One of the main goals I had for this trip was to find the gravestone for my eldest aunt who died in WWII. Although she grew up and lived in Japan, she was an American citizen as she was born in Hood River, OR. The US firebombed Nagoya severely. One firebomb fell on her house, and she rushed inside to rescue her two babies. They all perished. After the war in 1949, my grandfather at age 69 traveled to Japan to erect a gravestone for her. It was this gravestone I wanted to find.
Finding a gravestone in Japan, particularly if you don’t speak or read Japanese, is no small feat. Cemeteries are small, sometimes less than 50 feet by 50 feet. Riding the Shinkansen, you may see a farm field with a raised section containing a tight cluster of gravestones. So locating the cemetery is obstacle #1.
Next, the gravestone may not have the late person’s birth name on it. Upon death, the deceased receives a new Buddhist name. So even if you know the kanji for the birth name, the posthumous name is different. In some cases, the first kanji of the name may help form the posthumous Buddhist name, but that still poses a great challenge.
Yet another difficulty faced by non-Japanese-speakers/readers is that Japanese do not use the Gregorian calendar for birth and death dates. Past and present, births and deaths are determined by the year of the era (nengō). Recent eras correspond to the reigns of emperors (e.g. so-and-so was born in the “6th year of Taisho”). So the gravestone will not have their birthname, and their birth and death dates will be in a non-Gregorian format.
In my aunt’s case, an additional obstacle to overcome was that her gravestone was moved by a relative to a new location! So those, including my mother who had visited the stone at its original location would have no idea where it was today. Fortunately for us, we were able to find relatives who knew where my aunt’s gravestone was located.
In Japan, I believe the remains of the deceased are seldom buried, so the relocation of her gravestone did not involve reinterment. In my aunt’s case, I do not know if there were any remains to recover.*
Once we arrived, my relatives and I set to work scrubbing and washing my aunt’s gravestone. As we did so, the kanji engraved on the front and two sides emerged, revealing not only her posthumous Buddhist name, but those of her two infant children. If we assume their posthumous names include the first kanji of their birthnames, we can predict what their birth names were. We have never known this.
One one side of the stone we found her birth name, and on the other, the name of her father (my grandfather).
It was an emotional moment in our trip. I will return and hope other relatives from home can make the pilgrimage as well. Happily, after returning home I was able to find the cemetery on Google Maps. So next time it will be very easy.
* Over 99.8% of deceased Japanese are cremated.