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Death. How do they do it in Japan?

By Susanne Duijvestein, sustainable funeral director of Bijafscheid

In the European culture we have lost many traditions and rituals around death. Why, I will leave for another time, but inspiration for funeral ceremonies I therefore like to take from overseas. So this time Japan. How do they do it there?


In Japan, almost everyone is cremated. This practice stems from the Shinto tradition, the indigenous religion from Japan, but also from the fact that there is no place to bury someone in Japan. There is simply no space.

The Japanese tradition of death is rich in rituals, which mainly are derived from Buddhism.

When someone has died in Japan, the body often stays at home or is brought home. For washing and dressing, the "nokanshi" or "yukanshi" are called in: the Japanese death masters. They prepare the dead for their last journey. Their ritual is performed with the utmost care and beauty.

The body is washed, the hair combed, the face shaved and the deceased is given a shinishôzoku or a kyôkatabira, a kimono of white bleached cotton, to wear for the last journey. It is a cloth that people used to wear when they went on a pilgrimage. Women then get make-up (shini geshô).

It is highly recommended to watch the film Departures: about the young cellist Daigo who, due to lack of money, decides to become a nokanshi. The profession of being a nokanshi however, enjoys very little prestige, so the young man is initially ashamed for his girlfriend and family. But he feels enormously driven to perfect his work, out of respect to the deceased. If his girlfriend keeps liking him, that's why you should see the movie.

The washed and dressed body is then placed on a futon. It is important that the head is directed to the north (kita makura) and the face to the west. The deceased is covered with a futon over the body as well, and a white cloth over his or her sight (shiroi nuno). Sometimes a screen is placed around the deceased (sakasa byôbu) and a short sword (mamori gatana) is placed on the futon to protect the deceased from evil forces on his journey to eternity.


Then the makura kazari follows: at the head of the deceased a small table of white wood is placed with a white cloth over it. A candle is lit and incense is burned. This way the deceased will not get lost. A cup of boiled rice is added, in which two chopsticks are placed vertically (makura meshi). There is also a separate table with water (matsugo no mizu).

During the night relatives sleep with the deceased, taking care to keep the candle and incense burning. When visitors come, they hand over a condolence gift (koden), an envelope with contents. Special envelopes are used for this, the bushugi bukuro. The size of the gift is stated on the envelope and this will be noted in a book along with the guest's name.

De bushugi bukuro enveloppen hebben een kenmerkende strik

Depending on the region, but usually there are no funeral cards sent in Japan. The announcement is made by telephone, newspaper or simply via via. The day before cremation there is a wake (tsuya). This is a wake with usually Buddhist worship. Before the wake, the deceased is placed in a coffin (nôkan). The deceased then gets all kinds of things, such as a hand protector (tekkô, for the back of the hand) and a band with a triangle, placed on the forehead. He or she also receives a kind of Buddhist rosary (juzu). Very important is a bag (zudabukuro) containing six coins (rokumonsen). These are to pay for the crossing of the Sanzu No Kawa River. Then the coffin is placed at an altar and one is ready for the wake.


The wake is usually at night. The family members and most of the guests wear mourning clothing (mofuku) on this occasion. When the family members and visitors are seated, a priest, after lighting incense, begins to read a sutra. At the signal from the priest, the family members start offering incense (izoku shinzoku shôkô). This is done by bending and lighting an incense stick, bending again and then returning to the seat. The order in which the family members sit and thus make the sacrifice is based on importance to the deceased and often cause headaches for those directly involved. This order has to be determined very carefully because some people may feel offended if they get too far behind. After this it is the turn of the visitors (ippanshôkô), where the family members stand next to the offering table and the visitors bow to the family members.


Finally, a word of thanks is given, usually by the eldest son, and then the ceremony is concluded. Sometimes a mantra is sung.

On the day of the cremation, there is a ceremony with two parts, the sôgi and the kokubetsushiki. The sôgi pray for the soul of the deceased. Then follows the kokubetsushiki, where all interested parties can say goodbye. Both parts mainly consist of reciting sutras by the priest and burning incense. The coffin is opened once more and the family places the deceased, after which everyone throws flowers in the coffin. Then the coffin is closed, whereby the family members are allowed to put a nail into the lid. The family members then carry the coffin to the car for the trip to the crematorium, where the deceased is cremated.


The family members are handed over the ashes at a later date. The ashes are placed in an urn and taken home. After a certain period of time, the urn is usually buried in a Buddhist cemetery. This can happen quite quickly or after a few days, depending on the region and family tradition. At the grave a white wooden plate is placed with the name of the deceased on it.

Begraafplaats vlakbij de boeddhistische tempel Shōmyōji in het district van de stad Yokohama.

After the cremation, a number of Buddhist services will follow. After 49 days there is an important memorial service (shijûkunichi or also manchûin). After this period, the deceased becomes a hotoke (-sama), a 'venerable Buddha'. Subsequently, long mourning periods are experienced in Japan, depending on the relationship with the deceased. This is normally three months when children, brothers and sisters die, and one year for parents and partners.


Every August, the souls of the ancestors are honored during Obon. A very important festival in Japan.

Read also


Deyja is an intercultural investigation into death, grief and loss. An online space to use the period of grief and mourning as special opportunity into silence and to discover answers to humanity's eternal questions about life and death.


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