After becoming involved in several forum discussions about Yuuki’s death from Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 I realized how little most western anime fans know about current Japanese funeral customs, practices, beliefs, and the concept of obligation between the living and the dead. So, I ‘ve decided to do a post covering some of the most common Japanese funeral customs, practices, beliefs, and the obligations owed between the living and the dead.

       When comparing American/Western death practices and beliefs to Japanese/Shinto/Buddhist practices and beliefs one must remember that the concept of what is owed to the dead is totally different from our experiences. Also, one must remember that there’s a much different relationship between how believers of the Shinto faith view the divisions between the worlds of the living and the worlds of the afterlife than most practitioners of Western faiths have.

The worlds of the living, and the worlds of the dead.

       In Shinto practices and beliefs, our world, the world of the living, is known as Konoyo (the world over here) and the world where the spirits of the dead dwell is known as Anoyo (the world over there). While there is a word for a middle ground between the worlds (Sonoyo), in most versions of Shinto this place does not exist, so a spirit of the dead is either located in the Konoyo or the Anoyo. When a person dies and the proper death rites/practices are performed it can take his/her spirit up to 49 days to make the journey to the world of the dead unless the spirit of the recently deceased feels that it has unfinished obligations or desires in the living world where the spirit can appear as a ghost until it’s issues are resolved in an proper manner.  

Note. The concept of Anoyo (the world over there) is supposed to be a final destination, but it’s very flexible in it’s location and proximity to the world of the living. In the past, when someone was asked to describe the location of Anoyo they would say it lay, beyond those mountains, beyond that forest, or beyond that river. So, in affect, while the world of the dead was separate from the living world it really lay just beyond our grasp, but still nearby.

The concept of obligation (On)

       Every Japanese person from the moment of their birth carries a burden of obligation called On and this is a very complicated concept to articulated in either Japanese or English. But here it goes; a person receives On from their parents who nurtured and loved them, from the love their younger and older siblings give them, from the learning and guidance their teachers and instructors bestowed on them, and from any other limitless number of people that the living person receives love and help from. With the On a Japanese a receives comes a requirement that the person is aware of the On, and a requirement that the person respond in kind to repay the On.

        Some kinds of On debts are called Guri, and Guri debts can be repaid through hard work, gifts, money, or volunteer work equal to the help received. But, the most difficult On debts to repay are the debts owed to family, very close friends, and ancestors, and they are called Gimu debts. Every person, from the moment of their birth receives so much love and nurturing from family and very close friends that the person is in a constant state of debt to those people. A person wears this burden their whole life, one is constantly trying the repay this debt, and the person has an understanding that while they’re repaying this debt they’ll never be able to fully repay others for all  the love and support they received during their lives.

Ruth Benedict, sums up family On, and Gimu debts by saying.     “The fullest repayment of these obligations is still no more than partial, and there is no time limit.”

When a On debt is not repaid both sides feel uneasy and upset and a proper apology must be given or a feeling of a real injury will develop. 

The relationship of debt between the living and the dead.

       When a Japanese person dies, he/she dies with a debts of Guri/Gimu can no longer repaid, and also, all the living family members and friends of the deceased are aware of their unpaid  Guri/Gimu debt towards the deceased. These unpaid debts are repaid by performing the proper rituals for the dead along with living family members respecting the memories/spirit of the dead by living their lives in a socially/culturally respectable manner. If the spirit of the recently dead feels that it has very important unfinished obligations it can still feel obligated to not fully crossover to the Anoyo until it’s obligations are paid.

Many modern Japanese tales show how the spirits of the dead can appear as ghosts until certain situations are resolved.

        There is a story of how the ghosts of three young sisters kept appearing at the rail crossing where they were killed until local officials erected a proper crossing guard.

        There are many versions of the tale of a Japanese ghost mother who was unable to properly nurse her child in life being seen nursing a lost living child.

Modern Japanese/Shinto/Buddhist funeral practices, beliefs, and traditions.

Almost all Japanese funerals are a combination of native Shinto and Buddhist traditions and trying to separate the two is almost impossible so I’ll just list the most common practices.

1. Tsuya, (the wake), or (to pass the night)

        When a Japanese person dies the dead person’s lips are moistened with water in a ritual called  Matsugo-no-mizu , or (Water of the last moment) then the body is washed in a sakasa mizu tub, or (reverse water) meaning that the body is washed in water that has been mixed by adding hot water to a cold water tub. Once this accomplished, the body is dressed in a suit for a man, or in a kimono for a woman with the Kimono being wrapped in the opposite manner of a living person. Then family and very close friends will spend the night with the body, they may read sutras for the dead or spend the time in quiet conversation talking about the recently deceased. Also, the body is often surrounded by candles, incense, offering rice, and other items that are supposed to put the spirit of the dead at ease.

2. Soshiki, (the funeral)

       While the wake is going on, a funeral firm is usually contracted to setup and build an altar in either the home of the deceased, or a hall, or a Shinto/Buddhist shrine. The body is placed in a coffin with the head facing north, this direction is considered to be bad luck so almost no living person will sleep with their head to the north. Next to the body will be a offering of rice with one or two chopsticks standing in the upright position, this is a lunch for the deceased to eat on their journey to the other side, and the chopsticks’ position tells the deceased that they’re now not among the living. If the funeral is Buddhist, a monk will read sutras for the dead, and then each person will approach the deceased and offer prayers and incense. Once all the guests have made their prayers and offerings, pallbearers will carry the coffin to a hearse where the body will be driven to the crematorium.

       In past years, the family used to accompany the body to the crematorium, but in modern times family and friends travel to a restaurant for a catered meal. Before cremation, the family prepares a zuda-kunichi, or (pilgrim’s bag) that contains nail clippings, personal items, and coins of the journey to the Anoyo, then this bag is placed around the neck of the deceased. Later, the ashes of the deceased are placed in an urn with the larger bone fragments being passed person to person with mixed pairs of chopsticks. The urn is kept on the family altar near a tablet with the written name of the deceased until the 49th day after death.

3. Shonanoka,  or (seventh day after death)

       On the seventh day after the person’s death a ceremony is held for the deceased where sutras and prayers are offered to the deceased.

4. Shiju-kunichi, or (the 49th day after death)

       On the 49th day after the death of the person it is assumed that the deceased has begun their new life in the land of the dead unless something is keeping them here. The urn containing the ashes of the deceased is now placed in the family grave, and sutras and prayers are offered to the deceased. At this point, the deceased is given a posthumous name (kaimyo) and this name is placed on the funeral tablet (ihai). It is also believed that the final judgement is passed on the deceased on the 49th day with a good, respectable person going to heaven or a less respectable person going to one of the other realms of hell. But, one must remember that sutras, prayers, and other intersessions for the deceased can help improve the judgement rendered on the deceased. Also, it is believed that a deceased person’s status can fall if the proper respect to the deceased is not paid over time, so the rites of Obon and other festivals are very important to the deceased.

This is a very brief post covering death and funeral rites in Japan, and these rituals can vary from region to region, and they can also vary because of different local versions of Buddhist/Shinto practices.

Works used in writing this post.

Cultural Experience in Japanese Death Legends-Michiko Iwasaka & Barre Toelken

Masks of the Gods V4-Joseph Campbell

Hero with Thousand Faces-Joseph Campbell

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword-Ruth Benedict

Liquid Life-William La Fleur

Folk Religon in Japan-Ichiro Hori