Japanese Funeral Traditions and Beliefs

Religious beliefs of most Japanese are a combination of Buddhism and Shintoism. But more than 90% percent of all funerals in Japan are organized according to Buddhism. The estimate made by the Japan Statistical Agency in March of 2012 showed that Japan has a population of 127,650,000. The country has an area of only 377,873 square kilometers. Considering this two things it is not strange that almost all the deceased in Japan are cremated.


After death there is a ceremony called “Water of the last moment” or “Matsugo-no-mizu” where lips of the deceased are moistened with little bit of water. Most Japanese have a household shrine. After death the shrine is closed and covered with a piece of white paper. It is done to keep out the impure spirits of death. Japanese call this Kamidana-fuji.


A small table is put next to the bed with deceased. On such table there are some flowers, incense and a candle. Some people put a knife on the chest of deceased. This knife should defend her or him from the evil spirits. Family of the deceased then informs cousins and friends. As a sign that someone died family puts a white paper lantern in front of the house. A death certificate is issued. Family also contacts the local temple to make arrangements for the funeral.


People are rather careful when determining the day of funeral. Some days are believed to be “tombiki” (“friend pulling”) when it is good to organize a wedding but who are not suitable for funerals. Japanese would say “you would not like to join the dead in the grave”. Body of the deceased is washed. Little bit of cotton or gauze is put in the orifices. The deceased female wears are a kimono. Men sometimes wear it too. But usually dead male wears a suit. To improve the look of the deceased a make-up may be applied. The body is then put on a dry ice in the casket. It is a tradition that few other things are placed in the casket too. They are a white kimono, six coins for the crossing of the Sanzu River (“Sanzu-no-kawa”) or River of Three Crossings and several objects the deceased used to love like for example sweets.


It is believed that the Sanzu river is located in Mount Osore, far away in the northern Japan. It is a river which the dead has to pass on the seventh day after death on the way to afterlife. Number of bad things done in one’s earthly life determines the place of crossing. The river can be crossed on a bridge, a ford (shallow part of the river), and a place with a snake. On the bank of the Sanzu river there is a big tree. Under the tree there are two demons – female one called Datsue-ba and male one called Keneō. Datsue-ba strips the dead of their clothes. Keneō is the one who does the “measuring”. He puts the clothes on a branch of the tree and determines the “weight” of the bad things done in life.


When the casket is ready it is put on an altar. The head of the body in the casket should point towards the north or west. The second stage in the funeral activities is the wake. Traditional color of sorrow in Buddhism is white. Still most of people in Japan today wear black when attending the wake. People at the wake sometimes carry set of prayer beads called “juzu”. Juzu is similar to the Rosary. People arriving at the wake bring condolence money or “koden” in a special envelope that has a black and white ribbon wrapped around it. The amount of money is written on the envelope.



People are seated. Family and close relatives sit in the first row. The Buddhist priest will then chant a section from a “sutra” (religious scriptures). In front of the deceased there is an incense urn. The family members will offer an incense three times. Other people at the wake will offer incense in the place behind seats where the family members are seated. The priest completes the sutra and that way the wake ends. When leaving each guest gets a present. The present has a value between 25% and 50% of the money people gave as condolence money. The vigil for the deceased is held by the family and close relatives during the night before the funeral.


A day after wake there is a funeral. An Incense and sutra chanted by the priest make the funeral quite similar to the wake. At the funeral deceased gets “kaimyō” or new Buddhist name. The purpose of this special name is to stop the return of the deceased if her or his name is called. Kaimyō is not always the same. The length or prestige of the name depends on the amount of money donated to the temple. There are free names but there are also those you have to pay for. Kanji are the characters used in Japanese writing system. Kanji used in expensive kaimyō are very old, rare ones and only few people know how to read them.


The family and other people present at the funeral put flowers around the head and shoulders of the deceased. The casket is then closed and carried to a decorated funeral vehicle which takes the casket to the crematorium. At the crematorium family is present when the casket is moved to the cremation chamber. The cremation lasts for about two hours. The family returns after the process is completed. After some 15 minutes needed for the bones and ash to cool they are given to the family.


Then the separation of bones and ashes is done. Two family members move bones to the urn using large chopsticks or metal picks. Leg bones are moved first and head bones are the last. People do not want to have the deceased upside down.

Ashes are usually kept in one urn but there are cases when it is shared between family members. Sometimes part of the ashes is given to the temple or company. It may sound little bit unusual but there are company graves with remains of their employees.

The urn stays on an altar in family home for 35 days. Incense sticks or “osenko” are kept burning all the time. Then the urn is carried to the cemetery. Some people carry the urn to the cemetery immediately after the urn is ready.




The “haka” or family grave is typical for cemeteries in Japan. Haka has two parts – a stone monument and a chamber or crypt where urns are put.

On the side of monument sometimes you may see engraved the name of the person who paid for the monument. The names of persons buried in the grave can be written on the monument. They can also be written on a separate stone in front of grave. The name of the deceased can be written on a “sotoba” or wooden board behind of or next to the grave. The sotoba is removed some time after the funeral or changed at memorial services.


here is a special, but nowadays quite rare, tradition that can be seen on graves of couples. Both wife’s and husband’s name are written. The only difference is in the color of the letters. The name of the spouse who is still alive is written in red. When she or he dies the red color is removed. Why is it done so? Some say it is because of financial reason but there are also those who say that it is a sign of the living spouse who is waiting to join the one in the grave.

Some graves in Japan have one extra detail. It is a box for business cards of those who visited the grave and paid respects.

Japan is a country of high technology. So, let’s just mention very expensive graves who include small pc with a touch screen showing all sort of details about the deceased – a her or his photo, different messages, a family tree etc.

Memorial services differ from region to region. During first week after death they are held every day. There are special services held on the 7th, 49th and 100th day. There is a traditional memorial service performed during the Obon festival.


Let’s finish this story about Japanese funerals in the home of deceased. His or her photo is kept on or near the family altar. In the first year after death traditional New Year cards can not be send or received.


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