Yuji Kawabuchi

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I’m laying, dazed, in bed at my family’s house in Chiba, Japan, nursing a horrible head ache. Yesterday was my grandpa’s funeral.

It all began the day after I got back from South Africa. It was a 28 hour trip and I was excited to be back home in San Francisco to get some work done before the holidays. Then my sister Hanami IMed me during Staff meeting.

“Gigi’s in a coma. He had a heart attack.”

The rest of the day I was distracted at work. Later that afternoon, I went to a birthday party for Chelsea Manning outside in the Castro to perform with my flash mob a piece we did for the Manning contingent at Pride parade. Right before we performed my sister called to tell me he passed away.

Fujisan and Gigi

We spent almost every summer with him when we’d come to Japan, but I never felt close to him in the normal let’s-share-laughs-and-feelings kind of way. He was tall, stern, practical, and a man of few words—unless that is, you got on his bad side. If you tried to make small talk, he’d ignore you. If you did something he thought was irrational, he’d let you know immediately by giving you one of his lectures about why you’re not making any sense and that you should think about how not to be an idiot. He valued pragmatism over all else, within his own established structure of duties and obligations.

For him, his highest duty was to his family. After spending World War II as an airplane engineer and seeing the horrors of the Tokyo firebombing, he had an arranged marriage to my grandma, a beautiful, tiny girl who escaped her family from the countryside. They had three children, my mom being the oldest. They were poor, really poor, as most families were in post-WWII Japan. He worked crazy hours for years to build a chain of successful pachinko businesses and pulled them out of poverty. He was known to be forthright, but never to be played for a fool.

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But he showed his love in his own way. When we were little, he always took us to the Chiba zoo and amusement parks. We’d be home watching TV on a hot day, and he’d slowly saunter in and drop a big bag of ice cream bars or rice balls or fireworks on the table in front of us and walk away. We’d scream “Thank you Gigi!!!” in Japanese and he’d just grunt back. Sometimes, he’d come and suddenly announce that he made reservations at a hot springs hotel for a few nights and demand that we were all going. Sometimes we’d already have other plans but there wasn’t any way to argue with him.

Two days after he died, Hanami and I got on a plane to attend the funeral. It was a Buddhist ceremony. Like my grandma’s funeral eight years ago, its rituals didn’t feel gratuitous at all, but each felt meaningful and purposeful. After the monk’s prayers, each person in my family went up to pray and say our farewells to his spirit as we lit incense next to his body. Our whole family filled his coffin with flowers until only his face showed through a mass of white and dark pink petals. I whispered to my sister that he’d probably think this was humiliating.


The most haunting and most important part is the cremation process. After the prayers, we all drove to the crematorium. There, we each said our goodbyes for the last time. They then took him into a hall with a line of elevator-like doors, and placed his coffin into one. After about 2 hours they took us into a room where they wheeled in a silver table covered in bones. We were given long silver chopsticks, and in pairs, we lifted his bones into the urn. After we each did so, the cremator guy told us which pile of bones came from which part of his body. As I said before, he was really tall for a Japanese man, so his bones barely fit into the container. We all watched as the he had to struggle to break up the pieces with his silver chopsticks. When he apologized for having to do this, my aunt told him to do what he had to do to fit him in there. A few of us laughed out of the absurd morbidity of the situation.

At the end, the pieces of the skull are placed into the container—so as to recreate the alignment of the body. I don’t think there’s anything at all that reminds you of how ephemeral life is until you’re made to interact with human death in such a direct way.

When I told my friends and colleagues why I was going to Japan, they gave me their condolences. I was sad, am sad, but he was so hard to love. Despite everything he did for the family, his inability to express his feelings, to compromise with others, and to just be able to have a simple conversation about anything in life all made it so hard to be near him. It makes me sad that he had to build his cold exterior as a defense mechanism, and that this was expected of a man in his generation…that this caused so much pain for everyone around him and led to him living alone.

While he never once showed any weakness to anyone, you can see his gentleness in his paintings. He was a landscape painter. It was a skill that, pretty hilariously, he acquired from watching hours of Bob Ross on TV. His works are all of peaceful scenes of the Japanese countryside. I wish I got to know that side of him, to get a chance to talk to him about his painting technique, or at least about his thoughts about art. But that just wasn’t the kind of relationship he had with anyone.*


(*) My sister just read this and said, “Oh I painted with him this one summer. He was trying to teach me but he kept yelling at me that I was doing everything wrong. He even corrected my painting after I was done…with oil pastels. He was being such a huge asshole.” So there you go.

3 thoughts on “Yuji Kawabuchi”

  1. Dear Mai:

    I’m so sorry…

    Please express our condolences to Yumi and Hanami as well.

    The best parts, those fond memories of your grandfather will live on through you.

    People do the best they can In life no matter what values we bestow, it is a gift to recall the best.

    We love you!


  2. Dear Maira,

    I loved your essay about your grandfather’s funeral.

    I never liked funerals. I thought that when you’re dead, your dead. I thought that all the rituals involved in funerals were pretty much a waste of time. The person who has died is done, complete. All his or her decisions, for good or bad have been made and an expensive, flower draped, religious themed, well harmonized funeral isn’t going to change a thing. But then I changed my mind five years ago when we were all preparing Baba’s (a.k.a. my Mom’s) memorial service.

    I see now that funeral’s are totally for the folks who are still alive. The rest of us who continue living and making the oodles of daily decisions that define our lives. The funeral gives us as a chance to step back and look at the qualities we admire in the person who had died and redirect our lives along a slightly different pathway.

    My Mom clearly believed in compassion, honesty and humor. I remember her saying “It’s better to laugh than to cry.” Her memorial service reminded me to keep on that pathway.

    I went to a funeral in Ann Arbor last June for the bass player of a band I was in while I was going to med school. Jean had died of a brain tumor at the age of 52 and I hadn’t seen her in ten years. I had lived with Jean and her best friend Yao during my last year of school. One fall afternoon we were all sitting together on our front porch as the leaves changed wishing that we had become rock stars. It was Jean’s idea for the three of us to form a band. Despite the obvious obstacles (none of us had any musical experience, we were all in our late twenties and we all had full time school obligations) we did it. We all bought used instruments, I played guitar, Yao on drums and Jean on bass. We learned nine songs. We only played at two parties, mostly our friends, but it was great. I loved Jean for many reasons but I admired her for simply doing what she wanted to do.

    Your grandfather had some unpleasant qualities. But it’s good that you (and Hanami) see them clearly so that you know what to avoid.



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