The only thing certain in a religion is death and funerals. Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion, has a unique set of funeral beliefs and rituals, which help differentiate it from other religions – specifically Buddhism, which is widely practiced in Japan. These practices define the spiritual and cultural traditions of the Japanese people when they part with the dead.

Shinto’s Origins

Shinto began in Japan before 500 B.C., however, this uniquely Japanese religion has no official founder, sacred text, or even a formal doctrine. It was not established as a distinctive religion until around A.D. 550, when Buddhism began to spread in Japan. Late in the 12th century, the word Shinto was used to identify the religion and differentiate it from other faiths. Shinto and Buddhism have coexisted peacefully in Japan and many Japanese people follow both religions, sometimes praying in Shinto shrines and other times at Buddhist temples. Shinto is a polytheistic religion, which places great emphasis on the belief in kami, which are spiritual beings, such as the deities of mountains, rivers, trees and Shinto practitioners’ own ancestors. Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, who is the ancestress of the Imperial Family, is perhaps the most revered deity in Shinto. The word Shinto means "the way of the kami." Shintoism can be considered the religion of Japanese culture.

Shinto Funeral Origins

Nearly all funerals in Japan were Buddhist rituals until the 19th century, when Shinto revivalists created Shinto funerals during the Tokugawa period. The purpose was to make a distinctively Shinto funeral system. Shinto coffins are similar in shape to European coffins and distinct from their Buddhist counterparts. Shinto priests wear white and carry sakaki twigs at funerals, whereas Buddhist priests wear black. These practices are still part of modern Shinto funerals.

Shinto Funeral Practices

Most decedents are cremated in Japan and their ashes are typically buried in Shinto funerals. In the Shinto religion, burying the dead involves at least 20 steps, each of which has a distinctive name. Four of these steps are particularly interesting. Kichu-fuda is a single day period of great mourning, in which mourners wear solid black. A Shinto priest performs the rituals of chanting, singing and praying during the kichu-fuda period. Several other steps also take place that day, including koden, which is giving monetary gifts to the deceased’s family to help them pay funeral expenses. Kotsuage is the process of gathering the deceased’s ashes. Not all of the ashes are buried. At the bunkotsu step, some of the ashes are given to family members to place in their home shrines.

Grave Visits after the Funeral

According to Shinto custom, after someone dies, their survivors visit the graves weekly and bring fresh flowers. The grave visitors typically burn an incense stick in a bowl of sand when they arrive.

Shinto Home Shrines

In Shinto, people often create home shrines to honor their departed loved ones. At least one picture of the departed hangs above the shrine. Food and beverages, usually the decedent’s favorite dishes, are placed at the shrine every morning as a symbolic offering. The dishes and vases in the shrine are cleansed daily.