Japan’s new funeral practices signal social changes and new ways of dealing with death

The switch to nuclear families in urban settings has led to significant changes in funerary practices in contemporary Japan, according to Marianna Zanetta (University of Torino, Italy, and École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris) at this year’s CESNUR Conference in Torino, which RW attended in September. In Japanese traditions, it is important to have relatives who will perform memorial rites for the dead, which focus on their purification and gradual entrance into the ancestor society. Since the process can last up to 33 or even 50 years, this involves a need for family continuity. But, as part of intense cultural transformations following World War II, the demise of the ideal of the extended family, the abandonment of rural areas for bigger cities, and declining fertility rates since the 1950s (from 4.32 in 1950 to 1.46 in 2015) have meant that a continuity of relatives to take care of the memorial rites is no longer assured.

Consequently, since the 1980s funerals have become much shorter and not necessarily Buddhist, Zanetta reports. They have been transformed from communal events with many participants into very private events. This has been accompanied by a growth of funeral industries and families’ becoming dependent on professional undertakers. New public and private cemeteries take care of the entire, shorter and simplified, process. Until the late 1990s, death as something to be approached on an individual basis was still unpopular, but it has been spreading since then. This comes along with new burial practices. For instance, Zanetta finds that demand for the scattering of ashes, which used to be considered disrespectful, has been growing since the 1990s, noting that “[whoever] chooses the scattering of ashes has full control over his or her afterlife, without obligations towards ancestors or descendants.” Another new practice is tree burial, currently quite popular, which appeared for the first time in the late 1990s. In a society in which ancestor worship was quite important, these developments indicate a new, privatized approach towards death and afterlife.