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Conversation about a Japanese funeral

Machiko’s dad died recently. I sat down over a cup of coffee with her—and Yuki, a Japanese friend who is a Christian—to learn more about the Buddhist traditions that surrounded my friend’s father’s passing.

He passed away from cancer in hospital. Machiko said, “After he died we brought him back to my parents’ house. He ‘slept’ there until the funeral eight days later.”

“Did that seem weird?” I asked.

“Actually it was okay. It’s a Japanese tradition. Lots of people came to say farewell. When they came, my mother gave them cups of tea and they prayed in the room where my father lay.” Yuki and I were curious about what those prayers consisted of and who they were directed to, but Machiko didn’t know.

Around 90% of Japanese funerals are Buddhist and they include many rituals. Machiko said, “We had a lot of help from the funeral director and the six other families in our neighbourhood association (tonari gumi). The funeral director told us many things we didn’t know. My father used to manage all the things related to Buddhism in our house. My mum gave daily offerings at the family altar, but my father did everything else, for example, go to the family temple at New Year’s to offer prayers.”

Later I asked another non-Christian Japanese friend about funerals. She said, “Japanese people, including me, don’t think about the meaning but do those events at a funeral just as a custom.”

At one point in our conversation Yuki said, “Funerals in Japan are a time I feel most Japanese.” But she pointed out that when a non-Christian member of her family died, she and her parents didn’t participate in all the ceremonies surrounding their Buddhist funeral.

There isn’t much evidence from the way Machiko lives that she is Buddhist. I’m not even sure she’d describe herself as one, though when pressed, most Japanese people will say that they are. It is more of an identity than a systematic belief. It is an identity that plays a pragmatic part in Japanese culture and consists of customs that are done at certain times.

By an OMF missionary

Will you pray for Japan?

  • Pray for the many Japanese people who feel that to be Japanese is to do the rituals required by their family’s local temple or shrine.
  • Pray for Christians who want to show respect for their non-Christian family members at times such as funerals, but struggle to know how best to do that.
  • Pray for missionaries in Japan as they interact with their non-Christian friends: for wisdom in how to communicate the gospel, especially at times of bereavement.

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