Japanese Funerary Rituals

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Wing Luke Asian Museum. Minidoka, Idaho, was one of ten internment camps for Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. It held people originally from Seattle, Portland, Puyallup Valley, and Alaska.

Buddhist funeral at Minidoka, ca. 1943. Wing Luke Asian Museum.

The Japanese culture is intricate as it is vastly traditional, filled with cues and customs that have intrigued people for centuries. Tea ceremonies, kimono, and katana color the wondrous history of Japan’s past and still hold fast to these traditions over the long test of time. The main religious practices in Japan consist of Buddhism, Shintoism, and various forms of Christianity. There are burial practices for each type of religion, but there are also traditional Japanese burials that are used despite religious affiliation. Most of the burial practices involve prayers, wakes, and purification of the dead.

Japanese funeral customs: the cortège leaves the dead man's house for the temple. Left, a Buddhist monk carrying a parasol leads the cortège; the palanquin, flanked by containers of leafy plants, is carried by four attendants; two men walk alongside the palanquin, holding aloft a slender yellow or gold (?) bow or arch; three men dressed in samurai costumes follow the palanquin; two women and a child weep as the cortège passes; a kneeling man watches from the verandah. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Japanese funeral customs – the procession leaves the house. Wellcome trust, Wellcome Images.

Belief systems in Japan follow Buddhism or Shintoism traditionally, which in some cases become so similar to each other that it is difficult to tell them apart. Buddhism adheres to a sense of non-violence, unselfishness, and mental peace. The main idea of life and death revolves around the terms ‘Near Shore’ and ‘Far Shore,’ which refers to the land of the living and the land of the dead and Kami (Gods) (Adams, pg. 1, 2015).

Death is seen as the next step or stage in one’s life that will lead to enlightenment, but can also lead to reincarnation (Funerals and Flowers, pg. 1, 2013). Death is even seen as a lesson for the loved ones who still live, as it is a trail to test the strength of ones soul and the ability to let go. Buddha teaches them the lesson of impermanence in life, which is a necessary step for people to understand while alive (Funerals and Flowers, pg. 1, 2013).

Important people in Buddhist communities get treated similarly to others in death, but this is best shown when Bodiford summarizes it, “On the abbot’s death, his direct disciples would wear robes of mourning and retire from their normal duties, while the other monks in the monastery would be assigned the functions of praising the abbot’s accomplishments and of consoling his disciples. The deceased abbot’s corpse would be washed, shaved, dressed in new robes, and placed inside a round coffin in an upright, seated position, as if engaged in meditation,” (Pg. 151, 1992). This is an example of death for a man of considerable spiritual prowess, but differs only slightly compared to other traditional burials.

1972 Japanese Ceremonial Hearse - National Museum of Funeral History - Houston TX. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

1972 Japanese Ceremonial Hearse – National Museum of Funeral History – Houston TX.

The practices of Buddhism largely impact the ritual of burial and death of a loved one. The first step of a Japanese funeral begins the hour of the death. The deceased is cleaned and dressed up (including the use of makeup) to prepare them for their journey to eternity. The bedside is decorated to honor the deceased as arrangements are made for their wake and funeral. (Sekise Inc, pg. 2, 2015).

The second step involves contacting a shrine of choice, setting up a time for the wake and funeral, as well as providing a donation to the shrine. Where the funeral is held depends on faith (religion), budget, and expected number of mourners (Sekise, pg, 3, 2015).

The third step pertains to notifying loved ones and relatives of the person passing. After, neighbors are also informed along with friends of the deceased. Roles are assigned for the funeral before it takes place and proper attire for the mourning is acquired. During this step is also when flowers are ordered along with any other appropriate offering, such as sweets or a persons’ favorite food (Sekise, pg. 3, 2015).

Okei-san's Japanese Headstone. By Stuart Rankin. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Okei-san’s Japanese Headstone. By Stuart Rankin. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Preparations are made further for the funeral such as getting a picture for display, preparing food such as Otoki, and hanging wreaths and lanterns (Sekise, pg. 4, 2015). Otoki is a vegetarian Buddhist meal that is only eaten at a certain time of the day (Adams, pg. 2, 2015). During this time, the celebration hall is decorated and the body of the deceased is put in burial clothing.

In the final stages of the process, the priest and mourners are received at the ceremony hall and everyone is seated for the celebration of life. Sometimes, sutra chanting is done and funeral incense are burned to grant peace to the deceased. Depending on the religion of the family and departed person, a Buddhist service or other religious service is provided and the coffin is taken to the burial grounds shortly afterward. Some families arrange cremations instead which involve prayer and purification salts to send off the deceased (Sekise, pg. 5, 2015).

People in Japan have a traditional obligation called Giri that dictates their duty to the family and deceased to appear at the funeral to pay their respects. While they fulfill their duty of attendance, they also take part in a tradition known as Koden which refers to a mortuary gift to the deceased and the family they left behind (Tsuji, pg. 392, 2006).

The ritual practices of burials are always in transit. For example, there is a newer trend in Japan referred to as a ‘living funeral’. This ritual consists of holding a funeral while the person is still alive, but going through the steps of a normal funeral in a sort of comedic style. This ritual is also a time for the living person of focus to give thanks for the people in their life while they have the chance (Suzuki, pg. 173, 2008).

Overall, the Japanese ritual of burial and religious practices that go with it are meaningful and complex, with the intent of laying their loved ones’ souls to rest. The anthropological perspective on Japanese burial practices shows the change over time, the use of syncretism within religious practices, and the roles in which people play. By looking at these changes, we can see how important religion is to mortuary practices and what it means to each culture.

Page Created By: Jaella Nelson


Adams, Henry T. “Jodo Shinshu Buddhism – Oxnard Buddhist Temple.” Jodo Shinshu Buddhism – Oxnard Buddhist Temple. 2015. Accessed November 29, 2015. http://www.oxnardbuddhisttemple.org/welcome/jodo-shinshu-buddhism.

Bodiford, William M. 1992. “Zen in the Art of Funerals: Ritual Salvation in Japanese Buddhism”. History of Religions 32 (2). The University of Chicago Press: 146–64. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1062755.

“Buddhist Funeral.” Funerals and Flowers. 2013. Accessed November 19, 2015.

Tomoko Nakamatsu (2009) ‘Conventional practice, courageous plan’: women and the gendered site of death rituals in Japan, Journal of Gender Studies, 18:1, 1-11, DOI: 10.1080/09589230802584154

Tsuji, Yohko. 2006. “Mortuary Rituals in Japan: The Hegemony of Tradition and the Motivations of Individuals”. Ethos 34 (3). Wiley: 391–431. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3806505.

Sekise Inc. “JAPANESE FUNERAL STYLE 1.” Sekise Inc. 2015. Accessed November 27, 2015. http://www.osoushiki-plaza.com/eng/eng1.html.

Suzuki, Hikaru.(1998) Japanese death rituals in transit: From household ancestors to beloved antecedents, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 13:2, 171-188, DOI: 10.1080/13537909808580829

Photo Bibliography

“Buddhist Funeral at Minidoka, Ca. 1943.” Flickr. IMLS Digital Collections and Content. May 7, 2010. Retrieved November 11, 2015.

Kimberly, Robert. “1972 Japanese Ceremonial Hearse – National Museum of Funeral History – Houston TX.” Flickr. National Museum of Funeral History, September 16, 2007. Retrieved November 11, 2015.

Rankin, Stuart. “Okei-San’s Japanese Headstone.” Flickr. September 5, 2015. Retrieved November 10th, 2015.

Wellcome Images. “Watercolour of a Japanese Funeral Cortège Leaving a Dead Man’s House for the Temple.” Flickr. November 20, 2014. Retrieved November 11, 2015.


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