Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Date with Death - Meeting Ancestors For Lunch

18th May, 2008 - We took L-kun up to visit Otousan's father... in Takino Reien... an enormous cemetery to the south of Sapporo (which I've posted about before here and here). We normally visit this cemetery every trip back to Sapporo, and it's an important part of our family time. Plus, it's also a very nice drive.

I thought it might be a good time to talk a little more about Japanese burial. According to a 2007 census, 99+% of Japanese are cremated... not sure how they managed to have a census of the dead though. Scary thought really. Cremation was brought to Japan with Buddhism in the 7th century... I had assumed that cremation had always been a part of Japanese culture, however, it was only 27% in 1896 and 54% in 1955. These surprisingly low rates may have somewhat to do with the status of Buddhism through the early years of the Meiji Restoration, and the growth of a State-Shinto religion. As the cost of burial spaces has sky-rocketed I guess the relative efficiency of cremated family graves became more popular once again. Whilst it is not illegal to be buried (rather than cremated) in Japan, local restrictions often effectively deny it as an option. Apparently having your ashes fired into space is the new thing. This may have some appeal to me... nothing like momentarily transforming into a fireworks display as gravity (and Earth's atmosphere) finally wins over our own hopes of a heavenly eternity.

The Japanese typically believe that the spirit takes 49 days (in Buddhism... in Shinto it's 50 days) to depart the  body. This represents a common length of the official wake period - however it should be noted that there are as many belief systems in death as in life in Japan. There are a number of special services on the first, third, seventh and finally 33rd year anniversary - depending on the particular faith of the family.
T-chan's family grave (er... slightly modified)
For T-chan's family, the grave visits typically involve the cleaning (washing with buckets provided), placement of flowers, the offerings of food, and finally a prayer. Food offerings are always provided, as they are often at the family's shrine in their home. However, unlike previous times, these days the offerings are often taken away to avoid promoting vermin and crows congregating around the cemetery.

The Japanese have always had a somewhat unusual relationship between the afterlives of Chinese-influenced Buddhism and native Japanese belief. Whilst you might think that these visits are all quite sombre, they need not necessarily be so. In our case, we often bring up lunch which we eat at nearby tables. It is a serious occasion, but it is also a time to bring people - including those family members who have moved on - together. Life (even in death) moves ever onwards.

It's an odd thing however, as a foreigner... to be included in this most intimate of Japanese things. And yes, I say hello and take a moment to pray... both for them, for my parents and T-chan's, and of course for my son. It's nice to have a moment's peace, even on holidays, when your thoughts can go beyond the now.


  1. I had no idea about your cremation facts. Like you, I had just assumed it had always been near 100%. Very interesting.

    I totally agree about being a foreigner and being included in these special things that many outsiders don't see. It always feels a little strange, but it's nice being included.

  2. Yeah - I still find this info a bit unsettling. After all, isn't this still a typical Buddhist funeral ritual... so what did they do back then?....

    Apparently - during the Meiji Restoration, there was a short period when cremation was banned. This may explain why during it became fairly uncommon, as the raise of Shinto-based government religion tended to undermine the traditional Buddhist practices.

  3. another awesome and very educational post.

  4. Cheers... I wish I had some better answers... it's amazing how many questions that are of considerable interest (curiosity) to us foreigners is of almost no interest to Japanese themselves.

  5. I used to feel a bit awkward to have a flower viewing gathering at a cemetery, likewise that some of my hiking routes included graveyards as areas to visit, now not so much. Obviously Japanese people see cemeteries in a different way, perhaps it is because, as it was explained to me, families use to have their own family graveyard at their backyard.

  6. To be honest, I'm not sure what the views are. It's hard to generalise about all of the Japanese people... of course I talk only about T-chan's family, most of all.

    The graves are both a link to family and history, and an obligation (in a Japanese sense, not in a Western do-I-really-have-to-do-it sense).

    As an aside, we always visit the grave of one of Otousan's father's friends whenever we come to Takino Reien... a reminder that relationships (even friendships) extend beyond death, and beyond generations.

    How do Japanese really see cemeteries? Well, I am always surprised (and bemused) when I go to Takino Reien... I don't understand why they constructed a mini-Stonehenge, or Easter Island heads. Are the Japanese so attracted to theme parks? I don't believe my parents-in-law understand it either. They don't need to... It's simultaneously inexplicable and without the need for explanation.

    Perhaps this sums up the Japanese relationship to death. Or perhaps not. I don't profess to know enough of the inside culture to be able to speak with any authority. I wish I could.