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Death and funerals are part of the cycle of life, and at times, we must accompany our friends at their darkest moments. Funerals in Japan are a very formal event, and because of the differing religious beliefs, there are many things that you should know before attending one.
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For the Japanese, funerals are considered strictly formal events involving rites and practices that may not be common in other countries, especially in the western parts of the world. Being essentially a mixture of Buddhist and Shinto traditional beliefs and customs, the practices attached to the preparation of the dead up to the time they are cremated or buried, involve solemn ceremonies meant to offer respect to the deceased as well as comfort to the bereaved family members.
Since its official incorporation into the Japanese way of life in the 17th century, Buddhism has been merged with the ancient Shinto religion such that many families often have two altars at home, one for each sect. As such, funerals also include certain customs derived from both religions. In modern Japan, 91% of the funerals are incorporated with Buddhist beliefs; as such, the hiring of a Buddhist monk is a must to lead in prayers or reading of the sutra during the funeral wake and again during the funeral rites, including the burning of incense.
※ The Funeral Source, "Asian Funeral Traditions - Japanese Funeral Traditions"
Nevertheless, funerals may vary a little from place to place, even within Japan. Modern practices have also been slowly introduced into the former traditional format of Japanese funerals, many of which have been accepted as a way of minimizing expenses and allowing people not to travel so far, such as sending letters becoming more and more acceptable, in order to fulfill obligations to the grieving families.
Although many of the Japanese people do not actually practice Buddhism on a regular basis, most of those who have relatives who pass away call on the Buddhist priest for their services in undertaking funeral ceremonies. In fact, because of this rare connection with the religion’s practices, these religious rites are sometimes referred to as “funeral Buddhism”. Nevertheless, such rites have come to form a part of the unique culture of Japan borne out of centuries of intricate cultural and historical development.
Funeral ceremonies in Japan culminate in about 99% of the deceased being cremated. It may sound ordinary to most people; however, there is another step practiced in Japan.
Their ritual called kotsuage, literally referring to a “bone-picking” ceremony, involves the immediate family going through a process of using chopsticks (one made of bamboo, one of willow to symbolize this world and the world beyond) to pick up the cremated bones of the deceased. Children and adults participate in this practice. The urn where the remains are kept is kept for a while by the family before the remains are either placed in a crematorium or dispersed over land or sea.
※ The Cremation Society, "International Statistics 2018"
The Japanese funeral process usually includes a wake, called the お通夜 (otsuya), during which relatives and friends may attend and after which a night vigil is spent by the family alone with the dead at home or at a funeral parlor.
During the wake, a Buddhist priest reads a sutra, after which the bereaved family members take turns in offering and burning incense before the body of the departed. Guests may also participate in the incense offering following the family members. Incense offering involves taking a pinch of the powdered makko with the thumb, index finger, and the middle finger, raising it against the forehead and dropping it into the burner.
Once the priest finishes the sutra, the wake ends and guests are given thank-you notes or gifts in the amount valued at a portion of what they gave to the family upon their arrival. At that moment, guests depart while the family retires alone with the deceased and spends the night remembering the deceased and comforting one another.
Certain things are to be strictly observed by the Japanese and which foreigners or newcomers are also expected to follow in order to pay respect to the dead and show true solidarity with the grieving family. One of these is the giving of the koden or condolence envelope which must contain from 5,000 JPY to 10,000 JPY, based on closeness with the deceased and should be an odd number of bills (typically one or three) . It is also rude to give any amount with the number 4 because the Japanese word for four is “死 shi” which means death. The koden is given in an envelope with black and white strings arranged in a knot, which one may purchase from local stores.
People attending the wake and the following day’s funeral are expected to follow the dress code, which is black suit, white shirt, and black matte tie for men and black kimono or dress for women. Wearing glossy fabric or shiny shoes and buckles is not considered respectable wear during funerals. Wearing anything informal and revealing the neck and the knees is also inappropriate and can even be looked upon as an affront to the family and the sober occasion.
It is also vital to relate in a more personal manner by greeting the family of the deceased in the traditional Japanese way properly. These include the following standard ways of expressing condolences:
"Konotabiwa, makotoni goshuushou sama desu." (I'm deeply sorry about your loss.)
"Okuyami moushiagemasu." (I offer my condolences)
In cases that you cannot attend the funeral, the above phrases can be used as well to send a written letter of your condolences to the family where you can add the words 哀悼の意を表します “Aitou no i wo hyoushimasu” (I express my condolences) and なんて言ったらいいか “Nante ittara ii ka”, “[I don’t know] what to say” if you want to imply for a deeper pain you are also experiencing. The latter can be said in person as well.
It is a belief that after attending a funeral, one should not go home directly. You need to stop by any public place you feel comfortable such as a restaurant, a mall, or even the grocery store to lose the spirits so they won't follow you to your home. This is also shown through not taking straight roads home, and also throwing salt over your shoulder or on yourself when you arrive home (also a common gift at funerals) to ward off anything that may have followed you.
After reading this article, if ever you find yourself attending a Japanese wake or funeral, the rituals and practices shouldn’t surprise you as much and you will be prepared. Remember that it is the Japanese people’s way of helping their dear departed ones to have an honorable and peaceful transition from this world to the next, while maintaining that permanent mystical bond between the living and the dead, the visible and the invisible. So much so that after the initial formal rituals are done, regular rituals are still commonly observed yearly until the fiftieth death anniversary is reached. At the end of the day, practices may differ but all religions hope for the peace of the departed soul. Knowing the beliefs may better help you comfort a friend, and in turn create a positive presence during their darkest days.
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