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Today I am going to talk again about some japanese religions facts that might seems scary and weird, but that are a central element in every human culture, and in Japan too. I am talking about death in Japan.

Death in Japan

Death in JapanWhile discussing the topic of death practices in Japan, it is necessary to acknowledge how much death and the dead are an integral part of Japanese life and how closely raise 来世, life after death, and gense 現世, this world, are linked in Japanese though and belief system. What seems to be a recurring topic in folklore in Japan (rites, celebration, matsuri, legends, tales, ec..) is the relationship between the living and the dead, the present family and its ancestors. Some authors suggested that death is a prototypical Japanese topic, not only because it relates living with their ongoing heritage but also because death brings into focus a number of other important elements such as obligation, duty, debt, honor, personal responsibility.


Death raises a great interest in popular culture and intellectual circles, but it seems to be more than a simple topic of discussion, deeper and more pervasive.

Death and Cultural Anthropology

Robert Hertz and his studies on death

With his study on the collective representation of death, Robert Hertz offers a significant analysis of funerary rites and the connected beliefs. His interest is focused on three main elements which constitute the vertexes of three interactive trajectories; the body of the dead, its soul, and the community of the living, and it is among these three poles that beliefs and funerary practices develop and manifest themselves.

Through the interaction between the society of the living, the corpse and the soul, Hertz traces some fundamental relations between the images of death and the social structure of a given community; far from being a private and individual occurrence, death is fundamentally a social event, and funeral rites work for the conservation of the existing social structure and order.


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A second significant aspect of Hertz’s study is the interest for those societies that do not see death as instantaneous, but as a long process toward final extinction. The so-called western culture tends to conceive death as the moment of death, the instant in which the dying person abandons this life; the soul is supposed to reach immediately the other world, and there is in general very little focus on the possibility of a liminal, transient period; in other cultures, however, death is considered a long process beginning with the instant of death, and that can ultimately ends also several years after the physical passing.

There is therefore a more or less long intermediary period when the mortal is neither alive nor dead; rituals here tends to underline this specific transition, and there is an extreme attention to the liminal phase during which the dead person is in transformation, since it is a very delicate and dangerous time. The final integration of the dead in the new order of the other world is also marked by various rites that display variable intensity and importance varies according to the cultures. This liminal phase is mirrored in the image of the decaying corpse, which is destined to rot and putrefy until only bones remain, representing the new fixed and imperishable shape; it also follows the fate of the soul, homeless and dangerous, experiencing a pitiful existence at the borders of the world of the living until it will be able to reach the new society of the dead.

What is death? Van Gennep and the rites of passages

Death in Japan

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Hertz’s analysis on the liminal and processual period returns in the more elaborate work The rites of passage, by Arnold Van Gennep. He focuses his interest on a series of rituals which involve a transition from one phase to another, identifying a tripartite structure: separation from the original status, a liminal period, and the incorporation in the new status. Initiation, marriage, and funerals are among the clearest examples of such structure.

The force of this structure lays in the fact that it can be applied to a vast variety of rituals, not only in far away cultural spaces but in the very reality of western culture. It contrasts the evolutionary anthropology and its interest for bizarre and obscure practices interpreted as previous stages in human social and intellectual development; through his analysis, instead, Van Gennep show that every rite has a meaning as it is, regardless of its assumed antiquity. Moreover, the importance of Van Gennep’s analysis lays in the fact that he takes into consideration three central issues of the anthropological debate: the integration of the individual within society, the nature of symbolism and the moral relativity of cultures

The Japanese traditions about death

Death in JapanAs it is often remembered, for Japanese people, Buddhism is the preferred choice when in need to deal with death. We can notice that, although generally speaking the Japanese declare a lack of interest in religious matter, ancestral rites occupy a central place in Japanese experience: 60% of Japanese household still have a butsudan仏壇 (the Buddhist altar for the ancestor worship), and they attend ceremonies during the principal moments for the commemoration of the dead, the Obon お盆and Higan彼岸. In many Japanese home, beside the butsudan we can still find the kamidana神棚, dedicated to the worship of kami.

Japanese traditional funeral rites

The funeral rites institute a clear hierarchy governed by social proximity to the deceased or the chief mourner. It is a public acknowledgment of an individual death but also a display of social, commercial and legal relations between the living and the dead and among the living themselves.

In Japan, 90% of all funerals are Buddhist, and the majority of all temples derive their primary income from maintaining graves and providing mortuary services  for parishioners. At the same time, most Japanese see temple priests less as representatives of a distinct Buddhist lineage than as ritual specialists and caretakers for the family ancestors.

Death in JapanBuddhism in Japan today is intimately tied to the family, and the multigenerational ancestral graves, maintained at temples, that serve as the central locus of this relationship. This lifelong, hereditary, and increasingly onerous bond of obligation has its roots in the temple parishioner system, danka seido 檀家制度, which began in the XVII cent and despite its legal end in the late XIX, continues to set the tone for the relationship between temples and family up to the present days. Identification with one Buddhist sect is not a matter of faith but of loyalty and obligation toward the temple where one’s own ancestors are buried.

Death in Japan

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Similarly, even if funerals are for the most part Buddhist, it does not imply that people knows or fully understands Buddhist teachings, with a significant participation of non believers to these rituals. For the average parishioner, Buddhism is usually not seen as a collection of doctrinal teachings, but as a set of practices that are considered traditional rather than religious per se. These rites are representative of those held in most of towns and cities throughout jJapan, with professional undertakers and for most part officiated by Buddhist priests.

The traditional funeral as practiced today was elaborated in Edo period but includes elements of older origins; for example, the use of water against the danger posed by pollution is of ancient chinese origin, while the later introduction of Buddhism brought a new sets of practices such as the dressing of the dead as a Buddhist pilgrim, the posthumous name or the offering of incense. Before World War II, the role and duty of chief mourner was reserved to a man descendant, indicated by law to inherit his family’s assets; even today many Japanese continue to respect such system as a custom even though some women started breaking this scheme.

Death in Japan

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Virtually all funerals end in cremation, with the picking of the bones; cremation has been practiced in some form throughout Japan’s recorded history since its introduction in the VI century, but this manner of dealing with the dead became dominant only in the XX. Burning the dead is considered a traditional mode from the ancient past aas it is the shrine-style hearse use; this inspired the design of complicated altars that perpetuated the splendour and display of wealth previously embodied in the procession.

The modern-day funerl rites have some variations in the practice and in the choices about the final destiny of the body, especially with the emergence of the “eternal memorial graves” and the new trend of scattering the ashes; however, we can clearly identify some elements that continue to constitute the funeral practice, and that articulare the ritual in subsequent moment of focus.

The cure for the corpse

First of all the body of the deceased is washed; it is given the last symbolic drop of water, shinimizu 死に水, or matsugo no mizu 末期の水; then the ritual bath is carried out (yu-kan湯灌), with a tub in which hot water is added to the cold one (sakasa-mizu 逆さ水, an overturning of everyday practice); eyes and the other openings are closed, the hands are crossed and the face is covered with a white cloth. The body is then dressed in a white kimono (as used in the pilgrimages), and it is placed with the head facing north, kitamakura 北枕, and the face toward the west, in a position usually avoided in everyday life; the bed is surrounded by upsidedown screens, and over the body of the deceased is sometimes places a small sword; next to it, offerings of incense, flowers and candles are arranged. Moreover the kamidana is covered with a white cloth to avoid any kind of pollution.

After the moment of death

In the moment immediately following the death, it is symbolically necessary to underline the suspension of the communication; this incommunicability is expressed with the symbolism of the contrary, as in the bath, in the upside down screen and in the particular position of the body. The dead is symbolically forbidden to communicate.

In the meantime, the news of the death is spread among relatives and close friends, and to the monks of the family temple; he will go to the house in order to recite the makura-gyō 枕経, “pillow sūtra”, that transform the deceased in a disciple of Buddha; the deceased is then given a posthumous Buddhist name, temporarily written on two white funerary tablets, one for the butsudan and the other for the grave.

At this point the body is placed in the coffin, often with various objects with an emotional meaning; then a the wake, tsuya 通夜, is held, during which parents and neighbors will stay awake to pray, sometimes under the guidance of a monk; the butsudan is decorated and filled with food offerings from the visitors, which may also hold a small speech for the mourning. Later, a meeting is held to pray for the deceased, and sometimes close relatives such as brothers will sleep next to the body.

The proper buddhist funeral

The funeral, sōshiki 葬式 takes place the next day, at the house of the deceased or at the family temple, where the mourning participant gather to offer the last goodbye to the deceased. Today organized by funeral enterprises, sõgiya葬儀屋, the ritual is articulated in a well defined order; a company announces that the time for the funeral has come, and the monk, briefly recounting the life and deeds of the deceased, entrust him or her in the hands of the Buddha while reciting the proper sūtras; incense is burnt and in some cases friends and close relatives read small eulogies.

At this point the coffin is taken out of the altar (shukkan 出棺, ”partenza, allontanamento della bara”), and then nailed and conducted to the crematorium followed by closer relatives and friends. Once at the crematorium, while the coffin is placed to burn, the monk recites various sūtra; the cremation is a relatively long process, lasting around one hour during which the participants may rest in separate spaces, drinking tea or sake and eating some food. When cremation is completed, the relatives pick up the bones of the deceased, kotsuage 骨揚げ, with long mismatched chopstick, and place them in the urn; finally the urn is closed and placed in a second silk container. The urn is placed on a temporary altar in front of the butsudan, for 35 or 49 days, or inside the family temple untile it is buried in the family grave; the table with the posthumous Buddhist name is kept on the altar until the 49th day, and then placed on the grave.