Japanese folklore THINK IAFOR Death in Japan

April 7, 2016

In Part 4 of “Death in the Japanese Tradition”, Professor Stuart D. B. Picken looks at the themes sounded in the classics that continue into modern Japan, and at the ancient folk beliefs, customs and rituals that are still maintained in many places today.

1. Parallel Worlds of the Living and the Dead

From the abundance of anthropological and ethnological research data available, evidence abounds to show the continuity into modern times of the themes sounded in the classics. These theories continue in ancient folk beliefs still held in many places, one of which is that that the living and the dead live in two parallel worlds. The two worlds are in parallel in the sense that what we have been in one, we become in the next. A warrior in the one will be a warrior in the following. This belief, for example, lies behind the boat race held on 5th May every year in Yonaguni, one of the southern-most islands of Japan close to Iriomote Island and Taiwan. Local tradition among the fishing community holds that an identical boat race is held on the same day each year among the deceased inhabitants of the island, and that the two races take place simultaneously.

Another illustration is the way in which the rites of passage for the living parallel the rites of passage for the dead. The Chichibu region of Saitama Prefecture, near Tokyo, preserves these customs within a community that is partly agricultural and partly industrial. Before tanjo (birth) occurs, certain pre-natal rites are performed. After one week, on the evening of the shichiya (the seventh night), the child is named and introduced to his relatives. On the thirtieth day after birth, the child is taken to the shrine for Hatsu-miya-mairi (the first shrine visit), and becomes a parishioner. Various other rituals occur in connection with other life events, but of greater interest than coming of age and marriage are the yakudoshi (years of peril) and the toshi iwai (years of rejoicing).

“The spirit of mourning is infused with a congratulatory feeling.”

Women of 33 and men of 42 are advised to have special purification to avoid evil. These are the years of the yakudoshi, which in reality are often the difficult times of early middle age. The years of anxiety past, the years of long life are celebrated. Sixty is kanreki, 70 is koki, 77 is kiju, 88 is beiju and 99 is hakuju. On some of these occasions the old person may offer some present to members of the family or they may make special acknowledgements of age. Always, these are times of rejoicing. When someone over 80 dies, it is common in some villages to replace the normal black and white awnings of mourning with blue and white ones. The spirit of mourning is infused with a congratulatory feeling. Once a person dies, as we shall see later, many rituals ensue. One small custom relevant here is the act of placing a bowl of rice beside the deceased person to sustain him or her in the spirit world. The funeral service may include words of advice to the deceased and after seven days (shonanoka) he receives a kaimyo (posthumous name, making him a Buddhist priest). The symmetrical relation between the rites of passage of the living and the dead may be observed here. In each case, a name is given after seven days. The lifting of birth taboos and the lifting of death taboos roughly correspond. Thus the living and the dead are seen as inhabiting parallel and similar worlds.

Close to the island of Yonaguni are the Yaeyama islands a ritual called anagama is held on the day of Obon, the festival at which the spirits of the departed return to the homes where they lived before, a further example of the belief in communication between the living and the land of the dead. The particular ritual of Yaeyama involves symbolic portrayal of the presence of the dead communication between the living and the dead. Two people wear the masks of an old woman and an old man. They walk round the houses of the villagers and receive hospitality wherever they visit. (In rural communities, it is not uncommon as a rite of passage for young people to be exposed to Namahage, divine figures grotesquely or fearsomely depicted by villagers dressed in costume.) The two masked figures in this case, represent the village ancestors and they argue, discuss and converse with their descendants. The villagers may question the old couple.

Such a conversation might take place as follows:

Prices have gone very high in this world. How is it where you are?
Oh, life there is pretty tough at times.
Do you have midwives over there?
No, over there, husbands do the work of midwives.
If someone’s wife is ready to deliver, my husband will assist!
You must carry your wife over there. There are no cars or buses!

The answers may often be humorous and the questions are always interesting:

Grandmother, what do you do with that skirt?
This is to protect my body, sometimes I use it for a blanket, or for a mosquito net and before that, I raised a horde of children in it.

The young may also ask:

Grandmother, how do you get there? What rules must you follow?
First, keep your eyes closed and hold your breath.
Second, be completely silent.
Thirdly, your body must be bathed clean before you go.
Fourth, don’t look back
Fifth, go alone. Take neither children nor grandchildren with you.

The reference here to death and dying is most interesting. It takes and treats it in a simple and natural way.

Another typical question is:

Was your marriage arranged there or was it a love marriage?
How corrupted your minds have become. In our era, all was arranged. It was for our parents to decide. They decided and the marriage was arranged. (vide: Lectures by Tanigawa Kenichi to the Japan Studies Seminar of the Japan Foundation, January 23, 1979).

In such ways, the living ask about the state of the dead, the traditions of their community, about how the dead are and how their world is organized. Such a ritual seems to imply that the two worlds are not separated in an absolute way. It suggests that the dead are very interested in the welfare of the living and that the living should continue to interest themselves in the happiness and welfare of the dead.

2. The Shaman as a Link between the Living and the Dead

In ancient times, the roots of the belief may be traced to shamanism, to the role of the shaman as a link between the living and the dead, and more importantly in early stages, between the living and the heavenly realm of the kami.

Shamanism in the Early Imperial Household

The early Emperors were possessed of ‘imperial’ charisma by virtue of their descent from the Sun Goddess and by taboos regarding imperial succession. The Emperor received the mikoto, the words of the kami, in dreams or trances and transmitted these to the people. Consequently, worship of the kami, matsuri, was not distinctly separated from government. It was a sacral society. The Imperial Court was modeled on the heavenly realm as described in the mythology. The court of Amaterasu included such figures as Ame-mo-koyane (a priestly figure) or Ame-mo-uzume (a female shaman). Consequently, the Yamato court included Nakatomi-no-muraji, the priestly family, and Sarume-no-kami, the family of shamans. (Kitagawa, Joseph M. Religion in Japanese History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966 pp. 3-46).

The role played by shamans in early Japan was considerable. The mother of Emperor Jimmu was named Tama-yori-hime (kami spirit living woman). This is recorded in the Nihonshoki (III: 2). The case of Emperor Sujin is even more interesting. He was a shaman himself who met O-mono-nushi-no Okami in a dream (V: 6). He was assisted by two other shamans, his aunt, the Princess Yamato-tochi-momoso-hime (V:4) and a person of non-noble lineage called Otataneko who was possessed of charismatic power (V:6). Among women in the early era, there is the Empress Jingo (IX: 2 ff) who is reported to have been the first to order the great purification to take place, the obarae to purge impurities from the entire nation.

Contemporary Institutionalized Shamanism in Japan

This continues strongly in modern Japan and those who practice shamanism are by no means necessarily peculiar or different from other people, as Professor Ishizu Teruji has pointed out. (Ishizu, Teruji “Exorcism and Shamanistic Practices in Tokoku Districts of Japan”, Proceedings of VIIIth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Tokyo and Kyoto, 1968, pp.126-8). He does not accept abnormalities, psychology or physiology as an explanation, or as essential, to all shamans. He points out that in some small villages in Tohoku, boys or young men are selected at random to divine the outcome of agricultural or other work to be done during the ensuing period. At a special ceremony on a specific day of the year, the youths, in a trance, become possessed by the kami who then informs them of the village’s prospects. Sumo, the Imperial sport has its roots in shamanistic rituals designed to divine prospects for the rice harvest.

Eliade has argued that one of the shaman’s roles include the very important one of guiding the dead safely into the next world. (Eliade, Mircea Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Princeton, New Jersey: University Press, 1964; cf. Blacker, Carmen The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan, London: Allen & Unwin, 1975) He then returns after the deceased has been duly installed and can inform the deceased’s family and friends of his condition and activities there. This too is found in contemporary Japan. The blind female shamans of Osorezan (Mt. Osore), in Aomori Prefecture, at the northern point of Japan’s main island of Honshu, still practice such cultic acts. When they become possessed, by the spirit of a dead person they speak with the bereaved family in a voice that is usually identifiable as that of the deceased. (These traditions stand in sharp contrast to the Hebrew dislike of shamanism recorded in the Hebrew writings as for example in the clandestine atmosphere that surrounds Saul’s consultation with the shaman at Endor, whom he asked to call up the ghost of Samuel in I Samuel 28:29).

Some aspects of the ancient burial practices of the Japanese have been mentioned already. The oldest written traditions (as distinct from pre-historic artifacts and what they tell us) speak of the moya, a hut in which the deceased was retained for a certain length of time. The corpse of Emperor Jimmu is said to have been, retained in a moya for nineteen months. Religious dances and music often accompanied funeral rites as well as a shinubikotoba (eulogy) of the deceased. A funeral wake followed as in ancient times with the dead receiving respectful treatment and being served food and drink. Various other rituals and customs were practiced, (some of which still survive), varying from the grotesque, such as the self-immolation of wives and retainers on the death of a lord, to one quaint tradition of Iyo in Shikoku island. There, until fairly recent times, efforts were made to retain the soul of a dying man. If the man was given up by his medical adviser, and was beginning to slip away, he was given on a feather, the matsugo-no-mizu, the last drops of water, to moisten his lips. Then three men would climb and sit astride the roof and shout, “Come back x-san, come back once more”. Those in the house would claim not to have heard the cry, and the soul of the man would revive an hour or so before finally departing.

The examples taken from folklore and folk culture serve to underline those two important characteristics suggested earlier about the image of death in the Japanese tradition and which run as fine lines of continuity from ancient to modern times. Firstly, it is clear that what makes possible communication between the living and the dead is that the worlds of the living and the dead are not clearly distinguished. There is no conceptually simple dividing line that demarcates where the one world ends and the other begins. They can exist simultaneously in the same place and time and members of one can pass back and forwards into the other. Secondly, and linked to this is the fact that the divine and the human are not separated (as they are in the West) by the gap that theologians call transcendence. The kami and their acts (kami kakushi) impinge upon and affect present day human life. Human life and its context is not “secular’ in the sense of being clearly separated from the religious. In Japan, the lines are not drawn clearly and the world of the living is shot through with experiences, actions and influences of those who belong to the world of the dead or the world of the kami. This way of thinking seems to have enabled the Japanese to reduce the fear of death to a bare minimum as compared to those cultures where life and death are separated by an unbridgeable gap. This in turn, I would suggest, has enabled them to release their grip on life at critical moments, especially if the circumstances are enfolded in mystic-religious ideological belief in which the distinction is blurred between the world of contemporary reality and the idealized world to be attained. The term “suicide” sounds a little ungracious if applied to Buddhists of later eras or the special attack corps of the Pacific War era. English however, does not have a wide vocabulary to choose from, and while “suicide” is used to describe all of these, the deep roots of the tradition and its related customs should not be ignored or forgotten.

While some of these customs still survive, nevertheless the sixth century advent of Buddhism in Japan introduced numerous changes. Cremation was introduced in 703 c.e., and from that date until around 1644, all Emperors were cremated. The self-immolation of the wives and retainers began to decrease and disappear around the 14th century. In the 17th century, the practice was finally prohibited by the first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. A more detailed account of these customs belongs to the discussion on Buddhism.

Image | Roger Walch


This is Part 4 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, “Kami and Ancestors ” will be published next Thursday on April 14, 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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