that touches the core of the families of the missing.
"They can grieve. But the problem is they cant stop grieving because they cant send on that soul," said John Goulde, associate professor of comparative religion and Asian studies at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. "The worst case scenario is that the body will become a ghost."
Japanese deaths, rituals and beliefs are focused on the importance of the body, said George Tanabe Jr., chairman of the religion department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who is researching contemporary Japanese funeral and burial customs.
"The state of death is extremely important in the foundation of the next rebirth," Tanabe said, because the belief is that someone who dies in tragedy is reborn in pain.
"The soul of the dead is also attended by the body of the dead," he said. "And if you dont have the body of the dead, then it becomes real problematic because you have nothing to commemorate."
This is the biggest difference between American and Eastern perspectives on death, said the Rev. Dean Okimura of the local Koboji Shingon Mission, who took a pilgrimage last year to the southwestern Japanese town of Uwajima, where the missing are from.
Though there are many sects of Buddhists that dot the Japanese countryside, the basic beliefs about the need to find the dead and take care of the bodies are the same, Okimura said.
"They must complete the journey by taking the remains home," he said. "It is the completion of their circle in the spiritual world."
Buddhists believe that when a person dies, the body and soul travel for seven 7-day periods to the next level, Tanabe said. If the missing died with their ship, today would mark the end of the first period, the day the body is supposed to be burned.
On the 49th day, Buddhists hold ceremonies asking for the dead to be elevated to a divine state, similar to heaven in Christian beliefs. To remain missing is to remain in limbo.
"The afterlife is not just that of the soul. Its the body and the soul," Tanabe said. "You cant separate the two."
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