(Originally sent to Fukuzawa, Friends, and ISSHO Sat, 8 Mar 1997)
Click here to see the published Japan Policy Research Institute (JPRI) version of this article)

I've had a pretty interesting last couple of days. Since funerals have been a topic on DFS, I thought I'd just give you an eyewitness account of what one particular Sapporo funeral was like. This is going to be one of my longer "put you there" types of posts, so skip it if you're not in the mood for a descriptive story.


was a man in his forties, a cousin of my wife, and I met him on various occasions for decent chats. We'll call him Shimizu Tarou. The circumstances of his departure were curious, since he was found all burnt up in his brother's car near Otaru Dream Beach. But so was his life. A shady businessman, building his own company from scratch in his early twenties, Tarou then left it behind in his late thirties to pursue his great love--husky sled racing (a la Iditarod). He was reknown for living beyond his means--married twice, children everywhere, a million-dollar house made completely of cement that looks vaguely like Lenin's Tomb, and a not-thriving husky-import business. Even his family knew not what webs he'd weaved, and my first thought was that the yakuza had gotten him--doused him with gasoline for a deal gone sour--for why indeed would Tarou torch his brother's car as well? So I, like most of the family, raised eyebrows when the police determined this a suicide.

But it looks like the police were right. A note popped up designating heirs and appreciations (our address was even on the list--for some translation work I'd done), and another letter in his handwriting appeared in the mailbox some religious cult member, explaining that by now he would be dead, but not why. I could feel no motive--except for life insurance (and the wife will have to wait two years for that). He left little behind but debts. Tarou's wife never cried once throughout the proceedings.


Okay, a Japanese funeral in my experience has three distinct stages. The first is the OTSUYA, literally "transit evening", which is the equivalent of an Irish Wake; people arrive at a designated place (it's in the obits), pay their respects, and get tremendously drunk. See Kurosawa's overlong IKIRU for a very realistic illustration.

The second is the OSOUSHIKI--the funeral ceremony itself. I'll describe in detail how that went later, but Itami Juuzo's movie by the same name provides an excellent (if irreverent) example of that too.

The third is (don't know if there is an exact title) going to the kasouba, or crematorium, which for me is the biggest adventure of them all. Wait till you read about that below....


was unusual in the fact that we had two of them. The day after the autopsy, body identification (he was so badly burnt up 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 screw up the schedules of the superstitious (one never gets married on "butsumetsu"--Buddha's Death day--because it's bad luck). "Tomobiki" means literally "friends get pulled", and an Otsuya held then would invite the departed's friends into the afterlife before time. Okay, whatever. So the first day of public display was callled a "kari-Otsuya", where Japanese funeral etiquette was relaxed so people could bereave easier.

Most people (since few have houses big enough or have patience enough to clean up afterwards) have their Otsuya and Osoushiki not at home, but in a Saijou--a funeral parlor. In Sapporo, they are nondescript white three-storey places with chrome trim, full-wall plate windows, and big parking lots; the only time there's any life in them is when there's death inside. The parking lot gets packed, people in jet-black clothing rush inside clutching their rings of Buddhist beads, and neighborhood traffic gets snarled up an a post-concert mayhem that even the saijou's staff cannot contain. A placard the size of a man advertises, in stark white with fat black brushwork, the mourning family name for all to see. You can't miss it.

Etiquette. Men come in black ties and suits with bright white shirts, women in black dresses, black stockings, and white pearls (no other jewellery). There should be no red on the body, since that is a celebratory color (I felt a bit silly so I asked jiichan why women were allowed to wear red lipstick, and he gave me a well-deserved elbow). However, this being a special semiformal affair, some were in mufti down to dark-blue slacks (I was).

We got a long room to ourselves (meaning about 100 people, a quarter of them screaming kids watching the X-Files in the far corner), and at one end was Tarou's coffin, draped with golden-embroidered cloth like a rich unfinished kimono. Above the coffin was a poster-size color picture of Tarou mushing his huskies at one of his competitions, and on either side were two full vases of white chrysanthemums and lilies. Directly in front was a table with two long candles, and between them a bifurcated incense box (about the size of a shoebox), one side smoldering, one side waiting.

If you want to pay your respects, kneel on a cushion in front, pinch three dashes of the peppery incense (holding it up to your bowing face, if you want) from the fuel side to the fuming side, and afterwards steeple your fingers in a bow-prayer. Then take a piece of stick-incense from an available box, light it with one of the candles, then flap the flame with your available hand (*NEVER BLOW OUT ANYTHING* at a Japanese funeral) to extinguish it and make it smoulder. Stick it perpendicular in an urn nearby filled with ashes, and have it singe down.

There was an event scheduled. At 5:45 pm, the Buddhist priest, head shaven and decked out in full dull-colored priest kimono, came in, and sat down on the incense cushion to deliver rites. Everybody assembled behind him on cushions as he read (sang, actually--akin to Gregorian Chants--but with a series of "nam"s) Buddhist scripture. The priest's voice was low, rich, and reverberating, much like a bullfrog in a hot summer swamp, and really quite lulling as your mind drifts for the duration and alights on what to write for your web page. His back to the audience, the priest took rice and put it in a glass of water as a food offering, replacing the chopsticks vertical in the ricebowl--taboo in any other situation because it is funereal. He chimed away at odd speeds and intervals on a bowl-shaped prayer bell with one hand, while bonking away with the other on a wood instrument vaguely resembling a reclining cowbell. Meanwhile, we're busy behind him passing around a couple of incense boxes, repeating the aforementioned pinch-and-hunch drill, and getting thoroughly covered with an wonderful incense aroma I would love to deodorize my bathroom with.

After about 45 minutes, all is sufficiently done. Our knees pop as we stretch. After a polite chat with the bereaved parents and the wife, the priest left us to our own devices, which can go on as long as we want. Wives lept into action with serving, setting tables, and seeing what the kids are up to, while husbands ruminated over the tragedy of it all and conducted not a few business deals (I got estimates on our house partitions, kitchen design, and furniture from relatives who just happened to be in the business).

Things broke up around midnight. 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 (blah bentou box dinners); but the beer was abundant, which was all that mattered.

I was unable to see the second day of Otsuya due 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's skip to the


It started at 10 am. I have been to about five Japanese funerals so far, and all of them were carried out in the parlor's biggest hall, filled with chairs (around 300 at ours), with one whole wall at the end designated for pomp. Let me try to put you there with an elaborate description:

From the floor up: a green plastic stone wall formed the backdrop for long woodish tables, holding a variety of incense boxes, 2 meter-long candles, open cans of beer, rice and foodstuffs, and odd religious ornaments that only longhanded and longwinded Classics writers could describe. Midway were rows and rows of planted white chrysanthemums facing straight up, all practically the same height and girth, like champagne glasses toasting the situation. Framing everything above were woodish (but definitely plastic) Oriental-tile roofings, and on either side of the whole doings were two Romanish columns of fluorescent light, masked in peeling paper, and enveloped in a long-grid-pattern seen in the sorting drums of beet separators (sorry, it's getting hard to use similes for things not seen much in the West). Everything but the flowers showed age from constant reuse.

Buried in the dead center of all that was Tarou's coffin, covered in embroidery, and crowned by a color picture of him in an Alaskan parka. Surrounded by a wood frame, the picture had the telltale black-and-white ribbon cutting diagonally across the top two corners, which means death to any Japanese. Seeing him there all vivid and smiling, and knowing that right below it he's there all charred, is never a feeling one wants to get used to.

But one does. As time drags, and your attention shifts from the cold, hard realities of death and into the "Hey, what's going on here?" realm, you glance around to see the cold, hard economics of the situation.

Along each wall emanating from the center, even spilling out into the entranceway, were circular mounts of flowers, like standing roulette wheels one sees at fairgrounds. On white paper below each pinwheel are the names of the donors. Companies, private individuals, anybody with a few hundred bucks and a need to show they've shown their respects to all assembled. Jiichan got a really good spot, next to the dais at the front, with a bunch of canned fruit and his name in huge letters.

Then the economics of vanity strike when you hear that these wreaths, like the tiered cakes at Japanese weddings that people just stick knives into, will be reused with different banners at the next funeral. At at least 10,000 yen a pop, somebody is making a real killing. Buy stock.

Let's keep things moving in real time. At 10 am, one hears a chiming from the back, and three priests, the youngest one (his hair allowed to be short, and not yet fat from too much sitting) leads while chiming a bowl; the chief priest waddles behind adorned in a peaked cap seen on Nepalese Lamas, with the nearly-bald second-in-command bringing up the rear. All are in exquisite kimono. They take their places, Chief in the center on a beautiful (but rickety--I tested it myself later) wooden red-lacquer chair with golden trim, while the subordinates on either side settle for chairs, similar to the armless auditorium jobbies the audience is sitting on, but with special golden embroidery.

They launch into their chanting over a PA system, the style much the same as I described before, with "nam"s, bonking, chiming, and even clashing of cheap-sounding cymbols. But with three priests going at it you hear a special breathing method. Each priest sings for 15 seconds (yes, I timed it), with one taking a breath at an alternate 5-second interval. The coordination is marvellous, the singing is non-stop, and each voice, differing depending of course on age, has a delightful timbre and reverberation that I'm sure would visibly interweave if one were stoned. It is my favorite thing about a Japanese funeral.

After about 45 minutes, essential business takes over. Telegrams are read from those who were regrettably unable to attend (Tarou got 160 of them, including one from the former Hokkaido Governor Yokomichi. Huh.). Greetings and thanks are announced to all through relatively nonemotional parties (in our case, a speech from the local neighborhood association representative), and finally the closest next of kin go to the fore and bow in thanks to everyone.

Then out comes the body. The staff (I hear horror stories about the diffident attitudes of many parlors, but ours was okay) was well-cued (as was the audience), and within five minutes all the chairs were 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. Nope. Tarou was sensibly shrouded.

A tray of flowers--lilies, chrysanthemums, frangpiani (?)--was procured and set atop the lid. At that point, everybody, starting with wife, kids, parents, siblings, their progeny and working on down, came up and placed a flower on the white cloth (a few poked to see if he was really there). Once everyone has had a go, the lid was replaced, and with brass mallets the staff hammered down nails halfway in predesignated holes. The family was then given squarish black-and-gray igneous rocks about the size of a fist. In the same hierarchy, people then hit a nail a couple of times with the rock, as if all were to take part in putting this man to rest and seal his fate. The remainder length of nail was trued by the staff, and the coffin was wheeled out to a special bus with a refrigerated storage space.

(By the way, there are hearses in Japan, which are black pickup-style gas-guzzlers, often Mercedes and Cadillacs (!). They store the coffin inside a sloping-upward roof carriage, plated with gold and trimmed with dragons, which looks like a huge palanquin riding piggyback. But that 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.


I have never been inside a crematorium in the West, so I can't compare, but the one that serves the entire Sapporo area is very pleasant. It is a expansive red tile-brick building, that inside has walls of yellowed marble, a lovely atrium, views of surrounding forest, and no way for people to go out and watch the chimneys. All of the fixtures are either of marble or of stainless steel, making everything feel squeaky-clean. Ample windowing means everything gets sunlight.

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 Tarou, quickly shifted from bus stretcher to ceramic platform, was given the last number. 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 box was pushed in, the door closing from above, and we all bowed in final goodbye.

We had eighty minutes before the next stage, and lunch was provided in one of about thirty assigned tatami rooms. Beer, bentou, basic fare was available, and after eating we had time to wander. The facilities were really quite marvellous. A ramen shop, an udon/soba shop, a huge coffee shop, and a huge sitting hall with vending machines. Chairs, 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 to move around. Narita Airport should have been so lucky.

Now for the best part. A soft, almost ghostly woman's voice announced that our Tarou was ready. Computer screens in strategic places (again, not unlike an airport advertising flights) told our family exactly which room to go to. There, in came what remained of Tarou.

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

The staff started separating things. One began picking out wood charcoal, melted glasses and coins, and other jetsam that was not physically associated with Tarou. 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, took chopsticks, and passed bones by chopstick to her children, who placed 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 I can never participate in this bone-urning.) Then everybody descended upon the platform and put bones from the lower body, then the upper, into the urn. The staff took a pestle and pulverized the urn's current contents, making a crunching sound like walking on icy puddles.

Placed last on top of everything and not pulverized were 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. Placed in a separate small jar (for reasons nobody could explain) are the contents of the jaw and throat. Then everything is tea-cosied, wrapped up with certificate of cremation, and presented to the wife, the eldest son, and the second eldest son. Then we all piled back on the bus.


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 everybody, and this time around (probably again to save money) the doings broke up around 4:30 pm. Everybody carried home food, flowers, whatever leftovers (even those offered to Tarou at the dais) they wanted that would just be thrown away anyway (I hear that in impoverished Hokkaido, which 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 finished yet another funeral in Japan. My wife was worried that I'd be bored. No way.

Dave Aldwinckle

(Click here to see the published Japan Policy Research Institute (JPRI) version of this article)

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