Japan Buddhism Funeral THINK 2

April 21, 2016

Professor Stuart D. B. Picken examines the history, formation, evolution and continuing importance of death systems in Japan in Part 6 of his 20-part series, “Death in the Japanese Tradition”.

It was through the influence of Buddhism that death and dying came to be perceived in Japan as experiences that merited more reflection and explanation. The death systems

“Socialization” is a term normally reserved to describe the process by which children are introduced into the wider social environment of the community to which they belong and through which they are trained and nurtured in its values and ways of thinking. By that process they are absorbed into the traditional culture of the community. Therefore to speak of the socialization of death may sound strange. But there is a sense in which death becomes ‘socialized’ into a culture. And of course, the image of death is itself also a component in the formation of culture. There comes a time, however, when death receives an identity and a public status, and consequently becomes formally institutionalized, gathering around it the elements of a death system.

It was through the influence of Buddhism, the newly ascendant religion of the Asuka (552-710) and Nara (710-794) eras, that death and dying came to be perceived in Japan as experiences that, for some people at least, merited more reflection and explanation than had hitherto been given. From that stage of Japanese history to the Heian period (794-1185), continental Asian influences, particularly those of China, came to be felt strongly. The antiquity, richness and colorful splendor of Chinese civilization fascinated Japanese travellers and encouraged them to transplant to Japan many of the wonders they saw. (Kitagawa Joseph, Religion in Japanese History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. p. 26) The city of Nara, Japan’s first great capital, was modeled on the pattern of Chinese cities of the age. It was at this time too that a more complex cultural environment surrounding death began to develop. In this section we shall consider that cultural environment encasing death in both the Japan of yesterday and the Japan of today. In doing so, we can observe a death system through which both the living and the dead are processed. In ancient Japan, which concerns us first, Buddhism came to provide the framework for that system.

1. The Formation and Significance of Death Systems

A simple definition of a death system would be ‘all the words and actions in a culture that pertain to death.’ (Kastenbaum, Robert & Aisenberg Ruth The Psychology of Death New York: Springer, New York 1976, p.146 ff.) This of course includes religions beliefs, folk beliefs, rituals and ceremonies, funerals, graveyards, undertakers, gravediggers, clergy and mourning. Some ancient civilizations developed a death system that was quite detailed and whose contents were publicly set out in written texts designed to help control society. Two outstanding examples are those contained in The Egyptian Book of the Dead (The Egyptian Book of the Dead (tr. by E A Wallis Budge, New York: Dover Publications, 1967, a reproduction of the original 1895 work) and in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. (The Tibetan Book of the Dead ed. W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Oxford University Press, 1980).

“The duty to care for the dead offered him something to do as an alternative to morbid introspection on his own fate.”

The Egyptian Book of the Dead outlines a comprehensive death system, mostly in the form of regulations governing funeral practices. The system was intended to transmit to society an integrated approach that would enable individual people to think, feel and behave towards death and the dead in ways that would be considered effective and helpful to themselves and to society. The Egyptian and Tibetan systems each offered a complete view of the cosmos,, which was adequate not only to account for all aspects of the life and death process, but under governmental patronage and sponsorship, was sufficient to function as a support for the social system. It was shared by all the members of the community and linked to the experience of individuals in definite ways, since the individual’s belief was also that of the community. In the death situation, the individual has important actions to perform out of concern for both the actual process of dying and for the care of the dead.

Death systems are important for several reasons. Most important of all, they support the individual in times of stress. While the individual may be merely on the fringe of a drama involving some other person, his actions are significant through the sacrifices he offers and the rituals he performs. He affects the sequence of events between the process of dying and of becoming a member of the community of the dead. In this way, the mourner’s attention becomes focused on purposive action at a time when the idea of the meaninglessness or futility of life might take control of his imagination. Furthermore, belief in magical or semi-magical powers that man might exert over the dark forces of death, as well as the idea that man could regulate these forces in order to guide his own entry into an after-life, encouraged the Egyptian of ancient times to think of death as an event under his control. These rituals clearly performed functions vital to the individual. The duty to care for the dead offered him something to do as an alternative to morbid introspection on his own fate.

2. Cross-cultural Perspectives on the Role of the Funeral

A second important reason for the evolution of a death system was the reaffirmation of the strength and viability of the community itself on the occasion of the loss of one of its members. The death system becomes one way of reconstituting the integrity of society after the loss of one of its parts. Consequently, the greater the individual, the greater the scale of funereal rituals and ceremonies. The Japan of the Kofun era illustrates the truth of this proposition most clearly. As an aside, but perhaps an illuminating one, it has been my experience to observe this principle at work in present-day rural society both in Scotland and in Japan. In the rural parish to which I administered, funerals were decidedly communal. They were attended only by the menfolk of the community, one from each household (usually the senior male). It was the community that was bearing the deceased to his rest and, with the aid of the offices of religion, was affirming its faith in its own future. The deceased was usually borne by hand to the border of his land and then taken by hearse to the graveyard. From the entrance to the churchyard, in which both the church and the graves were located, the same pallbearers carried their deceased friend or relative to his final resting place. As befitting the sombre Scottish character, this ceremony was performed in complete silence except for the words of the clergyman.

“Just as the nature of religious thought and language will vary under such circumstances, the death system will also vary in its details while perhaps maintaining a similar underlying structure.”

While rural funerals in Japan are more colorful and noisy, with cymbals clashing during the procession and attended by the striking figure of the Buddhist priest instead of the black-robed Scots minister, the same structure is discernible. While attending a large rural funeral near Tokyo some years ago, I observed that the majority of the participants were men who represented the community. Walking in the procession to the graveyard in the Buddhist temple reminded me of the many times I had walked in processions to the various graveyards in my parish. The externals were different because Buddhist and Christian attitudes towards the dead are different. But from the point of view of the community itself, the meaning of the event was, to my mind, identical. Consequently, I felt nothing strange in the idea of being part of such an occasion. Indeed, the comparison underlined the point that the funeral service, as part of the death system, is an act of the community, and further, from the community’s point of view, it probably matters little which religion’s words are uttered at the time. However, we shall see later that words are important insofar as the death system embodies a metaphysic by which the meaning of death is explained to the community of mourners and believers.

With appropriate changes these general principles might be applied to almost any social system that has evolved and promoted a death system as part of its own ‘life support system’. At the same time, it is also true that as a culture evolves it may develop a characteristic way of looking at death derived from a combination of its own unique circumstances. Climate, mortality rate, life expectancy, level of technology, type of social system and language all make their contribution. Just as the nature of religious thought and language will vary under such circumstances, the death system will also vary in its details while perhaps maintaining a similar underlying structure.

3. Survival of Japanese Mythological Roots

In Japan these principles at work in the funeral ceremony can be traced back to the mythology. Death as a threat to society may be met by a social response affirming society’s confidence in its own future, as in the argument between Izanami and Izanagi to which Motoori Norinaga draws attention in his writings. (Motoori Norinaga Zenshu Vol 1 on Kojiki Den p. 280). After escaping from yomi-no-kuni, from which, he was pursued by the ugly women of the land and by the decomposed form of his wife, Izanagi pronounces the sentence of final separation. In anger, Izanami retaliates by threatening to kill 1,000 each day. Izanagi affirms however, that even were she able to do so, for every thousand slaughtered, he would more than redress the balance by creating 1,500 houses in which children would be born. Thus life has greater power than death and the community would be guaranteed both continuity and survival.

These ideas existed in pre-Buddhist Japan along with others such as that of the continuity between life and death as discussed previously. One of the most fascinating features of the death system as it developed in Buddhist Japan was the way in which it continued these themes and incorporated them into a structure where the externals were unmistakably Buddhist but the heart of which belonged in the pre-Buddhist culture of Japan. Its community orientation has continued to the present, but with the steady emergence of the nuclear family, the funeral system is being compelled to come to terms with death in a different way. This may be one reason for the growing popularity of the new religions which deal in a much more personal way with life and death. In other respects, however, the traditional system still retains its hold and, because the ideals of social continuity are so strongly stressed in Japan, the post-funeral recovery needs of the mourners are still met in the extended period during which rituals are performed, a period which modern death therapy has come to acknowledge.

Before we examine the ways in which pre-Buddhist ideas became integrated into the rituals of the Buddhist death system we must first look at some of the ideas and cults associated with Buddhism that came to Japan and found acceptance before the institutionalized system took shape.

Image | Albert Campra


This is Part 6 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, “Buddha and Kami” will be published next Thursday on April 28, 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 Japan’s Literary Classics
Part 4: Parallel Worlds: Folk Religion, Life & Death in Japan
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, History, IAFOR Japan Research Institute, In Depth, Subject Area, World


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