The Japanese Way of Death: A Funeral in Sapporo

by David Aldwinckle
(Click here to go to the original, and more irreverent, internet essay which was the basis for this article.)

THE DEPARTED was a man in his forties, a cousin of my wife, whom I'd met on various occasions for beers and chats. I'll call him Shimizu Taro. The circumstances of his departure were curious, since he was found burned to a crisp in his brother's car near Otaru Dream Beach. But, then, his life was also a bit unusual. He had built his own company from scratch in his early twenties. Then, suddenly, he started squandering millions of dollars on a cement home that looked vaguely like Lenin's Tomb. It turned out that the funds came from the company safe, and Taro's second-in-command threatened to expose his malfeasance unless he quit the business.

So, in his late thirties, Taro began to pursue his great love-dogsled racing ( la the Iditarod). It didn't make ends meet. Expenses mounted as he lived a careless lifestyle. Taro officially married once but never officially divorced, so he went through two other Common-Law wives. No one, not even his closest friends or family, knew what he was up to, and the only things that seemed to flourish around him were the number of children he sired, the huskies he raised, and the debt he serviced. Something had to give. When I heard of his death, my first thought was that the yakuza had doused him with gasoline for a deal gone sour. Why else would Taro torch his brother's car as well? So, like the rest of the family, I raised my eyebrows when the police ruled Taro a suicide.

But it now looks as if the police were right. A note popped up designating heirs and rendering thanks (my name even made the list for some translation work I'd done for him), and another letter in his handwriting appeared in the mailbox of some religious cult member, explaining that by the time it was received he would be dead, but not why. I could see no motive, except perhaps the life-insurance (and the current wife, in the unlikely event the courts recognize her claim as legal, will have to wait two years for that). He left little behind but debts. Taro's wife never cried once throughout the funeral proceedings.

A Japanese funeral in my experience has three distinct stages spread over a couple of days. The first is the otsuya, literally "transit evening," which is the equivalent of an Irish Wake. People arrive at a designated place (announced in the newspaper obituaries), pay their respects to the departed, and get thunderously drunk. See Kurosawa's film Ikiru for a very realistic illustration.

The second stage is the ososhiki-the funeral ceremony itself. This I'll describe in detail later, but Itami Juzo's film by the same name provides an excellent (if irreverent) example of that too.

The third stage (which has no exact title) consists of going to the kasoba, or crematorium, which for me was the most unusual part of the experience.

The Otsuya

Cousin Taro's otsuya was unusual in that we had two of them. The day after the autopsy, body identification (he was so badly burned they had to go by dental records), and police clearance fell on a "tomobiki" day. On Japanese calendars there is a quirky six- day roulette of "good luck-bad luck" days, which often screws up the schedules of the superstitious (one never gets married on "butsumetsu"-Buddha's death day-for example, because that would be extremely unlucky). "Tomobiki" means literally "friends get pulled," and an otsuya held then would be tantamount to inviting the departed's friends into the afterlife before their time. So the first day of public display was resourcefully called a "kari- otsuya," or "tentative wake," at which traditional Japanese funeral etiquette was somewhat more relaxed than usual.

These days, since few people have houses big enough or the desire to clean up afterwards, the otsuya and ososhiki are not conducted at home, but in a saijo-a funeral parlor. In Sapporo, these are nondescript white three-story places with chrome trim, full- wall plate-glass windows, and big parking lots. The only time there's any life in them is when there's death inside. Then the parking lot is jammed, people in jet-black clothing rush inside clutching their rings of Buddhist beads, and neighborhood traffic gets snarled up in a post-rock-concert-like crush that not even the saijo's staff can contain. Outside the saijo a placard the size of a door advertises, in fat black brushstrokes on white, the mourning family's name for all to see.

Etiquette demands that men come in black ties and suits with bright white shirts. Women wear black dresses, black stockings, and white pearls (no other jewelry). There should be no red on the body, since that is a celebratory color (I was feeling a bit silly so I asked my father-in-law why women were nonetheless allowed to wear red lipstick, and he gave me a well-deserved elbow in the ribs). However, this being a semi-formal kari- otsuya, some of us (myself included) were in mufti such as dark-blue slacks.

In the saijo we got a long room to ourselves (meaning about 100 people, a quarter of them screaming kids watching the X-Files on a TV in the far corner), and at one end was Taro's coffin, draped in a rich gold-embroidered obi-type fabric. Above the coffin was a poster-size colored photograph of Taro mushing his huskies at one of his competitions, and on either side were two full vases of white chrysanthemums and lilies. Directly in front of the coffin was a table with two tall candles, and between them a bifurcated incense box (about the size of a shoebox), the left side smoldering, the right side waiting.

If you want to pay your respects to the dead, you must kneel on a cushion, take three pinches of the peppery incense from the fuel side, hold each one up to your bowing face, and deposit them on the fuming side. Afterwards steeple your fingers in a bowing- prayer. Then take a piece of stick-incense from a nearby box, light it with one of the candles and flap the flame with your available hand (never blow out anything at a Japanese funeral) to extinguish it and make it smoulder. This branch of Buddhism required participants to stick the incense stick perpendicular (as opposed to breaking it in two and laying the pieces horizontally) in an urn filled with ashes. Allow the incense fumes to drift toward your body, as the smoke is said to have a purifying effect, shooing off any wandering spirits that might otherwise follow you home.

At our kari-otsuya, at 5:45 pm, a Buddhist priest, head shaven and decked out in full dull-colored priest kimono, came in, and sat down on the cushion in front of the incense-box. Everybody assembled behind him on cushions as he read (sang, actually-akin to Gregorian chant-but with a series of "nam's") Buddhist scripture. The priest's voice was low, rich, and reverberating, like a bullfrog in a hot summer swamp, and really quite lulling as one's mind supposedly drifted back to thoughts of the departed (or, in my case, something less worthy).

His back to the audience, the priest took some cooked rice and put it in a glass of water as a food offering, replacing the chopsticks vertically in the ricebowl-taboo in any other situation because it is associated with death. He chimed away at varying speeds and intervals on a bowl-shaped prayer bell with one hand, while bonking away with the other on a wooden instrument vaguely resembling a reclining cowbell. Meanwhile, we were busy behind him, passing around a couple of incense boxes, repeating the aforementioned pinch-and-transfer drill, and getting thoroughly covered with a wonderful incense aroma that I would love to bottle and use to deodorize my bathroom.

After about 45 minutes of this we got up, our knees popping as we stretched. As seems to be the case in every Japanese funeral I've attended, the ceremony seems designed more to pacify the dead than to soothe the bereaved. The priest may have a polite but brief exchange with the bereaved parents or wife. But then, as if he's performed just another day's work, he summarily gets up and leaves the gathering to its own devices.

At this point, wives busy themselves setting tables with dishes and food, and seeing what the kids are up to, while husbands ruminate over the tragedy of it all and conduct not a few business deals. (I had a productive evening. Since we're building a house, I got estimates on kitchen designs, tables and other furniture from relatives who just happened to be in the business.)

Things broke up around midnight. It turns out our kari-otsuya was a very scaled- down affair. The flowers, which should have taken up a whole wall, were sparse, as was the food (very ordinary obento box dinners). But the beer was abundant, which was all that mattered. However, this is pretty normal for a kari-otsuya, it was said, since less formality allowed for less expense, and Taro's debts warranted some fiscal reticence.

I was unable to attend the second day of otsuya because I had to work, but in my experience it's much like the above with more formality, more flowers, and far more time spent greeting relatives and friends not seen since the last funeral. So let us move on to the ososhiki, or funeral ceremony.


It started at 10 a.m. I have been to about five Japanese funerals so far, and all of them were carried out in the funeral parlor's biggest hall, filled with chairs (around 300 at ours), with one whole wall at the end devoted to pomp. Let me try to describe this wall-a backdrop of green plastic made to look like stone-from floor to ceiling.

At the forefront were long knee-high tables, covered in cloth, holding a variety of incense boxes, two meter-long candles, open cans of beer, rice, foodstuffs, and assorted religious ornaments. Behind the tables and dominating the vista were terraced rows of potted white chrysanthemums, carefully arranged and all having the same spacing, height and girth, so that they looked like champagne glasses waiting for a toast. Framing everything above the flowers and the plastic stone wall, colored forest green, was a simulated curved-cornered Oriental roof made of bamboo-colored plastic shingles. And, at each end of the flower display stood two Romanesque columns of fluorescent light, masked in peeling paper. Everything but the flowers showed their age from constant reuse.

Buried in the dead center of all the flowers was Taro's coffin, covered with an embroidered cloth, and crowned by a color picture of him, this time in an Alaskan parka. Surrounded by a wooden frame, the picture had black-and-white ribbons cutting diagonally across the top two corners, signifying death to any Japanese. Seeing him there all vivid and smiling, and knowing that right below were his charred remains, is not a feeling one wants to take lightly. But as time dragged on, my attention began to wander from the cold, hard realities of death into the realm of the cold, hard economics of the situation.

Along both sides of the hall, even spilling out into the entranceway, were huge circular mounts of flowers, like upright roulette wheels one sees at fairgrounds. On white paper below each pinwheel were the names of the donors: companies, private individuals, anybody with a few hundred bucks and a need to demonstrate that they've shown their respects to the departed. My father-in-law, as leader of our family tree, got a really good spot for his wreath, next to the dais at the front, with a bunch of canned fruit below and his name in huge letters.

The pro-forma nature of it all struck home when I learned that all these wreaths, like the elaborate tiered cakes at Japanese weddings that people just stick knives into, will be reused with different banners at the next funeral. The minimum cost is about 15,000 yen, and the more expensive the wreath, the more chance it will be put up front to be seen in its full glory. My father-in-law said he bought the most expensive wreath he could find-with the canned fruit also arranged in a flower pattern-costing a mere 50,000 yen. With all this competition among the bereaved, somebody out there is making a real killing.

Speaking of money, before entering the room with the wall of flowers, everyone must pay his or her dues. There is an elaborate system for collecting money at a Japanese funeral, and contributions are appropriately scaled: a minimum of 2,000 yen (in lower- income Hokkaido) for the distantly connected, 5,000 yen for friends, 10,000 yen for relatives, 30,000 yen for potential heirs, and 50,000 for siblings of the deceased. (This may sound pricey, but monetary gifts presented at Japanese weddings are even more expensive.) We, as cousins, got away with a 10,000 yen tithe.

There is also an elaborate way to fork it over. First of all, the bills should always be new (or ironed until they seem new). Then, if you are a friend, they should be slipped into a specially-printed black-and-white beribboned business-size envelope. If you are a member of the immediate family, a bigger envelope covered with black-and-white wire must be used. One writes on the front of the envelope one's family name and on the back exactly how much the envelope contains. At a table at the entrance to the hall, someone (usually a member of the deceased's neighborhood organization or from his workplace) will collect the envelopes and copy in a special ledger the donor's name, affiliation, and the amount. The proceeds are stowed in the saijo's safe and used to pay the funeral costs (which run into the tens of thousands of dollars, even for the most average Taro in Hokkaido). But the amount contributed at most funerals leaves the family well in the black. However, the record of the donations also becomes the deceased family's on, or sacred duty, to be repaid whenever they attend a funeral for one of the donors' kin.

Back to the ceremony. At 10 a.m., the Kokubetsu Shiki (Announcing-the- Departure) began. We heard a chiming from the back of the room, and three priests, the youngest one (his haircut still short, and not yet fat from too much sitting) was in the lead, while chiming a bowl. Next the chief priest waddled in, adorned in a peaked cap such as can also be seen on Nepalese Lamas, with the nearly-bald second-in-command bringing up the rear. All were decked out in exquisite kimono that glittered as though covered with mica. They took their places at the front of the room but with their backs to the audience. The chief priest sat in the center on a beautiful (but rickety-I tested it myself later) wooden red-lacquer chair with gold trim, while the subordinates on either side got plain chairs, similar to the armless auditorium ones the audience was sitting on, but specially gold embroidered.

They launched into their chanting over a PA system, the style much the same as in the otsuya. But with three priests going at it you can hear their special breathing method. Each priest sings for 15 seconds (yes, I timed it), with each one taking a breath at alternate 5-second intervals. The coordination is marvellous, the singing non-stop, and each voice, different partly because of age, had a delightful timbre and reverberation that I'm sure would visibly interweave if one were stoned (which, I hasten to add, I was not).

After about 45 minutes, business once again takes over. Chouden, or telegrams, are read from those who were regrettably unable to attend. Telegrams are an intrinsic part of any Kokubetsu Shiki-check out any Japanese phone book and you will see how NTT, Japan's most profitable company, further fattens its revenues. There are lists and lists of different telegram messages tailored to any occasion, from births and birthdays, to engagements and weddings, festivals and holidays, school entrances and graduations, awards and elections, and even returning home from overseas. And if you really want to impress, you can send flowers, fruit baskets, and cards that play music when opened-all with one call to NTT (the charges will appear on your next phone bill).

Most people who cannot attend a funeral send a telegram instead, which costs- depending on the length of the message one chooses-a couple of thousand yen. And there are always lots of these telegrams, particularly is the funeral falls on a weekday or if the funeral parlor is way out in the sticks. Reading a selection of the more important (and expensive) ones often takes longer than the Buddhist chants. Our Taro got 160 of them (more than expected), including one from former Hokkaido Governor Yokomichi. This last turned out not to be so surprising, since Yokomichi had worked with Taro's brother, and so there was a relationship.

After the telegrams have been read, greetings and thanks are offered to all by a relatively nonemotional participant (in our case, the local neighborhood association representative), and finally the closest next of kin come to the front of the hall and bow to thank everyone for having come.

Then it's time for the Nobe no Okuri (Putting Out to Pasture) ceremony, at which the body is displayed for the last time. The staff (I've heard horror stories about the diffident attitudes in many parlors, but ours was okay) was well-cued (as was the audience), and within five minutes all the chairs had been stacked away from the aisle, and the coffin, aboard a device resembling a fancy stretcher, was extricated from the flower bed in front and wheeled out for all to see. The lid was lifted up, and shifted down to expose the head and torso.

We all rubbernecked to see if there was any gore, but fortunately not. Taro was sensibly shrouded. A tray of flowers-lilies, chrysanthemums, frangipani-was set on top of the coffin lid. At that point, everyone, starting with the wife, children, parents, siblings, their progeny and on down, came up and placed a flower on the shroud (a few poked it to see if he was really under there). Once everyone had filed past, the lid was replaced, and with brass mallets the staff hammered down nails halfway into predrilled holes. The family was then given squarish black-and-gray igneous rocks about the size of a fist. In the same order as before, people came forward, hit a nail a couple of times with the rock, as if all were taking part in putting this man to rest and sealing his fate. The remaining length of nail was trued by the staff, and the coffin was wheeled out to a special bus with a refrigerated storage space where the luggage normally goes. (There are hearses in Japan, which are black pickup-style gas-guzzlers, often Mercedes and Cadillacs. They carry the coffin inside an Chinese-roofed carriage, plated with gold and trimmed with dragons. The whole thing looks like a huge palanquin riding piggyback and was probably beyond our bereaved's means.)

We boarded the bus with the body below and headed off to Sapporo's only crematorium, located way off in the countryside. The Kasoba I have never been inside a crematorium in the West, so I can't make comparisons, but the one that serves the entire Sapporo area is very pleasant. It is a expansive red-tiled building with interior walls of yellow marble, a lovely atrium, views of the surrounding forest, and no way for people to go out and watch the chimneys. All of the fixtures are of either marble or stainless steel, making the atmosphere somewhat sterile but no doubt reassuring to those who fear the ritual pollution of death. The ample windows also provide lots of sunlight and make the place more cheerful.

Arriving at noon, we piled off the bus, letting the coffin and the immediate family go first, while the forcefully-voiced (but not callous) staff herded us in the right direction. The first stop was the ovens. There were fifteen different cremating machines roaring gently behind the marble, and Taro's coffin, quickly shifted from bus stretcher to a ceramic platform, was assigned to the last one. It was a busy day, and all other ovens, their numbers lit above the doors to avoid premature opening, were in use. With a surprising lack of ceremony, the coffin was pushed in, the door closing from above, and we all bowed in final good-bye.

We had eighty minutes before the next stage, so lunch was served in one of about thirty tatami rooms. Beer and obento were provided, and after eating we had time to wander. The facilities were really quite marvellous. There was a huge atrium for people to sit and have a smoke or a chat; ramen-, udon- and soba-shops; a large coffee shop, vending machines, banks of phones, and wide corridors for kids to run around in. Everything was airy, like a well-designed airport, and ramps connected floors to make it easy for large groups and wheelchairs to move around. Narita should be so lucky.

And then we came to the most interesting part. A soft, almost ghostly woman's voice announced that our Taro was ready. Computer screens in strategic places (even the udon shop) gave us that day's departures (again, like an airport's flight schedule) and told our family exactly which room to go to. And there, in came what remained of Taro.

The first time I saw something like this, about eight years ago, I became physically ill. Nowadays, hardened by horror movies and two childbirths, I can watch but still not take part. On a ceramic platform were Taro's bones: pelvis, ball-and-socket of the femur, clavicle, upper skull quite distinguishable. A staff member brought forth a box, covered with what looked like a square embroidered tea-cosy of kimono fabric. He uncovered everything to reveal a lovely thick porcelain urn, emblazoned with peacocks in Chinese style, about the size of a gallon ice cream container.

The staff started separating things on the platform. One began picking out wood charcoal, melted glasses and coins, and other jetsam that was not physically associated with Taro. Another wielded a hand magnet to snatch up the coffin nails. A third separated the bones into lower body, upper body, and head.

The immediate family, starting with the wife, takes up chopsticks, and passed bones to the chopsticks held by her children, who place them into the urn. (This association with death is the reason why Japanese never pass food from chopstick to chopstick. Conversely, my association of chopsticks with food-if only they would use tongs!-is the reason why I cannot bring myself to participate in this bone-urning.) After the immediate family, everyone present takes a turn putting bones from the lower body and then the upper into the urn. Meanwhile the staff takes a pestle and pulverized the urn's accumulated contents, making a crunchy sound like walking on icy puddles.

Placed last on top of everything and not pulverized are the pieces of the skull (the forehead and the cheeks are last to go in, the staff said). Why? So that the body is not placed uncomfortably upside-down inside its final resting space. Also, because the Adam's Apple is said to resemble a Buddha, the bones of the jaw and neck are placed in a separate small jar. Then everything is covered again with the tea-cosy, wrapped up with certificate of cremation, and presented with a bow to the wife, the eldest son, and the second eldest son. Then we all piled back onto the bus.

The Mourning After

We were bussed back to the funeral parlor, where the urn was put in the coffin's former location, and the priests reappeared to chant for a while longer. Then, usually, everybody goes back to the otsuya tatami rooms and eats and drinks until fairly late into the evening. But three days of this had been enough for everyone, and this time around (probably again to save money) the doings broke up at around 4:30 p.m. Everyone carried home whatever food, flowers, and leftovers (even those offered to Taro at the dais) they wanted that would otherwise just be thrown away. (I am told that in impoverished Hokkaido, which also uniquely has special flat fees for weddings to save money, this is a special custom.) We made off with a generous amount of swag and headed home.

So ended yet another funeral in Japan. In any country, when someone dies urgencies abound: getting the body into the hands of professionals, getting a place lined up so that people can say good-bye, calling in the proper religious authorities. All of this costs money, but in Japan the vestiges of an old village-style reciprocal system* help to offset the cost. In the U.S., those who live in small communities or belong to churches can still count on neighbors and friends to supply flowers for the ceremony and food for wakes and receptions. But otherwise, every family is on its own: the rich pay through the nose for showy funerals, and the poor increasingly dispense with ceremonies altogether.

In a sense, the funeral of Taro was an emblem of what still remains of traditional Japan. He may have been a scapegrace with several unaccounted-for wives, but he did not exit society without a proper send-off.

*See Murray Sayle, "The Buddha Bites Back," JPRI Working Paper #32 (April 1997).

David Aldwinckle is a tenured English instructor at Hokkaido Information University and has written two textbooks and numerous articles for both the U.S. and Japanese press. More of his current writings are available at his web site ]

Return to JPRI Home Page

Copyright 1997 by the Japan Policy Research Institute
All rights reserved.

(Click here to go to the original, and more irreverent, internet essay which was the basis for this article.)