We commemorated my grandmother Mitsu's birthday, again. She would have been 114, but she passed on in winter 2015 at 113, according to the Buddhist priest, but only 111 according to an international gerontology group. No one knows what kept her alive so long though she always had an indomitable spirit. She lived in Japan in a home for the elderly for her last 12 years. The decision to live there was excruciating for everyone involved.
When we realized that my mother could no longer make the trip to Japan regularly as she had done for years we faced a tough decision because Obaachan, as we called her, couldn't live alone. So we brought her to the U.S. to spend her last years, and to die. No one actually said that but we all knew it was true. After all, grandma was 99 and how many more years could she possibly live? Better to die among those she loved the most, we reasoned. She could pass her few remaining years in peace and would be able to die surrounded by her only child and grandchildren.
Since she had never actually lived in America, we decided it would be best to have a trial and tell her that she could return to Japan if she decided that it was the best thing to do. But since she could no longer live alone, should she decide to go back, she would have to enter a nursing home. I escorted her from her home in Matsuyama and she moved in with my mother and older sister in Massachusetts. I returned to Tokyo.
Days passed and tensions mounted. As the time approached for a decision to be made, I received a phone call from my older sister, who does not speak Japanese, requesting that I ask Grandmother what she wants wanted to do.
“Okay,” I said, and when the phone was passed, asked, “What do you want to do, Grandma?”
“I think I should go back.”
She gave the phone to my sister and I translated into English.
“She thinks she should go back.”
This answer did not satisfy my sister, who insisted, “I want to know what she wants to do, not what she thinks she should do.”
“Okay, I’ll ask her again.”
“Big sister wants to know what you want to do, Grandma.”
“Well, I think your mother wants me to go back.”
I translated this too.
My sister said, “That might be true but I want to know what she wants to do.”
“Okay, I’ll try again.”
“Grandma, don’t worry about what you think Mom wants, what do you want to do?”
“I think your sister’s husband is not comfortable with me here.”
I told her, and my sister said, “Tom’s fine with whatever we decide. What does she want to do?”
“Sister says her husband is fine with you here. She wants to know what you want to do.”
“It’s probably better for everyone if I go back.”
My sister was getting a little frustrated. “I’m not asking her that. I want to know what she wants. Tell her that if she wants to stay, I will take care of her.”
“Big sister says if you want to stay she will take care of you.”
“I appreciate it, but I should probably go back.”
“She thinks she should go back,” I told my sister, realizing we were back where we started.
She replied, “I just want to know what she wants to do.”
I was also exasperated, and said, “I know you do, but maybe she just can’t answer your question in the way you want her to.”
There was a silence, then my sister said, “Okay, I understand.”
Grandmother went back to Japan a month later, after only three months living in America. She moved into the a nursing home without complaint. She lived there for 12 years until she died at 111. Would she have been happier in the U.S.? We don’t know, though we feel sad and imagine that she was lonely living that way. It was her choice, I say to myself. But what does this mean for her to choose what she wanted—a woman raised at a time and place in which a woman’s desires did not matter, raised in a society in which she could only see herself in a contextual web of relationships? When we asked her “What do you want to do?” could she possibly see her wishes simply as personal, individualistic desires?
What Grandmother wanted is what was best for all her loved ones. Japanese culture, even in the language, shows how humans are deeply connected to others. The word for self, Jibun, consists of two kanji, 自分, together showing how the self is part of something larger. Thinking of my grandmother always reminds me that I am connected to others in a network that includes family, friends, and community.
Coming from a samurai family, she was of course influenced by ethics of Bushido. People today dismiss Bushido as old-fashioned, and in many ways it is, but it has noble virtues that can be applied to living well even now. In the moral principle of chugi, or loyalty, the interests of the family and of its members were one and inseparable. In author Inazo Nitobe’s words: “This interest is bound up with affection—natural, instinctive, irresistible; we can die for one we love with natural love. It is the opposite of individualism which puts self-interest first, seeing one’s own pain, pleasure and existence as our greatest concern.[i]
The virtues of service are laid out in Hagakure, a manual of Bushido from the 1700s.[ii] Bushido stressed that human relations should always be guided by a sense of service to others, so to the samurai this was service to the master. For people today, this can mean service to our family, our community, our work. In Hagakure we see how Bushido regarded authentic communication with colleagues as an act of compassion that can enhance their development:.
“To give a person one’s opinion and correct his faults is an important thing. It is compassionate and comes first in matters of service.”
This is a clear expression of heartfulness, connecting mindfulness with compassion and responsibility. Samurai practiced mindfulness long before it was popularized in the West, and employed communication valuing vulnerability, listening, acceptance, and authenticity.
Although its expression varies culturally, seeking a cause beyond ourselves is an intrinsic human need. It might be large, like family, country, religion, or it might be small, like a project, a garden, or a pet. We give our lives meaning by ascribing value to the cause and seeing it as worth sacrificing for. Loyalty also enhances the our quality of life, especially for those of us struggling to find meaning in their our existence in illness or aging. It may not make us happy, and it may even be painful, but it satisfies our need to give ourselves to something greater than our individual selves and helps make our lives more endurable.
My grandmother expressed virtues of service and loyalty in deciding to sacrifice what she may have felt were her own individual desires for the greater good of all in the family. Seeing the hardship that it would impose on everyone, she determined that the best course of action was to leave the warm nest of family affection and retire to the group home in Japan. Perhaps she considered her sacrifice and death as meaningful when she saw herself as part of something greater, in this case, a family. Grandmother may not have been happy in the sense of having individual desires met, but she may have felt her life was meaningful as she was contributing to the happiness of others who loved her but could only care for her at great personal expense of time and money.
I used to tease Grandmother by saying she was selfish, because she was always giving and never gave me the chance to be the one giving. My mother taught me that we could find fulfillment in connecting obligation and love by performing our duties to the best of our ability. She expressed this sense of purpose with the words giri and ninjo. Giri is an old concept that was once considered a great traditional Japanese cultural value. But to young people it is regarded today as a burden, something that forces the individual to sacrifice himself for the needs of the other. People in Japan in contemporary times may feel oppressed by having to show loyalty to the group, but yet it still guides their way of living as good citizens, by sacrificing individualistic desire for the greater good.
My mother made sense of Grandmother’s decision, as one influenced by both giri and ninjo. Ninjo means human feeling, and is usually separated from giri as if the two are distinct and conflicting, and a person must choose one or the other. By putting the two words together my mother was telling me that true giri was inseparable from ninjo, as human feeling, service, and responsibility go together; connecting them was the way to acting responsibly. The kanji reveal that there is no heart in giri, but there is in ninjo, 人情, as there is in chugi, 忠義. Grandmother’s decision was heartful—both compassionate and responsible.
This way of compassionate giving is promoted by spiritual teachings in many cultures, such as in the Bible, which tells us of that giving is a two -way street: “A man who is kind benefits himself.” [iii] The Dalai Lama reminds us that the benefits of connecting compassionately with others come to both receiver and giver: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”[iv]
These teachings are supported by scientific studies showing that acts designed to improve the well-being of others will lead to greater happiness for givers, as well. [v] Psychology research tells us that one of the best ways to enhance our health is to actively contribute to the lives of those around us. Well-being increases more when these acts are associated with concretely framed goals as opposed to abstractly framed goals—despite many people’s intuitions to the contrary. This supports spiritual teachings and lessons from mindfulness that it is the small things, the daily opportunities for little acts of kindness, that bring us happiness, not the achievement of big goals or desires. While the loving person doesn’t give love for selfish reasons, they still receive that which is given back to them. Giving makes the other person a giver also, and both share in the joy of what they have created.
 Inazo Nitobe. Bushido, Tokyo: Kodansha International,1998
[ii] Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. Yamamoto Tsunetomo. Translated by William Scott Wilson. Kodansha International,1979
[iii] The Holy Bible. Proverbs 11:17.
[iv] Dalai Lama, Twitter, 2:14 AM Dec 2010
[v] Wendy Liu & Jennifer Aaker, The Happiness of Giving: The Time-Ask Effect, Journal of Consumer Research. 2008, Vol. 35, Issue 3, pp. 543-557
what is best for all her loved ones.