If you look across the globe, you’ll quickly discover that funerals are vast and varied. Each culture has their own ways to say goodbye to the dead and lay them to rest, and this is especially true in Japan.
Jump ahead to these sections:
In Japanese funerals, one of the standout individuals involved is the nokanshi. These are Japanese undertakers, but their role goes much farther than we might expect. Though Japan is a secular country, most funerals are Buddhist ceremonies. Culture and ritual go hand in hand to ensure the soul continues to the afterlife.
While you’re likely to encounter different practices depending on the specific Japanese community, death rituals are always seen as important. One of these rituals features a nokanshi or a Japanese ritual mortician.
What is a Nokanashi, and what role do they play in Japanese funerals? For outsiders, it can be difficult to understand the specific role these individuals play.
What’s a Nokanshi?
There’s a lot of confusion over nokanshi and its purpose in Japan, especially in modern Japan. In its most basic form, nokanshi is the word that describes the task of preparing a dead body.
However, cremation is mandatory in most parts of the country. This means that the body is required to be cremated within a specific period of time after death, typically after 24 hours. If cremation is required, why go through so much trouble preparing the body?
Nokanshi gained international recognition after the Academy Award-winning film Departures, which highlights the work these individuals do for grieving families. To many in Japan, talking about death is seen as a taboo. Having someone who specifically handles these tasks is a must, but it’s also something that’s seldom talked about.
Death and dying in Japan
Japan, like other Buddhist countries, believe in reincarnation. That being said, it’s considered bad luck to talk about death or to ruminate too much on the deceased. While honoring dead loved ones and ancestors is an important part of the culture, it’s also important to focus on the here and now.
In Buddhism, the only certainty is uncertainty. Things change, and to expect them to stay the same is simply unnatural. As such, death isn’t something to be feared. It’s just another part of life. Through Nokanshi, families gain a more intimate understanding of death and dying.
A nōkan is the Japanese word for the “encoffining” ritual. This is the process of preparing the body for burial, though it’s used today in preparation for cremation. Though still performed in rural areas, the encoffining ritual is no longer a typical part of Japanese funerals in urban parts of the country.
Traditionally, the body is washed, dressed, and prepared for burial. Ritual clothing is put on the body, and makeup is often applied. The body is placed on dry ice in a casket, creating a similar effect to embalming in the west though few chemicals are used. For the families that choose to have wakes, this is a welcome service.
History of Nokanshis
There is currently something of a revolution around death and dying in Japan. More and more people are talking openly about death, and new business and technology are bringing modern death practices into the limelight. That being said, it hasn’t always been this way.
Tained by death
In Japan, there is an unspoken class of people known as Burakumin. This translates to “hamlet people,” and it dates back to the feudal era. In these days, communities were often segregated by social class, and the lowest class was known as the Burakumin or untouchables.
This class was the lowest of outcasts, and they were composed of any laborers who worked in occupations that were “tainted” by death. To directly handle the dead, whether that meant burying humans or slaughtering cows, was seen as impure.
Though the caste system was abolished in the 1870s with the feudal system, many still recognize death as something “impure.” This is depicted clearly in the Japanese film Departures about a man who turns to a career as a nokanshi despite society’s wishes.
Facing the stigma
During the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the stigma around the untouchables began to lessen. Before this, those who worked as morticians in a morgue or cemetery would need to live separate from society since they were seen as unclean.
Despite this cultural shift in the 1800s, there is still a large stigma in Japan against death. Discrimination against funeral directors and morticians continued through the modern day, and many modern people frown upon nokanshi.
Modern funerals in Japan
Prior to the 1970s, most deaths were handled by both nokanshis and the family. Those who helped with the death of a loved one could cleanse themselves through a purifying ritual, but the same couldn’t be said for those who handled the dead on a regular basis.
In modern times, most funerals are handled by hospitals. Because Japan has a growing aging population, the majority of people die under the care of a hospital or facility. The family doesn’t usually see the body until the funeral itself, and there is less of a stigma around working with the dead.
What Are a Nokanshi’s Duties?
What exactly are a nokanshi’s roles? Similar to a mortician, they help prepare bodies for burial or cremation.
In Japan, wakes are incredibly common, and the body is typically displayed for friends and family. The nokanshi’s duties focus on preparing the body to be viewed after death as well as adhering to traditional rituals.
While the nokashani’s duties greatly resemble that of a western mortician, there is one key difference. The nokanshi must perform their duties under the gaze of the deceased’s family.
During this process, privacy is important. The Nokanshi ensures the family isn’t able to see any of the deceased person’s naked body, and they protect the deceased’s modesty. They understand that this is a sensitive time for the family, and their work is very important despite its challenging role within society.
Dressing the body
In Japan, bodies are specifically dressed for the burial or cremation. The deceased person is undressed by the nokanshi, and they’re re-dressed in ritual clothes. This is usually a white kimono.
This is the outfit they will be buried or cremated in. In some cases, the body is also washed before being dressed in specific funeral clothes.
Regardless of gender, makeup is applied to the deceased person’s face. If he is a man, his face is also shaved. Nokanshis are highly skilled at applying makeup to the dead. They help retain a lifelike, natural appearance.
As the body begins to change and decompose immediately after death, the nokanshi retain the individual’s unique facial appearance for the wake. This is a meticulous, careful process.
Prepare the coffin
Last but not least, the body is carefully placed in the coffin. This casket will either be buried or cremated. In most cases, the body is cremated in modern Japan.
Every aspect of this ceremony is done with care and perfectionism. Though this profession is highly frowned upon, it’s also highly skilled and meticulous. Handling the deceased is no small task. The nokanshi are skilled, trained professionals.
Breaking the Taboo
Talking about death is something that’s stigmatized in many parts of the world, not limited to Japan. That being said, the nokanshi are a particularly taboo part of society in Japan. Though they were once considered to be part of Japan’s unspeakable caste, times are changing.
Thanks to the film Departures, more people are beginning to speak openly about death and dying in Japan. With highly ritualized burial and cremation processes like kosuage in Japan, it only makes sense for nokanshi to become a more accepted profession in today’s world.
The growing aging population in Japan means the death industry has more demands than ever before. There’s a rising need for crematoriums, funeral directors, and even nokanshi.
The Ritual of Death and Dying in Japan
Japan is a country of rituals. Every part of life is ritualized, and that includes the practices surrounding death. Though nokanshi, as a profession, was traditionally seen as impure, the world is changing quickly.
Death and dying is a natural part of life. While Japan has a Buddhist understanding of death as something that’s inevitable, this society is only just recently opening its eyes to the important role of nokanshi. As times continue to change, Japan’s industry around death continues to grow.
- Fujimura, Makoto. “Departures The Art of Transformation.” Curator Magazine. 29 May 2009. CuratorMagazine.com.
- “Japan’s hidden caste of untouchables.” BBC. 23 October 2015. BBC.com.
- “When someone dies in Japan.” Australian Embassy: Tokyo, Japan. Japan.Embassy.gov.au.