How Does Japanese Culture View Death & Dying?

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Death is a universal part of life. That’s why all cultures have certain perspectives on death. Studying death in different cultures offers you a unique way to learn about respective cultures as well as the chance to reflect on your own.

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For example, if you’re from the US, you might want to learn how Japanese people treat death and dying. Just a little bit of research will confirm their attitudes don’t always reflect traditional Western beliefs and customs.

It’s important to keep in mind that members of a culture are still unique individuals. Japanese attitudes toward death are not universal. This guide isn’t suggesting all Japanese people share the exact same beliefs about death. It’s simply an overview of the topic, providing you with a glimpse into the way another culture (perhaps very unlike your own) approaches a subject we all have to contend with.

Modern Japanese Beliefs About Death

It’s worth noting that some scholars believe Japanese attitudes towards death have been changing fairly quickly in recent years. This is partially due to Confucianism’s diminishing influence over Japanese culture.

In the past, Confucian values ensured many Japanese families revered their elders. Thus, preparing for death and honoring the deceased after they passed was a very important part of Japanese life.

That has changed somewhat in our era. Thus, Japanese attitudes towards death have also begun to shift. While the information here does explain how many Japanese people feel and think about the topic today, it’s still important to remember that Japanese culture is arguably undergoing a unique period of change, and traditional views on death are changing with it.

Significance of death

Japanese beliefs about death can vary depending on several factors, including age and religion. That said, the Japanese traditionally believe that a human consists of two parts, a soul and a body.

Thus, death isn’t necessarily the end of one’s existence. It instead marks the moment when the soul departs.

Life after death

Traditional Japanese attitudes towards death include a belief in the afterlife. Throughout the history of Japanese culture, people have traditionally believed that when a person dies, their soul lives on in the land of the dead.

The land of the dead in Japanese culture is another realm not far from our own. According to traditional Japanese beliefs, the spirits of the dead are always nearby, and may even visit their loved ones during certain times of year (such as the Obon season).

Some early Japanese cultural beliefs also state that the souls of the dead don’t rest in one place. Instead, they fly around, spending time in mountains, caves, and other wild places. They could appear as ghosts or spirits when the world of the dead overlaps with our own.

The Pure Land

Japanese culture has changed throughout history. The idea that spirits entered a nearby land of the dead after their human form died started to become less popular as cultural shifts caused some Japanese to start believing in the “Pure Land” instead.

The Pure Land is closer to our traditional Western idea of heaven. Instead of being a realm so close to our own that it overlaps with ours at times, the Pure Land is a separate realm where a person’s purified spirit can finally rest.

This changing belief influenced the way many Japanese people treated burials and gravesites. Many considered gravesites to be paths to the Pure Land. They revered them accordingly, building large memorials and monuments at these sites.

Secular shifts

The belief in the importance of the Pure Land didn’t remain widespread throughout Japanese culture forever. Japanese attitudes towards death continued to change as the quality of life for Japanese people throughout the country improved.

This is actually the case in many cultures. The reward of a happy afterlife helped people endure the difficulties of this life. However, as Japan developed, people stopped feeling they should patiently wait for happiness later, and instead wanted to experience happiness while they were alive.

As a result, while many still believed in the Pure Land, they didn’t place nearly as much emphasis on its importance. This affected the way they treated burial sites and honored their ancestors.

Instead of considering burial sites to be paths to an afterlife realm, they thought of gravesites as places where they could pray to ancestors who would serve as protectors for themselves and future generations. This more secular view reflects many common Japanese attitudes towards death and the afterlife that are still around today.

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Death Rituals and Traditions

Like most (if not all) cultures, the Japanese apply their ideas about death in traditions and rituals.

Shinto funeral

A Shinto funeral is a common type of Japanese funeral that, as you might expect, derives from the Shinto religion. It typically involves several ritualized tasks.

Immediately after a loved one dies, family members will cover their traditional Shinto shrine if they have one in their home. Covering the shrine serves to protect the shrine from other spirits of the dead.

After informally alerting other family members and civil authorities, they will then perform a purification ritual consisting of 20 steps. These include (but are not limited to) washing the deceased’s lips, bringing food offerings to the coffin until the day it’s buried, and purifying the space with help from a priest after the funeral.

The Festival of Obon

Many cultures have festivals for honoring the dead. Japanese culture is no different.

Consider the Festival of Obon. During Obon (sometimes known as simply Bon), which takes place in Japan every July, Japanese people will visit the gravesites of deceased loved ones to clean their gravestones. Many also light lamps during the festival. According to traditional Japanese beliefs, this is the time of year when spirits of the dead may return to visit the living. The lamps serve to guide the spirits.

Modern Japanese Attitudes Toward Mourning and Grief

Japanese attitudes toward mourning and grief are somewhat formal, and provide opportunities for people to not only grieve together but also confide in one another.

Periodic visits

Like members of many other cultures, Japanese families often gather together when a loved one has passed away. However, it’s also common for them to gather periodically throughout the year after someone has died. During these gatherings, which often occur at temples, they’ll pray for the deceased, and they may chant sutras.

These are not merely religious gatherings. Meeting with loved ones also gives Japanese people regular opportunities to grieve over the course of a year. Some also use these gatherings to seek counseling. This may take the form of counseling with a priest, or it could simply involve loved ones talking to one another about their feelings during this difficult time.

Open discussions

Japanese people don’t necessarily refrain from openly discussing their emotions and attitudes after a loved one dies. When counseling with a priest, family members who’ve lost loved ones will often talk about their fears regarding the afterlife.

They believe priests serve as intermediaries between our world and the world of the dead and thus have insights that can help a mourner feel more at peace when someone they love has died.

Chief mourner

Although the culture has changed somewhat in Japan, people still tend to revere ancestors and members of older generations. Thus, mourning is a somewhat formal process among Japanese families. They place a great deal of importance on ensuring someone makes the proper arrangements and carries out important tasks following the death of a loved one.

This is one of the main reasons many Japanese families appoint the deceased’s next of kin as a “chief mourner.” Responsibilities for the chief mourner might include addressing guests at the funeral, pressing the button to begin the cremation process, and collecting the cremains in a traditional urn.

Japanese Attitudes About Death: Still Developing

As is the case in so many other cultures, Japanese attitudes towards death and dying consist of a mix of traditional beliefs and new, contemporary developments. This reflects the way cultures treat this subject in general. While the specific ways we mourn may not remain the same forever, saying goodbye to the dead and honoring the role they still play in our lives will always be part of the human experience.


Sources

  1. Becker, Carl. “Aging, Dying, and Bereavement in Contemporary Japan.” International Journal of Group Tensions, 1999, nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/2090 
  2. Boyne, Samuel. “A Forest of Graves: Japanese Funeral Traditions.” Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, 3 May 2017, berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/posts/a-forest-of-graves-japanese-funeral-traditions  
  3. Kenney, Elizabeth. “Shinto Mortuary Rites in Contemporary Japan.” Cahlers d’Extreme-Asie. 1996. Persee.fr.
  4. Michiko, Iwasaka and Barre Toelken. “Ghosts and the Japanese.” Utah State University Press, 1994, digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1065&context=usupress_pubs 
  5. Oto, Osamu. “Life and Death, Funeral Rites and Burial Systems in Early Modern Japan.” Knowledge Bank, 2011, kb.osu.edu/bitstream/handle/1811/51329/1/EAS_EMJ_Oto_2011.pdf 
  6. “Shinto Worship.” BBC. 16 October 2009. BBC.co.uk.

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