Since my mother in law passed away recently, and my wife is back in the US, I’ve had a crash-course on memorial practices in Japanese culture, and wanted to share in case others run into this too. Much of these practices are rooted in a fascinating combination of native Japanese religion, blended with Indian-Buddhist practices and with Chinese-Confucian customs. It’s noticeably different and more structured than what Americans might be familiar with, but let’s take a closer look.
Buddhism, Not Shinto
One thing to clarify first, is that even though Japan has essentially two religions, Shinto and Buddhism, they tend to operate in different social spheres, and people are not required to profess faith in one other the other, so people freely operate between them.
In any case, Shinto places great importance on ritual purity, and death is a traumatic, impure experience. Shinto tends to focus a lot more on this-worldly relationships with the kami, so it doesn’t say much about the afterlife.
By contrast, Buddhism doesn’t emphasize ritual purity, and does have a much more detailed understanding of the afterlife. Hence, regardless of one’s personal beliefs, funerals are almost always conducted with a Buddhist temple. In Buddhist funerary practices, bodies are typically cremated, not buried, and the grieving family will help transfer the bones of the deceased into the urn in a special ceremony. Also, unlike in the West, white is the color of death and funerals, not back. You can see this in folklore regarding ghosts and such.
Since premodern times, families in Japan have frequently registered with a local Buddhist parish or danka (檀家) for a particular Buddhist sect. Thus, even if one is not actively involved in a particular Buddhist community, the default Buddhist parish the family belongs to normally handles the funeral affairs.
This tends to give Buddhism a reputation in Japan as a “funeral religion”, but has a lot more to do with politics and history than religion itself. That’s a story for another day.
Proper Dress for Funeral
Funerals in Japan are very formal affairs, including dress code. If you ever attend a funeral there, it is proper to wear conservative, business formal attire (e.g. suit) in black, with matching black shoes. This is in contrast, for example, with my grandpa’s funeral six years ago, when half the family just wore jeans. 🤦🏼♂️
A Buddhist rosary is often carried as well, even if one is normally a practicing Buddhist. For those who don’t normally practice Buddhism, a simple “funeral” rosary can be easily obtained.
One practice that surprised me a bit after my mother-in-law passed away was the practice of okōden (お香典) which is money, wrapped in a special black-and-white envelope, given to the grieving family. In some cases, the monetary gift can be quite large, and is (as far as I can tell) meant to help defray funeral expenses and just support the family. It’s similar in spirit to how families in America would often “bake a casserole” for the grieving family.
In keeping with Japanese customs, the recipient will sometime later give a gift in return (okaeshi お返し) that costs roughly half what original gift was.
Purification After Funeral
It is a common practice in Japan to toss a pinch of salt over one’s shoulder after a funeral. Salt is thought to function in the same way that holy water might in the West: purification against evil spirits. This may be another practice adopted from Chinese culture, wherein it is thought that evil spirits follow tragedy or those who loss in their lives.
Another practice that has carried on since medieval times in Japan is the bestowing of a posthumous Buddhist name. Each sect has a different naming convention, but these are always bestowed to the deceased (and is written on their funerary tablet) to signify their connection to the Buddhist community and so on. These names originally were probably ordination names, allowing the deceased’s spirit to “take tonsure” as a Buddhist monk or nun. I am unclear how widely this is believed now, but in any case, it is almost universal to receive some kind of posthumous Buddhist name as part of the funeral process.
A common practice, likely inherited from Chinese-Confucian reverence for one’s ancestors, is to enshrine a picture or funerary tablet to the deceased in one’s home altar. In our altar here at home, we have a small picture of my mother-in-law there below and to the left of the central Buddha statue. I remember visiting my wife’s extended family in Japan, and seeing a similar arrangement for her uncle who had died some years back due to leukemia.
No Celebration of New Year
For the first New Year following a loss in teh family, the grieving family is not supposed to take part in New Year’s celebrations. I believe this is also tied to Confucian practices. Consider this quote from the Analects:
[3:26] The Master [Confucius] said: “Men of high office who are narrow-minded; propriety without respect and funerals without grief: how can I bear to look at such things?!”Translation by Charles Muller
[1:11] The Master said: “When your father is alive, observe his will. When your father is dead observe his former actions. If, for three years you do not change from the ways of your father, you can be called a ‘real son’ (xiao; 孝).”Translation by Charles Muller
Funerals must show proper grief if they are to properly venerate one’s ancestors, and so a number of strict practices continue to this day within the first year of mourning:
- New Year’s cards (nengajo) are not sent out that year.
- Families in mourning do not go to shrines or temples on New Year’s day (e.g. hatsumōdé)
- Families in mourning do not setup New Year’s altars (kagami-mochi), nor is New Year’s food (osechi-ryōri) consumed.
Although Confucian texts imply that three years of mourning for one’s parents is proper, in practice, this is usually done for one year as far as I can tell.
Another feature possibly adopted from Chinese culture is the set calendar of mourning that is undertaken throughout the year. These are called meinichi (命日) or kinichi (忌日) among other things, and start from every 7th day from the funeral date, up to the 49th day, and then follow a set, yearly calendar:
|Day or Year||Japanese Name||Associated Buddha |
|7th day after funeral||初七日 (shonanoka)||Fudō-myō-ō|
|14th day after funeral||二七日 (futananoka)||Shakyamuni Buddha|
|21st day||三七日 (minanoka)||Manjushri Bodhisattva|
|28th day||四七日 (yonanoka)||Samantabhadra Bodhisattva|
|35th day||五七日 (itsunanoka)||Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva|
|42nd day||六七日 (munanoka)||Maitreya Bodhisattva|
|49th day||四十九日 (shijūkunichi)||The Medicine Buddha|
|100th day||百日忌 (hyakkaki) or |
more commonly 百箇日/百ヶ日 (hyakkanichi)
|1st year after funeral||一周忌 or 壱周忌 |
(both read as isshūki)
|3rd year after funeral||三回忌 (sankaiki)||Amitabha Buddha|
|7th year||七回忌 (shichikaiki)||Akshobhya Buddha|
|13th year||十三回忌 (jūsankaiki)||Vairocana Buddha|
|17th year||十七回忌 (jūshichikaiki)||—|
|25th year||二十五回忌 (nijūgokaiki)||—|
|33rd year||三十三回忌 (sanjūsankaiki)||Akashagarbha Bodhisattva|
|50th year||五十回忌 (gojūkaiki)||—|
In practice, people in Japan usually only observe the first 7th day memorial, the 49th day memorial, and yearly memorials. Funerals are expensive and it’s not always practical to observe them all.
In addition to the formal memorials above, a common practice at home for the first year is tsukimeinichi (月命日), or monthly observances. These are done at home, on the same day of the month as the original funeral, and may be as simple as lighting some incense in the home altar and a short prayer. After the first year, the memorials at home also move to a yearly cadence (just like death anniversaries in other cultures).
One other note is that for these periodic memorials, certain Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are often associated with key dates. This is emphasized, or de-emphasized depending on the Buddhist sect, but these Thirteen Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are listed above where appropriate. Esoteric traditions such as Shingon and Tendai, also associate mantras with each Buddha or Bodhisattva, but that’s a topic for another day, and it’s not something your average Japanese person would know. Usually the priest keeps track of such things, or they are listed in one’s sutra book if needed.
This is by no means an exhaustive look at Japanese funerary practices, and there are likely mistakes or omissions here, but I hope this post sheds some light on the deep well of tradition that Japan draws upon, and how it relates both to Indian-Buddhism, and Chinese-Confucianism.