Attending your first funeral in Japan can be confusing. Here are a few tips for making the experience a bit easier.
Funerals in Japan usually have two parts, the otsuya 通夜 and the kokubetsu shiki 告別式. The otsuya is similar to a Christian wake, and the kokubetsu shiki to the funeral service.
* Words of condolence
You may find yourself at a loss for words when you see the family of the deceased. In Japan, most people use the phrase ご愁傷様ですgo shusho sama desu (Please accept my condelences). It can be a bit of a tongue twister, so you might want to practice saying it.
* Condolence telegram
If you cannot attend the otsuya or kokubetsu shiki, you may want to send a condolence telegram. Call NTT’s #115, and ask to send a choden 弔電。The operator will guide you through the necessary information, suggest wording, and types of telegrams. These can cost anywhere from ¥3,000 to ¥10,000, and is added directly to your phone bill.
Most Japanese have a versatile black suit consisting of a black dress and a jacket. This ensemble is dressed up with a corsage for weddings and dressed down with pearls or no accessories for a funeral. If you don’t have this type of formal ensemble, wear a black dress or pants. Long sleeves are preferred. Stockings should be black. Avoid shoes and bags that are shiny or have metal parts. If you have them, wear white pearl earrings and necklace. If your wedding ring has precious stones in it, turn it inward so that they don’t show. Do not wear other accessories. Keep makeup simple, and tie back your hair if it is long.
Men should wear a black suit with black tie.
Prayer beads are not necessary, but bring them if you have them.
Wear simple black or dark clothing. Children can wear school uniform or clothing that isn’t too bright.
* Condolence money 香典 Koden
Traditionally, money is wrapped in an envelope and taken to the service. The amount should not be excessive, usually ¥3000 for an acquaintance, ¥5000 to ¥10,000 for a family member. Special Koden envelopes are available at your local supermarket or convini. Put the money in the inner envelope, with the face facing toward the back of the envelope. Write your name, address and the amount on the back of the envelope. Place this in the outer envelope, and close the envelope with the top flap overlapping the bottom. Write your name in the front bottom center of the envelope, and slip on the mizuhiki ribbon. Most envelopes come with several slips of paper in them. For a Buddhist ceremony, select one that says 御香典、御仏前 or 御霊前
For a Shinto ceremony, select one that says 御玉串料、御霊前 or 御神前
For a Christian ceremony, select one that says 献花料
Condolence money envelopes From left: Buddhist Shinto Christian
* Funeral ceremony
Most funerals are now held at a funeral parlor, which has been decorated with a large photo and deceased’s favorite flowers. If you arrive at the funeral before it has started, you may be invited up to say farewell to the deceased.
Once the funeral starts, a priest will chant the funeral sutras. This can be long or short depending on the sect. When done, you will be ushered to the front for osho-ko, the offering of incense and prayers. When it is your turn, bow slightly toward the family and the priest, and then turn to the incense altar. Take a pinch of incense with three fingers, raise it slightly, and then place it on the incense burner. Place your hands together and say a silent prayer. Step back and bow to the priest and family.
The number of pinches of incense put on the incense burner differ according to the sect.
Here’s a general guide:
Shingon sect, Soto sect: 3 pinches
Otani sect, Rinzai sect: 2 pinches
Jodo Shinshu Hongaji sect: 1 pinch
Tendai sect, Nichiren sect: 1 or 3 pinches
Jodo sect: 1 to 3 pinches
* When in doubt, watch the person in front of you. If you are Christian, feel free to skip the incense and just say a prayer.
At Shinto and Christian funerals, you will be asked to place a tree branch or flower at the altar instead.
When everyone is done paying their respects, the family members will give incense and the funeral will end. There may be time to say farewell to the deceased at this time.
* Funeral procession
After the service, the coffin will be transferred to a hearse. Family members will say a few words before departing for the crematorium. Only close relatives and friends will take part in the following ceremony.
When you leave the funeral, you will often be given a small gift of tea and a packet of purifying salt. Depending on where you live and the sect of the deceased, upon arriving home you will take a pinch of salt and throw it over your shoulder before entering your front door.
The funeral procession will follow the hearse to the crematorium. Upon arriving, the family members will be ushered to a waiting room while preparations are completed. Once ready, the priest or pastor will say some prayers and the body will be cremated. Family members will stay in the waiting room during this time.
Once the cremation is done, family members will be asked to participate in hashi watashi (箸渡し)a rite in which family members pick up and pass the deceased’s bones with chopsticks and place them in the urn. In Japanese, hashi can refer to chopsticks or bridge, and this ceremony signifies crossing the deceased from this world over the bridge of the River Styx to the other world. (This is also why it’s impolite to pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks.) While it may be hard, and honestly, this is one part of my father’s funeral I could not bring myself to participate in, if you can please participate and send off the your beloved family member.
Funerals are sad in any culture, but often in Japan they turn into mini family reunions where you will hear laughter and too many drinks will be consumed.
Check out these movies for a different look at Japanese funerals:
Ososhiki (The Funeral) by Itami Juzo http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0089746/
Sarah is a long-time resident born and raised in Japan. She spends her time trying to raise her children, translating and making soy candles on the side. She loves the beach, paddle boarding, mountain lakes and Japanese beer :)