Japanese Funeral Etiquette: Some Helpful Guidelines
Funerals are always a difficult time. Unfortunately, such occurrences are an inevitable part of life in Japan just like everywhere else.
Nearly all Japanese funerals, or Ososhiki, are conducted Buddhist-style, regardless of what religion the family practices. Also, almost all involve cremation, to the point that even the local government sometimes bans traditional burials.
In case you are invited to attend a Japanese funeral (never invite yourself, and certainly don’t attend uninvited), below is a brief description of the various events involved, along with some essential Japanese funeral etiquette for before, during and even after the event.
Japanese Funeral Ceremony: The Otsuya and Ososhiki
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 a called 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 7PM and last for 1-2 hours. Please keep in mind that unless you are a very close friend, you should attend either the wake or the funeral (often the day after the wake), but not both.
OSOSHIKI (Kokubetsushiki) - Funeral Ceremony
The Ososhiki is the actual Japanese funeral service, and contains several ceremonies. It starts one day after the Otsuya with a Sougi or Soshiki, which is the funeral ceremony itself. 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 them in a burial urn which is then interred inside the family grave.
Before the Ceremony
What to Wear
Black is the color of mourning in Japan. While in the recent years dark blue and dark gray is becoming more acceptable, black is still preferred over all other colors. It can’t be stressed enough that you must never attend a Japanese funeral without the appropriate attire—to do so would be the ultimate sign of disrespect.
- Plain, conservative black suit, plain white shirt, matte black tie, plain black shoes (no shiny buckles), and no jewelry (only wedding rings are accepted)
- - Black kimono or a plain, matte, black conservative dress. By plain, meaning no patterned fabrics, lace, or frills; matte meaning nothing shiny or glittery; and by conservative meaning the dress should cover the knees, not be form-fitting, and have a high-cut neckline.
- - Completely closed, flat, black shoes (no shiny patent leather or design flourishes)
- - Black, opaque, nylon stockings
- - No jewelry (a plain strand of pearls and wedding rings are accepted)
- - Understated makeup (lipsticks especially, should be muted)
- - As little perfume as possible
- - Women with long hair should keep it up in a bun, while those with short hair should keep it with hairspray.
- - Bags should be plain black as well (there are special bags for funerals, see below)
What to Bring:
- Okoden are money offerings, in this case condolence money, which are typically given to the bereaved by guests at Japanese funerals. The amount will generally be from 3,000yen to 30,000yen, depending on the relationship to the deceased, the social and financial status of the mourner and the bereaved family. Use your judgment here, but never, ever use crisp new bills, as doing so signifies that you expected the death and thus had time to get new ones. Moreover, never present the money without the proper envelope (goreizen, see below). It is better to not give money at all than give it without an envelope! Some people also write their name and the amount of money enclosed (in gray ink) outside the envelope, and while this it is not good practice according to some, it is actually better to do this as this helps the bereaved family keep track of the offerings.
- If, for example, you cannot attend the funeral or wake for whatever reason, always inform the bereaved the reason for not being able to attend, and if they accept anything in lieu of not attending. Do not send condolence flowers, as they are considered inappropriate in most cases.
Where to Buy What You Need:
- For plain black clothes, a typical suit store will generally have all that you need except perhaps, the quintessential black tie for men.
- While a black tie is trickier to find, but it is generally available at department stores, supermarkets, and even 100 yen shops and train station kiosks.
- Plain, matte, black bags to be used for funerals are available at department stores as well. If possible, though, please take care to bring only what you need.
- Okoden typically refers to the concept of money gifts, so there are actually many types of okoden envelopes available at all stationery stores. When asking the store clerk, it is better to mention that it is for a funeral, or simply to ask for the kind of envelope you need, called a "goreizen." Do not get a "gobutsuzen" envelope, as this is used for after a person has been cremated.
During the Ceremony
Upon arriving, you will be greeted by the family members. Make sure that your okoden is out of sight at this point. Never give your money offering directly to the bereaved family. After paying your respects, please refrain from talking to them throughout the remainder of the ceremony.
What to Say
The following are general phrases to offer condolences at a Japanese funeral or wake:
- Goshuushou-sama desu (You must be grieving terribly.) This can be used no matter your relationship to the person.
- O-kuyami moushiagemasu (I offer my condolences.) This can be used in writing as well.
After you have greeted the family, someone in this reception area will ask that you write your name in a registry. At this point you put your okoden in the appropriate tray, usually sorted by category. Then you will be ushered into the room and to your seat. Seats closest to the front are reserved for the immediate family. After everyone is seated, the Buddhist priest then starts his chant. Remember that many of the rituals in the wake and funeral are quite similar, and if you are unsure of what to do, follow those around you, or ask close colleagues and friends.
There are two types of incense that you are likely to encounter: Makko (Incense Powder) or Senko (Incense Sticks)
How to Use Makko:
- - 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.
How to Use Senko:
Pick up the incense using your right hand and light it with the candle. The number of senko may number 1-3, depending on the religious sect. Use your left hand to put out the flame, being very careful never to blow it out.
Place it in the incense burner. Again, depending on the religious sect, the incense will either be laid down or set standing up. Place your senko slightly apart from others and toward the rear section, both to prevent smoke from clouding together and also so that attendees following you will have enough space to place their incense.
Again, if you are unsure of what to do, follow those around you.
After the Ceremony
After the ceremony, as you leave you will be offered gifts in return for your okoden, usually towels. Only family members attend the final cremation. It is important to take note that, as in other Asian countries, after a wake or funeral (or every time you visit the cemetery) you should never go directly back home or to someone else’s home. You should always stop by a different, public place, like a family restaurant, before heading back. The belief is that spirits that dwell in the cemetery tend to follow you out, and you should lead them astray lest they follow you home. This is also a reason why Japanese have a posthumous name called kaimyo, which helps prevent the person from "returning" whenever his or her name would be called.
We Hope you Find These Japanese Funeral Guidelines Useful
Please keep in mind that the above notes are only general guidelines on Japanese funeral ceremonies. 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 ceremonies or customs.
Lastly, if you are interested in funeral preparations and some details about the ceremony itself, the 1984 Japanese film "The Funeral" by director Juzo Itami provides a good overview of the proceedings of a traditional Japanese funeral. Note that this is by no means an endorsement of the film’s content, but only a suggestion for those looking for a visual demonstration of what a funeral ceremony in Japan might look like.