The Protocol for Attending a Japanese Buddhist Funeral

-Buddhism and Shinto are the two major spiritual traditions of Japan. Shinto is the indigenous faith of Japan and is as old as Japan itself. Buddhism was introduced to the Japanese in the 6th century. Generally, the Japanese rely upon Shinto traditions for the happy, positive elements of life such as childbirth, birthdays, weddings, luck, careers, fortunes, etc. But for life’s more solemn occasions, Japanese tend to rely upon Buddhist traditions. Approximately 90% of Japanese funerals are conducted in the Buddhist tradition. (It should be noted, however, that there is confluence between the two faiths and syncretism between their practitioners).

-When death is imminent, or at the moment of death, relatives moisten the lips of the dying/dead person with water in a ritual known as “the water of the last moment.” Many Japanese families have Buddhist altars (“butsudan”) and Shinto shrines (“kamidana”) within the household. When death occurs, a small table decorated with flowers, incense, and a candle is placed beside the deathbed. The household shrine is closed and covered with white paper in order to keep impure spirits at bay. Relatives are informed. Immediately thereafter, authorities are informed, and a death certificate is issued. Traditionally, funeral arrangements are made by the eldest son, who contacts the Buddhist temple to schedule a date for the funeral. Based on the old Chinese six-day lunar cycle, the second day is regarded as a bad day for holding a funeral since the second day, called “tomobiki,” (“tomo” means “friends” and “hiku” means “pull”) has today come to mean (despite the original significance being different) “pulling your friends along with you.” (The second day, then—understandably—is regarded as a good day for weddings, but a bad day for funerals).

-The body of the deceased in washed, and the orifices are plugged with gauze or cotton.

-In an ancient and rarely done “incoffining” ritual called “nōkan,” performed by professional morticians, the body is ritually dressed and placed into the coffin. But even absent nōkan, a deceased female is dressed in a white kimono, and a deceased male is dressed in a kimono or suit. Makeup may be applied to the body. In life, men and women cross the left side of the kimono over the right. In death, however, when a kimono is used to dress the deceased, the right side is crossed over the left. The coffin is placed atop dry ice, and items dear to and believed to be necessary for the dead are placed into the coffin: six coins for the crossing of the “The River of Three Crossings”; and burnable items such as cigarettes, sandals, and candy.

-The casket containing the body is then placed onto an altar for the wake. The head of the deceased should be oriented towards north or west.

-No food is served after Japanese wakes or funerals, so mourners should eat prior to attending those ceremonies.

-Normally, the wake is held the day after death and lasts about an hour; the funeral occurs a day or two after the wake. At the wake, if the deceased was a practitioner of Buddhism, a set of prayer beads, called “juzu,” may be carried by mourners.

-When it comes to Japanese mourning attire, it cannot be overstated that funeral clothing should be understated. Black is the color of mourning in Japan. And it is black that should be worn by mourners attending a Japanese funeral. Women should wear a black kimono or a conservative dress of plain, black, matte-finished fabric. Black-on-black patterned fabrics, black fabrics with a sheen, or black-and-white floral prints, for example, are inappropriate. Garments designed with frills, flounces, and jabots, for example, should be avoided as they appear “festive” or “flirtatious.” The dress should cover the knees (preferably while sitting as well as standing); its silhouette should not be form-fitting (though it may be form-suggestive); and its neckline should be high-cut. Long sleeves are preferred, but short sleeves are accepted. Sleeveless dresses should be avoided. No jewelry—except marital jewelry and, perhaps, a simple strand of pearls—should be worn. Shoes should be flat and fully closed (sandals, slingbacks, or open-toed shoes are inappropriate). Patent leather and shoes with adornment are discouraged. Under no circumstances should stilettos or high-heel shoes be worn. Square-toed shoes are preferred to shoes with pointed toes. Black, opaque, nylon stockings are recommended. The purse should be simple, of moderate size, and of basic black—and not of patent leather. A lady’s hair should be worn up, off the neck, preferably in a bun, not free-flowing (the bun is preferably covered in a hairnet or wrapped in black fabric); makeup, if any, should be understated, and lipstick in particular should be avoided. If a fragrance is worn, its application should be minimal.

-A gentleman should wear a conservative black suit, a white shirt, a matte-finished black tie, and black socks. (A tie of any other color is inappropriate). Not even a charcoal gray suit is considered appropriate. Plain, lace-up black shoes such as balmorals or derbys are appropriate. Shoes made of patent leather or styled with lustrous metal buckles, for example, should be avoided. The only jewelry appropriate for a man is his wedding ring.

-It is customary and socially expected for mourners attending a Japanese wake (called “otsuya” and typically takes place in the evening) to present offerings of money to the grieving family in order to defray funeral expenses. The money, called “koden,” is to be enclosed in special, commercially available, white funeral envelopes which are decorated with black and white ribbons. (The envelopes are available in the stationery section of any convenience store in Japan). The amount given, typically between 3,000 and 30,000 yen (about $25 to $250), depending on the relationship to the deceased, the social status/financial wherewithal of the mourner, and the financial position of the family, must never be of new bills, for to give new bills would suggest that the death was expected, thereby having given the mourner time to acquire fresh bills. Instead, the bills should clearly indicate that they have been in circulation, suggesting that the mourner, upon being surprised to hear of the death, hurriedly gathered the money as best he or she could. Under no circumstances should the money be offered without a funeral envelope. (It would be preferable for a mourner to offer no money than to present the money without an envelope).

-Upon handing over the funeral envelope to the funeral attendants at the funeral venue, the mourner will be asked to write his name in a registry. Thereafter the mourner will be ushered into the room containing the coffin and chairs or benches for mourners to sit. The seats closest to the dais/coffin are reserved for immediate family. A gentleman-mourner should allow a funeral attendant to direct him to a seat.

-Typically, the coffin is placed in the center of the dais, which is filled with flowers. A large-size photo of the deceased is situated prominently amidst the flowers. And at the front of the dais are bowls of fruit, rice, saké, and other offerings.

-After all mourners have been seated, the Buddhist priest then chants sutra in a characteristically low tone, his back towards the mourners.

-After the chanting, the immediate family members stand and walk towards the front of the dais, situating themselves in a file towards the left side of the dais. On the dais will be a box filled with ashes and a box with incense sticks, with a candle situated nearby for lighting them. The mourners then line up in single file in the center-aisle. One by one, each person lights three incense sticks (one by one), offering them to the deceased (In Japanese culture, it is improper to blow out the flame of an incense stick. Instead, the flames should be gently waved out by the hand), then implants the burning incense sticks (flame extinguished) upright into the box of ashes, one by one. Thereafter the mourner walks past the family, bowing to them. The bow should be a 90-degree bow at the waist, arms at the mourner’s sides, such that the crown of the mourner’s head points towards the waistline of an average-height family member. After bowing, the mourner should return to his seat or file out the room, depending on whether the wake has concluded or not.

-Japanese etiquette requires that a monetary gift be reciprocated in some way. So prior to departing, each mourner is given a gift which is equal in value to approximately fifty percent of his condolence money. Some mourners write their name and the amount given, preferably in calligraphy, on the outside of the koden envelope so as to facilitate the transaction. Anything written on the outside of the envelope should be written with gray ink, today commercially available for this specific purpose. (In olden days, “sumie” ink, the black ink used for writing letters, was painstakingly prepared from ink stone. But because of the hurried nature of Japanese funerals, a hastily prepared ink would not achieve its rich, black color, and would instead have a grayish tone. Gray ink, then, like circulated bills, became preferred since both convey the message that the death was not expected. So today, in keeping with the established protocol, gray or light-colored ink is used to inscribe koden envelopes). Some Japanese secure the services of professional calligraphers to inscribe their envelopes. Others prefer to give the envelope with no inscription.

-Generally the gifts from the family are wrapped in white, gray, or black paper and are presented in small shopping bags. Also included in each bag is a note of appreciation from the family. Gifts such as handkerchiefs and hand towels are typical. But items such as telephone cards or rice coupons are also known to have been given.

-Some relatives may remain with the deceased, keeping vigil until the funeral.

-The funeral is like the wake: The Buddhist priest chants a sutra, and people offer incense to the deceased. Unlike at the wake, however, the deceased receives a new Buddhist name, written in Kanji, an arcane system of Japanese written with Chinese-derived characters. (Very few present-day Japanese can read Kanji). The purpose of the renaming is so that the departed soul will not be beckoned to Earth by the calling of its former name. The objective, then, is to be given a very lengthy, complicated, new name. The length of the name is theoretically supposed to depend upon the virtue of the person’s life—long names being given to exemplary people. But it is oftentimes said that the length of names is also determined by the amount of financial contribution by relatives to the temple.

-At the end of the funeral, friends and family members place flowers into the casket, around the head and shoulders of the deceased. The coffin is then nailed shut, signaling the end of Earthly existence, and carried to an elaborately decorated hearse, which transports the deceased to the crematorium.

-At the crematorium, the coffin is placed onto a tray and then slid into the cremation chamber. Once the coffin is within the chamber, the family departs the crematorium, returning at an appointed time to collect the ashes and any remaining bones. The cremation of an adult typically takes about two hours.

-The ashes and remaining bones are collected by relatives and placed into an urn. Using large chopsticks (or meat hooks), family members (typically two males) pick the bones out of the ashes, beginning with the foot bones and ending with the head bones. The bones are placed into the urn in the order in which they are collected so that the body is not upside-down in the urn.

-Depending on local custom, the urn is taken directly from the crematorium to the grave or may be kept at the family home for several days before being taken to the grave.

-Funeral urns are typically interred in family graves. Some graves have business card boxes where persons paying respects may deposit their cards so as to notify the caretakers of the grave that respects have been paid.

-Memorial services are for the most part determined by local custom. Generally, memorial services are conducted every day for the first seven days and on specified dates during the first 49 days.

-During the first year of death, no traditional New Year card is either sent or received by the grieving family. It is typical, however, for the grieving family to send a note explaining why, due to the death, no New Year card is being sent.








One thought on “The Protocol for Attending a Japanese Buddhist Funeral

  1. Harumph says:

    “Very few present-day Japanese can read Kanji.” I hope you are kidding. Japan could not function if the Japanese could not read kanji. It is true that some Japanese are starting to have difficulty drawing kanji due to the ubiquitous habit of typing hiragana into electronic devices and selecting kanji from a list. Perhaps you meant that names written in kanji must be voiced to know their pronunciation. That has always been true, because there are so many possible readings for each kanji, and many names contain at least two just for the first name. It is also true that the ability to read fancy, brush drawn kanji is somewhat diminished from previous generations. This is similar to the inability of many young English speakers to read cursive handwriting.

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