In the final part of Professor Stuart D. B. Picken’s “Death in the Japanese Tradition” monograph, he explains how Japan’s death system has been developed far beyond that of any Western civilisation, serving the needs of social control, nationalism and militarism, as well as the preservation of the family and the maintenance of the stability of Japanese society.
1. Death Systems and Social Continuity
Having observed the characteristic features of the Japanese Buddhist notions of paradise and hell, we may now look at the manner in which Buddhist temples became the centre of the Japanese death system and at the way Buddhism elaborated that system through the funeral and succeeding rituals and ceremonies, giving to the dead the respect due to those who were both ancestral kami and newly enlightened Buddhas.
“ordinary people were often much more careless with their dead, sometimes leaving bodies in dry river beds or abandoning them on the lower slopes of mountains.”
As we have seen, the Japanese upper classes held a particular view of death and practised certain funeral rites before the arrival of Buddhism. However, ordinary people were often much more careless with their dead, sometimes leaving bodies in dry river beds or abandoning them on the lower slopes of mountains. Buddhism introduced a refinement of custom, and gradually the practice of the formal funeral reached all levels of society. Temples really began to develop their market, notably during the Kamakura age, as other sources of revenue ceased. When Zen temples, previously associated with the arts, tea ceremony, tranquil gardens and meditation halls had to rely on funerals for income, half the Zen treatises written in the fourteenth century were on the proper conduct of funerals.
During the Tokugawa period, the funeral was given heightened importance by the compulsory system of temple registration at the danka dera, or adherent’s temple, required by the Tokugawa government as part of their programme to stamp out Christianity. Funerals were actually a means of checking obedience to government ordinances. It was not until the opening of Japan to foreigners after 1859 that the first Japanese communities asked the local governor for permission to hold Christian rather than Buddhist funerals. This gave rise to the last active persecution of the hidden Christians of Kyushu before the ban on Christianity was formally lifted on 19 February 1873.
A colleague who visited China during the years following the cultural revolution reported that he met with friends who had been students in pre-war Shanghai at the same time as himself. He remembered witnessing as a boy, the type of colorful funeral scene introduced with Buddhism from China, which I shall shortly describe and which may still be found in Japan. He asked about this but was told that during the Cultural Revolution, ancestral graves and tablets were destroyed and funerals banned. The grave of Confucius had been defaced and later obscured. Strange as we might think it, to attack a funeral as political, the ban underlines the tremendous political importance of controlling a death system, which plays a decisive role in moulding the attitudes of the present generation towards the future by making a link with the past. Who better than the Chinese to know the power of ancestors and of the ancestor cult to inhibit social change, especially of the kind that Mao Tse Tung was intent on initiating. He realized that the abolition of the funeral system was one way of breaking with tradition. Ironically, Mao Zedong himself, having gone the way of the ancestors, has become drawn into the pantheon to be venerated along with such arch-enemies as Confucius. His picture is used in taxis, for example as a protective talisman!
2. The Funeral Rites
The central feature of any institutionalized death system is its funeral. The form and content of Buddhist funeral rites are in some cases complex and difficult to grasp in detail, although in principle, they are not too hard to understand. It is, however, probably best to begin with those of the Jodo-Shin sect since this accounts for some seventy to eighty per cent of funerals conducted in Japan by Buddhist priests. It should be understood that in the following account, the altar and other appurtenances of the funeral are basically the same in each tradition except for minor differences such as the manner in which incense is offered, the order in which objects are carried to the graveyard and, of course, the style of the priest’s robes. These differences in ritual between the Jodo-Shin and other sects should not however, be allowed to obscure the generally identifiable patterns that express the common underlying themes. While with regard to the contents of their philosophical doctrines, we should speak in traditional terms of the ‘Twelve Sects’, with regard to the funeral we can speak of ‘Japanese Buddhism’ in a very general sense.
The first sign that a funeral is to take place is to be seen on the previous night when white paper lanterns about three feet long are fixed to wooden frames and placed at a distance of five feet or so on either side of the entrance gate to the dead person’s house. The name of the family is written in black on the lanterns. Space permitting, alongside the lanterns will be placed five-foot wide wreaths, sometimes in black and white and sometimes in colour, standing as high as eight feet above the ground. These are rented for the event for about £150. The principal male organizers, whether company officials or relatives, will stand outside to receive guests who in turn will sign a manorial book and present a cash donation inside a white envelope with black markings. The occasion is that of the tsuya or wake.
Close family members, near relations and important mourners will pay their respects in advance and offer some incense on the altar which is usually set up in the largest public room of the house and may be several feet in length and height. The altar consists of the coffin laid lengthwise and will be bedecked with flowers and liturgical items. This is surrounded by flashing lanterns and sometimes statues, and in the centre is placed a black and white photograph of the deceased in front of which is the incense burner. Mourners take turns at sitting before the photograph to say their last farewells and address the deceased, which time would not allow on the day of the funeral itself. The final act is the offering of incense on the burner, which symbolizes the funeral’s deeper meaning, the salutation of a Buddha. Of this, more will be said later.
“It is a mark of both the tsuya and the soshiki, the funeral proper, that the deceased be treated as though he or she were alive.”
The tsuya may also be the occasion of a family reunion and has its own distinctive atmosphere. People do not dress in full funereal black and often, after each individual has saluted the deceased – referred to as hotokesan (honourable Buddha) – they may adjourn to another room for refreshment. At this stage the hotokesan will probably be inside the coffin but may sometimes be laid out elsewhere. I remember one moving experience which expressed something of both the meaning of the Japanese Buddhist view of the funeral, and the Buddhist view of the thin mystical wall that divides the domains of the living and the dead. While visiting the home of friends, in which there had been a bereavement, I found myself with a group of people in the same room as the deceased. On the right, at the other end of the room, was a mother breastfeeding her baby. In the centre, four or five, including myself, were sitting, talking and consuming some refreshments. On the left was the deceased, on the bed where he had died. Below us, on the first floor, the priest was chanting the part of the liturgy for the tsuya, and the smell of incense wafted strongly up and into our room through the open window. A glass of beer was poured out and laid beside the bed of the deceased by one of his family, who joined our conversation. There we sat, the newly born, those in mid-life and the newly dead, together in the ukiyo, the floating world of life and death. To this day I can think of no better illustration than this, of the theory and practice of the peculiar doctrines of popular Japanese Buddhism, the metaphysic of the ‘floating world’. Here we see those themes that remain dominant in the Japanese view of the relationship between life and death, the living and the dead. It is a mark of both the tsuya and the soshiki, the funeral proper, that the deceased be treated as though he or she were alive. The dead one becomes a living Buddha to be regarded with due reverence.
The funeral ceremony itself, unlike the domestic tsuya, has communal significance. Invitations are issued to those who should be present and when they arrive at the appointed place, (usually the deceased’s home) they will first go to a specially designated table with an offering of money in its black-trimmed envelope bearing the name of the giver. The amount of the gift varies in accordance with the rank of the person concerned, but for the average mourner this would be about the equivalent of $200 in cities, $100 in country districts, reflecting differences in the cost of living in each locality.
When all are assembled, the mourners take up positions, sometimes in or around the house, sometimes in the street if the garden is small. The priest arrives, and the funeral rites begin. The priest rings a bell and begins with an incantation. Bells are then rung again and the priest starts to recite the simplified credo of the sect, Namu Amida Butsu, the formula which guarantees the salvation of the deceased and his or her rebirth in the Western paradise of Amida Buddha. He then intones passages from the Amida Sutra, (Sutra of the Land of Bliss) and gives many more rapid recitations of the Namu.
At this point the speeches begin. The principal speech, the choji, is a formal address to the deceased that might run as follows:
Mr Suzuki, why did you leave us so suddenly? Why did you not take care when you were driving? We cannot yet believe that you are not here with us anymore. We, your family and friends, are still overcome with grief. You were always very kind and helpful to us and although you were always very busy, especially as mayor of the town, you still had time for us. You were a friend in times of trouble and a source of inspiration when we needed guidance. You were a father to us all. We will try to continue our lives and our work in the way you would have wanted us to and we thank you for making us what we have become. We want to show the deepest and truest gratitude and respect. We hope you are at peace. We thank you for your kindness in your lifetime and we pray that we can continue to benefit from your inspired presence in the future. We pray sincerely for the happy repose of your soul. These words I offer on behalf of all of us.
After this address there may be other speeches, detailing the deceased’s life and career. Finally, the offering of incense begins, first from the close family, and thereafter from other mourners, down to the last. Each in turn comes forward, bows ceremoniously, offers the incense three times, then bows again and retires.
(d) The Procession
If the funeral is in the country and there is a graveyard at the family temple, the company forms a long ceremonial procession to the grave, led by ‘musicians’ banging cymbals and gongs. Members of the family carry various items to the grave. Flowers, both natural and artificial are followed by paper dragons on poles. The name of the deceased on a tablet is borne to the grave along with the altar photograph. Then come the priests, followed by the bearers of the paper lanterns. The ihai (incense burner) comes next and then the coffin, followed by the stupa, a wooden pole notched near the top with the Sanskrit names for the five elements of man, the skhandas (Kha-la-ka-va-a). At the graveyard, the noisy procession slowly wends its way to the temple gate, enters the temple court and walks round it three times in a circle as a symbol of entering the four gates of Nirvana. Coins are scattered on the ground to represent the dispersal of the remains and property of the deceased.
Within the temple, the priest once again rings the bell, recites the Namu and intones some versicles. Again, incense is offered by the assembled mourners and the principal mourner bids farewell to the assembly, thanking them for their attendance. Finally the crowd disperses. At this point the public side of the funeral is complete. The priest, who does not usually attend the last and most private part of the proceedings, withdraws and the immediate family members proceed to the open grave for the interment of the coffin. This, unlike in the West, is not a symbolic act. The coffin, after being lowered into the ground, is filled with and covered in flowers in commemoration of the birth of a Buddha whose birthday is celebrated on 8 April in Japan by the Hanamatsuri (Flower Festival). If the coffin has a window over the deceased’s head, that window will be closed before the grave is filled in – perhaps the most harrowing part of the ceremony. When flowers and farewells have filled the coffin and grave, the earth is heaped on them and the stupa is set up along with an incense burner, more flowers and food. Everything has now been done that can be done. The incense is lit and the family leave, the graveside. The day’s activities are at an end.
2. Cremation Practices
The foregoing description applies primarily to rural funerals in country temple graveyards. It is the most classic style of funeral ceremony. In it, the nuances of meaning and understanding become clear. But cremation, introduced through the influence of Buddhism, also takes place in Japan with many associated customs.
(a) Traditional Styles
There, during the Edo age the ritual was performed by a presiding Abbot. Traditionally, a pyre was built of pine logs set on a stone hearth. Four master carpenters in white robes and two priests in black had oversight of the ceremony. The fire had to be pure, that is, with no use of sulphur or brimstone, and had to be kept alive by generous libations of natane abura (rape-seed oil). The coffin was usually very thick so that the body contained within was well consumed before it collapsed.
(b) The modern crematorium
After cremation in the modern setting, using an open oven, the remains are collected with a short ritual and placed into a box covered with a white silk cloth. The bones are removed with chopsticks (usually one of wood and one of bamboo) and are passed from one set of chopsticks to another and finally into the box. From this originates the superstition that food must never be eaten with different or un-matching chopsticks, and never passed from one set to another.
“Abandoning the ashes in a public place is really a way of asking society to care for them”
The ashes or bones of the deceased are sometimes kept at home or stored in temples, but since space for some people has become a growing problem, Japan National Railways in the past have reported the abandonment of several urns on trains. Perhaps these were left behind accidentally but since several have not been claimed, it can only be assumed that they were abandoned either for lack of space at home or lack of a local family grave. While this may seem irreligious to the Westerner, from a Japanese point of view it is actually more respectful than throwing the ashes into the dustbin or into the sea. Abandoning the ashes in a public place is really a way of asking society to care for them – a case of welfare for the dead!
The crematorium provides facilities for cremation rituals and in one case that was reported to me, a pair of lovers who had committed double suicide were cremated together so that their smoke could mingle and their bones would mix. In such ways, the Japanese concern for the dead is such that it extends to considerations the West might regard as dubious, or at least eccentric.
In cities, it is not always possible nowadays to have the ceremony at home, or even soon after the time of death. In such cases, a small ceremony will take place privately, and occasionally a memorial service, along the lines of the funeral, will be held offering the white chrysanthemum instead of incense. This is also the usual practice for Christian funerals. It is done on the ‘end of war day’ on behalf of the war dead and there are numerous large public funeral parlours that specialize in this type of funeral ceremony, the kokubestushiki, or valedictory ceremony.
5. Mourning Dress
“The use of ‘uniforms’ for occasions is very much part of the culture, and is no less so in the matter of funerals”
These days, mourners wear black. Women generally wear black kimonos with the family mon or crest, in white. Men usually wear black double-breasted suits with black ties and mourners’ armbands. Morning coats with striped trousers are still fashionable for very formal funerals. Interestingly enough, the same black suit for me doubles as the formal dress for weddings, with a white tie being substituted for the black one of the funeral. Traditional ladies’ kimonos for weddings are also black, but usually with some evergreen tree pattern, not present in the funeral kimono. In this regard as in many others, Japan remains a very formal and in terms of rituals, formalized society. The use of ‘uniforms’ for occasions is very much part of the culture, and is no less so in the matter of funerals, in contrast to the growing abandonment of black at funerals in most western societies.
6. Symbolism in the Buddhist Funeral
(a) Head Shaving
One interesting ritual that indicates this is the symbolic (or sometimes actual) shaving of the head. In the case of the Zen funeral, after the head shaving the priest may intone: ‘The hair and beard have been shaved. I pray that all creatures may forsake evil passions and reach the goal of nothingness’.
Head-shaving symbolizes the act of becoming a monk, and since head-shaving was disliked by both Chinese and Japanese when it was first introduced, for lay people it symbolized the taking of Buddhist vows after death. The Zen priest asks the dead person to confess his sins and then declares that by confession and by the vows taken on his behalf, he has received sufficient merit to pass to Nirvana. In other words, the deceased becomes a priest and a Buddha almost simultaneously. This makes the death-bed repentance look almost premature. In the case of other sects, the Shingon Buddhist ceremony involved the use of ‘holy water’ accompanied by the use of a magic symbol, to enable the deceased to pass to Nirvana. In Shingon, as in other rituals, eko (prayers which transfer merits) are offered. As the priest concludes the house ceremony by swinging an incense burner, he declares:
“I respectfully pay homage to the Three Eternal Treasures and extol the teachings of the Buddha, the Tathagata who has realized Nirvana and passed beyond birth and death. If any man will listen to him with all his heart, that man’s soul shall be filled with unbounded joy. All composite things are impermanent; they are possessed of the necessity of growth and decay. They spring into existence; again they perish; their extinction is bliss.”
The deceased is exhorted to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma (the Buddhist law) and the Sangha (the Buddhist community of monks). These three are the elements of the ordination vows of the Southern Buddhist monks of the Hinayana tradition, ‘ I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sanga’ is all they need say to become monks. In Japanese Buddhism, the vows, which require strictness in life are taken on behalf of the deceased after death – an illustration of how almost anything can become negotiable in Japanese culture.
The deceased is given a posthumous name, or kaimyo, created by a priest, which can be quite expensive depending upon the number of Chinese characters used. Kaimyo is also the term for the name a monk receives on ordination. The Zen funeral ceremony highlights this as it closes with the following simple declaration of its intent:
“This day the newly deceased, (mentioning the name) having exhausted all the cases of life, has entered Nirvana and is now to be buried according to law. His phenomenal body, the body that endures for a hundred years, will be buried; the real self will be sent to Nirvana. The holy assembly (of monks) is therefore prayed to assist the soul that is now being enlightened…”
These words very aptly summarize the tone of the Buddhist funeral as it is still practiced in Japan.
7. Post-Funeral Rites
As has been shown, the funeral service is somewhat analogous to the ordination service for a Buddhist priest. Indeed, the deceased symbolically becomes a priest and he then proceeds to the Buddhist elysium. Many other features reflect this idea.
The names afforded to the dead include hotoke, meaning Buddha and mentioned earlier, a title used in ordinary Japanese in the same way that the words ‘corpse’ or ‘deceased’ are used in English. It is used by everyone, from television reporters covering the scene of a major disaster to the policeman putting chalk marks on the street where a suicide has landed from a high building. These terms and ideas are part of the complex of attitudes and ceremonies surrounding the dead. We shall discuss this in two parts, firstly by an account of the post-funeral ceremonies, and secondly, by a more general discussion of attitudes towards the dead in relation to ancestor reverence, a vital part of the Japanese socio-cultural system.
(b) Sho-nono-ka and Shiju-ku-nichi
Some elaboration of the actual ceremonies and their meaning may provide a helpful framework to the main themes under discussion. The post-funeral rites most important to this discussion are the sho nano ka (seventh day) and shiju ku nichi (forty-ninth day). Traditionally, the time lapse between birth and rebirth is forty-nine days. During that time, the soul of the deceased is in a kind of no-mans land, awaiting rebirth (or in the case of Japan, entry to paradise) so that as a Buddha, he or she may be venerated as an ancestor. By performing these religious ceremonies, the ancestral spirits may be comforted and cheered, and assisted in their journey through the nether regions to the Buddhist Nirvana.
The time spent by the deceased in the chu-in was believed to be forty -nine days. This idea is of ancient Buddhist origin. The exact length of period may not be observed, the nearest Sunday or weekend day being used instead. Some families, however, do strictly observe the forty-ninth day exactly when it should fall. The seventh and forty-ninth days are the most widely observed. There is also the seven-day cycle during which the fate of the deceased may be determined by other influences but the demands of modern life eliminate most of the others.
The ceremonies described are not restricted merely to the seventh and forty-ninth days. Probably more than half of the homes that possess a butsudan offer incense every morning. This practice indicates that the formal post-funeral rites shade into the entire realm of ancestor reverence (sosen suhai). Later comes the hundredth-day service, the hyaku ka nichi. This is followed by the first and third anniversary ceremonies. These rituals, or tsuizen, are ceremonies, which transfer merit to the deceased, but since after forty-nine days he has entered the Buddhist Nirvana, the purpose of the later ones is clearly related to ancestor reverence rather than Buddhism. This further confirms the point I made earlier that in funeral ceremonies and post-funeral rituals, Buddhism and ancestor reverence shade off into each other.
The post-funeral rituals are comprehensible to any civilization. Due respect for the dead exists in most civilized countries and proper treatment is a common feature of the death system of any society. Ceremonies to commemorate war dead are common to all modernized societies, especially since the 19th century. But in Japan, the death system has been developed and extended far beyond that of any Western civilization. It has served the needs of social control, nationalism and militarism as well as the preservation of the family. It has dovetailed naturally and conveniently with ancestor reverence and has provided one of the invisible but powerful structures that has helped, and still helps, to maintain the stability and continuity of Japanese society. Japanese post-funeral rites centre around the butsudan, and it is to the role of this in Japanese Buddhism we now turn.
(d) The Butsudan
The institution of the butsudan may be dated at 685 c.e, when the Imperial edict already quoted was issued requiring that a Buddhist altar be set up in every household (See Part 7). It became an instrument of ancestor reverence presumably with the close identification of kami and hotoke. It was thus natural that the enshrined deceased be considered an immediate family ancestor.
(e) Butsudan and Kamidana
The butsudan has become distinguished from the kamidana (kami shelf) or ujigami (house kami), that is, the kami from the ancestor. The kamidana ancestors were not necessarily biological forebears. The butsudan is the place of reverence for the immediate biological forebears, the living ancestors whose welfare should be served by the living of this world. The ancient Japanese worshipped the kami of their families or clans and these kami were often located in shrines either in the family territory or in the locality. The kamidana or ujigami or yashikigami (family or house kami) may be found in most rural houses. The modern nuclear family may not have quite the same sense of family continuity, but if a visit is made to the principal house of the family in its hometown, the butsudan and kamidana will almost certainly be found.
(d) Roman and Celtic Comparisons on Household Divinities
The idea of protective household gods is found in many other religions but there are interesting differences between these and the Japanese versions. The Romans had the Lares and the Penates, the household gods who protected the health and fortunes of the family. These were worshipped according to prescribed rituals and at prescribed times. The Celtic people of Europe, a group in many ways similar to the Japanese in their sense of the divinity of nature, had a special reverence for the divine beings who preserved the house and its inhabitants.
The Lares in Rome were worshipped in a type of shrine, a larium placed in the forecourt and next to the fireplace. Daily and special offerings were made to them to mark births, comings of age, marriages and deaths. They were a group of tutelary gods covering various sectors of ancient Roman life. Rather like the state Shinto of the Meiji era, the Lares Praesites protected the state while the Lares Compitales were worshipped at altars set up at the roadside. Those who left Roman territory relied on the Lares Viales for protection overland and the Lares Permarini for journeys by sea. The Penates were concerned with immediate domestic needs, the term being derived from penus, meaning ‘food store’. The senior member of the family was responsible for making daily sacrifices at the family altar. In the days of the Republic, Consuls sacrificed to Penates at Lavunium at the beginning and end of their terms of office, in much the same way that new Japanese cabinets are announced at the Ise Shrine where the Sun Goddess is enshrined. In later times, the Penates of the Emperors were traced back to the deities that brought Aeneas from Troy.
These forms of worship centered on houses and public places. In contrast, the Celtic household gods were closer to nature and Celtic shrines or holy places were often outdoors and sometimes massive (e.g. the rings of standing stones at Stonehenge in England, or other similar bronze age artifacts). Sometimes the Celts preferred to make offerings at pools or lakes such as Llyn Cerrig Bach, in Anglesey, in England.
The Celtic peoples associated their ancestral divinities with the fireplace for which they had a special reverence. Consequently in Celtic Christian times, various prayers were said while lighting the fire or preparing the morning’s tasks.
The two traditions are interesting – the Roman one resembling State Shinto, the Celtic one resembling folk religion (minzoku shukyo) in Japan. The difference may be explained by the degree of political sophistication relative to the Romans and Celts. The basic difference between those traditions and the Japanese lies in the very strong association of the butsudan with ancestor reverence.
(e) Growing Social Control of Death
“This transfer had decisive and important effects and became the source of immeasurable solidarity among the Japanese, uniting their resistance to the intrusion of alien elements.”
The later institutionalization of death in Japan, in contrast to its early socialization, meant that over a period of time, the death system became standardized and gradually ‘taken over’ from individual hands to those of society. There were two main causes of this. One lay in the ritual development of the Buddhist funeral while the other had to do with the manipulation of death for political (and social) purposes. Death itself is a device that may be manipulated in many ways – those will be discussed in a later chapter. One however, is that the death system is a form of social control which, if standardized and developed to create not only solemn occasions but certain obligations too, then the control over people becomes complete. Thus concerned with ancestral kami but not in a personal sense. The importation of Buddhism and the instruction to set up a Buddhist altar at home was the first stage in transferring to the butsudan the recently deceased ancestral spirits. This transfer had decisive and important effects and became the source of immeasurable solidarity among the Japanese, uniting their resistance to the intrusion of alien elements.
Image | Mark Zilberman
This is Part 20 of Professor Stuart D. B. Picken’s serialised monograph, “Death in the Japanese Tradition: A Study in Cultural Evolution and Transformation”.
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 Japanese Popular Culture
Part 18: Terrorism, Violence and Tomorrow’s Citizens
Part 19: The Death and Burial of Emperor Showa
Part 20: The Modern Ritualized Death System