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Japanese Funerals (Ososhiki)

Post: Sunday June 9, 2013

Funerals are always a difficult time. Unfortunately, such occurrences are an inevitable part of life in Japan just like everywhere else.


First, here are a few general details about how death and funerals are handled in Japan. Generally speaking, regardless of whether the family in question practices or not, Japanese funerals are conducted in a Buddhist style. There are many variations on the specific rituals and ceremonies within the overall process but the vast majority of funerals are conducted in what is called the Soto Zen style. Also, unlike in most Western countries, 99.9% of Japanese burials involve cremation. In fact, some local governments even ban traditional burials.


In case you are invited to attend a Japanese funeral, below is a description of the major ceremonies as well as guidance on some standards for dress and customs.


Japanese Funeral


OTSUYA (Wake ceremony)

The Otsuya is very similar to the Wake ceremony in many Western countries and is a time when family, relatives, and close friends gather to say their goodbyes to the dead. In this ceremony, the bereaved gather and spend a period of time in the same location as the body of the departed. Many times, a Buddhist priest will chant what is called a sutra while the family and relatives will offer incense at an incense urn in front of the body of the deceased.


In recent years, the traditions around the Otsuya have changed such that those individuals who cannot make it to the actual funeral ceremony can stop by and give their condolences.  Be sure to check with the bereaved ahead of time if you do this. When this type of Otsuya is occurring, the start and end times are usually announced and typically begin at 6 or 7 pm and last for 1-2 hours.



OSOSHIKI (Funeral)

The Ososhiki is the actual funeral service, and contains several ceremonies. It starts one day after the Otsuya with a Sougi or Soshiki, which is the actual funeral ceremony. It follows a similar procedure to the Otsuya, with a priest chanting a sutra and the bereaved burning incense. After the Sougi, there is a Kokubetsushiki, or memorial ceremony, where the friends and acquaintances of the bereaved pay their respects to the dead and offer condolences to the family. Lastly, there is a cremation ceremony. This is a very private ceremony conducted only with the family. After the body has been cremated, the family uses chopsticks to pick the bones out of the ash and place in a burial urn which is then interred in the family grave.







Funeral ceremonies are very formal affairs so you should dress accordingly. Below are some general guidelines.





  • ■ At the Ososhiki, always wear a black suit with white button-down shirt, black tie, and no tie pin.

  •  Belts, socks, and shoes should also be black.

  • ■ At the Otsuya, dark navy or grey suits are also acceptable.



  • ■ At the Ososhiki, wear a black dress or a black formal kimono. Bags, shoes, stockings, etc. should also be black.
  • ■ In clothing, you should avoid any shiny material, leather, or furs, though leather bags/shoes are acceptable.
  • ■ You should wear no accessories except a marriage ring, and a single pearl necklace, if any.
  • ■ As with men, at the Otsuya, black or dark colored suits or dress are generally fine.



Funeral Customs




During funeral ceremonies, incense is offered for the deceased. Below are general guidelines on how to appropriately perform this ritual.


  • ■ Move to the position in front of the altar and bow to the bereaved relatives.
  • ■ Move to the altar and bow deeply.
  • ■ Take one step forward to offer incense (see below).
  • ■ After you have finished offering incense, place the palms of your hands together in prayer and slightly lower your
  •  head.
  • ■ Take one step back facing the altar and bow deeply before returning to your seat.


There are two types of incense, makko and senko, and below are guidelines on the specific steps in offering incense.


MAKKO - incense powder




  • ■ Using the first three fingers (thumb, index, middle) of your right hand, take a pinch of the powder incense.
  • ■ Lower your head slightly and bring it to your forehead before sprinkling them into the incense burner.
  • ■ Repeat this 1-3 times. The number of times for this process depends on the religious sect.



SENKO - incense stick



Pick up the incense using your right hand and light it with the candle. The number of senko here can be 1-3 depending on the religious sect. Use your left hand to put out the flame. Be careful never to blow out the flame.


  • Place it in the incense burner. Again, depending on the religious sect, the incense will either be laid down or set standing up. If you will be setting up the incense, place it slightly apart from other senko to prevent smoke from clouding together and also place it in the rear section so that attendees following you will have enough space to place their senko.



OKODEN (Offering/Condolence money)


Okoden is a condolence gift brought by guests to a funeral. The tradition started out historically when incense was offered at funerals to comfort the soul of the deceased. In medieval Japan, Okoden in the form of rice or vegetables were also given. Today, since the host of the funeral prepares all of the furnishings and catering for the funeral ceremony, Okoden are given as cash gifts intended to help bear the cost of the incense and as a show of mutual support for the bereaved for their unexpected expense.


Guidelines on Okoden:

    • ■ You should never use crisp or new bills. This suggests you were preparing for deceased’s death or else that you
    •  foresaw misfortune.
    • ■ The amount of the gift depends on your relationship with the deceased. 5,000 yen or 10,000 yen is appropriate for
    •  friend/colleague.
    • ■ Be careful to avoid the numbers 4 and 9 at funerals. 4 can be read as “shi” in Japanese, which sounds the same
    •  as death and 9 can be read as “ku” and this can suggest the word “kurushii” which means suffering.
    • ■ Always use a special envelope with black and white ribbon that is specific for Okoden, similar to the below
    •  picture.






Additional thoughts


Please keep in mind that the above notes are only general guidelines on funerals. If you have specific questions about the particulars of a Otsuya or Ososhiki that you are attending, you should check with the host or else a friend or colleague familiar with the deceased who can help with questions of ceremony or custom.


Lastly, if you are interested in what preparations for a funeral and the ceremony itself look like, the 1984 Japanese film “The Funeral” by director Juzo Itami does give a good overview of the proceedings of a traditional Japanese funeral. Note, that this is by no means an endorsement of all the content of the film, but only a suggestion for those looking for a visual demonstration of what a funeral ceremony might look like.



This entry was posted in Living Information


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