Japan is an ethnically homogeneous nation with two major intertwining religions which share similar after death beliefs. The population is 51 percent Shinto, 44 percent Buddhist and 1 percent Christian. The majority of the nation’s 128 million people practice aspects of both the Shinto and Buddhist faiths and hold various after death beliefs.

Shinto After Death Beliefs

The Shinto religion teaches that every human has an eternal soul or spirit. After death, it is believed that the spirits inhabit the other world, where deities reside. There is not one other world, but several, including takamanohara (heaven, where the principal deities reside), yomi (the underworld and domain of the divine mother of Japan) and tokoyo (located somewhere past the sea). The other world is neither a paradise where the good are rewarded, nor a hell where the bad are punished. It is very much like this world.

Shinto Ancestor Worship

Shinto followers believe that the spirits of their ancestors and kami can protect them. Kami are deities or gods in the Shinto religion. There are kami who personify the wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility. Amaterasu, the sun goddess, is the most revered kami in the religion. Shinto teaches that people’s spirits become kami at some point after death and people worship their ancestral kami at shrines and by holding festivals. The two most important festivals are the Bon Festival, held each summer to comfort the ancestral spirits, and Shogatsu, or New Year’s Day, when people pray to their ancestors for good luck. It is believed that some kami reside on Earth, rather than in an other world, to look after their descendants and aid them when possible.

Japanese Buddhist After Death Beliefs

Japanese Buddhists pray to Amida Buddha, who provides the path to the Pure Land, a paradise where spirits can attain nirvana (enlightenment) more easily than other realms. Pure Land Buddhism teaches that after death, the spirit takes a new name to cut ties to its prior human life and embrace a new existence in the afterlife. It is also believed that after the body is cremated, the spirit starts a 49-day spiritual journey to reach its destination, which frees it from any bonds to the physical world. The Pure Land is not the only destination where a spirit can journey to, but it is the most preferred place.

Japanese Buddhist After Life Legends

Some Japanese Buddhists believe that when they die, they must cross the Sanzu River to enter the afterlife. The river has three crossings. Those who lived good lives can cross a bridge. The spirits of people who lived ordinary lives can cross at a shallow path across the river. However, those who lived bad lives are compelled to walk through the river’s waters, which are inhabited by demons and other horrors. At the banks of the Sanzu River stand Datsueba, a female demon, and Keneo, a male demon. Datsueba unclothes the dead and Keneo weighs their clothes to measure their karma. Buddhists hold special ceremonies on the days they expect their departed loved ones will be making the crossing.