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Cultural Spotlight: Japanese Funeral Traditions

by | Feb 3, 2017 | Cultural Spotlight, For Families

Shinjuku-ku Japan

Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.

But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.

This article looks at Japanese funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Check out the last blog post about South African funeral traditions.

Note, these traditions may vary depending on the individual and their own beliefs.

Religion and the Japanese Funeral

Buddhism and Shintoism are the two most common religions in Japan. Shintoism is the native religion of Japan, while Buddhism came to Japan during the 6th century from Korea and China. Japanese funerals usually contain a combination of Buddhist and Shinto funeral traditions.

The Wake

When a loved one passes away, a vigil may be held before or on the day of the wake for family and friends to come comfort the immediate family members and view the deceased. People may touch or sit with and talk to the deceased. Ice is packed around the deceased and a sheet is placed on top.

The wake is held at a Buddhist temple or an alternate location. Guests should bring koden, which is a monetary gift in a special envelope, for the immediate family. The amount of money put in the envelope depends on the closeness of the relationship to the deceased.

A Buddhist priest reads a sutra, or Buddhist scripture, and then the immediate family members go up to the coffin to pay respects to their deceased loved one, pray if they wish to, and place an incense offering into the burner. After the wake service is over, guests may be given a thank-you gift and the immediate and close family members gather for a meal and to talk and comfort each other.

Funeral Service and Cremation

Everyone should wear black formal clothes to a Japanese funeral service, such as a suit, formal dress, or kimono. After the funeral service is over, the coffin is opened and flowers are placed inside it by family and friends.

Cremation is the most popular option over burials. The family watches the deceased be moved into the cremation chamber, and sometimes one of the close family members can start the crematory machine, or the crematory staff takes care of it. Family members may eat a funeral meal during the cremation process.

After the cremation process is complete, kotsuage, the gathering of someone’s ashes, occurs. Special chopsticks are used by the family members to transfer the remaining bones in the ashes to a small pot. Bunkotsu is when the ashes are distributed among the close family members. People may choose to put the ashes in an urn, bury them, or scatter them in a meaningful location.


Obon, or Bon, is an annual three-day Buddhist celebration to remember and show respect to your families’ ancestors. Depending on what region of Japan you’re in, the celebration is either around July 15, August 15, or the 15th day of the 7th lunar month.

It’s believed the ancestors’ spirits return to their homes on Earth during this event. The celebration includes food, dancing, and visiting the gravesites. The Bon Odori funeral dance is performed during Obon to welcome the spirits of their ancestors.


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