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How Japanese Culture Views Death and Dying

Gabrielle Applebury
Japanese Funeral Ceremony

In Japan, Shinto and Buddhism are the most popular religions and each religion has a significant impact on how certain Japanese individuals conceptualize dying, death, and grief. In general, death is understood as an inevitable experience, with high involvement of the family during the dying process, as well as the belief in the afterlife after someone has passed away.

How Death Is Conceptualized in Japanese Culture

Buddhism and Shinto have differing takes on death, and it is not uncommon for both religions to be practiced, especially during the dying process. Shinto does not focus on the afterlife, while Buddhism emphasizes reincarnation based on karma after someone has passed away. Shinto and Buddhism are practiced simultaneously by most of the Japanese population, with many embracing Buddhist practices as death nears.

How Dying Is Perceived

In Japanese culture, dying may be perceived as something that cannot be controlled and is something that just is. Those in the process of dying may request that their adult children make end-of-life arrangements and decisions for them, and may prefer that the eldest son does so if his parents are unable to. Those who identify as Shinto may view dying and death as "impure" which can bring up complicated feelings if a loved one is in the process of passing away. Buddhism's interpretation of death is that the dying process is perfectly normal and to be expected.

Common Funeral Customs and Etiquette

Cremation is the most popular form of funeral arrangement that is made in Japan with a rate of 99.9 percent. This became popularized as a way to sanitarily prevent diseases from spreading from the deceased to the general population. As space is also in high demand in Japan, and with a population of about 126 million, cremation become the most popular choice in terms of burial practices. At typical Japanese funerals:

  • Pleasantries are exchanged that show respect.
  • Coins are placed in the casket to symbolize crossing over into the afterlife.
  • Guests offer money in a special envelope to help the deceased individual's family pay for the funeral.
  • Guests wear black to the funeral.
  • After the wake, the body is cremated.
  • The family then places the remains in an urn.
  • Ashes may be spread or urns may be buried with a headstone.
  • Small gifts are placed on the grave by family members and friends of the deceased individual.
  • Some leave their cards to signify their visit.
  • Once a year the tombstone is cleaned and new gifts are left for the deceased love ones.

The Grief and Mourning Process in Japan

In Japan, grief and the mourning process tends to depend on the relationship and the way in which the individual passed away. A study of adults with complicated grief illustrated that about 11 years after the death of a loved one:

  • Men who lost a partner by either unexpected or expected death tended to show the highest rate of symptoms of complicated grief.
  • Women who lost a child unexpectedly also showed the most signs of complicated grief.
  • Parents who lost an adult child to suicide showed the highest levels of grief

Another study of Japanese widows indicated that compared to American widows in mourning, Japanese women tended to have more control over their emotions, tended to try to connect with their deceased partner during everyday life, and they also tended not to remarry. In Japan, ancestors tend to be highly respected and even after they've passed away, they may play a large role in Japanese family's everyday life.

Understanding Japanese Views of Death and Dying

Keep in mind that although research indicates certain generalizations regarding Japanese views on death and dying, that each individual may have their own interpretation of the same concept, or disagree completely. In general, the two main religions, Buddhism and Shinto heavily influence how death and dying are conceptualized in Japan.

How Japanese Culture Views Death and Dying