O-higan and o-hagi

This weekend was the autumnal equinox, a public holiday in Japan known as "O-higan" (お彼岸, "other shore", i.e. [a holiday centered around] the afterlife).

Buddhist temples traditionally marked the occasion by having masked superheroes brutalize small children until they paid their respects at the graves of their ancestors, but these ancient folkways are fading.

The hip urbanite of today's Japan is in no mood to revere their ancestors again after having done all that revering during O-bon a few weeks earlier. For all but the devout and the rural, O-higan has been worn down to the nub of "eating o-hagi", with an optional making phase if you are newly married and/or bored.

Originally, of course, at least a few were also placed on an appropriate familial grave. This explains the many thigh-slapping senryū about pounding one's lingering grievances into the o-hagi and so on. (It's not quite as pathetic to hold a post-mortem grudge when you're in a cultural milieu where reincarnation is considered the norm.)

Other senryū seem a little more surreal, though:

待女郎 お萩で嫁に 花が咲く
Machijorou/ o-hagi de yome ni/ hana ga saki
The maid in waiting/ being an o-hagi, the bride/ blossoms (=shines)

Here "maid in waiting" is a loose translation referring to the maid who would wait at the bride's new home and help her settle in. This doesn't clear things up much, though. Maybe you can guess how this is going to end?

Right: o-hagi can also mean "ugly woman", one whose face is round and irregular like an o-hagi. This usage was actually borrowed from the related botamochi, which seem to have been more common in Edo times. Certainly they worked their way further into the language. There was even a saying, "to be hit on the cheek with a botamochi", which meant "to run into unexpected good fortune". (Cue discussion of custard pies, hero with a thousand food-covered faces, etc.)

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'saki' or 'saku'?


Good question. I lost my source (I can't even remember which book it was from now) but the Japanese is probably more accurate and the English a typo.

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