Japanese mourning THINK IAFOR

May 19, 2016

In Part 10 of “Death in the Japanese Tradition”, Professor Stuart D. B. Picken explains the subtle cultural differences between the Japanese view of death and that found in other cultures, principally those that have been influenced by Christianity.

Boundary Permeability and Personality

Much of what has been said or implied in this monograph so far can be confirmed by an interesting piece of cross-cultural research conducted by two Japanese psychologists, Dr. T. Yamamoto and Dr. K. Okonogi, on the subject of object loss and the activity of mourning. (Yamamoto, T. Okinogi, K. and Iwasaki “Mourning in Japan”, American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol 125:12, 1969). The actual research was in relation to a technical psychological problem called boundary permeability. Simply stated, people whose personal boundary images are permeable are people who are relaxed in their attachment to the world. Their attitudes are ambivalent, they are often hypersensitive and can be swift in their reactions. They see the world as permanently in a state of change, as lacking constancy, and they therefore need no preparation to face object loss, nor have any great difficulty in confronting it. The average American living in an open style of house with no garden wall and a spacious yard would be typical of the permeable personality. Indeed, that is probably the type of person best suited to live in the United States, and it also represents the mentality needed by people living a number of years in an expatriate community. Seeing the world as constantly in a state of change, the open ego can quickly adjust to old objects vanishing and new ones appearing.

“object loss is felt more intensely especially by people who have impermeable personalities. They are a different type of people, not flexible but often in a state of passive-aggressive conflict.”

Among the foreign residents of Tokyo, those frequently on a three-year period of service, object loss is experienced because of cultural isolation, moving to new jobs and so forth. It is perhaps more intensely felt since Japan is an alien culture to most western people and therefore non-Japanese friends are especially precious. Such object loss is felt more intensely especially by people who have impermeable personalities. They are a different type of people, not flexible but often in a state of passive-aggressive conflict. They strive a good deal for external and internal control, and become immersed in details to avoid anxiety-producing situations. They must deny the reality that threatens the collapse of object constancy and often have to escape into fantasy to keep objects constant and changeless. They expect the world to remain the same and when it does not, often falsify the data to prove to themselves that it is. This type of personality is found widely in Japanese society, where ‘I’ and ‘non-I’ are distinguished in terms of all aspects of the nai to gai, the inside and outside way of looking at things.

“it is probably true to say that typical Japanese behavior tends towards that of the impermeable ego-boundary type whereas typical American behavior displays the opposite tendency”

It would be incorrect to label all Americans as people with permeable ego-boundaries and all Japanese as people with impermeable ego-boundaries, since these are descriptions of types of personality that are infinitely varied within any society. However, it is probably true to say that typical Japanese behavior tends towards that of the impermeable ego-boundary type whereas typical American behavior displays the opposite tendency.

2. Mourning in Japan and the United States

The cross-cultural area to which the Japanese psychologists applied their research was object loss and mourning by Japanese and American widows. According to the case studies researched by Yamamoto and Okonogi already noted, the following contrasts were made:

– Firstly, Japanese widows did not lose control of their emotions as completely and dramatically as American widows.
– Secondly, American widows frequently experienced a total breakdown and collapse of ego during the crisis.
– Thirdly, Japanese widows quickly began to show attitudes as if continuing to live with the deceased husband.
– Fourthly, American widows mourned intensely for a short time, but showed no sign that they considered their husbands, in any sense of the term, to be still alive. Relatives and close friends would probably discourage this type of thinking in any event as unhealthy.
– Fifthly, Japanese widows seldom remarried, not merely because of social difficulties, often by choice.
– Sixthly, American widows often remarried, sometimes within one year of their husband’s death.

One can see here cause for the claim on the part of some Japanese, that Americans lack constancy and depth, and seem be have a superficial attitude in human relations. By way of contrast, Japanese remain loyal in friendships virtually for a lifetime. In relation to the dead, the findings indicate the same type of contrast. The Japanese psychology of death accords, as I have suggested, with ancestral reverence and proves that the sense of reverence goes far beyond mere custom and ritual. It was historically and remains an essential part of the Japanese way of thinking.

3. Comparative Expressions of Object Loss

One Japanese psychologist, Professor Reiko Koide (Koide Reiko, Ego Boundaries Tokyo: Iwasaki Gakujitsu 1981 pp. 195ff. cf. Doi, Takeo The Anatomy of Dependence tr. of Amae no Kozo) Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1973, p.40 ff). has illustrated the contrast very well by a comparison of two poems, each inspired by the loss of an object of love.


Anemones, they say, are out
By sheltered woodland stream
With budding branches all about
Where Spring-time sunshine gleams;
Such are the haunts they love, but I
With swift remembrance see
Anemones beneath a sky

Of cold austerity…
Pale flowers too faint for winds so chill
And with too fair a name
That day I lingered on a hill
For one who never came

Marion Angus

For my Child

I will never forget you
My dear child, you wore a country hat
I helped you, for you my child, were blind when
You were two years old
My dear child, my heart will remain for ever with you

I called you from a bell tower
My dear child, I thought you were still alive
In the shadows of dusk, I watch the garden
My dear child, I think of your life

I brought your picture far from our country with me
My dear child it reminds me of you.

Akashiko Shimagi

The first poem, written in Scotland, uses anemones as symbols of loss and of ego boundary permeability. In some respects, it is reminiscent of the purer spirit of the Manyoshu than the modern Japanese poem. The flowers are pale and the winds cold – stressing images of evanescence. In contrast, the Japanese poem uses quite solid and concrete images such as a hat, a bell tower and a shadow, suggesting the impermeable boundary view of the situation. The loss of the child is denied in the claim that the writer’s heart will remain forever with the child. While such a sentiment would be regarded as noble and praiseworthy in Japan, it would be considered ‘unhealthy’ in the west.

4. Importance of Culturally Contrasting Attitudes to Death and Object Loss

The contrast here is not being stated normatively, but simply as a way of explaining subtle cultural differences between the Japanese view of death and that found in other cultures, principally those that have been influenced by Christianity. These differences may have ramifications going deep even into the political system as they do in Japan, a point which should be taken very seriously indeed. No Japanese politician can afford to neglect the importance of such sentiments. Part of the inability of China and Korea to understand the significance of the Yasukuni Shrine for the war dead in Tokyo is their inadequate understanding of the Japanese idea of death and of the dead. At another and more practical level, that might be called the “pastoral level” there is a lot to be said for the Japanese funeral system. There is, for instance, much to be said for the bereaved seeing the open grave and experiencing outbursts of grief. The fact that after the funeral the Japanese proceed to act as though the dead were still living then becomes a paradox. Looking back to the example I quoted earlier, where the deceased wore glasses and appeared to be reading a book, the Americans have made death almost attractive and charming. But death in its starkness has to be faced. It is unhealthy and unrealistic not to see it thus. A society on the move, like the trailblazers of the Old West, could do little more than say a prayer over a grave and move on. The Japanese without experience of such impermanence demand the appearance of a constant world. As to which is psychologically healthier, it is probably better to explode with grief and readjust, than to conceal the physical finality of death with cosmetics. Either way, the tremendous significance of attitudes to death, to social life and behavior, should be recognized.

Image | Xin THR


This is Part 10 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, “Japanese Buddhist and Christian Images of Death: Comparisons and Contrast” will be published next Thursday on May 26, 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: The Arrival and Acceptance of Buddhism in Japan
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, Global, History, IAFOR Japan Research Institute, In Depth, Subject Area, World


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