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The role of the ancestral tradition in bereavement in contemporary Japanese
Article in Mortality · November 2010
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Valentine, C. A. (2010) The role of the ancestral tradition in
bereavement in contemporary Japanese society. Mortality, 15
(4). pp. 275-293. ISSN 1357-6275
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2010 Mortality 15(4)275-294
The role of the ancestral tradition in bereavement in contemporary Japanese
By focusing on the reported experiences of bereaved Japanese people, this paper
explores the continuing role of the ancestral tradition in contemporary responses to
death and loss. In a society that emphasises social conformity, it demonstrates the
diverse and innovative ways individuals negotiated a shared tradition in a
contemporary postmodern context in which a variety of cultural messages compete
for attention. Traditional Buddhist mourning rituals that promote family and social
solidarity now take their place alongside a medicalised system of dying,
commercialised mourning, bereavement counselling and increasing emphasis on
individualism and personal choice. Five categories of responses are identified to
reflect the different ways the individuals concerned sought to reconcile social and
familial obligations associated with traditional approaches with their need to find
individual and personal meaning in their loss. Some participants felt obliged to
conform to traditional forms from which they took little comfort, whilst others found
them to be supportive and meaningful. Some took an improvisory approach, putting
their own personal stamp on received wisdom. Other turned to alternative forms of
support, either to supplement or replace traditional approaches. Their responses
reflected the complex, dynamic, fluid and ambiguous relationship between the
individual and their social and cultural resources, demonstrating the contribution of
individuals to shaping culture.
Keywords: Bereavement; traditional approaches; Japan; social obligations; individual
agendas; continuity and change.
This paper illustrates and examines some narrative extracts from interviews with 17
bereaved Japanese people, men and women of different ages, carried out in 2008-
2009, to explore the role of the ancestral tradition1 in contemporary responses to death
and loss. In a culture2 that emphasises social solidarity rather than individualism, this
tradition promotes continuing mutual obligations between living and dead family
members and a sense of continuity between this world and the next (Plath, 1964;
Smith, 1974). In contrast to Britain and other Western societies, emphasis is placed on
proper treatment of the dead rather than the psychology of the grief reaction.
However, Japan is also a postmodern society in which traditional ideas and forms take
their place alongside a scientific world view, medicalised dying, commercialised
mourning, the emergence of hospice and palliative care, and bereavement counselling.
With individualism and personal choice gaining ground (Lock. 2002), traditional
concerns about fulfilling one‟s obligations to others whether living or dead are having
1 By „ancestral tradition‟ I refer to a set of death-related ideas and practices that are considered by many
Japanese people to represent an age-old, shared heritage. However, it needs to be noted that such
practices have always been subject to variation from region to region and changes brought about by
different historical and political periods (Tsuji, 2002). Thus, practices that tend to be considered a „the
way it has always been‟ are more likely to represent the death policies of the early Meiji period (1868 –
1912), when certain practises were promoted and became more widespread.
2 By „culture‟ I refer to „a way of doing things‟, or the norms, values and belief systems that shape the
way societies and groups within society behave, and are taken to be self-evident, natural and normal.
Yet what is taken-for-granted within a particular cultural context can vary enormously between
cultures. Thus, in relation to death, such variation will be evident in differing norms about how
mourners should behave and what should be done with the dead (Walter, 2009)
to compete with more contemporary ideas about the therapeutic needs of bereaved
The way Japanese deathways are changing in the light of contemporary postindustrial conditions is well documented. These changes have mainly been explored
by studying how people materialise their loss through the overt rites and ceremonies
that form such an integral and compelling feature of the ancestral tradition (see e.g.
Suzuki, 1998; 2000; Murakami, 2000; Rowe, 2000; 2003; Yamada, 2004).
Medicalisation, commercialisation and the rise of the funeral industry, widespread
cremation and advanced technology have been found to be having a significant impact
on both practical and symbolic aspects of funerary and burial practices. As a result,
funerals are becoming more private, individual and diverse affairs that represent the
final expression of the deceased person‟s life. Mourners‟ behaviour towards the dead
has seen a shift in emphasis from veneration to memorialisation (Smith, 1983; 1999;
Suzuki, 1998; Lock, 2002; Goss and Klass, 2005). New burial trends, such as “natural
burials”, no longer prioritise familial ties and succession, but allow people to choose
how and with whom they want to be buried.
However, the role and significance of traditional forms for the bereaved individuals
who may or may not engage with these in a contemporary context of mixed and
competing cultural messages about death and loss has remained unexplored. By
focusing on what individuals have to say, it becomes possible to capture how these
cultural scripts are translated and lived out on a day-to-day level. Then, the role of
ancestral ideas in bereavement as it forms part of and impacts on the daily business of
living becomes more apparent. This perspective highlights the way individuals
interweave ideas promoted by different institutions with those from popular wisdom
and everyday socialisation to produce a diversity of responses to, what is considered
to be a shared tradition. In so doing, it draws attention to the role of individuals in
First I give a brief sketch of the key ideas and forms that are associated with the
ancestral tradition. Then by way of more immediate background I present some
findings from a bereavement study carried out in Britain (Valentine, 2008) that
prompted further related research in Japan. Then I introduce the Japanese study, the
approach I took and what I learned from those I interviewed about the way individuals
make sense of death and loss in a society that is postmodern yet promotes cultural and
traditional conformity. I present the findings to capture the different ways my
participants sought to reconcile potentially competing ideas associated with traditional
and contemporary approaches, so as to meet the demands of the living, the dead and
their own grief. I conclude with a brief summary of what these findings have revealed
about the role of the ancestral tradition in bereavement in contemporary Japanese
The Ancestral Tradition
The ancestral tradition, or sosen-sūhai, its associated ideas and forms reflect a
discourse that emphasises the sacred nature of family ties that transcend the life-death
boundary. Fostered within the extended household, or ie system, they encompass a
familial devotion that is almost mystical in character. As such sosen-sūhai represents
an indigenous faith that has remained separate from more formal religious traditions,
though having absorbed elements of these, particularly Buddhism (Smith, 1974;
Valentine, 2009). However, the tradition has come to be considered synonymous with
Buddhism, having been institutionalised during the 17th century by the Tokugawa
government through requiring households to register at the local Buddhist Temple.
These then became the locus of ancestral rites with Buddhist priests as officiants, to
enable the government to institutionalize devotion and loyalty to the emperor via
these rites through the extension of people‟s sense of familial obligation. Then in the
Meiji period (1862- 1912), such a binding of Buddhism with emperor worship via
domestic ancestral rites was rekindled. Today the link with Buddhism remains,
though no longer serving a theocracy.
Yet, sosen-sūhai was once a household-centered affair, requiring no relationship with
formal religion. Intimately linked to an agrarian life-style, ie relationships are
hierarchical, based on obedience and loyalty rather than emotional closeness (OhnukiTierney, 1994). The status of ancestorhood receives special veneration, something
that depends not on individual merit, but on the continuing loyalty and devotion of the
family after one‟s death (Smith, 1974). This takes the form of an elaborate and
sophisticated system of collective and domestic rites and observances which promotes
continuing attachments between the living and the dead. These attachments are based
on reciprocity and mutual dependency, the living providing care and comfort for their
dead who in turn look out for the living.
The belief that the dead depend on the living for their well-being initially finds
expression through engaging in funerary and after rites for a period of 7 weeks during
which the family gathers on every 7th day to encourage and support the deceased
loved one‟s smooth passage to the afterlife and eventually ancestorhood. During this
intermediary stage, the deceased‟s spirit is believed to be in a restless state until the
49th day when, subject to the family‟s ministrations, it finds repose in the next world
(Tomatsu, 2001). At a more personal, private level, such support takes the form of
daily prayers and offerings at the domestic altar or butsudan as an expression of the
deceased person‟s continuing role in the family (Goss and Klass, 2005). These private
rituals are highly varied to reflect the nature of the individual to whom they are
directed, such as offering their favourite food and flowers and keeping them in touch
with those family matters that are likely to be of particular interest to them (Smith,
1974; 1983). Such concern to provide dead loved ones with those comforts that reflect
their particular preferences in life reflects a sense of continuity between this world
and the next.
This tradition has been represented as adaptive and therapeutic in coming to terms
with bereavement (Yamamoto et al, 1969; Klass, 1996; 2001; Klass and Goss, 1999;
Goss and Klass, 2005). It has also been found to have its limits for some groups of
bereaved people, in view of the changing values and life-style patterns that have
accompanied modernisation and urbanisation during the latter part of the twentieth
century (Matsushima et al., 2002; Deeken, 2005). These changes include the waning
of the household system in favour of smaller family units and self-chosen
relationships based on emotional dependency rather than duty, and the
individualising, privatising and secularising of experience (Lock, 2002; Long, 2003).
The impetus to carry out a bereavement study in Japan arose from findings from
interviews with 25 bereaved individuals, 15 women and 10 men aged 17 to 63, in
Britain from 2004 to 2007. These interviews similarly reflected a discourse in which
the dead remain part of the lives of the living, though one that is not rooted in any
strong sense of a shared traditional frame of reference. Rather, in a multi-cultural
society the emphasis is on „individuality and diversity‟, as reflected in participants‟
frequent references to the importance of people grieving in their own way (Walter,
1999; Valentine, 2008). Within such a context, their was no shortage of ritualised
behaviour, but this was as much spontaneous and idiosynchratic as formal and
prescribed. In the process of recounting such behaviour, some participants revealed an
impulse to care for the body and well-being of deceased loved ones to suggest a
greater and surprising similarity between the two contexts, in terms of the meanings
given to certain actions, than has so far been appreciated (Valentine, 2009). Indeed,
such similarities would not be apparent through observation alone, only through
listening to the way people make sense of their experience. For example, the need to
safeguard a loved one‟s comfort and well-being was conveyed by Lynne*, a woman
in her 50s, in recollecting her mother‟s burial:
… but I just thought no she must feel very lonely down there somehow – ‟cos she was
very – absolutely potty about her dog so we put the photograph of her present dog
and the previous one in the coffin with her for company.
Janet, a young woman of 19, tried to make sense of her desire to comfort and protect
her friend, who died in a car accident, in the absence of any belief in an afterlife.
But it‟s just weird thinking that he‟s there and he‟s got like no-one looking after him
or anything like night after night – it‟s just such a cold horrible place really a
graveyard …I suppose it‟s conflicting – because I feel I don‟t believe in life after
death, yet on the other hand I don‟t like to think of him being there and not having
anyone – like at night.
Lynne‟s and Janet‟s concerns about deceased loved ones being left „alone‟ echo
Japanese concerns that the dead are not abandoned to the extent of being prepared to
take in unrelated dead who have no-one else to care for them (Smith, 1974). They
suggested not only a desire to integrate the dead into the lives of the living, but a
preoccupation with the treatment and well-being of the dead in a culture in which
bereavement is anchored in the grief reaction. Yet, in the bereavement literature, the
Japanese emphasis on mutuality, care and concern for the body and well-being of
deceased loved ones has been identified as a point of contrast with post-mortem
relationships in Western, Anglophone contexts (Klass and Goss, 1999). In the US,
these continuing bonds have been viewed, psychologically, as involving innerrepresentations of the dead, who, reflecting a protestant cultural heritage, continue to
exist on a higher plane as moral guides to those they have left behind (Marwit and
Klass, 1996). Such relationships are thus one-sided, having therapeutic value for the
living, whilst the living can do nothing for the dead. Yet, according to my
participants, and, as represented in other UK sociological studies (Bennett and
Bennett, 2000; Hallam et al, 1999), continuing bonds were experienced as both
tangible and reciprocal, an expression of continuity between the worlds of the living
and the dead. As such, they are reminiscent of the nature of post-mortem relationships
as represented in the Japanese ancestral tradition.
To further explore this apparent link I carried out a similar open-ended,
conversational, interview-based study in Tokyo, during 2007-2008, in which 17
bereaved individuals, 13 woman and 4 men, whose ages ranged from 29 to 63,
volunteered their experiences of losing close others (see appendix). The sensitive
nature of the topic required an approach that allowed participants to be self-selecting.
A combination of theoretical, opportunistic and snowball sampling in which
participants were asked if they knew someone else who might be interested in
participating, was used. Potential participants were not approached directly, since it
was important to ensure that there was no sense of feeling pressured. Rather
information was made available at three locations, to which individuals who fitted the
criteria of having lost loved ones responded as follows: three participants came from
an English Language School, six from a Grief Counselling Centre and five from the
University of Tokyo. Three additional participants approached me through word of
mouth (Valentine, 2008). Informal interviews were also carried out with a Buddhist
priest, a Funeral Director and a Bereavement Counsellor. A self-selecting method, and
a time frame of only 11 months produced a small, non-representative sample. Yet,
through generating rich data, this study, in keeping with the anthropological tradition,
has sought to learn about the „general‟ through the „particular‟, or how culture speaks
through the individual. I would therefore argue that the findings that have emerged
have relevance beyond this sample.
Four participants were sufficiently fluent to be interviewed in English. The remaining
13 were interviewed with the help of an experienced interpreter, both in terms of
language and topic, a Japanese woman, in whose home the interviews were held.
Interviews were taped, transcribed and analysed alongside subsequent interviewing,
analysis and interviewing informing each other. Adopting grounded theory approach
allowed me to consult with both the interpreter and participants, as I went along, on
any areas of unclarity. The nature of the interview setting, the sensitivity of the
interpreter and the topic itself, created a non-threatening, supportive, intimate space in
which participants relaxed and talked freely. Interviewing through an interpreter
enabled me to further appreciate the importance of body language and how it is
possible to engage with another in a way that goes beyond words. This was a deeply
moving, absorbing and challenging experience, through which I became more aware
of the assumptions I was bringing from my own culture.
For example, in the course of interviewing I was to discover the extent to which
„proper treatment of the dead‟ and reinforcing familial and social ties continued to
frame Japanese understandings of bereavement, as compared to the Western emphasis
on the „therapeutic needs of the bereaved‟ and recovering personal autonomy (Walter,
1999; Klass and Goss, 1999; Goss and Klass, 2005). In asking participants if they
found traditional rituals supportive of their grief, I was struck by the way some
struggled to answer this question, sometimes seeming to change the subject. On
further consideration, I realised that my question reflected the way, as a Westerner,
my own understanding of bereavement was coloured by therapeutic assumptions. I
had thus unwittingly asked them to switch frames, something that not all participants
were able to do. Those who seemed to introduce another topic had in fact gone on to
answer my question in terms of whether they had got it right for deceased loved ones
and others in their social circle. Though the therapeutic discourse and its associated
emotionality was far from absent in people‟s narratives, as a frame for evaluating
ancestral rites, for most participants, though not all, it clearly missed the point.
Similarly, I was reminded of the way some of my UK participants, as represented by
Janet, struggled to make sense of their impulse to be with and care for the physical
remains of their loved ones in the absence of a shared cultural frame of reference.
Since my aim was to ground social and cultural norms and values in everyday
concrete experience, I invited participants to recount their bereavement experience,
that is, to tell me their story. This approach encouraged interviewees to set the
agenda rather than imposing my own, and to explore the meanings of the topics they
introduced. It involved taking care not to interrupt their narrative flow, whilst at the
same time encouraging them to articulate their thoughts, feelings and experiences as
fully as possible. In so doing, it allowed more personal, less formally structured
details, incoherencies, ambiguities and contradictions to emerge (Hollway and
As a result I found that, just as in the UK we take our own rituals and customs for
granted, so my Japanese participants had a similarly mundane view of their own.
Indeed, I often needed to probe for details they were inclined to gloss over and no-one
mentioned ancestors until specifically asked about their relevance. Yet, when
encouraged to reflect more deeply, it was as though some individuals rediscovered
their own tradition to find unexpected meaning and relevance, whilst for others it
further confirmed the lack of any meaningful connection between tradition and their
own experience. Though considered a shared cultural heritage, the ancestral tradition
represented different things to different people. The nature of its role in people‟s lives
could reflect and interact with the role of other, sometimes competing factors, as well
as fluctuate and be subject to reassessment with hindsight. For such rites do not exist
in isolation but become interwoven with other social factors that form the fabric of
people‟s day to day experience.
In spite of strong pressures for social conformity, those I interviewed portrayed a
society that was not as culturally homogenous as is often assumed, the ancestral
tradition providing only one of the available options for framing responses to death
and loss. As indicated, their responses represented the diversity of ways in which
traditional forms could be negotiated in a contemporary context in which a variety of
cultural messages compete for attention (Seale, 2000; Long, 2001). Indeed, my
participants conveyed how traditional rites were not necessarily the most significant
aspect of their experience, in some cases being only vaguely recalled. As with our
own culture, their customs and rituals were almost invisible to them, their responses
to being asked to recall them suggesting that they had rarely given them conscious
thought. Some were inclined to believe that their loved ones might be in the same
place as their ancestors, but most felt any link with the ancestors to be irrelevant to the
experience of losing an immediate loved one. Several participants had bought a new
butsudan to commemorate their loved one and therefore having nothing to do with the
ancestors (Smith, 1983; 1999). For others, their loved one‟s “corner” served the same
In presenting these findings in more detail I take a cultural perspective that explores
the process by which individuals make sense of their world through the wider web of
cultural symbols (Long, 1999). By focusing on the reported experiences of individuals
it becomes possible to explore how the larger structures that pattern social interaction
and limit possibilities, may also be reinterpreted and transformed by people‟s creative
agency. Though beyond the scope of this paper, such experiences will also reflect a
variety of social and structural variables. However, by focusing more narrowly on the
ideas through which people interpret their experiences, I aim to capture the complex,
dynamic, fluid and ambiguous relationship between the individual and their social and
cultural worlds and the role of individuals in shaping culture.
The impact of a loved one‟s death was reported to set in motion a series of rites that
focused attention away from the bereaved person‟s personal sense of loss and grief to
engage with the more social implications of death. The way participants reported the
onset of death rites conveyed a change of gear and accompanying sense of pressure
that was described in terms such as “suddenly all these things took over”, “all of a
sudden it became very business-like” and “things just happened so quickly”. Such
pressure was linked in part to the demands of what was often an individual‟s first
direct encounter with what has been termed „funeral Buddhism‟. This negative image
refers to the way Japanese Buddhism‟s main role has become limited to the
performance of funerals and memorial services (Tomatsu, 2001). These have been
criticised for being overly formalised with an emphasis on commercial rather than
spiritual matters. Funeral companies have similarly been given a bad press for their
role in creating more pressure for bereaved people through promoting lavish,
ostentatious send-offs (Suzuki, 1998; 2000; Prideaux, 2002). Both institutions play a
key role in encouraging and perpetuating traditional rites and customs. My
participants‟ recollections drew attention to the way many Japanese people may feel
obliged to go along with this. Yet they also conveyed how such social and
commercial pressures were still negotiable.
In such a context, traditional mourning could be experienced as daunting and
overwhelming, bearing little relevance to the sense of personal loss. Yet support and
meaning could be found, if not at the time, in retrospect, or through the bereaved
person having put his or her own personal stamp on received wisdom. Some turned to
other forms of support. I have categorised their responses as follows:
1. Following tradition at the expense of personal feelings.
2. Challenging tradition through revising, redefining and adapting the status
quo to reflect more individual and personal circumstances and priorities.
3. Finding meaning in traditional forms.
4. Combining traditional forms with alternative supports.
5. Rejecting traditional forms and turning to alternative supports.
These five categories are used to organise the following discussion of the way
participants struggled to reconcile the social obligations that accompanied traditional
mourning requirements with their need to find some personal meaning in their loss. It
will highlight paradoxes mourners grapple with in applying more generalised cultural
messages to their everyday lives, particularly in relation to „out of the ordinary‟
1. Feeling obliged to follow a tradition at expense of personal feelings.
Participants‟ narratives conveyed a context that emphasised preserving the status quo
and that this often meant prioritising the social obligations, or „giri‟ associated with
tradition, over more individual and personal feelings, or „ninjo‟. As briefly described,
the sophisticated and extensive nature of ancestral rituals reflects a cultural emphasis
on social embeddedness, interdependency, loyalty and conformity (Shimazono, 1981;
Long, 1999; Tsuji, 2005; Prideaux, 2002). In contrast to our own culture‟s valuing of
personal autonomy, in Japan personhood is other-oriented, sensitivity to the needs of
others and fostering harmonious relationships being valued over individual selfexpression. A sense of identity depends on proper performance of one‟s role in the
group rather than pursuing individual interests, something which runs the risk of
disrupting harmonious relationships and losing face. In contrast to minimal guidelines
for mourning in the UK, in Japan there is no shortage of cultural prescription together
with a strong sense of obligation to carry this out to the letter. Rin, a woman of 50,
whose husband died of cancer, conveyed how the demands of giri may leave little
room for personal feelings, or „ninjo‟:
I was suddenly thrown into all the things to be taken care of and there was no time to
be sad and no time for any last message to give to my husband so all that emotional
stuff had to be put aside.
Yui, a woman in her 40s, felt that social obligations could take precedence over
remembering the dead. Thus she described her mother‟s funeral:
And it involves koden – people bring money – and how much is appropriate and there
are a lot of things around it. So her funeral ended up rather a grand one with 400
people attending it. I‟m not sure if it‟s just a Japanese thing but it seems that how
grand it is is more for the people who are left behind not for the person who has died.
Nanami, a woman of 30 whose husband died suddenly and unexpectedly from an
aneurysm, conveyed the emotional costs of such pressures:
Then our mutual friends came to pay respects to him and burn incense and I had to
welcome them and deal with all that. Then I had to plan his funeral so I met the
funeral conductor there too. So I dealt with all that but I still couldn‟t take it in. And I
was very sad during the funeral and wake and I wanted to scream and I wanted it to
stop but I had to deal with people, speak with people.
The demands of tradition could be experienced in relation to more private, domestic
rites. Noriko, a woman in her 20s, bought a butsudan for her husband in compliance
with her mother urging her to do so, inspite of feeling it was an outdated tradition and
inappropriate for a woman living on her own.
Well my mother said to me don‟t you think you should do something – get him a
butsudan? – and I said well I think they‟re a bit sort of naff and for a woman living on
my own do I want to have that sort of thing in my room? – It seems a bit kind of odd –
but she said no, you should really get one for him – he should have his own room if
you like – so that was really the main reason I got the butsudan.
When asked if the butsudan provided a location for her husband, she replied:
To be honest with you – the butsudan has nothing to do with it – but what I feel is that
he is talking to me directly and what he‟s thinking comes straight into my head – so I
don‟t feel I have to go to the butsudan and do anything –
Whilst Noriko felt obliged to comply with practices that were experienced as little
more than empty gestures, for others they were open to negotiation and challenge.
2. Challenging tradition through revising, redefining and adapting the status quo to
reflect more individual and personal circumstances and priorities.
In contrast, Takara, a woman of 30, chose not to buy a butsudan of her own in view of
her hope to remarry in the future, something she felt sure her dead husband would be
ok with, since he would want to see her happy. She did not want something so
„permanent‟ and envisaged a time when his „corner‟ would eventually disappear. In
this way she negotiated the obligations associated with traditional family relationships
to accommodate the contemporary valuing of romantic attachment and personal
In the early days there were loads of photos but I‟ve now reduced them and there are
just one or two. So – we had a very good relationship and he was indispensable to me
– that‟s true, but I‟m alive and I want to enjoy my life and one day there might be
somebody who will understand me and I would like to fall in love with somebody and
I‟m sure my husband will accept that. So I have decided not to be persistent about him
and I‟m sure my husband would like to see me happy
Izanagi, a man in his 40s, demonstrated how traditional ideas about caring for the
dead could be combined with finding support for one‟s own grief, to produce an
interweaving of ancestral and therapeutic ideas. He achieved this by undertaking to
choose his wife‟s kaimyo, or posthumous, honorific name traditionally chosen and
assigned to the deceased person by the Buddhist priest. Izanagi‟s rationale for such
non-conformity was that the priest not only did not know his wife as a person, but
would have had to come up with something very quickly, with the funeral scheduled
to take place the day after his wife died. Since Izanagi had both the time and
knowledge, he was far more qualified to do the job. His awareness that his wife was
dying enabled him to take time to give careful consideration to constructing a name
that truly reflected his wife‟s life and character, to encompass her love of the ocean
and her work as a designer. He drew attention to the uniqueness of the opportunity he
had taken, conveying that in caring for his wife he was also caring for himself:
When somebody dies they give them a Buddhist name and normally the priest does
this – and often they are in a rush because they only have a few days till the ceremony
– and the priest probably doesn‟t know anything about the person and so isn‟t the best
person to come up with the name. So I thought about her character and life in itself
and I chose a Chinese character to suit her personality – so I was very happy to be
able to name her. Because she liked the ocean I thought about something to do with
the ocean and she was a designer so I thought about something to do with her
occupation and you know things she liked. So I was able to choose two Chinese
characters that have meaning for her instead of the priest choosing them. So I feel like
I named her and I think it‟s a good thing –not many people do this, so I‟m lucky that I
had chance to do that and so I‟m proud about that.
Izanagi thus personalised and redefined a practice that has become one of the targets
for people‟s criticism of „funeral Buddhism‟ in relation to the high prices bereaved
people may pay to temples to secure a high ranking name.
A further target for criticism is the custom of koden, according to which mourners are
required to bring a cash gift along to the funeral as a gesture of support for the
bereaved family. Such support has its costs for the family too, which, on the basis of
reciprocity is then required to make a return gift or koden gaeshi to all koden donors
of half the value of their koden gift. Since the amount of koden given should reflect
the mourner‟s status in relationship to the deceased and his or her family, a record
must be kept of the amount given by each person to be able to make a return gift that
reflects this amount. Since the receiving of koden obliges one to give koden in the
future, the tradition binds people in a continuing cycle of reciprocity which, though
experienced as onerous, ensures social inclusion, enhances reputation and boosts
identity (Tsuji, 2005).
Yet, Misaki, a woman in her 60s, conveyed how the meaning and experience of koden
could be redefined as a contribution towards commemorating the deceased person:
I found the giving and receiving of koden very helpful. I was able to use it to publish
my husband‟s memoir book and for the expenses of the party at his first death
anniversary, as well as donate something to the Macrobiotic Institute that treated
him. Then rather than a return gift, I wrote to people to thank them for their donation.
In this way, Misaki was able to fulfil the social demands, or giri associated with this
long-standing funeral custom in a way that served the needs of her own personal
feelings or ninjo.
Akiko, a woman in her 30s, discovered that the social and commercial costs of the
funeral could be reduced through holding an informal gathering at home. Thus she
remembered the small home-based funeral that her deceased father had requested and
that, in honouring his wishes she had attracted criticism from people who felt
excluded. Yet, she also conveyed that, in prioritising respect for the dead over
obligations to the living, she found a welcome release from the pressures associated
with a more conventional funeral:
It was a very warm family, homely atmosphere kind of funeral – because my mum‟s
and dad‟s relatives don‟t get along he didn‟t want to invite them. And there‟s this
neighbourhood community association, they weren‟t allowed to come either – we
explained the situation to them but they still criticised us for not including them. So he
wanted to invite his tax lawyer and lawyer and banker and sushi chef – and we played
his favourite singer‟s song throughout the ceremony and so we were able to see him
off in a very relaxed atmosphere – exactly how it was written in his will. And that was
a kind of pleasant discovery for me that you can have a very private, small funeral
without koden or anything. So it was much easier – much less pressure.
A formal ceremony could be opted out of altogether, in Rin‟s case visits made by
friends to the house to pay their respects and take their leave serving the same
purpose. She further departed from the norm in leaving her husband‟s body in the
futon in which he was placed to transport him home from the hospital rather than the
usual mode of transferring the body to a coffin at this juncture:
So for those 3 days all his friends came to say goodbye to him so I took that as the
funeral rather than having a conventional ceremony. Normally Japanese tradition is
to put the body in a wooden coffin but I chose to put him in a futon for those 3 days.
However, some individuals were able to find meaning in the traditional Buddhist
funeral ceremony, particularly the power of its rituals to mediate the fact of death.
3. Meaning found in traditional forms
Though taking an unconventional approach to the kaimyo tradition, Izanagi found that
the traditional funeral ceremony needed no improvisation. In reflecting on his wife‟s
funeral he realised how powerfully its rituals had faced him with the stark reality of
her absence. He emphasised that this had nothing to do with holding any specific
religious belief but rather was down to ritual participation:
As I said, I‟m not religious… but to do all these ceremonial things rather than the
belief… that has been very helpful to me. I‟ve been to many funerals before like
friends and people from the office – I‟ve always felt a distance. But when it comes to
my wife and her photos on the stage and the monks chanting. So the funeral was the
place that forced me to face the reality about her leaving me and it‟s very sad but it
really made me believe that she had really died – not like an image or a feeling but
just me going through the process forced me to face the reality. So being forced to
face and accept the reality I think is a very important step to go through.
For Harui, a man in his 50s, the provision of a series of rites allowed time to come to
terms with his son‟s death, as well as served as a measure of his grief:
The Buddhist death ritual has a series of rituals, like the 7th day and the 49th day and
by going through these rituals I went through different types of emotions and it takes
time – so I had to go through all those rituals and sometimes I felt maybe my son was
coming back and sometimes it felt like I was saying goodbye.
Similarly for Nanami:
And then I had the 49th day and the 1st and 2nd year ceremony, and until the 2nd year
ceremony I couldn‟t really put my two hands together because that to me would have
been to have admitted that he‟s died. But the 2nd year ceremony I started to be able to
do that and admit it to myself, so in that respect the rituals served as a good
Such meaning could be found in retrospect, through reflecting on one‟s experience.
Thus Momoka, a woman in her 20s, recalled the funeral of a close friend who had
taken her own life:
And when I saw her at the funeral, because she jumped in front of a train there was
blood between her teeth …and when I saw her face – she must have been very hurt –
hit by a train – and maybe deciding to commit suicide itself must have been very hard
for her. So it was very hard for me to think how she must have felt just before she
died… Though I didn‟t realise at the time, when I think about it now I think it helped
to show me that she really had died. And that notice has her name on it – we have a
death notice that has the person‟s name on it. It didn‟t seem real but at the same time
it told me that she had really died.
For Rin, finding retrospective meaning was experienced as reassuring:
By just talking to you now it has reassured me that I did the right thing – at that time I
was so absorbed in the whole thing and didn‟t have the time to think logically.
In reflecting on her role in her husband‟s cremation ceremony, she concluded that her
efforts to restrain the expression of her own grief had allowed his spirit to depart in
And then they put him in the oven and shut the iron door. But before that – there‟s a
gap in the coffin where you can see the face – I was able to see him and say goodbye
to him first. My last word to him was –I thought I won‟t cry and I won‟t lose myself or
he probably can‟t leave the current world – so just for him to be able to leave here I
told him, “ I‟m ok”, so he could leave this world in peace.
4. Combining traditional forms with alternative supports.
For others traditional rites had their place but were regarded as insufficient to meet
certain needs, such as that of sharing experiences with like-minded others. Harui drew
attention to the way losing a child could cause bereaved couples to drift apart, and
how the more contemporary ritual of sharing one‟s grief with others in the therapeutic
space of a psychotherapy group (Árnason, 2007) enabled his own marriage to survive
such a loss:
So I continued the vision psychology after my son died and that helped my grief,
especially being in a group. Though initially my wife and I found it difficult to express
our feelings in front of a group, because we participated together that probably kept
our relationship well, because I‟ve seen many cases where the husband would go off
to work and the wife would be left at home, alone with her grief and become so
stressed that eventually she would get a divorce. So although it was difficult for us,
because we couldn‟t hide our feelings that actually worked very positively for us.
For Izanagi a therapeutic space provided the emotional support and sharing that was
not necessarily available from immediate family. He reported that, in being unable to
talk about his wife‟s death with family members, he initiated a men‟s bereavement
support group to bring together those who had suffered a similar loss:
I hate to say that family – parents and siblings have not been very helpful. I‟m sure
they care and worry about me but I don‟t talk about it to them and they don‟t talk
about it to me, so perhaps it‟s better to speak to somebody who is in a similar
situation. And I felt this is something I can‟t solve by myself, so one week after her
death I went to a group meeting for thinking about life and death. Then I started a
group to talk about and listen to each other‟s feelings. It‟s been two years since my
wife passed away and this has been the most important part of my healing.
Misaki, who, with her husband, had converted to Christianity3 just before he died,
gave voice to the way some people found comfort and meaning in the less formal and
more personal and intimate nature of the Christian funeral:
Even though the majority of the congregation were non-Christian many found the
service comforting. It was more personal, intimate and easier to understand than the
She further reported how her husband‟s friends displayed his old school flag at the
funeral even though this was against church rules. She drew attention to her own
involvement in creating a floral display to reflect her own and her husband‟s Christian
beliefs and the way others had conveyed their sense of loss through contributing
When I got to the church I found that S‟s school flag had been put up by his old
school friends. I then found out this was against ecclesiastical regulations but no-one
stopped us. I had my own special plans for the flowers – I wanted to create a heavenly
gate of white flowers and the florist did an excellent job of this. Three eulogies were
said, all which expressed shock at S‟s death and honoured his life – I felt they bore
witness to his life and that he was living in their hearts and minds.
3 For further discussion of Christian perspectives on the ancestors in Japan see, e.g. Reid, David (1989)
Japanese Christians and the Ancestors, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 16, 4, 259-283
Arisu, a woman in her 30s, made similar observations in comparing her parents‟
funerals, her father‟s having been Buddhist and her mother‟s Christian:
There was definitely a more community like feeling with the Christian ceremony. With
the Buddhist, it might sound a bit funny but it felt more business-like, you know they
had a funeral conductor there and they took the remains away, so it felt very different
in that way. In the case of the Christian funeral I think it really suited my mother – it
was what she would have wanted. Whereas the Buddhist ceremony was much more
ritualistic, and I didn‟t understand the chants. But at the Church ceremony there were
songs and the priest did a sermon and I understood that.
Yet, in turning to Christianity as providing a more personalised and accessible
approach, Misaki reported that Japanese people may still wish to incorporate ancestral
ideas alongside other religious beliefs, something which may or may not be
accommodated by the Buddhist temple:
Though I am Christian I still wanted S‟s ashes interred with his ancestors and his
family‟s Buddhist temple were willing to do this. Apparently this is not always the
Arisu recollected that the temple had accommodated her family‟s wish for a Buddhiststyle memorial tablet or ihai, to commemorate her Christian mother to the extent of
giving her a very special death name:
Normally when you have a church service temples don‟t like you to have a ihai, but
because my mother had such a good relationship with this temple they let her have
one. And engraved on it are the Kanji for saint and for beauty.
Kioshi, a man in his 30s, in trying to make sense of the suicides of both his mother
and sister, carried out ancestral obligations alongside turning to Catholicism as more
genuine and accessible. In relation to deaths that are believed to create unhappy,
restless spirits, he sought to provide his loved ones with proper care, as well as find a
more personal and intimate form of support for his own grief:
I liked the idea that the priest is available – the Catholic priest seemed more true – you
know more authentic. Buddhist priests are pretty distant. But I make sure we do all
the ceremonies as tradition requires. The funeral, the 49th day, the first obon, the first
memorial, everything was properly carried out. Of course this was all done for my
mother‟s and sister‟s spirits so they can rest in peace.
5. Rejecting traditional forms and turning to alternative supports
For some the formalities of the ancestral tradition only served to detract from the real
meaning of losing a loved one. In recalling her aunt‟s funeral, Sumiko, a woman in
her 20s, felt saddened by the preoccupation with social rules she considered trivial
and at odds with the needs of deceased loved ones:
When my aunt died and her husband was already dead my cousin, her daughter is
forced to sit in the best seat at the funeral and her boyfriend sitting next to her caused
some kind of problem. Some people said, “Why does he sit there because he‟s not
related to the dead person? It‟s wrong for him to sit there” – and other people say,
“Her daughter is young and she‟s very upset and so she needs him to sit next to her”.
I just think that‟s all so ridiculous – because I don‟t care where people sit. But some
people care and speak ill of someone because of that kind of trivial thing. A funeral is
a place to mourn the dead and some people just complain about those kinds of things
and don‟t care about the dead. So I think that‟s sad.
She contrasted this experience with the funeral of a friend who died of a heart
condition, at which she found that a more informal and intimate approach enabled
mourners to talk and share memories of the deceased person (Walter, 1996). Such
conversational remembering she felt was crucial to being able to accept that the
person had died. She described how this was achieved at the informal funeral
gathering in her deceased friend‟s Catholic University chapel:
I think it‟s really good to talk about the dead because if we don‟t then we can‟t
accept. But if we talk then we can accept. So we just talked about him. We went to the
Catholic university where he graduated. We have a church inside the university and
the priest gave a speech and it was very good because we just came and talked about
For Mieka, a woman in her 40s, conventional forms failed to play any meaningful role
in helping her to become reconciled to losing her younger brother through suicide. In
her own words “it just felt like a formality rather than a real farewell”. So she
sought counselling support and, as a result of talking about her loss she found herself
making numerous collages to, in her words “try and connect with my brother and heal
my sadness”. She brought some of her collages along to the interview to show me:
They‟re a series of 6 pieces, but I‟ve just brought 3 of them. The first has hands at the
bottom that are positioned to hold something and feathers at the top that are falling.
The second piece has hands that are holding a sparrow, which is me holding my
brother. When I made the first one I just made it independently and then I made some
of the others independently and then I saw how it could be a series. By making this
series, by holding him in my hands by myself and cremating him by myself, within me
I felt – I truly felt that my brother has come back to me. By doing this it was the first
time that I felt that he‟s here with me. The feeling I had was that by making this is that
somehow he was returning to me. With such an unconventional death, with the police
and the way everything happened, I felt I was very distanced from him.
She eventually stopped her counselling sessions but continued to make collages, an
activity that became her own personal ritual through which she recovered and
redefined her relationship with her brother. In the process she discovered and nurtured
a talent that now finds expression in making collages for others:
After this it has been mainly for other people – before this I did it for myself and for
my own feelings and now I find it surprising that I now do it for other people.
In interviewing bereaved Japanese people I set out to explore the role of the ancestral
tradition in the experience of losing loved ones in a contemporary context. In the
process I discovered as much diversity and improvisation as in my interviews with
bereaved people in Britain where there is no culturally embedded, shared tradition.
That individuals rarely follow blindly the dictates of culture, but rather redefine,
revise, or reject these to produce their own versions of established practice is well
captured by my participants‟ narratives. Even where there is the outer appearance of
conformity this will still mean different things to different people. Thus, in recounting
their experiences my participants conveyed a range of responses to traditional forms
and their role in making sense of death and loss. The demands of tradition were
experienced as detracting from or having little relevance to personal grief. Yet
traditional forms were open to revision and could be adapted and, in effect,
challenged to meet individual requirements. They could mediate the fact of death, in
some cases with hindsight and engage survivors in assisting a loved one‟s peaceful
departure. They could take their place alongside or else be substituted with other
Some individuals conveyed how traditional forms could be experienced as unrelated
to and intrusive of personal feelings, requiring these to be ignored, submerged or
mastered in some way. For others, social obligations could be treated as negotiable,
even optional to the extent of reinterpreting the koden custom, composing the kaimyo,
holding the funeral at home, even dispensing with a ceremony altogether. Others
conveyed that traditional forms could still be found relevant and meaningful. The
funeral and extended series of memorial ceremonies provided both rituals and a
period of time that could facilitate mourners in accepting the fact of death, though this
could be far from comforting and only appreciated with hindsight. Such ritual
participation, as well as bringing home the reality of a loved one‟s death, could serve
as a measure of one‟s grief and create a sense of order that could be comforting and
stabilising. It could provide a means of caring for deceased loved ones, something that
could entail one‟s own emotional self-restraint. Some expressed their appreciation of
a more personalised approach, with less emphasis on formality and more on sharing
and intimacy. For some this was found through turning to Christianity, though not
necessarily to the exclusion of ancestral rites. Others were drawn to the more
contemporary ritualised activity of the therapy group where they could engage with
others who had encountered similar experiences. These responses represented an
interweaving of traditional and contemporary ideas in attempting to make sense of the
impact of a loved one‟s death in a way that reconciled the potentially competing
demands of the living, the dead and their own grief.
*Pseudonyms have been used to protect confidentiality.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the Japan Society for the Promotion of
Science for funding this research and the following individuals for their time,
expertise, support and encouragement: Professor Susumu Shimazo, Yoshiko Suzuki
and Mika Whitehouse. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their
help in improving this article
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