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My experience of ancestor veneration

How often do you think of your ancestors? What do you do to remember them?

Some of our missionaries come from Chinese backgrounds, which gives them a unique insight into the Japanese Buddhist mindset. Here, one of our Asian missionaries shares her experience.

My experience

Before I became a Christian I keenly participated in our family’s traditions: funeral rites, the 49thor 100thday since passing, grave-cleaning, annual death anniversaries were all observed in my family to remember my late grandmother. Every day I had to offer incense at her altar in our home. Beside the ancestral tablets engraved with their names lay a bowl of rice and their share of fruit and tea. As a child, I was expected to follow these traditions. I was taught that if I didn’t, something bad would happen to my family.

Chinese ancestral worship—which incorporates Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and animism—stems from the belief that the dead begin a journey to the other world or “heaven” and this journey involves ten different obstacles. The living are to help the dead overcome these obstacles by providing their needs. So, to signify a bright journey ahead a pearl was placed in my late grandmother’s mouth. To beat the dogs that guard the way, a stick is placed in the deceased’s right hand. For encountering the heat, a fan is provided. Prayers said are to aid the dead to cross the bridge. It is believed that if these steps are not taken, the deceased will not depart but remain on earth and bring much disaster to the living.

Life in the other world is believed to parallel life on earth. So the dead will need food and drinks, shelter, furniture, clothes, and shoes, etc. So, on the last night of my grandmother’s funeral, paper images of cars, servants, and enormous multi-stories houses were burnt to indicate these possessions were now with the dead.

Years after I became a Christian, I realized many of the practices are understood as extending filial piety or respect for one’s elders and ancestors. However, much also stems from fear: that departed spirits can bring, not just blessings and prosperity, but calamity to the living. My mother did not participate in these rites after she became a Christian. Her actions were frowned upon by those who equated filial piety with the observance of Buddhist rites.

Similarities between Chinese and Japanese rites

I’ve lived in Japan for several years now and I see similarities between Chinese ancestral rites and Japanese funeral rites. In most Japanese homes, it is common to see a butsudan, Japanese Buddhist altar, in the corner. On the altar, you will often find a cup of tea, a full bowl of rice, and fruit—similar to my late grandmother’s altar. Japanese Buddhists believe that when death occurs, the person takes on a form of deity (hotoke) worthy of worship. Offerings from family and relatives help that to occur. Mortuary rites, mortuary tablets, the Bon Festival, and anniversary rites for the dead are dutifully adhered to.

Ancient Japanese believed that the ancestors of a household were first and foremost its guardian deities (kami)that could protect descendants, just as parents protect their children. The dead were believed to bring defilement and curses upon the living. So, worshipping the dead to guard against their spirits cursing the living became necessary. It is thus common to find in Japanese homes, both a Buddhist altar with offerings to ancestors and a kami altar, sometimes in the garden, devoted to the various kami believed to have greater power to protect their clan.

This practice is not just confined to ordinary Japanese. In fact, the Japanese Emperor himself prays daily within the Imperial Palace. In the middle of the palace sanctuary, there is a shrine, where he prays to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami. On the left of that shrine, there is another for prayers to his imperial ancestors. On the right, is a shrine where he is to pray to the millions of gods and deities. It is said that the most important duty of the Emperor is to pray daily at the sanctuary to these gods. In the event where he is unable to be present, his chamberlain will represent him. As the leader of the country himself fulfills his most important task daily, the people look to him as a model to pray to their ancestors. For some, this includes praying to the ancestors of the Imperial Family, who is seen as the founders of the nation and ancestors of all Japanese people.

The challenge for Japanese Christians

Japanese Christians, especially sole believers in a family, face a unique challenge at family altars, ancestral rites, and special ceremonies. As I listen to their struggles about participating in Buddhist funerals I hear their fears of sticking out, of overt or covert comments passed, and their felt-need to conform to expectations. Taking a stand by not bowing before the coffin nor offering incense is not a small thing in Japan—it strongly testifies and reveals one’s conviction to the Christian faith. But it involves much courage and risk—risk of sowing disharmony in a society that values harmony at all costs. Some courageously articulate their reasons for not participating in certain rites and seek their family’s understanding of their Christian beliefs. But their beliefs may not be easily understood by those who are diligent in their attention to their ancestors as prescribed by their elders and traditions.

How should Japanese Christians remember their ancestors? Should they disregard the family altar and household norms regardless of the consequences?

It is not easy to live out the words of Jesus: worship God and serve him only. For Japanese Christians it requires much sensitivity and wisdom to understand their former worldview, fears, and traditions. An understanding that is needed before sharing the biblical worldview concerning those who have gone before and our confidence in our Lord Jesus Christ—our protector and the only conqueror of death. What would our Lord say to Japanese Christians who want to honor their ancestors? What would you say?

By an OMF missionary

Will you pray for Japan?

  • Pray that Japanese Christians will worship God and serve him only.
  • Pray for sensitivity and wisdom to understand the Japanese worldview (both for Japanese Christians and missionaries).
  • Pray for evangelism in Japan, answering the questions of non-Christian Japanese about ancestor veneration is challenging.

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