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Death and Burial Traditions of Japan

by Ashley Portero, Demand Media

    Most Japanese funerals are conducted as Buddhist ceremonies, despite the fact that the the country is largely secular. While some official reports, such as the CIA World Factbook's analysis of Japan, indicate its population is primarily Buddhist (along with believing in the country’s indigenous Shinto philosophy), in recent polls more than half of respondents have identified themselves as nonreligious. A Japanese funeral typically includes a wake, the cremation of the deceased, burial in a family grave and periodic mourning services after the ceremony.

    Shinto Influence

    Shinto is an indigenous philosophy that stresses ritual, and not faith in a divine being. Instead, it is a way of life that aims to establish a connection between modern Japan and its ancient past through maintaining shrines for kami, individual spiritual beings and powers. Kami are thought to have the capability to influence the course of nature and human events. Shintoism has coexisted peacefully with Buddhism in Japan since the latter’s arrival in the sixth century, the BBC reports. There are no afterlife myths associated with Shintoism; as a result, most funeral and death rituals in Japan are Buddhist in nature.

    Buddhist Funeral Ceremony

    After death, the immediate family holds a vigil, or wake, over the body of the deceased. During the wake service, which takes place before the funeral, it is customary for attendees to offer small amounts of money to the bereaved and burn incense to pray for the soul of the deceased, according to "The Japanese Times." During the funeral, a priest will chant sections from a sutra – a collection of Buddhist aphorisms – and burn incense. The body is then cremated, a longstanding tradition supposedly originating with the cremation of the Buddha himself after he reached nirvana and died.

    Mourning

    The next of kin and friends of the deceased will traditionally hold memorial services on the seventh anniversary of his or her death, up until the 49th anniversary, although that pattern is not strictly adhered to. During those mourning ceremonies, held at the home of the deceased or close relative, a monk will chant sutras in front of a family’s personal Buddhist altar. Some Japanese families keep Buddhist altars and Shinto shrines in their home.

    Buddhism Stresses Nirvana, Not Afterlife

    Buddhism is a tradition of personal spiritual development, with the practitioner ultimately aiming to reach the state of nirvana, where the soul is free of suffering. Buddhists believe existence is endless, as individual souls are reincarnated over and over again until they reach that stage of spiritual enlightenment. There is no belief in a specific or personal god in Buddhism.

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    About the Author

    Ashley Portero has been covering state and national politics since 2011. Her work has appeared in "The Boston Globe," "The Boston Business Journal" and the "International Business Times." She received a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism from Emerson College.

    Photo Credits

    • Pool/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

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