Great Buddha of Kamakura death cults japan copy

May 5, 2016

From suicide cults and self mortification to the worship of benevolent cultic figures such as Jizo and Amida, Professor Stuart D. B. Picken looks at the ways in which Buddhism in Japan provided a metaphysic of death that enabled the people to endure the hardships of life in the hope of a better hereafter, in Part 8 of “Death in the Japanese Tradition”.

Buddhism Embraces Death

It is probably correct to say that the early Japanese perception of Buddhism was as a new form of kami worship, richer and more sophisticated than the one to which they were accustomed. One factor facilitating the acceptance of Buddhism was the early assimilation of Buddhist deities by identification with Shinto kami. This process of cultural transformation lasted sporadically for almost six centuries until the early Kamakura period, by which time Buddhism began to develop its own Japanese forms, and in Japan had become Japanese Buddhism.

“Thus in Japan, Buddhism came to be the religion of the funeral, while Shinto remained the religion that celebrated birth and life”

Over these centuries, and as the result of many types of interaction, a unique division of labor took place. Its development was assisted by two further factors. The first was the Shinto distaste for the physical aspect of death, which opened the door to Buddhist priests in straitened circumstances who would conduct funeral services to augment their incomes. The second factor was the absence of any kind of state support comparable to that of the earlier Nara period. The newly emerging sects of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), that lacking the benefit of any kind of state patronage, were therefore forced to survive almost exclusively by means of the funeral.

Thus in Japan, Buddhism came to be the religion of the funeral, while Shinto remained the religion that celebrated birth and life, especially in the matsuri the festival. It would however, be incorrect to attribute the identification of Buddhism with the funeral solely to the circumstances that Buddhism encountered in Japan. The ‘Shinto-life: Buddhism-death’ arrangement is uniquely Japanese and in keeping with the Japanese spirit of kanyo, or tolerance. There is clear evidence that some of the popular Buddhist deities such as Amida and Jizo may have had connections with death prior to their development of this association in Japan. Further, esoteric Buddhism had some strange effects upon the Japanese idea of death. While it is not possible to trace these in complete detail, some account of them must be given.

2. Buddhism: Philosophical and Popular

Lafcadio Hearn long ago distinguished between two types of Buddhism in Japan; the higher type and the popular type. There was the higher level of philosophical speculation for the intellectual or the scholar, and there was the metaphysic of death, which popular Buddhism provided for the ordinary people. There is the Buddhism of the philosophers, the popularized, if not romanticized, images projected by such international names as Anesaki Masaharu early in the twentieth century and later by Suzuki Daisetsu. These include the images of the Zen garden and of the wise man who expresses himself in profound sayings, all treated with respect if not reverence. There is also the Buddhism of the priest who, as I have seen, turns up at a funeral far from full of profundities about the nature of the soul or the self. He may be unshaven, bleary-eyed and tired out after a long hard night of mahjong with his friends. He represents the Buddhism of the funeral. He is the symbol of the cult of the dead among ordinary people.

“without the funeral and its social role, Buddhism there might have vanished completely”

From among the popular types of Buddhism, aspects of three cults of former times survive to the present. The first is that of esoteric Buddhism in which death is related to enlightenment. They might with justification be labeled “suicide” or “death” cults. The other two are more gentle and still survive widely; the cults of Amida and Jizo. Their popularity has a great deal to do with the survival of Buddhism in modern Japan for without the funeral and its social role, Buddhism there might have vanished completely.

3. Buddhist Suicide Cults

There are two streams of tantric Buddhism (tantrayana) both of which explain how by mystical rituals a human being may become a Buddha:

Pure esoteric (mikkyo), which emphasizes becoming a Buddha in the flesh (soku-shin-jo-butsu), represented by shingon-shu (true word sect). The right-handed variety of tantrism (as opposed to the morally eccentric left-handed) was the only kind that took root in China and Japan and it drew its inspiration from Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism developed an elaborate death system expounded in the The Book of the Dead, already noted, a manual of instructions for the dead and dying. It was a guide to man during the period of his Bardol existence, the intermediate state lasting forty-nine days, between death and rebirth, and it formulated these instructions by combining various occult sciences with yoga philosophy. These rites introduced into Japan the practice of self-mummification to obtain enlightenment. In Tibet (as in Egypt) the great ones were mummified. The corpse was packed in a box of marsh salt for about three months then, when the body was well cured, it was coated with a cement-like substance made of clay, pulverized sandalwood, spices and herbal substances. As this hardened, all the sunken parts of the body became rounded out to their natural proportions. The finished mummy then became an object of veneration.

Tantrism in India gave this branch of Buddhism an enormous interest in symbolism and secret ritual. The universe was believed to consist of three mysteries – speech, action and thought. These were seen as manifestations of the Great Sun Buddha or Cosmic Buddha, (Vairocana) the Buddha ultimately equal to the universe itself. Japanese shingon-shu, as Kukai (774-835) developed it, is a mixture of Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese Taoism. In the Heian age, one part of its importance came from its aesthetic qualities, i.e. its mandalas. While the ‘higher teachings’ could only be transmitted from masters to disciples, the main features of the doctrines could be understood by anyone. Popular misconceptions are inevitable in any cult, and among the poorer classes the cult came to be understood as a supernatural formula for salvation.


From this the practice of self-mortification became widespread in Heian Japan. The manner of dying was as follows: The candidate prepared by re-conditioning his body through a course of discipline which included a diet designed to eliminate elements within the chemical composition of the body that would cause speedy decomposition. This diet was called moku-shoku-gyo. It consisted of natural forest and tree food with no rice or vegetables. After the period of preparation was completed, the candidate prepared for live interment. This was done according to the rituals of a prescribed ceremony. The interment area was a square dug to a depth of six to nine feet and wide enough for a man to sit cross-legged, in the lotus position. He held a small bell in his hand that he kept ringing as a signal that he was still alive. He was connected to the surface by a single air pipe and when the bell had ceased ringing for a length of time sufficient to indicate that the candidate had died, the pipe was removed and the grave filled with a moisture removing padding and sealed for seven years and seven months. It was then ceremoniously re-opened and if the mummified body was complete and not decomposed, it was removed and revered as a Buddha. Some candidates were forgotten but recent research has revealed a number and I observed the filming of the excavation of one of these where a temple abbot was on hand with a complete altar to revere the remains had they been in the proper condition. Alas, the remains broke up and the ceremony was not after all required. The candidate had been interred around the late 1700s and almost two hundred years later, a Buddhist priest was ready to recognize his Buddhahood, had the mummified corpse been excavated intact.

Cult of the Miira (Mummies)

Even now, the successful candidates are still revered, some of whom have been photographed sitting, surrounded by their twentieth-century admirers. Of the more famous, the miira of the Yudono-san in Yamagata Prefecture 3 provide examples, which demonstrate the general theory of soku-shin-jo-butsu, the idea that by the correct method of dying, a person could become a Buddha. The names given are the posthumous Buddha-titles each received.

Hon-mei-kai-shonin – This man’s name was Tagashi Kichibei and he was a samurai. He went to Yudono-san to seek healing for his feudal lord and was so moved by the experience that he chose to abandon his samurai life and become an ascetic. In 1673 he went into 4,000 days of moku-shoku-gyo. He was interred in 1683 in the Hon-mei-ji.

Chu-kai-shonin – Apart from that he was the nephew of Togashi Kichibei, little seems to be known about this man except that he went into a period of 1,000 days of moku-shoku-gyo. He was interred in 1755 at the age of fifty-eight.

Shin-nyo-kai-sho – Born the youngest son of a farmer, he killed a samurai as the result of a quarrel. He spent 3,000 days of moku-shoku-gyo and was interred in 1783 at the age of thirty-nine.

En-mei-kai-shonin – Also the son of a farmer, this man followed Tetsu-mon-kai-shonin and became an ascetic of Yudono-san. He devoted 3,000 days to the preparation of his body by moku-shoku-gyo. He was interred before his master in 1822, at the age of fifty-five.

Tetsu-mon-kai-shonin – His original name was Sunada Tetsu. He was a manual labourer who killed two samurai in the course of a quarrel and went to Yudono-san to undertake 2,000 days of moku-shoku-gyo. He visited Edo and saw the people suffering from starvation and eye disease and sacrificed one of his own eyes as a gesture of concern. He was the most famous among the soku-shin-jo-butsu for his contributions to social welfare and medical aid, and was interred at the age of sixty-two.

Tetsu-ryu-kai-shonin – He followed the example set by Tetsu-mon-kai-shonin and became an ascetic. He practiced moku-shoku-gyo until 1862 and was buried alive in 1868.

“The original idea of soku-shin-jo-butsu was to seek enlightenment while still alive and ‘in the flesh’.”

The original idea of soku-shin-jo-butsu was to seek enlightenment while still alive and ‘in the flesh’. But it would seem that it later came to be understood to mean becoming a Buddha through preserving one’s flesh after death, as death, Buddhahood and such preservation became conceptually confused. The list of posthumous Buddhas illustrates two points; the idea remained in popular consciousness for many centuries, since one example was as recent as the Meiji Restoration; and all, with the exception of the first, were from the lower classes. He was the only samurai in the group. All found themselves in a critical situation and, whether because of murder or illness, they were faced with death no matter what they did. The impetus to self-mortification may have come from the desire to die with dignity rather than die a violent death either by their own hands or those of another.


In addition to the soku-shin-jo-butsu, there was another and equally bizarre group of Buddhists associated with the dominant cults of the Heian period. They were known as Sho-shin-ju-sei-sha, and represented another facet of the cult of the dead among ordinary people. They chose violent deaths of one kind or another in order to enter the Buddhist paradise. Some permitted their bodies to be eaten alive by lice and insects, while others chose drowning or burning to death. Associated with the Kumano cult in modern Wakayama Prefecture was a method of drowning, the most famous manifestation of which was the Fudaraku-tokai (sailing to Fudaraku). The Kumano cult was a center for shugendo, a mixture of Buddhism and Shinto centred on devotion to Amida and the Sun Goddess. The three great shrines were known as the Kumano sanja and feature on the great mandala of the cult (at present in the Tokei Shrine in Okayama Prefecture), which outlines the Nachi Waterfall Pilgrimage route. The followers of this cult observed the practice of setting sail with thirty days supply of food, for Fudaraku-san, the mountain called Potolaka on the south-east coast of India, where the bodhisattva (an enlightened person who forsakes Nirvana to remain in the world to save souls) Avalokitesvara (Kannon) was said to live. In Japan, the site was believed to be the place of Nirvana for Kannon. No reliable figures are available, but at least nineteen famous priests died on such voyages between 868 and 1721.

“Buddhism provided a metaphysic of death which enabled people to endure the hardships of life in the hope of a better hereafter”

If one considers the aesthetic and elegance of Heian culture, one can understand that the idea of becoming a soku-shin-jo-butsu probably appealed to those on the lowest rungs of the social ladder. Heian historical studies such as The World of the Shining Prince, by Ivan Morris give the impression that all Japanese lived like Genji in a happy world of poetry and letters. While those of the court generally did, ordinary people did not. The image of the Heian court survives through the literature of its members. But the lives of ordinary people must have been far from attractive if such ways of dying had any great appeal. When individuals choose violent and self-inflicted deaths such as those described, it is inconsistent with the image of an age that is completely peaceful. The thesis being put forward here is that Buddhism provided a metaphysic of death which enabled people to endure the hardships of life in the hope of a better hereafter, in much the same way that the medieval church in Europe pointed people’s hopes to heaven. The medieval church, however, was more thorough in ensuring its hold over the people. By controlling the death system, i.e. by actually holding the ‘keys to the kingdom’, the gates of heaven could be locked or opened by its own hand. Thus the church could control the people’s behaviour. In Japan, social control was exerted through the butsudan, one form of exploitation of the natural feeling of reverence towards ancestors. The authorities of the day readily pointed out to the people their duties to their ancestors and this led to a deeply conservative way of thinking, a reluctance to accept anything except the standards or values attributed to the ancestors. Of this, more will be said later.

Eclectic esoteric (kenkyo), which encourages a syncretism between tantric Buddhism and shamanism, and which gave rise, to shugendo, the Buddhist/Shinto amalgam. There are many forms of this, but the most interesting flowering of this is in Tendai-shu, and in the punishing gyo designed to make someone a Buddha in the flesh, but which may not result in death, although in fact, many have died trying to complete the cycle. Sen-nichi-kai-ho-gyo, (discipline of one thousand days around the peaks) is a more life-oriented discipline. It is a gruelling course, which takes seven years to complete on Mt. Hie. Tendai (so called because it originated from Mt. Tien-tai in China) is a Buddhism, which is half esoteric and half exoteric. It taught the idea of Buddhahood in the flesh being achieved not at the point of death, but during life. As recently as 1982, Mr. Sakai, the most outstanding example since 1945, became an ikibotoke ( a living Buddha). His story is the best account of the gyo.

Born Sakai Yuya on 5 September, 1916, this man was the eldest of ten in a family living in the city of Osaka. His father owned a rice store but when Sakai was five years old, his father lost everything with the collapse of the rice market. The family then moved to Tokyo. Japan’s involvement in China escalated and the father was drafted. Yuya had to work to help keep the family and in due course, he too joined the army. After the war, he moved from job to job. He worked with his father at a noodle stand, in front of a railroad station in Tokyo, but the business was destroyed by fire. Then he worked in a cake shop but with little success. He married, but his wife left him after one month. He followed her back to Osaka but after two further months, she committed suicide. His life in ruins, he struggled to hold down a job in his uncle’s factory. Once, his aunt took him to Mt. Hiei, but the visit left no positive impression. Five or six years later however, he returned to the mountain and this time something struck him. He met a priest called Kobayashi and with two other men, they lived together as Buddhist monks, doing all the necessary chores and duties. After a month, only Sakai remained. There was a change of priest at the temple and on 17 December 1965, Sakai’s head was shaved and he became a Buddhist priest. In 1972, after seven years of work and training, he first attempted one hundred days of gyo or discipline. In 1975, at the age of forty-nine, he applied to undertake the full one thousand days. Because of his age he had to receive special permission. Normally, only younger men attempted the circuit and some have died in the process. Sakai however, obtained approval and began his undertaking that took seven years to complete. The seven-year schedule and the daily routine to be followed are thus:

Yearly Schedule

Year 1 – 100 days
Year 2 – 100
Year 3 – 100
Year 4 – 200
Year 5 – 200
Year 6 – 100
Year 7 – 200
Total: 1,000 days

Daily Schedule

00:00 – Purification in two waterfalls
01:30 – Beginning of 40 kilometre route
09:30 – Return to temple and remain one hour in main building
12:30 – Breakfast after a bath
15:00 – One hour service
17:00 – Supper
20:30 – Bed
23:50 – Get up to go to the waterfall

The climax of the first 700 days is do-iri (entry to the temple) when the gyoja (or ascetic) stands reciting sutras for nine days and nights without eating or drinking. Sakai survived, but took four weeks to recover. After this, under his new name, Ajari, he was reborn.

On days when he was not engaged in gyo, Sakai Yuya walked around Kyoto with his followers and friends, and there believers brought photographs of the sick and of their children for his blessing. He was regarded as a holy man, whose wasted life was regenerated through reaching the ultimate goal of Japanese asceticism, which transforms homo sapiens into homo excellens. On completion of the discipline he received acknowledgement from the Imperial Household and he is now duly revered as a living Buddha. As such he remains and has chosen to attempt the gyo for a second time. The proximity of death has not deterred others from trying. Several have indeed died during the exercise, but its mystique continues. While of course not a suicide cult, it does throw into relief some of the distinctive attitudes to life and death still found within Japanese culture.

Jizo, Amida and the Pure Land

The Amida Buddha at Kamakura, (Kamakura no Daibutsu) is the largest figure of Amida in the world. That this should be in Japan is right and proper since the role of Amida in Japanese thought about death has been profound and important. Among the forms of Buddhism that spread throughout popular culture and affected the lives of ordinary people, after the mysteries of esoteric Buddhism there came two benevolent cultic figures – Jizo and Amida. These remain significant cults within contemporary Japanese Buddhism.

Jizo – The figure of Jizo is a familiar sight in Japan. He can be found at roadsides, intersections, inside or outside temples, carved into gravestones, painted on mandalas or scrolls. There may be one figure, six, or many and they may be in the shape of a bodhisattva or, more commonly, a priest holding a sceptre, alms bowl or blessed stone. They may be made of metal, wood or stone, and are frequently seen adorned with a red bib. The various customs, practices and legends surrounding the bodhisattva have integrated it almost completely into the mass folk culture of Japan. The origin is Indian, from the bodhisattva, Kshitigarbha who was never very popular there but whose cult travelled and gained a much stronger hold abroad, especially in China. His name means ‘womb of earth’ and he seems to have been one of the great bodhisattvas. Jizo was on his way towards Buddhahood but concerned to transfer his merits to the benefit of mankind became a bodhisattva. ‘If virtuous men and women worship this deity, they are said to overleap the sins of thirty kalpas, and if they make an image of him and worship him only once, they shall surely be reborn in heaven’. This reference comes from the sutra of the original vow of bodhisattva Kshitigarbha, in which it is also stated that special blessings will be afforded to anyone who builds a temple to the bodhisattva. These blessings included good harvests, domestic peace, long life, prosperity and rebirth in heaven.

In China, where Jizo was known as Ti tsang, he gained a devoted following under the influence of Taoism, where some transformation of his role took place. He was considered a merciful bodhisattva who would make trips to hell if necessary, in order to save its victims. There developed a doctrine of repentance centred on devotion to him that enabled its followers to avoid hell and go to heaven. By the Ming Dynasty, (thirteenth century) Jizo had become one of the most popular and powerful deities within the Buddhist pantheon.

The oldest statue of Jizo is to be found in the Horyu-ji in Nara. It was the gift in the sixth century of the King of Paekche in Korea to the Emperor. However, it was not until the twelfth century that Jizo became widely recognized and invoked for his powers. From Mt. Iwafune and from the Joshinjo Temple in Kinomoto come stories of Jizo being invoked to save a harvest from insects, for safe and easy delivery of infants and for curing blindness. Many varieties of Jizo cults developed. The Haraobi Jizo was invoked by pregnant women wearing a haroabi, or stomach binder. The roku (six) Jizo and the shogun (general) Jizo appeared around the same time. The roots of the roku are found in the legend of Takamura, who went to hell and was ordered by the King there to make six images of Jizo to assist the living avoid the same fate. The idea of the six images spread and in the twelfth century, Taira Kiyomori had six Jizo images carved and placed at the six entrances to the capital, to protect travellers.

The shogun Jizo may be traced to the ninth century and to a general who sought victory in battle. A priest made and gave to him, a statue, and later the Jizo is said to have appeared on the battlefield ensuring success. Jizo is thus sometimes depicted as a priest on horseback clad in armour. During the ascendancy of the Fujiwara family in the twelfth century, Jizo grew in popularity as the one who saved people from hell. Scrolls depict him going into hell and even having his face scorched during such rescues. But the most popular role ascribed to Jizo is that of his protection of children, particularly the spirits of dead children. There is a sai no kawara no Jizo (Jizo of the River Beach of Sai), where the river, like the styx, is thought to be at the entrance to hell. In Indian legend, an ugly old woman about fifty metres tall torments children in hell by forcing them to pile up stones on the river bank. Statues of Jizo began to appear after the twelfth century with stones piled up around them. These became identified with the stones being piled up by the children in hell. In fact, there was probably a confusion in the popular mind, with an earlier Shinto custom (which still survives). Travellers may receive protection from danger if they place something touched by them in front of a kami in a sacred place. Small stones still serve this purpose as they have for centuries. Gradually, Jizo was seen to be protecting both children in hell and travellers too, thus occupying a central place in folk religion.

“Jizo became very popular (and still is) as a grave monument. But he never became the centre of a sect, as Amida did.”

The bodhisattva Kshitigarbha was also a figure of the Pure Land and was consequently related to Amida. Indeed, Jizo and Amida were worshipped together fully 150 years before the Pure Land tradition developed in Japan. Adherents of the Pure Land movement favoured Jizo since he could release them from hell as well as guide them to paradise. As such, Jizo became very popular (and still is) as a grave monument. But he never became the centre of a sect, as Amida did.

From the twelfth century onwards, the popularity of the cult spread steadily down through society to the peasants who made him, next to Amida and Kannon, the popular divinity of daily life. Gradually he found his way into folklore, nursery rhymes, Kyogen plays, and fairy tales. He continues to fulfil the role of protector of children to the present day and is in great demand for the protection of the spirits of miscarried and stillborn infants. There are temples throughout Japan with statues of Jizo at which parents offer prayers for such children. One of these, the Shoji-in, a temple in Kita ward in the north of Tokyo, installed a statue of Jizo in 1951. Perhaps it is as a result of a growing social concern about abortion, both natural and induced that, according to data supplied by the temple, up to one hundred women each day come to pray at the temple for their dead babies, aborted foetuses and stillborn infants. As a form of therapy, they are encouraged by the priest to write down their experiences and feelings, many of which are moving in their honesty:

“I was gifted with a small life in my body, but it was too
early for me and my husband… I feel sorry for my baby.”
“Today I am here to say that I feel sorry and that I feel
relieved of my burden by this prayer.”

Others however, are not so easily relieved:

“I feel a deep wrong within me, and I regret I could not
be with you. I pray that your soul will become a good
Buddha beside Jizo-san.”

Occasionally fathers too leave a note. One father wrote the following message:

“My baby, please forgive this helpless father. May your
soul rest in peace. Your foolish father.”

The temple image of Jizo is usually surrounded by toys, dolls, feeding bottles, candies – many of them apologies for not having observed the principle of reverence for life.

Amida and Pure Land Buddhism

The cult of Amida was important in the development of the death system during the Kamakura era, especially during the rise of Jodo-shu:

“…during the Kamakura era, a new branch of Buddhism, Jodo, arose. It did not have any backing by the nobility and since its belief denied the merits of this world, it could not expect financial support from patronage. Therefore, they found that the only way to support themselves was by holding funerals. Since then, other branches of Buddhism have followed this method of supporting themselves. Also, since the Edo Shogunate ordered Buddhist temples to keep the census registers of the population, Japanese Buddhism has been in an inseparable relationship with funerals. But of course, because of the over systematizing of funerals, even the serious concern which should exist about life and death is consequently lost.”

Honen (1133-1212) is usually regarded as founder of the Pure Land (Jodo-shu) tradition and as the thinker who established the Amida cult. The teaching had direct relevance to the development of the death system through its simplification of the complex Buddhist thought that characterized, for example, the older and dominant Tendai tradition. He taught in his Senjaku-Hongan-Nembutsu-sh (the New Easy Path to Salvation) based on his own reading of an older work which stressed Nembutsu, “Namu Amida Butsu” (Amen! Amida Buddha) became the central formula of the Pure Land tradition, and the words are still recited at funeral ceremonies. The fuller development of the tradition came with Shinran (1173-1262) who stressed the tariki, or ‘other power’ of Amida Buddha, upon which people should depend in faith. The Jodo-Shinshu, as the sect that grew after Shinran’s death came to be called, retains the largest number of temples of any Buddhist group in Japan – 27,000, which represents more than a quarter of the nation’s 80,000 Buddhist temples.

Amida is also celebrated in art as the deliverer. In Genshin’s famous work Raigo (welcome), Amida is seen descending from the Pure Land to welcome the faithful, preceded by Kannon and Seishi and followed by Jizo in the dress of a priest. Whether in art or liturgy, the links between Amida, Jizo and death are fundamental.

Emma and the Buddhist Hell

Reference to the Buddhist paradise would be incomplete without a reference to the Buddhist hell. The first point to stress is that since Buddhism, as it originated with Gotama, taught the existence of neither gods nor demons, the idea of protective figures such as Jizo, or symbols of torment such as Emma, are equally foreign to it. These figures emerged as Buddhism encountered folk religious tradition in China and Japan. The origins of Emma (who is usually accompanied by Ten Kings) lies in Chinese folk religion. It has been suggested by some scholars that the introduction of a heaven/hell syndrome in Buddhism began with the interaction between Nestorian Christianity (The Church of the East, as it was known, the Syriac-speaking Persian Church) and Buddhism in Tang Dynasty China. The development of such a clear metaphysical dualism could well have roots in the Persian tradition, since the old Persian religion of Zoroastroism was based on a dualism between light and darkness. Whatever its origins, the figure of Emma in Japan is that of judge in the nether-world administering justice, reward and punishment according to the good or ill wrought by a person in his or her lifetime. In the Edo period, the figure of Emma appeared in art, in popular religious tracts and in sermons. Over the years, Emma’s image steadily declined. It has now vanished from popular religious consciousness, except for one proverbial saying:

‘Karu-toki no Jizo-gao; nasu toki no Emma-gao’
(‘Borrowing is done with the face of Jizo – but paying back
evokes the face of Emma.’)

That saying is poetic rather than indicative of a belief in Emma.

Why did Emma vanish? One reason is probably that the concept of a metaphysical dualism appears alien to Japanese thought. The kind of stark contrast that good versus evil or light versus darkness, clearly defined as in the western tradition, presents a set of opposites that do not sit naturally within the Japanese world view.

A second reason relates probably to how human nature itself is perceived. In the early post-Confucian era, two contrasting views of human nature emerged. There was the belief that human nature was inherently good (性善説 sei-azen-setsu). There was the contrasting view of human nature as potentially evil (性悪説 sei-aku-setsu). The latter never gained a foothold in Japanese thought. An old Japanese proverb states the position: “In their heart of hearts, no one is truly evil” (本人におい悪人はいない : honin ni oite wa akunin wa inai). Japanese culture prefers to think of the goodness of human nature. Whatever the origin of the dualism may have been, it clearly never took root in Japan.

Image | Yuichi Rock


This is Part 8 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, “The Death Poem and Buddhism” will be published next Thursday on May 12, 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, History, IAFOR Japan Research Institute, In Depth, Subject Area, World


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