Cradle to the grave – birth, marriage and death in Japan

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Every culture has rituals and ceremonies that mark the key stages of life, usually birth, marriage, and death. In many cases, these rituals have a religious significance. The baby of Catholic parents, for example, will probably be baptised in church. At a Jewish wedding the groom will break glass, and a Muslim is likely to be buried according to Islamic customs. What’s surprising for many Westerners is how most Japanese freely mix and match their religious ceremonies…

Shinto Wedding Pictures Insidejapan
Shinto wedding dress under the sakura

The Japanese religious worldview is very open and inclusive. For a Japanese it is completely normal to bring a newborn baby to a Shinto shrine for a blessing, have a Christian-style wedding and a Buddhist funeral. The reason is that in Japan, religions are often seen as being defined by their rituals and practices, not so much by their doctrines. Therefore, it could even happen that a Japanese, if asked for their religious belonging, might say that they don’t belong to any religion, but they will nevertheless visit a Shinto shrine on the first day of the year or ask a Buddhist monk to perform a memorial ceremony for their parents.

When Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century, it did not suppress or replace the existing worship of local spirits, which later became known as Shinto. The two religions co-exist in Japan peacefully to this day. They influenced and stimulated each other. They even merged to a certain degree when Buddhist scholars started to interpret the Shinto deities as manifestations of the Buddhas in the Heian period (794-1185). Also Confucianist and Taoist ideas had an immense influence on Japanese thought and the major religious institutions. So, mixing religions has always been a normal part of the Japanese religious worldview, especially among commoners who were not so concerned with doctrinal matters and more interested in the practical application of religion in their daily life, which of course includes rituals. This hasn’t changed to this day.

Shinto is about living in harmony with our surroundings and showing gratitude for the life-forces that nurture us. Buddhism’s main goal, on the other hand, is to eradicate suffering by giving up egoistic views and developing inner peace. Shinto’s focus is more on this-worldly blessings, whereas Buddhism is more transcendental. Because of these differences, some important life-cycle rituals are more commonly done at a Shinto shrine and some more commonly done at a Buddhist temple.

The birth of a child, for example, is a very happy occasion. A new life is born, and the parents want happiness and good health for their baby. About one month after birth, many parents will bring their baby to a Shinto shrine to get a blessing. For this occasion, a colourful kimono is draped over the baby and tied behind the back of the person holding it, like a baby sling. A Shinto priest will say a prayer in front of the main altar, in which he also announces the name of the baby and the parents to the Shinto spirit, and then bless the baby.

Shichi-go-san Meji Jingu, InsideJapan Tours
Shichi-go-san

Another popular festival for children is the Shichigosan, which literally means seven-five-three. Each year, on the 15th November (or the nearest weekend), boys who are aged three or five and girls who are aged three or seven are dressed in beautiful little kimono and go to visit a shrine where their parents will take hundreds of pictures of them and they get a special candy, called chitose ame, as a reward. This festival originated from three different rites of passage that were conducted during the Heian period by court nobles. In later centuries, they merged into one festival, which was then adopted by commoners during the Meiji period (1868-1912) and included the modern ritual of visiting a shrine.

Although less common, some parents will bring their children to a Buddhist temple for their first formal temple visit. About six years ago, I was invited by a Buddhist priest who was also my advisor at university, to come to his temple in Hyogo prefecture where they held the first temple visit festival for a group of children. The ceremony started inside the main hall of the temple with a service and a short dharma talk, in which the priest explained the significance of this day to the children. Then, they all received Buddhist prayer beads, before we had a big meal together, which was prepared by the priest’s family and some lovely elderly ladies from the temple community.

Shinto marriage blessing, InsideJapan
Shinto marriage blessing

Over the last years, I have also been invited to quite a few weddings in Japan. All of them followed some common rules of a modern Japanese weddings. First, you have the wedding ceremony, which is often only attended by family members and close friends.

Traditionally, most weddings were held at a Shinto shrine, but nowadays over fifty percent of Japanese couples opt for a Christian-style wedding. This is pretty high considering less than one percent of Japanese are Christian – another sign of Japan’s laissez-faire attitude to religious segregation. These Christian-style weddings aren’t conducted by a Christian priest in a consecrated church, but by an actor (often a foreigner doing this as a side gig) wearing priestly robes, in a purpose-built hotel chapel. In Japan this is no problem, because for the couple this is not about making their vows in front of god and the community of the church, but about having a beautiful ceremony with the romantic flair of a Western wedding.

Then, there is the banquet, usually held at a big hall inside a hotel serving exquisite (and rather expensive) food. Unfortunately, the bride and groom don’t have much time to enjoy the meal, because they are busy going from table to table to talk to their guests and thank them for coming. It is also very common that the newlyweds leave the banquet room a few times to change clothes. In the two to three hours in which the banquet takes place, the bride might change her dress two to three times, starting with a western or traditional Japanese white wedding dress, then changing to a kimono, and finally wear a modern evening gown. Of course, there are also speeches and the bride will read a letter that she wrote to her parents, in which she thanks them for everything they have done for her so far. This is the most emotional and tear-jerking part of the wedding and so the bit that everyone is looking forward to! In the evening, there is an after party, the most relaxed part of the day. Games are common at after parties, one of the most popular, believe it or not, is bingo!

But once life comes to an end, Buddhist rituals become important. The role of Buddhist priests in funeral rites is so prominent in Japan, that many Japanese will associate Buddhism only with that. In some cases, people have no idea to which school of Buddhism their family temple belongs to until the death of a family member. The historical reason for this close association of Buddhism and funerals in Japan can be found in the Edo period (1603-1868). In order to control the spread of Christianity and to help the shogunate government to keep an eye on the population, every family had to register at a Buddhist temple. At the same time, it was ordered that all funerals had to be conducted by the Buddhist temples, the only exceptions were made for important Shinto priest families. The system of registration at a Buddhist temple led to a lack of competition for new members among the different schools, and the stable income through funerals made the temples concentrate on this task.

Okunoin cemetery, Mt Koya Insidejapan
Okunoin cemetery, Mt Koya

During the wake, a Buddhist priest will read sutras, while the guests come to the front, one by one, to offer incense. The funeral proper is usually held the next day. The procedure is similar to that of the wake, but on this day the monk will ordain the deceased posthumously and give her/him a Buddhist name. In Buddhism it is believed that our actions are the causes for various effects, good and bad. Even after death, this causal chain is not broken. The purpose of the funeral rituals is to help the deceased gain merit to bring her/him closer to the ultimate goal of enlightenment. When this part of the funeral is over, the family and guests place flowers in the casket around the deceased’s upper body, before the casket is sealed. If the deceased is wearing a traditional kimono, the front is crossed right side over left side. Usually it is done the other way around, so if you walk through Japan in a kimono or yukata and don’t want people to think you are a ghost, you better cross left over right.

After the cremation, relatives will pick up the bones from the ashes with special chopsticks and put them inside an urn. During this ritual, two people will eventually hold one bone together with their chopsticks. Therefore, it is considered rude during a meal to pass something from chopstick to chopstick or two people holding something at the same time with their chopsticks, because this reminds people of funerals. The urn is then put inside the family grave, which is often at a temple.

After the funeral, a plate with the Buddhist name of the deceased is placed inside or next to a Buddhist altar in the family’s home. Since nowadays there is no place for a Buddhist altar in most modern homes, many will purchase a small altar just for this purpose. A Buddhist priest will conduct regular memorial services at the home altar for the deceased.

As we have seen, Japan’s religious world is rich and diverse. People are free to participate in rituals of different religions (if family tradition doesn’t dictate otherwise). This can seem a little confusing ー even for Japanese, believe me ー but in our globalised world, where people from different cultural and religious backgrounds come closer and closer together, Japan can be an example for religious openness, while at the same time respecting and preserving old traditions.

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