Attitudes to Death in Ancient Japan THINK Death in the Japanese

March 24, 2016

In Part 2 of his serialised monograph, “Death in the Japanese Tradition”, Professor Stuart D. B. Picken looks at Japanese attitudes to death through the ages, from primal awakenings to Prehistoric perceptions.

1. Shinto, Buddhism, and Death

Shinto is less associated with death in Japan than Buddhism. However, while Japanese Buddhism became the religion of the funeral, known colloquially as (お葬式仏教 ososhiki Bukkyo) it did so in order to come to terms with the amorphous agglomeration of local cults it encountered, spoken of collectively as Shinto, (神道) The way of the kami. Joseph Kitagawa commented: “Some people hold that Japan became a Buddhist country during the Heian period (794-1185), when Buddhism in effect absorbed Shinto. Yet, is it not equally true that Buddhism surrendered to the ethos of that nebulous religion of Japan, which lay deeper than the visible religious structure, commonly referred to as Shinto?” (Religion in Japanese History New York: Columbia University Press, 1966, p. 85) That was the price of Buddhism’s acceptance. Consequently to understand death and dying in modern Japan the logical starting point remains the pre-Buddhist cultural perception of death, since even in Buddhist rituals, the underlying view of death is and remains that of ancient Shinto.

2. Primal Awakenings to Death And Dying

When considering the attitudes of the ancient Japanese towards death, it is difficult not to be struck by how little thought has been given to the more general question: At what stage in the process of human development did the ancients first come to perceive death in a self-conscious way, and realize that it was the fate of all to ‘die’ and, in dying, ‘cease to be’? While an answer in terms of a date within mankind’s 10,000 odd years of existence obviously cannot be given, a little exercise of the a priori historical imagination could suggest how the question might be formulated as an aid to understanding the Japanese and the points at which their most primitive insights identify with, or differ from, those of other ancient peoples.

Humanity in its early stages of development probably regarded death as both inevitable and necessary for his survival. That is to say, it was recognized that in order that some might continue to live, others had to die. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) painted the picture of pre-social man in terms of a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” (Hobbes, Thomas Leviathan, London: Everyman Edition, 1965, p. 65.) He was reflecting the idea that man as a hunter had to fight over the basic necessities of life, food, women and shelter, until the stage was reached when he learned that he could live longer and could obtain not only safety but, more importantly, a share in the distribution of the various goods that he and others could produce, by a system of exchange. Plato, in the early part of The Republic, attributes the origin of human society and the State to the need for co-operation. The era of Australopithecines, first defined c.e. 1924, has been proposed as marking the beginning of such social co-operation. (Becker, Ernest The Birth and Death of Meaning, Glencoe: Free Press, 1971 pp. 1-4) The realization slowly grew that in addition to the benefits of co-operation, self esteem could be achieved and status acquired by co-operative and constructive leadership rather than conflict. The realization that killing was not always necessary to achieve power and influence may have led to the prohibition of the practice in the laws of emerging civilizations. The Ten Commandments of the Mosaic Law exemplify this very clearly. Herein the deep-rooted link between rationality and the most fundamental and self-evident principles of morality shows itself. The axiomatic necessity of immunity from arbitrary death of all members of any proposed community is reflected in the moral rule, ‘Thou shalt not kill’. The same holds for stealing and false accusation. There then developed the situation, which is characteristic of civilized man – he became a creature more likely to die of old age, other natural causes, or disease, rather than at the hands of another or from savaging by an animal. This is the reverse of what was true in primitive times and of what is still true for most wild animals.

“Once death had been observed as a natural process that follows aging, humans must have begun to think differently about themselves and their surroundings.”

Once death had been observed as a natural process that follows aging, humans must have begun to think differently about themselves and their surroundings. It was probably around this time that the first religious sentiments and spiritual longings began to be felt. It is not insignificant that the Mosaic Commandments combine the principles of basic morality with the more culturally influenced rules of a religious cult. Indeed the manner of setting them forth almost suggests that the moral sanctions derive their authority from the cult although, as I have argued, their self-evident necessity is beyond dispute. It suggests that man wished to understand the mystery of living and dying and to say something about it. It was at this stage that rules began to be laid down concerning the burial of the dead, in response to the practical need to dispose of corpses. The formalization of death rites in their most primitive forms probably also began at this time. Thus originated the forms of burial and related artifacts of the neo-lithic age, along with their associated symbolism and artistic expression.

One other aspect of death in relation to primitive civilization that has greater relevance to later ages (when history and society alike were developed), is the place death held in human psychology. Alongside the cultural perception of death as the natural end to life was also the perception of death and the dead as objects of fear. Once it was discovered that death could be postponed until old age, its use as a weapon to intimidate the insecure became possible. The complexity of human attitudes towards death is further underlined by the way the passion for killing was acquired as a way of transcending life in affirming supremacy over other members of the species. The horrific carnage of the 20th century, ranging from the Nazi massacre of six million Jews to genocide in Vietnam and Cambodia, Africa and elsewhere remain unpleasant reminders of the same paradox in modern humanity. Behind the sophistication of uniforms and high technology, the same Promethean urges may be found. “Paying off death” so to speak, by inflicting it on others and so concealing one’s own insecurity is as much a feature of modern political life as it was a part of the primitive “archaic blood thirst.” (Fromm, Erich The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil, New York: Harper, 1964 pp.33-4)

The primary concern of this book is not with death in relation to the problems of human finitude, although this remains an important sub-theme. It is rather the immanent and pervasive image of death which, as both a product of, and a generating influence within, culture, helps determine attitudes towards everything from the most primitive forms of religion and art to such contemporary phenomena as education, welfare and war.

3. Early Japanese Perceptions of Death

It is clear from the excavation of the earliest artifacts of their civilization that the ancient Japanese had formed some images about death, dying and attitudes towards the dead. These constitute the beginnings of the realization of death among primitive people who have just begun to evolve a form of civilization and culture. They might also be said to constitute the simplest foundation of a death system, although, as we shall observe later, the externals and social ramifications of the Japanese death system did not develop fully until the advent of Buddhism. But even in those prehistoric days, evidence may be found that suggests to us the kinds of attitudes that had developed. These have continued to survive later developments and remain influential within even the highly sophisticated death system of later ages.

As we look at Japan’s three ancient stages of civilization, the Jomon (Neolithic), Yayoi (Bronze-Iron) and Kofun (Proto-historic) ages, we see many similarities to other primitive civilizations at identical stages. However, as each individual civilization grows in complexity, its perception of death tends to become more and more peculiar to itself under the influence of a wide range of factors, including environment and climate. Basic equivalent components may survive but sooner or later definite emphases begin to emerge which determine the dominant attitude of the culture towards death and the dead. While to a degree this analysis is based on speculation, elements of it can be confirmed by comparison with the earliest mythology and the principles of the developed death system of later ages. In the case of Japan, there are threads of consistency running throughout which we shall now try to identify.

“A death system with public recognition had not yet evolved.”

The Jomon or Neolithic age (7000-250 b.c.e.)

The character of the Jomon age has been disclosed through extensive archaeological investigation. Underneath the houses and buildings of the International Christian University campus, where this book was originally conceived, are some of the finest and oldest Jomon sites in Japan. Jomon refers to a style of ‘rope pattern’ decoration found on unglazed fire clay earthenware and this has been used to give the era its character and name. The people lived in rather crudely fashioned pit dwellings, known as tate-ana jukyo, and lived by hunting and fishing. Diggings from Jomon sites show a variety of burial methods, including burial in urns and burial with arms and legs folded. (Kidder, Jr., J.E. Japan Before Buddhism London: Thames & Hudson, 1958, pp. 80-81)

There may be several reasons for the practice of burying corpses in such manners. One is perhaps so that the body could be removed easily from the place of death to the place of interment after death. This practical consideration probably motivated a similar practice in Tibet. (Nakamura, Hajime The Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples (Honululu, East West Press, 1944, p.322) Another reason may have been fear that the dead would return to work mischief on the living; the limbs being folded so that the corpse could not move. It may also indicate some uncertainty about the status of the dead, or clinical problems in determining when death had occurred. A third reason might have been that death was conceived of as rest, the folded position corresponding to a position of natural rest. If this be the case, it suggests that the dead were not thought of as going anywhere except the grave. A fourth possible explanation (and one which I find most attractive) is that the folded position is the position of the child in the womb. As we shall see, the Japanese of later periods thought of two worlds in parallel, that of the living and that of the dead. Could these Jomon people have had some inarticulate sense of such a possibility and have buried their dead in a position that would make rebirth possible? Perhaps this is too speculative. Certainly the absence from gravesites of weapons and other necessities of life suggests a lack of belief in an afterlife. On the other hand, small clay dolls were broken in pieces and buried with the deceased. While there was probably the feeling that the dead may have some continued existence, the variety of styles and the lack of standardization in burial customs does seem to imply that while the idea of death had been realized, no uniform image had been formed. A death system with public recognition had not yet evolved.

The Yayoi or Bronze-Iron Age (250 b.c.e. – 3rd Century c.e.)

The Yayoi age, probably influenced in part by Chinese Bronze culture, saw the emergence, of a more systematic approach to the physical artifacts surrounding the dead. The Yayoi era is also designated by the style of its pottery, usually found on archaeological sites above Jomon pottery. Although Jomon is artistically more advanced, Yayoi is technically better finished. But around this time, nothing was buried with the dead, which some scholars have taken to imply the absence of a belief in life after death. The surrounding funeral rites, as described by Chinese observers of the Wei Dynasty (which survived until around 265 c.e.), appear to have been much more interesting. The Wei text describes the rituals as follows:

“When death occurs, mourning is observed for more than ten days… When the funeral is over, all members of the whole family go into the water to cleanse themselves in a bath of purification.’ (Sansom, Sir George A History of Japan Vol 1 Tokyo: Charles Tuttle, 1979 p.23)

It also appears to have been customary to have someone eating and drinking in the place of the mikebito (deceased person). This parallels the custom of feeding the dead that is found in other cultures, such as the Aaru of the Moluccas in Indonesia.

“The yearly growth of the rice plants is thought to have suggested the idea of human rebirth into another world.”

Modern Japanese carry food as well as flowers when grave-visiting. The practice of purification in water (misogi) is also interesting in relation to the modern funeral custom of giving mourners salt to sprinkle in their genkan (entranceway) on returning home. Salt is believed to have powers to purify the mourners after contact with death and its consequent kegare (defilement), since association with the physical aspect of death leads to pollution. Various methods of burial were practiced, but most commonly found are cist graves and pottery jars. The cist grave style was introduced from Korea and was probably associated with upper-class burials. If methods of burial reflected social status, the suggestion is that death had begun to acquire social significance. Even when the cist grave began to be replaced by jar burial, and became the general custom, distinctions could still be inferred between upper and lower classes from the size of the jars and the quality of the objects placed inside or nearby. (Kidder op. cit. pp. 104-8). Thus death had also come to acquire economic significance.

“Middle Yayoi pottery is of fine quality, the surface often brushed or well smoothed with a wooden tool, but by late Yayoi, the jars used for funerary purposes return to early Yayoi coarseness, are not well baked, the bottoms almost pointed and single jars only are preferred. The trend towards crudity may be due to the arrival of new burial methods to which the better artisans were attracted for their income, thus lowering the standards of the production of clay jars.” (Kidder op. cit.,p.110).

According to one view, the idea of life after death originated in the cultivation of rice. The yearly growth of the rice plants is thought to have suggested the idea of human rebirth into another world. (Hisaki, Yukio Japanese Religion Tokyo: Kobundo, 1965, p. 3, 26 ff). Life was understood to be dependent upon Nature, and so fertility came to be understood as a regular and cyclical process. There is a legend that rice seedlings could grow in one night if fertilized with the blood of a sacred animal and the help of an ancestor deity who returned to assist in the production of rice. Whatever the influence of these particular associations, the introduction of rice cultivation contributed a great deal to the development of the characteristic attitudes of the ancient and modern Japanese towards life and death.

The Kofun or Prohistoric Period (2nd-6th Centuries c.e.)

The era of the Kofun shows the first clear signs of belief in life after death. It stretched from the fourth to the seventh centuries, covering the period during which Buddhism was being steadily introduced into Japan and before its formal acknowledgement in the sixth century. The artifacts of this era have been found from the south of Kyushu to the north of Iwate Prefecture. Some are located even as far north as Aomori, although these are thought to be very late. The era is usually subdivided into three stages, in which the principal differences between styles of kofun or burial mound may be seen. These represent the evolution of various ideas related to death.

In the early stages, the tombs, usually built on high hills, shaped like keyholes, and referred to as ‘rectangular front, circular back’ (zenpo-koen-fun) tombs. Theories concerning their design need not detain us except to observe that the coffins inside these early mounds were often hollowed out logs placed near the top of the mound where the earth was shaped into a long rounded trench surrounded by loose stones. A boat-shaped coffin suggests that the deceased was going on a journey, which as Freud points out, is the commonest and best authenticated symbol of death. (Freud, Sigmund The Interpretation of Dreams London: Pelican Freud Library, vol.4, p. 507) The boat-shape may also be related to the idea of unasaka, the ‘slope of the sea’, a word occurring in Japanese mythology that is thought to relate to an ancient belief in a slope that lay at the farthest point of the sea – a similar idea to the Greek ‘Pillars of Hercules’. (Akima, Toshio “The Songs of the Dead: Poetry, Drama and Ancient Death Rituals of Japan”, Journal of Asian Studies vol. XLI, No. 3, May 1982, p.487).

In the seventh century Chinese Sui Dynasty records we find the following reference to Japanese funeral customs:

“To bury the dead, coffins are used. Relatives and mourners sing and dance beside the coffin. Dresses of white are worn by the closest relatives of the dead. If the dead man is noble, he is placed in a funeral house built outside, and mourned for three years. If he is a commoner, he is buried on the right date chosen by divination. For burial, the corpse is placed on a boat and sometimes rollers are used to pull it along the road.” (Wada, Kiyoshi and Ichihara Michiro Zuisho WakokudenChronicles of the Sui Dynasty Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1973 p.33)

In the middle era, that of the great kofun (dai-zenpo-koen-fun), the artifacts became enormous and were placed in the open. The famous burial mound of Emperor Nintoku near Osaka, occupies eighty acres and has a moat on three sides. Records show that he began to build the tomb when he was sixty-seven years old, and that he did not die until he was eighty-seven. In contrast to some smaller tombs, which measured no more than ten meters, Nintoku’s tomb measured about 480 meters. On these burial sites, in the vicinity of the main mound, were built small mounds, usually in four directions. These were believed by some to have been intended for those who would die with the deceased, for members of the royal family, or for relatives. Others have believed they were intended to house relics, since inside these later tombs, mirrors, swords, jewels and items of the imperial regalia were often placed. The positioning of the mirrors was often interesting; four at each side and two at the head was a common formation. An image of social life in the Kofun age may be built up from the contents of these tombs, which included terra cotta figurines called Haniwa. They represented humans, animals, furniture, implements and daily utensils. During the sixth and seventh centuries, the size of the tombs decreased as building came more and more under Korean influence. As they became smaller, the practice of placing goods gradually faded and had died out by the end of the seventh century.

Why were these enormous building projects undertaken? What was the thinking they expressed? Perhaps their size symbolized power and the kofun was an expression of the ancestor cult in which power was retained for the descendants through the size of the burial mound and the authority of its occupant. The mountain-like shape of the kofun may be related to the belief that ancestral spirits returned to dwell in mountains, visiting the living at fixed intervals. The kofun may have functioned as a vast version of what came to be the butsudan (Buddhist altar) of later days, a place of communion between the living and the dead. The kofun had no apparent links with primitive Shinto since, as we shall see, death in its physical aspect was a form of pollution.

These references to the more primitive phases of Japanese civilization are included to stimulate reflection as much as to provide information. A study of any of the excellent archaeological works on the Kofun will provide the reader with more than enough detail. The aspect on which I now wish to focus is the manner in which the realization of death begins to develop. The first awareness of death probably arose in Japan in much the same way as it did in Asia and Europe. But once the elements of civilization and culture appeared, differences in the perception of death and the dead began to develop. Consequently, the symbolism surrounding death began to take distinctive form also. Later differences between cultures reinforce these early tendencies. This may help to explain why the skull and cross-bones became the symbol of death to the European, while the beauty of the cherry blossom reminded the samurai of the frailty of life. Before proceeding to observe those later stages of development however, we must augment what has been said with some references to the ancient awareness recollected and transmitted in the mythology and classical writings of the Japanese people. There we can see a more complete picture of life and death, one that has imparted to the inheritors of that civilization a continuity of understanding as well as a viewpoint from which the entire range of social institutions surrounding death could be developed – from ancestor worship to post-funeral rituals.

Image | ccdoh1


This is Part 2 of Professor Stuart D. B. Picken’s serialised monograph, “Death in the Japanese Tradition: A Study in Cultural Evolution and Transformation”, to be published every Thursday.

The next instalment, “Death and the Dead in the Japanese Classics” will be published next week, on Thursday March, 31, 2016.


Part 1: Death in the Japanese Tradition: An Introduction
Part 2: Buddhism & Burial: Attitudes to Death in Ancient Japan
Part 3: Death and the Dead in the Japanese Classics
Part 4: Folk Religion and Death
Part 5: Kami and Ancestors
Part 6: Buddhism and Death in Society
Part 7: Buddha and Kami
Part 8: Popular Buddhist Death Cults
Part 9: The Death Poem and Buddhism
Part 10: Cross-Cultural Comparisons on Mourning and Object Loss
Part 11: Japanese Buddhist and Christian Images of Death: Comparisons and Contrasts
Part 12: Bushido: The Way of Death
Part 13: Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism and the Neo-Samurai
Part 14: Militarism – Meiji to Showa
Part 15: Nogi Syndrome, Workaholism and Karoshi
Part 16: Suicide in Contemporary Japan
Part 17: Lingering Images in Popular Culture
Part 18: Terrorism, Violent and Tomorrow’s Citizens
Part 19: The Death and Burial of Emperor Showa
Part 20: The Modern Ritualized Death System

Stuart D. B. Picken

About Stuart D. B. Picken

The late Reverend Professor Stuart D. B. Picken began his distinguished career in academia as a Rotary Scholar on a research trip to Japan. A native of Scotland who had dedicated himself to religious studies, he immediately became fascinated by Japanese culture and the practice of Shinto. He was particularly drawn to the parallels and differences he saw in Western pedagogy compared to that of the East and began a lifelong mission to bridge the communication and knowledge gap between the two worlds. Picken was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the International Christian University (ICU) in 1972. Here he turned his Western theological and philosophical training to comparative religious and cultural studies of Japan, at a time when the country was emerging from the shadows of the Second World War. His groundbreaking and controversial work on suicide in Japan made his name within the country, but it was his subsequent work on Shinto that influenced the rehabilitation of the religion at a time when it was dismissed in the West as pagan and primitive, or unjustly caricatured for its wartime associations. Whether in his research or teaching, Picken devoted much of his life to increasing understanding between his adopted country of Japan and the West, and in 2007 he was recognised with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, an imperial decoration for his pioneering research and outstanding contribution to the promotion of friendship and mutual understanding between Japan and the United Kingdom. He also served as the International Adviser to the High Priest of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, one of Japan’s largest and oldest shrines. From 2009 he was the founding Chairman of The International Academic Forum (IAFOR), where he was highly active in helping nurture and mentor a new generation of academics, and facilitating better intercultural and international awareness and understanding.


Asia, Cultural & Area Studies, Death in the Japanese Tradition, Ethics, Religion & Philosophy, Featured, IAFOR Japan Research Institute, In Depth, Psychology & the Behavioral Sciences, Subject Area, World


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