The other day my wife asked an unexpected question: “What part of San Diego is your family grave located in?” I blinked at her ability to surprise me even after 15 years together, and told her we didn’t really have one. In Japan, of course, this would be unthinkable, as the concept of a “family” is forever anchored to the family grave, where the ashes and bones of your loved ones will be stored in ceramic jars after they die. My wife’s family grave is located in a small plot with twenty other gravestones near our house, and on certain days of the year such as the Obon Buddhist holidays or the meinichi (death anniversary) of her grandmother, she’ll visit the grave and bring her departed family members up to speed on what we’re all doing, while washing the gravestone and lighting some incense. When a man or woman gets married and moves into their spouse’s home, they’re removing themselves from their parents’ official family registry and joining the registry of their spouse, by extension declaring that they’re going to enter the grave of the new family when they die. Of course, graves can be incredibly expensive, especially the closer you get to Tokyo, which has spurred the creation of “grave mansions,” multi-level apartment buildings that make it easy to visit your loved ones just by riding the elevator up a few floors. The word for grave in Japanese is haka, but like many solemn Buddhist-related words it’s nearly always used with the honorific o on the front (e.g. ohaka).
The gravestone is a central part of defining the family in Japan.