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The Japanese Way of Death

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One of Ed's latest features:

The Japanese Way of Death

Quick. Name five French words that are commonly used in English, no food names allowed. We came up with amour, raison d’etre, déjà vu, gourmet, and savoir faire. Love, food, and philosophy. Now name five Japanese words. Ours were, tsunami, karaoke, hari-kari, kamikaze, and samurai. Four out of five related to death, destruction, and war. Japan is obviously getting a bad rap, linguistically at least.
It sometimes seems like everything westerners know about Japan is somehow related to death and violence. It all starts in childhood with Godzilla movies, Judo chops and the world’s best loved professional assassin, the ninja. And remember social studies class? What did you learn about? Earthquakes, typhoons, volcanoes, Pearl Harbor, kamikaze and Hiroshima. As adults, we graduate to reading Samurai epics like Shogun, which are full of suicides and beheadings, or watching Akira Kursawa slow-motion death scenes on video. Even the food is a little scary. Poisonous fugu, and living fish served skewered on a plate, wriggling and staring up at you as if begging you not to eat it are just two or Japan’s morbid culinary offerings. Everything we read in the newspapers seems to be about death too: sarin gas attacks, suicide and karoshi.
Why is death so strongly associated with Japan in the minds of westerners? Certainly, World War II and kamikaze attacks didn’t help much, but it’s more than that. For centuries, the country was dominated by the samurai caste whose code of Bushido stated that “The way of the samurai is death”. Suicide was not only accepted– it was often glorified, and it was an official punishment that could be imposed by the government. Worship of one’s ancestors plays an enormous role in the Shinto religion, and Buddhism is a religion that expects you to really go the extra mile in ensuring your dead friends and relatives don’t suffer too much in the after-life. Both religions ask their practitioners to play a far more active role in funeral and memorial services than either Christianity or Islam.
One striking feature of death in Japan is how much time and money ordinary people devote to it. Ask a Japanese person what they did on their summer vacation and if they don’t pull out their Hawaii photos, they will probably tell you that they visited the family grave. The whole country shuts down for three or four days in August for the Obon holidays so that people can go back to their hometowns and welcome back their dead ancestors, who are believed to return to the world at that time. Nor is that the only occasion where people spend quality time with their dead relatives. When someone dies there are services to be held on the seventh, 49th and 100th days following a death. After that, there are usually services on the first anniversary and then anniversaries which have the numbers three or seven in them (3, 7, 13, 17, etc. until the 33rd anniversary of the person’s death). More devout people also observe shotsuki hoyo (monthly services) for the dead, in which they pay a priest to perform a ritual and some people will give a small offering of rice and water to a departed loved one everyday. Cemetery visits are also customary on higan (vernal equinox day, September 21st), New Year’s and death anniversaries.
Death in Japan is not only time consuming, but expensive as well. With an average funeral costing about US $40,000, this is the world’s most expensive country in which to die. Because of the land shortage, funeral plots and headstones are extremely expensive, starting at 700,000 yen for a small plot in the country, and rising to as much as 5,000,000 yen for a tomb with a view in a centrally located graveyard. The average seems to be somewhere around 2,500,000 yen. Prices have risen so high that new, ‘indoor graveyards’, known as ‘Ohaka no manshon’ (literally ‘grave apartments’), have begun to spring up, where you can be buried in a convenient, easily accessible location without any maintenance being necessary and have prayers said for your soul by priests on a regular basis. For 400,000 yen your ashes will be stored in a little 15cm x 35cm x 18 ‘locker’ or if you want to spend more, an elaborate final resting place can be purchased for somewhere around 3.5 million yen. Some of the more high tech models have touch panels which display photos, videos messages, family trees or a last will and testament – all protected by PINs like an ATM. Indoor graveyards are especially appealing to people who do not belong to a particular sect of Buddhism, or do not want to make the expensive ‘donations’ required at one.
It also costs anywhere from 3000 to 30,000 yen to attend a funeral, as mourners are expected to give a gift to help pay for the costs of the service. For some reason, the family is then expected to reciprocate with another gift worth about 25% of the value of your original gift.
The funeral itself is a complicated affair, and there are so many rituals to be performed and customs to adhere to that many people require a bit of coaching from the funeral home, an older relative or an internet site to make sure that they give the deceased a proper send off. Some 90% of people have a Buddhist funeral.
When someone is on his deathbed, Japanese custom dictates that his lips should be moistened with water. This is often done by the closest relative and if there are several people present, everyone takes a turn. Moistening the lips is done to give comfort to the dying person, and is a symbolic gesture performed in the hopes that he will revive. It originates in traditional Buddhist practice and is based on a story about Buddha’s disciples searching for pure water to slake his thirst on his deathbed. If the person dies before his lips can be moistened, it is the first thing done after he dies.
The body is then washed and dressed, and dry ice is placed in the casket to preserve it. Men are generally put in suits and women in kimono. A white pilgrim’s robe, leggings, headband and sandals are also placed in the casket, along with money to pay the tolls across the Japanese equivalent of the river Styx. Small items such as cigarettes and candy are often given as well.
The body is put on display in the family’s living room or in a funeral home, but the face is covered with a white cloth. The deceased person is always laid with his or her head facing north, which is why there is a superstition in Japan against sleeping with your head facing in that direction. A knife, which is believed to drive away evil spirits, is often placed on the chest. The nearest relatives stay with the body until it is sent to be cremated. During the mourning period, families always close the doors of their kamidana (a miniature Shinto shrine) and butsudan (Buddhist altar) and the spirits of their ancestors have to go hungry for a while because no offerings are made. The kamidana is closed until the funeral is over and the butsudan is closed for 49 days.
Soon after the person dies, a wake (tsuya) is held, and mourners come to pay their last respects to the deceased and offer their condolences to the family. At some point in the proceedings, a priest arrives and chants sutras and lights incense for the departed family member. Just in case you ever get invited to a wake, the proper etiquette is to walk up to the casket and kneel in front of the little altar set up by the casket. Take a pinch of incense in one hand, raise it towards your face as you bow, and deposit the incense in the burner. Do this three times, and then make a prayer gesture, bow your head and say a little prayer. Then take some of the stick incense, light it, and put it in the incense holder, making sure not to blow on the flame or let it die out.
The choosing of a date for the funeral is rather complicated, as Japan has a six day cycle of good and bad days called rokuyo that must be taken into account. ‘Tomobiki’, which literally means ‘Friend pulling’ is a good day for a wedding but is inauspicious for funerals because you no one wants to follow the person to the grave. If a funeral absolutely has to be held on this day, a doll is put in the coffin so that it is the one pulled along and not a friend or family member. ‘Butsumetsu’ (Buddha’s death day) is usually inauspicious but is considered appropriate for a funeral.
The funeral itself is conducted at a funeral hall or temple, and consists of more sutra reading and incense burning. At the end of funeral, mourners take flowers from the altar and drop them into the casket as a way of saying goodbye to their loved one. In some sects and regions, each mourner ceremoniously drives a nail into the casket using a rock. Then it’s off to the crematorium, where a lunch is often served while people wait for the body to be burned.
After the cremation all the mourners gather around the ashes and pick bones from the foot, arm, Adam’s apple and head out. The bones are passed from person to person using chopsticks and are taken starting with the lowest parts of the body first and moving up to the skull so that the person isn’t ‘upside-down’ in the kotsutsubo (urn). The remains are then ground up with a pestle. The urn is brought home by the nearest relative. This practice is the reason that the worst thing you could ever do when eating Japanese food is to pass something from chopstick to chopstick. The last time your fellow diners saw this done, they were probably passing pieces of their grandmother around the table.
Following this there are additional memorial services held 49 days after the funeral. This custom dates back to a belief that when a person dies, they are judged once a week for seven weeks by the King of Hell, Enma Dai-Ou. During the period of mourning, people do not go to weddings, festivals, or celebrate New Year’s.
An article on death in Japan wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of suicide, so here’s something to think about: although suicide certainly occupies an important place in Japanese culture, those who embrace the stereotype of Japan as a country as a nation of lemmings ready to throw themselves over a cliff at the first opportunity are just plain wrong. Japanese suicide rates are about average in the world, in the same category as Western European countries such as Switzerland and France and while the numbers are much higher than in North America, they are far lower than Northern and Eastern European countries. Many media reports have stressed the jump in the number of suicides in the late 1990’s, but viewed over the course of the last 100 years or so, the rate has been declining steadily.


=> japan-zine.com/feature1.htm

 
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