This story tells how a just-married young woman comes to grips with household responsibility.
Once upon a time, there lived a young woman who had just married into a family. She worked hard day after day. On New Year’s Eve, her mother-in-law said to her, “As you know, it’s been a tradition to never extinguish the fire on New Year’s Eve. Now that I’m old, I want to hand on this duty to you. Whatever happens, don’t let it die out.”
“The New Year’s Eve fire must never be extinguished,” the young wife repeated these words over and over again as she made embers and buried them with the ashes in the hearth sunk into the floor. After all that she still could not feel at ease, so she made up her mind to stay up all night by the fire.
In ancient times, watching over a fire in the hearth was an important duty for the woman of the family. Keeping the fire alive on New Year’s Eve was her especially great responsibility. It is said that many wives were sent away just because they failed this task. So, it was quite natural that this young wife became nervous and decided to watch over the fire all night to keep it going.
However, the young wife was tired from preparing all that was necessary for New Year’s Day, and although she kept telling herself, “I must not fall asleep. I must never doze off,” she fell asleep.
When she woke up with a start, the fire in the hearth had died out. “What a blunder I have made!” The wife frantically stirred up the ashes, but there was no live charcoal left in the hearth with which to make a fire. “We can’t celebrate New Year’s Day without this fire. How can I apologize to my mother?” Confused and flustered by the side of the hearth, she did not know what to do.
“If I go out, I may be able to come across somebody who can give me fire.” She ran out of the house frantically and looked around. But not a soul was to be seen on the street. Her limbs were numb with cold. While she was feeling totally lost, she saw a red light flickering in the distance. As she looked more closely, it was coming towards her. The wife jumped up with joy and ran towards the red light.
It was a burial procession. The footsteps of the people came nearer, the lights flickered from the lanterns the people were holding, and each face lit up appeared ghastly with a paleness not of this world. The wife hesitated to call out to them and was about to let the procession pass with a blank look, but she caught up with them.
“Please share with me the fire in your lantern. Without the fire we cannot celebrate New Year’s Day,” the young wife pleaded.
The procession stopped, and one in the group looked back. “You want our fire? Then take it along with the “Buddha” (referring to the corpse). If you do so, you shall have this fire.” She did not want to take over the corpse, but out of sheer desire to get the fire she said, “Yes, I shall take the “Buddha” together with the fire,” and so accepted the coffin as well as the lighted candle.
She dragged the coffin into the woodshed and hid it there. Then she built the fire in the hearth.
She felt relieved, thinking that now she would be able to celebrate New Year’s Day, but the coffin in the woodshed weighed on her mind. New Year’s Day came after her sleepless night spent between peeping fearfully into the woodshed and keeping watch over the fire.
Even after the celebration of New Year’s Day began, the wife was so worried about the coffin that she slipped out of the banquet to peep into the woodshed. After a while, she could not endure the tension of the secret any more, and told her mother-in-law what had happened the night before.
“I fell asleep and let the fire die out. I asked the people in the burial procession for a flame from their lantern, and I was given a dead body as well as the fire.”
A dead silence fell over the joyous banquet. No one spoke. The wife dropped her head, thinking she would have to leave the family, when her husband walked straight into the woodshed and opened the lid of the coffin.
“You don’t have to leave the house. The coffin is filled with gold coins!” he exclaimed. Hearing this, all the members of the family gathered around the coffin.
“Wow, look at this!”
“What a happy event!”
Then they began to celebrate New Year’s Day anew.
The wife alone whispered to herself repeatedly, “Just as I sensed, the people in the procession were not of this world.”
This recently married woman worked hard day after day. A young woman who had just married into a new family probably would not feel at home. It was not yet a place where she could relax, but rather required her efforts to adapt to the traditions and atmosphere of the new family. One of these efforts was working very hard every day.
On New Year’s Eve, her mother-in-law told her, “It’s been a tradition never to extinguish the fire on New Year’s Eve. Now that I’m old, I want to hand on this duty to you. Whatever happens, don’t let it die out.”
At the time of this ancient tale, in a family consisting of a newly married young couple and the husband’s mother, real power resided in the mother-in-law. As a picture of the psyche, both masculinity and femininity are still young, while motherhood, according to the law, is in the center. A person whose psychic center is motherhood would be bent on keeping traditions.
The mother-in-law makes much of preserving traditional practices. However, she is about to pass on the responsibility of keeping the fire to her daughter-in-law. Something is about to begin anew within a person whose heart centers on keeping the laws and traditions.
It was New Year’s Eve. The old year is about to end-a cold and dark season. When one takes a breath after the flurry of New Year’s Eve, one feels somewhat empty and low because something is passing away. But there is also an expectation for the new. It was believed that the soul was renewed on New Year’s Day. This scene is also a picture of the inner world of a person who is handing over her authority.
In olden times, keeping the fire in the hearth alive was an important duty for the woman of the household. The fire on New Year’s Eve was especially important, and many wives were divorced just because they failed to keep the fire alive.
Fire gives light, and in the cold season, it warms people as well. It can even melt iron, and has a transforming power. It is used to cook, to purify, and to preserve food. On the other hand, the burning can be destructive.
In our modern age where everyone uses electricity and gas, it is not easy to imagine how precious fire was for the people of old. Recently, a TV program aired about a family in Oshima that had been keeping the fire alive in the hearth for four hundred years. How precious one piece of burning charcoal must have been four hundred years ago! If one were to allow the live charcoal to die, one did not always have neighbors just next door to ask for help. Perhaps in most cases, there were no next-door neighbors. Probably not every family owned a flint to make the fire, and even if one did, it was not easy to start a new fire that way.
Live charcoal was kept in the hearth. Meals were cooked there, and the family would gather around it to eat. In the cold season, they warmed themselves there. The fire in the hearth can be said to be the center of the household. In times when it was not easy to obtain fire, even a little fire in a dim little hut was a great source of light on a moonless night. And it was a woman’s duty to keep this precious fire alive always.
It is not at all an easy task to keep the night fire alive until the next morning. One needs to soften the ashes in the middle of the hearth, place embers of a thick log over it, and wrap it around with the red ash that had been under the fire. If one takes too much care and moves the embers around, the ash cools off, and the fire goes out. Then one gathers other ashes, piles them over the embers in the shape of Mt. Fuji and pats the ashes lightly with a leveler until a good form is attained. This practice was handed down from mother to daughter, from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law.
It may be because obtaining live charcoal was difficult that an extinguished fire, especially on New Year’s Day, was regarded as ominous. In the story, the young woman who had been entrusted to keep the fire alive made hot embers and covered them cautiously with ash in order not to extinguish them. Yet she was still worried, so she was determined to hold vigil beside the hearth. She put heart and soul into fulfilling the responsibility with which she had been entrusted.
Due to the exhausting heavy work of preparing for New Year’s Day, she dozed off in spite of herself. If she had slept earlier, she could have recovered from her exhaustion. But out of her strong sense of responsibility, or out of fear of being divorced if she neglected her duty, she attempted to do what was beyond her power. As a result, she finally nodded off to sleep. Not that she was careless about the fire. While one is asleep, one is unconscious, and one’s energy is not engaged in the outer world. Instead, it is used in the inner world to rest and recover one’s strength. It can be said that the wife’s falling asleep resulted from a natural need to rest.
When she woke up with a start, the fire in the hearth had completely died out. The wife frantically stirred the ash in the hearth, but there was not even one little live charcoal to be found.
The fire at the center of a house can stand for the fire at the core of oneself, which gives warmth and light to oneself and others. Doesn’t one discover at some time in one’s life journey that their fire has completely died out? Just as the young wife wildly stirred the ashes, don’t we frantically search within ourselves to find an ember of the burning enthusiasm and passion of youth somewhere in the corner of our hearts? I remember the dark moment when I realized that no live charcoal was left within myself. This is a case of being literally “burned-out.”
Just as it was natural that the woman who had been working all day dropped off to sleep, so the fire at the core of one’s heart may die out midway through life as a natural consequence. Not that one’s effort was insufficient, but one had worked continuously all day with the sunlight, the light of consciousness. When the day is over, nature leads one to sleep. One stage of life ends, and nature invites one into the inner world, the world of unconsciousness, in order to give rest and restore one’s strength.
Be that as it may, when the fire has gone out, another has to be found to replace it. What would one feel when the old fire has gone out, and the new flame is not yet found? “Without the fire, New Year’s Day cannot be celebrated.... How can I apologize to my mother-in-law…” It is not hard to imagine the feeling of the young wife fidgeting nervously beside the fireplace. The indispensable fire has gone out; where can a replacement be found? Or can it be found? One is at one’s wit’s end. Not knowing what to do, or if anything could be done, one frets. One experiences the darkness of the soul.
“If I go out, somebody with a fire may pass by.” So thinking, the young wife rushed out of the house in desperation. In order to look for fire, she went out of the safe home and into the dark and cold December night. In searching for light in the darkness of the soul, one leaves what has provided security and protection.
At the time of this ancient tale, home was women’s own space. For her the outside world was an unknown place filled with the danger of encountering what is strange to her. It is equivalent to the world of the unconscious, which is remote from consciousness. “Leaving one’s home” in Japanese, means taking Buddhist vows. Leaving the home and going out into darkness may be a religious experience.
The wife went out and looked around but not a soul was to be seen. If you put yourself in the place of the wife at the time of this story and look around, what do you see? For us today who live surrounded by houses, on streets illuminated at night, it is difficult to imagine the scene the wife in the story saw.
I once visited the Chichi-jima Island in Ogasawara. One night during my stay there, the innkeeper took me in his car to the hill at the back of his house to show me a rare fungi called Green Pepe that gives forth a pale blue light at night in a marshy ground. Unfortunately, we could not see the fungi, perhaps because of the dryness after days of fine weather. But I came across a darkness of night that I had never experienced before. There were no street or house lights, no town illuminations. On the top of the hill, in pitch darkness with the car lights turned off, I saw thousands of stars so close by that they seemed ready to drop on me from the night sky.
In my imagination, the darkness the wife experienced was something like this: Although she went out to look for fire, she found no dwelling, no sign of life. The wife’s limbs became numb with cold, and she was at an utter loss as to what to do. That she was chilled to the bone was not only because of the cold of New Year’s Eve, but also because her heart was chilled. From experience, we too may know the wife’s condition of not knowing what to do, feeling coldness and darkness both physically and psychically.
Standing thus utterly lost, the wife detected a red light that flickered in the distance and gradually came toward her. Overjoyed, she began to run toward it. It was a burial procession, and the flickering lights came from the lanterns. The covered light of a lantern is not as bright as that of a torch. Moreover, funeral lanterns must have appeared quite gloomy.
All the faces of the procession, dimly illuminated by the lanterns, were pale and unearthly. A pale face suggests a ghost wandering between life and death. Unearthly countenances were those of the people in the world beyond death. When one is driven out into the darkness of one’s soul, doesn’t one encounter there something ghostly, like a burial procession? Is it a group of ghastly beings within oneself, wandering between life and death? Is it a memory or a thought one is ashamed of and has pushed into oblivion? From their spoken words, the people in the procession seem to be men. Are they the half-dead masculinity in a woman’s psyche?
The light of the lantern illuminates the people in the burial procession. That light enables one to see in darkness. The people in the strange group possess that light. Nobody wants to be involved with such people. The young wife also hesitated to call out to them and was about to let them pass by, but she soon changed her mind and ran after them to ask for a share of their light. The feared ones possess the fire one desperately needs. In order to survive, there is no other way but to approach and ask them for it.
The procession stopped, and one of the men in the group told her that if she would take the buddha (the dead body) together with the fire, he would give it to her. The coffin containing the deceased is ominous and strange, and nobody wants to take it. It may be because everybody is afraid of death.
In this story, the dead man is called a “Buddha”. In Japan, there are such customs as calling the deceased “buddhas,” and writing on the envelope of a condolence gift “Offering to the buddha.” It may not just be a wish for a change of luck that gave birth to these customs. Behind them, there may be a belief that the dead person is not simply a corpse, but that one receives the buddha’s life, which transcends this world.
In order to obtain again the fire which is both the warmth and light at the core of one’s heart, one has not only to ask the fearful beings of darkness for help, one also must accept the most loathsome dead being . Do I loathe the person within me because s/he is without life? Or is s/he without life because I loathe the person? Perhaps I must accept the fear and sadness of death, or death itself. According to this tale, to accept the loathsome one is to accept buddha, a life which transcends the human, a new dimension of life.
With the sole desire to obtain fire, the wife accepted the coffin together with candlelight. She dragged it along the road to the woodshed, hid it there and built a fire in the hearth. The hearth looks the same as before. No one notices the difference, but it is not the same fire. It is no longer the traditional fire that has been handed down for many generations. Now it is the fire is which the wife has managed to obtain from darkness after her dreadful experiences.
One may find oneself in a similar situation. Unintentionally and inevitably, one realizes something within oneself that has not been traditionally handed down from the past. Exteriorly there is no change, but within one’s inner life, something new has begun. What would one feel in such a situation?
The wife felt relieved for a while after she had built a new fire in the hearth, but she had no peace of mind. New Year’s morning came after a sleepless night. Even when the New Year’s Day banquet started, she was ill at ease because of the coffin, and slipped away from the banquet to peep into the woodshed. Because of her fear of what might happen if others found the truth, she hid the fact that she had let the fire go out against her mother-in-law’s warning, and that the fire in the hearth was one from a funeral procession. Moreover, she had accepted a dead body. When appearances and truth differ, one does not have peace of heart.
The wife could no longer stand the tension, so she told her mother-in-law what had happened the night before. Maybe she was ready to be thrown out of the family. She had violated a tradition. She had infringed on a taboo. How frightened she must have been to disclose the truth. Man is a social animal, possessing both individuality and sociality. When an individual acts against society and tries to be true to him/herself, he or she has to endure not only pressure from the external society, but also from one’s own traditions, customs, and culture. There is a double pressure, external and internal.
Japanese society places great value on uniformity. We Japanese value standardization, and do not favor deviation from the norm. The sayings “a queer fish,” or “a singular person,” connote contempt and reproach toward people who ignore social criteria. Corporations, states, churches, and religious orders are all groups, and they demand uniformity as a matter of course. However, if uniformity is required at the cost of the individual, union in a group will never grow.
Suicides of middle school students bullied by their classmates have recently made headlines. The mass media makes a great deal of the problem, probably because of the nature of the violence, the number of students who take part in it, and the failure of the adults that are around to help the victims. This may be just the tip of the iceberg. I am worried that the individuality of the students is being suffocated to death in the group setting of the school system. One who is bullied in turn bullies those who are weaker. When the individual is respected, a true group will come into existence, because the individual by nature possesses not only individuality but also sociability.
When Japan was led by militarism, how many of us Japanese had the courage to speak the truths in our hearts? Though the country is now demilitarized, I still find it very difficult to be true to myself, to speak what is in my heart without being controlled by others’ opinions-the accepted views and the values of society. And if I try to speak my truth, something similar to the terror of death takes hold of me. When an ordinary individual tries to stand by his/her own truth, s/he feels the danger of being socially ostracized and squashed by the majority. And yet, when one holds on to one’s uniqueness, that person contributes to the building of a society that treasures the unique gifts of each individual.
The wife in the tale failed to keep the fire that had been handed down for generations. The flame from the funeral procession is different from the former one. According to this story then, does individuality come to be from eradicating tradition?
This does not seem to be the point of the story. The wife received the fire from a burial procession. The fire belonged to “the buddha” (the dead person) and those otherworldly people who were carrying it. The world of the dead--the world of the transcendent being-is a world far more ancient than the house of her mother-in-law. The fire received from that world can be said to be a far older fire than that of her mother-in-law. The new fire, which the wife received, seems to violate a tradition, but in reality, it comes from an older and more universal world.
Why did the wife tell the truth at the risk of being divorced? It seems that human beings by nature move toward wholeness rather than fragmentation. We not only want to be one with an outer world, but we also want the union of the inner and outer aspects of our personality. The way a lie detector functions is when one physically reacts abnormally, when telling a lie. Human nature in itself is inclined toward truth, and so one becomes uncomfortable when one tells a lie. Her nature made the wife uneasy as she went back and forth between the house and the woodshed. When there is anxiety, discomfort or uneasiness, if we give ear to them instead of suppressing them, our real nature that tends toward truth will surface and reveal the truth within.
After the wife’s confession, the happy celebration became still as death. No one uttered a word. Sensing the silent blame from people who were too astounded to speak, the wife must have felt their reproach intensely. The silence may have lasted just a second, but the censure must have seemed to continue for ages. There are voices coming both from within and without that reprimand her for violating convention and keeping a corpse.
The wife bowed her head, thinking that she would have to leave the family, when her husband walked straight into the woodshed, and opened the lid of the coffin. To admit openly to oneself and to society that one has broken a tradition and violated a social taboo is like opening a coffin. It requires the masculine energy of decision and certainty. The fire given by the man in the burial procession may symbolize this. It is power given by “something masculine” that had been almost dead within oneself; it is what one encountered in the darkness of the soul. In the tale, the husband’s sudden appearance at this point is symbolic of this fact.
When the coffin was opened, it was found filled with large and small jingling gold coins. When one is true to one’s self, one is filled abundantly by life’s energy. It may be because the vitality that has been split in two--the reality and the energy needed to hide it--has been united into one stream.
In the tale, the content of the coffin had been called “the buddha” from the beginning. However, until the cover is removed, it feels ominous and dreadful, like a corpse. Only when the coffin is opened does the life surpassing death overflow.
The wife’s heart must have been filled with thankfulness when her husband, whom she had believed to be one of the silent accusers, saved her from her difficult situation by opening the coffin. Her respect for him must have grown when he did what she herself could not do, either because of inhibition or lack of courage.
What could have been on her husband’s mind? If there were a corpse in the coffin when he uncovered it, he would have to divorce his wife according to family tradition. Even so, he decided to open the coffin. Probably he was seeking for the truth before drawing a conclusion. He, like his wife, is seeking truth. As an inner drama of the psyche, the incident can represent the cooperation of femininity and masculinity.
When they heard that the contents of the coffin contained a number of large and small gold coins, the family members gathered around, rejoiced at their fortune, and began to celebrate New Year’s Day all over again. When the inner division of the accuser and the accused is resolved, the accusing voice from outside also dies out. As long as one accuses oneself, one is apt to believe others are accusing him/her even if that is not the case.
Apart from the people joyfully celebrating their good luck, the wife kept repeating to herself, “Just as I had thought. Those people in the burial procession were not of this world.” The woman who had faced divorce, and thus the end of her life in the family, must have felt what one who has survived death feels--deep gratitude and joy. She realized that the people in the fearful and ghostly burial procession were beings transcending the human. When one passes through a death experience to new life, one realizes that divine intervention has made it possible.
Here is a description of a turning point in life. It portrays a period when masculinity develops in a psychological structure in which femininity predominates. Also during this period, individuality is born in the psyche with a collective orientation. This type of turning point is possible only by passing through the death of the old, and its accompanying suffering. Through death a new life is born. It is a religious experience, which enriches human life.
The plot of this story resembles the ceremony of the “Liturgy of Light” celebrated at the Easter Vigil. Easter is determined to be the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox. It is a season when days are beginning to get longer than nights. All the lights inside the chapel are turned out; flowers and the altar cloths are all removed to represent the sorrow of the Savior’s absence.
The ceremony begins in darkness outside the chapel. The priest presiding over the ceremony makes a new fire, blesses it and lights a candle. These days, matches or a lighter are used to save time. In times past, a flint was used to make the fire. Amid the big crowd surrounding the priest, we could not see what was going on. It seemed a long while until the fire was made as we waited, bored, in the cold outside. As I reflect on this ceremony in the past, I realize that it had a sensory effect. It made us experience darkness, cold and boredom until the fire burst forth.
Lighting the Easter candle, the priest holding it enters the chapel, and the faithful follow him. In the chapel, they receive fire from the Easter candle carried by the priest and share it with others. This blessing of the new fire of Easter started in France in the eighth century at the latest. This ceremony was transmitted to Rome in the ninth century. The fire from the flint symbolizes Christ’s resurrection. Just as the fire is born from a stone, which seemingly has nothing to do with fire, life is born from a grave that has nothing to do with life. When the dead regains life, a new fire is born, the Savior’s light shines, and darkness ends. We are saved from being “cast out.”
Sanae Masuda rscj
province of Japan