Marie Mutsuki Mockett wasn't in Japan in March 2011, when the country was partially destroyed by a 9.0 earthquake and its subsequent tsunami. At the time, she lived in New York, far away from the disaster's epicenter. But she had ancestral connections to the island nation, and as survivors worked through their collective mourning for over 18,000 people dead or missing, Mockett began to ask questions about the universal nature of grief and the ways that ancient cultures handle death.
"The tsunami was such an enormous tragedy," says Mockett by phone from her San Francisco home, where she now lives with her husband and son. "It was the sort of thing that causes anyone to ask large questions."
Born to an American father and a Japanese mother, and raised in California, from an early age Mockett visited her Japanese grandparents on a yearly basis. As a child, she developed a love for the people and culture of Japan.
Just three weeks after the tsunami hit, Mockett returned to Iwaki, where her relatives ran a Zen Buddhist temple high in the mountains above the ruined coast, to bury the bones of her grandfather, who had died of natural causes two months before.
In Japan, surrounded by death and destruction, Mockett confronted her own depression. Not only had she lost both of her Japanese maternal grandparents, but her beloved father had died of a sudden illness three years previous, leaving behind a "complicated grief." And so, Mockett did what any great writer does when faced with existentialist dread. Instead of hoping for the pain to go away, she examined it more deeply. As a "bookish nerdy girl," she looked to books for guidance.
"I couldn't find anything that addressed the largeness, the multi-faceted nature of grief," she says. "Writing the book gave me a chance to bring together a lot of different information and to examine it again and again. Generations of people before have had their hearts broken, and fallen in love, and left behind notes for us to find about their observations and their insights. In the case of Japan, you have so much information to dig up." The resulting memoir, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey, is released on Jan. 19.
Funding from the Japan-United States Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts enabled Mockett to live in Japan, with her toddler son, for a few months in 2013. Because of her Western features and American upbringing, Mockett was seen as an outsider during visits to Buddhist temples, festivals, and temporary housing projects built for those who lost their homes in the tsunami. At the same time, Mockett's connection with her mother's homeland provided access not usually given to Westerners, allowing the writer to fastidiously research and experience multiple layers of the country's cultural and spiritual approaches to grief.
Mockett describes the land as "awash with ghosts," something that might surprise those who view Japan as a modernized country. "The soul of Japan is still very much connected to her twelve-hundred-year-old history, and within that belief system, ghosts are a powerful and meaningful presence," writes Mockett.
Mockett's writing, beautiful and self-assured, leaves the reader with a fuller understanding of a place more often painted as twee and quirky than spiritually rich. She travels from Ishinomaki, a small fishing town where hundreds of schoolchildren died in the tsunami, to Nagasaki, where she hears a particularly chilling account of the 1945 atomic bombing by the U.S.
On the Tohoku coast, a region devastated by the tsunami, Mockett meets a Zen Buddhist priest named Kaneta. He runs a weekly event called "Cafe de Monk," a reference to the music of jazz artist Thelonious Monk, which plays in the background as people eat cake, drink coffee, share their grief, and receive spiritual counsel from monks.
At Eiheiji, a revered Soto Zen training temple, Mockett studies meditation and expands her understanding of the sometimes baffling spiritual tradition of Zen. In later chapters, she journeys to Mount Doom, a mountain where the dead are said to cross into the underworld.
In the town of Mutsu, Mockett meets a fuzzy-headed priest running a Pure Land temple, where he is the steward to an old hag in a box: Shozuku no Baba. According to Japanese folklore, the scary old hag controls the entrance of the dead into the underworld. At first, Mockett finds the statue of the hag disturbing, until the fuzzy-headed priest encourages her to look again from the side. She sees a face more compassionate than menacing.
"When you confront grief and suffering, it looks terrifying, like the front face of the statue," Mockett says. "But look at it from the side, and you will have greater compassion for people. Suffering and grieving is something we all go through. You can't get rid of the pain, of losing people you love, but you can look at the world with more love. It was a fascinating insight, and one that I realized I'd been learning all along."
As our conversation draws to a close, Mockett recalls a scene from Time's Arrow by Martin Amis. A character hears someone crying on an airplane; he's convinced they are crying over a death. "Someone is always dying somewhere," he thinks.
"All around, everywhere, people are experiencing loss, so we might as well be compassionate about it," Mockett adds.
Mockett says she didn't necessarily come out of years of research, travel, and immersion in Japanese grief rituals and spiritual traditions a happier person, with all sadness removed. Nevertheless, she has been able to integrate her grief enough to go about daily life—in part, because the canvas is bigger.
"Because the perspective is larger, my pain seems much smaller," she says. "It's like fractions, where 75/100 is still three quarters when you reduce it down. Instead of looking at tiny numbers, I'm looking at larger numbers. My world has enlarged, and my compassion for people has enlarged."