This is definitely a morbid subject, so does it really have a place in a blog designed to be entertaining (among other things)?! However, I discovered the kind of cultural differences here too, that a visitor to Japan needs to know to prevent a major faux pas...

I learned from my best friend in Japan that his sister had cancer. Given that his brother-in-law was an oncologist, we felt that the lady was being given the best possible care and were quite hopeful that she would overcome the disease. (Not only does Japan have the world’s longest life expectancy at birth, it also has the highest cancer survival rate!)

One evening, when I ran across my friend at an embassy reception I asked how his sister was doing.

“Ha ha ha, tee hee hee,” she died, he said laughing, and then quickly changed the subject. Well, to put it mildly, I was floored! Heartless? Had he lost it? I invented a whole bunch of reasons. Then, sometime later I learned the real one. The Japanese are very careful to keep their own problems and misery from weighing down their surroundings. This is what I witnessed. His heart was bleeding and he probably would have felt best crying openly but he felt a duty to keep me from feeling his pain and suffering along with him.

Decades later I found myself having to say good bye to a growing number of friends. That’s when I got a close-up look at their funeral customs.

It is generally known that the Japanese are both Buddhists and Shintoists. (The latter is a specifically Japanese religion, a variant of a refined, institutionalized Shamanism.) As they go through the various phases of life, they mark events with practices sometimes frome one, and sometimes from the other religion. Weddings are generally celebrated with Shinto and not Buddhist ceremonies (if we discount the increasingly popular Christian church weddings or wedding ceremonies that borrow the outer features of the Christian wedding.) The “Baptismal” ceremony, actually the “presentation to the gods” of month-old infants is also a Shinto ritual. Funerals, however, are held in accordance with Buddhist tradition.

They hold a wake, if possible, on the evening following the death of the loved one. The efficiency with which they organize the notification of friends and relatives is unbelievable. It is customary to contribute to the costs (placing the money into envelopes made specifically for that purpose), to which the family of the deceased responds with small gifts.

funeral envelope

The deceased person is cremated the next day. Fewer people gather here and, as a member of one such group, I discovered what I considered a very surprising custom. The first half of the ceremony consists of saying a final good-bye to the deceased, who is placed on a bier in the crematorium. Then – essentially before our very eyes – the body is rolled into the furnace. Following this, the mourners move to another room where the type of wake that includes refreshments, much the same as is customary in Hungary, is held. In the meantime, the cremation is completed and the mourners return to the departure room. And this is where an event that I found horrific takes place!

The crematorium staff remove the ashes from the furnace. However, the furnace heat is not sufficient to completely pulverize the body, so while the flesh has been turned to ash, the bones are still recognizable. The mourners then step forward, going to the ashes one by one, and using a set of tools much like chopsticks but significantly longer, each person picks up a piece of bone and places it into an urn (much larger than is used in Hungary).


I was forced to place the bones of one of my best friends into the urn! In the meantime, in my mind’s eye I continued to see my friend’s always smiling, joyful face – just as I see him while writing this. Well, I failed the test of suppressing emotion like a samurai...

I was in Hungary when another friend died and so couldn’t attend the funeral. On returning to Tokyo, the first thing I did was get a huge bouquet of white flowers to take to the widow, and to burn incense at the home altar where the urn had been placed.


The custom is to keep the ashes in the home for a year and to only bury them afterwards. Each day fresh food is placed before the urn, while next to it was my friend’s favorite cap, which he always insisted on wearing... there were also several oranges and balls of mochi (a sticky Japanese rice-cake) there ...

rice cake

The death of a family member is both an emotional and a financial burden for the family. Memorial gatherings must be held on the 7th, 49th and 100th day following the death, and then on the 1st, 3rd, 7th, 13th, 26th, 39th and 50th anniversaries. The wife of a dear friend was driven to illness herself by the multitude of preparations, organization, and hostess responsibilities.

The Obon, a festival honoring the dead, is in addition to the above. This is a Buddhist custom, a remembrance of the spirits of one’s ancestors. They are the “guests.” This is when relatives visit the graves of their ancestors and pretty them up. They also set the table and prepare a holiday meal for the ancestors because on this day they are said to return. This holiday, which dates back many hundreds of years, is celebrated in mid-August (although in some parts of the country where a different calendar is used to calculate holidays, it comes at a different time).

One part of the Bon holiday is the “Bon-Odori,” the Bon circle dance. This dance is performed by people dressed in lightweight cotton yukata kimonos, given the hot summer, and they dance to the strains of stage music (generally consisting of Japanese wadaiko drums and shakuhachi flutes, played by musicians set on a central platform) to welcome back the spirits of the ancestors.


Often the holiday ends with tiny paper lanterns being placed in the river to float away, followed by fireworks.

Another custom it is good to know about is that in the year that someone loses a close relative it is considered bad taste to send them a New Year’s (or birthday) greeting, and that person will not send greetings to anyone else during the year.

They believe that reincarnation, the cycle of nature, and the connection between living and dead are natural. A speaker at a wake concluded his statement with let us eat and drink and be merry, as our deceased friend would surely like to see us when watching from above.

The pictures are illustrations and come from the following source: