Death and Dying in Japan: Past and Present

This article examines the transformation and changes of dying process, funeral practices, and burial customs in Japan after World War II to present. On the one hand, there are new practices expressed in different material and physical forms, but still consistent with traditional values. On the other hand, death and dying practices are changing along with the demographic and lifestyle changes. Our panel explores the transformations that re-incorporate past values as well as new changes in the practices of death and dying that suit the lifestyles of contemporary Japanese.

In contemporary Japan, dying and death process is secluded from family and away from home. Death and dying have shifted from the home to hospitals. In 1947, 90 percent of people died at home while in 1990, hospital deaths increased to 75% and for cancer patients, 93%. Demographic changes and its influence on lifestyle also affect the nature of dying process. Japan’s aging society brought more deaths occurring among the elders who are above 80 years old. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare in 2000, about 50% of the elders live with their adult children while 33% of elders live as a couple, and 10% live alone. The experience of death is becoming increasingly an isolating affair.

Burial customs are also changing. After the World War II cremation took over burials. Today 99% of the Japanese are cremated. Most of the cremated ashes are buried in family graves. However, since the 90s, different mortuary customs have appeared. There are now about 3000 Permanent Memorial Graves (eidai-kuyōbaka), a sort of a collective grave, for those without children or families to look after the grave after one’s death. Jumoku-sō, literally Tree burial, is a burial using a foot of a tree as a substitute of a grave to bury ashes but there are no inscriptions as in normal graves. Scattering of ashes (Sankotsu) do away with both the grave and burial all together.

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Funeral practices have shifted from community rituals to commercial ceremonies conducted by the help of funeral professionals. With the growth of funeral industry funeral ceremonies became standardized in form and hierarchy of scale. The more standardized the ceremony the more customers expressed dissatisfaction. The trend of today’s funeral ceremony is an individualization of commercial ceremony.

There is definitely a continuous shift in the practices and experiences of death and dying in Japan. The questions are then, to what extent do these new practices represent the reinvention or the reincorporation of traditional practices while others demonstrate changes accompanied with demographic and lifestyle changes, and what do these transformation and changes indicate about the continuation and shift in Japanese values?

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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