Okechimyaku: Japan’s Humorous Afterlife

In the seventies you could play a record backward and hear satanic messages. Since CDs, Satan’s been stumped by technology; he’s going to have to wait for some Japanese to go to hell and help him out.

Brad Stine

In the previous post I introduced Japan’s comic storytelling tradition Rakugo. Today we’ll cover an actual story from Rakugo’s repertoire of classics. The significance of the story “Okechimyaku” is that it provides an insightful glimpse into how the Japanese traditionally viewed the afterlife, death and life itself.

Keep in mind that each Rakugo storyteller makes each story his own. The version of Okechimyaku translated below was taken from a live performance broadcast on TBS (a popular TV station in Japan) over 25 years ago by Shunputei Koasa. Unfortunately I lost the video-taped performance–and don’t have a VCR unit to play it on anyway–so have no way of verifying the accuracy of my translation 25 years later. Also note that to keep this post to a reasonable length, I had to take certain liberties in summarizing the content while skipping over much of the dialogue. In other words, my translation is no doubt riddled with mistakes; I take responsibility for every one.

Yet as flawed as the translation might be, the essence of the story tells us much about Japanese culture. Enjoy!

Okechimyaku

Many years ago a Buddhist temple called Yoshimitsu-dera was established in Nagano prefecture. Today it is called Zenkoji.

Zenkoji is a large temple. Inside its main worship hall is a special lock. It is said that if a person–whomever he may be–merely touches this lock, he will be absolved of all his past sins and guaranteed safe passage to gokuraku or “Buddhist Heaven”.

In this very same temple is a famous item called “Okechimyaku“. It’s a small piece of paper, just ten square centimeters, that can be bought at a funeral for a pittance. If placed in the casket of the deceased, all past sins will be absolved and entrance into heaven guaranteed.

But in the old days the Okechimyaku was a kind of “ink stamp” (for lack of a better term) designed to be stamped on the forehead of the deceased. Since the stamp was so cheap to buy, more and more people could afford to get into heaven. Consequently heaven was enjoying an economic boom:

Ferryman: All aboard the boat for heaven!

Passenger: Haha, thanks so much, wow I made it! So this is the boat to heaven…(turning to another passenger) and you sir, are you going to heaven too? It’s the first time for me, but I’ve heard it’s a wonderful place!

One passenger explains that there are many distinguished scholars, artists and entertainers in heaven. Another says he is a fan of Rakugo, and asks if there are many storytellers in heaven. The ferryman replies that there are indeed many, and that they will soon be going through “storyteller lane”. Here famous deceased storytellers can be seen including the likes of Bunraku, Shinsho and Basho. Two storytellers (who passed away just a few years before) are seen serving tea to the “higher ranking” storytellers. Since they haven’t been in heaven very long, they are still the lowest rank of Rakugo storyteller called zenza.

One unoccupied zabuton (the cushion the storyteller kneels on while delivering his monologue) is spotted, and a curious passenger asks:

“Ferryman, why is there an unoccupied cushion over there?…Oh, I see, because Danshi (a living storyteller) will be here soon…”

Meanwhile, while heaven is booming, hell is in the midst of a serious economic crisis: no “customers” are coming anymore. As a consequence, unavoidable budget cuts have devastated the infrastructure of hell. The mythical Buddhist river of blood, “Sanzu”, has been shut down. The demons are out of work and causing social problems. To reform the wayward devils, a Yacht school has been set up on on the banks of the Sanzu River. (Translator’s note: the joke only works if you understand that at that time, Totsuka Yacht School, a so-called “reform school” for children with behavioral problems, had just been indicted for child abuse.)

To further cope with the budget crisis the mythical Buddhist “Mountain of Sharp Needles” (Hari no Yama) was sold to developers and turned into a country club. But even this has failed to attract members.

With such grave social and economic problems running rampant, the bureaucrats of hell call an emergency meeting. “Prime Minister” Emma Daio (mythical King of Hades) makes a plea to the various political factions to speak up if they know the root cause of the economic downturn.

One Diet member says that the Okechimyaku is the cause of all their economic woes “because it has the power of absolving people’s sins, making it possible for virtually anyone to get into heaven”. His proposed countermeasure is to steal the Okechimyaku from Zenkoji Temple.

Emma agrees and requests the “black list” of registered thieves. On this list are the likes of Nezumi Kozo (the mythical “Japanese Robinhood”) along with a fictitious thief made famous by the Comic Series “Lupin III”. (Pronounced “Rupan Sansei” in Japanese)

Emma quickly rejects both candidates. “Technique is not so important”, says the Prime Minister. “I want someone with a bit more power and brawn.”

Then someone suggests Ishikawa Goemon, a legendary thief in Kabuki theater who was boiled to death as punishment for his crimes.

Emma likes Goemon’s style and decides he is the man for the job. He quickly summons the old thief who is currently working at “Hell’s Turkish Bath”. His job is–you guessed it–keeping the bath water hot! (A joke that elicits a roar from the audience.)

Ishikawa is excited about meeting Emma Daio and puts on his formal kimono for the occasion. At their meeting, he introduces himself with a Kabuki-esque formality:

Goemon: Ishikawa Goemon at your service!

Emma: Ah, so you’re the famous Goemon. You’re probably wondering why I summoned you. The fact is that in the land of the living at Zenkoji temple is an ink stamp called Okechimyaku. By simply stamping it on the forehead of the deceased, anyone–even the worst sinners–can get to heaven. This is what’s causing our economic slump. We need you to go steal it from Zenkoji.

Goemon: I was wondering what I might be asked to do, but I did not imagine it would be such an easy task. Have no fear!

Emma: I am counting on you to do this so do not fail me! Go quickly Goemon, time is of the essence…

With that Goemon strikes a dramatic Kabuki pose (mi e kiru), and is “zapped” to Zenkoji temple in the land of the living.

During the day Goemon cases the temple grounds, amusing himself by sneaking into tourist group pictures. He even kills time at a well-known coffee shop chain (notorious for serving very bad coffee). After drinking lots of “mud-like” coffee he’s so bored he gets his horoscope read.

At last night falls. It’s time to steal the Okechimyaku. Goemon, practiced in the art of ninjutsu, steals his way into the main worship hall where the Okechimyaku is kept. After some searching Goemon comes across a beautiful lacquered wooden box. Inside this box is a smaller box, which contains the coveted Okechimyaku.

An ordinary thief would have simply taken the Okechimyaku and run. But the theatrical Goemon strikes a formal Kabuki pose and says:

Oh, oh, oh…I am fortunate and thankful. I have slipped into the main worship hall of Zenkoji and stolen the Okechimyaku. With possession of this item I have successfully completed my mission…

Then, in traditional Kabuki style, Goemon bows deeply, stamps himself on the forehead, and is sent directly to heaven.

Blogger’s note: In the next post we’ll analyze the cultural implications of this story. For those interested in more of my ramblings on Japanese attitudes toward death, check out this post

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2010

4 responses to “Okechimyaku: Japan’s Humorous Afterlife

  1. Aloha Tim! Fascinating post! Thank you for taking the time to share these insights. I had not realized there was a crystal meth problem in Japan 25 years ago….

  2. Thank you for this well written and informative post. I didn’t realize this until now, but Akira Toriyama may have been influenced by this story in his Dragon Ball Z series of manga and anime. In one particular episode he has King Enma stamp Dabura (The King of the Demons) with the “Heaven” stamp in order to send him into Heaven instead of Hell, because (since he’s a demon) he would like Hell too much. Once in Heaven he attains a peaceful and loving personality.

    Rakugo is an entirely new concept for me. Thank you for the introduction.

  3. Thanks for checking in Derek!

    I was never into manga or anime (too old), but while researching this topic on google I stumbled onto the realization that many stories in modern manga/anime have direct links to traditional Japanese literature. Fascinating stuff!

    Rakugo is one of many traditions rich in fundamental Japanese motifs. But the themes, story-lines, social conventions, etc. ultimately took shape in the Muromachi era when Japan’s national literature came into its own (while Buddhism spread to the masses). For more on this check out Barbara Ruch’s “Medieval Jongleurs and the Making of a National Literature”.

    From a cultural anthropologist’s vantage point, it validates once again a direct link between modern Japan and its past, proof that certain traditional values endure. Likewise, when I first saw Itami Juzo’s masterpiece comedy “Ososhiki” (The funeral), I could see Rakugo was written all over it. Ditto for the joke Darren re-told about the failed suicide attempt that ends in the poor guy calling for help. (See comments section in the next post.)

    Anyway, thanks for opening my mind to the manga/anime angle. It also got me thinking about the Japanese video game genre having similar traditional influences. Gosh, I could even see “Okechimyaku” being made into a cool video game. Now there’s an idea! (You can throw a couple percent my way for that idea :-))

  4. Funny.
    In Europe, the Catholic church had about the same idea in order to absolve sins. You could buy letters of indulgence (Ablassbriefe, in German) from priests. Those were very much like a magical get-out-of-hell-card and the superstitious and faithful medieval people bought them in droves…

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