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Monday, May 28, 2012

Japan And The Dead: An Old View

The first thing one needs to know about this topic of the Dead, is that the country consists of five spiritual belief systems (in no particular order): Taoism, folk religion, Shinto, Confucianism, and Buddhism.

In fact, these belief systems have harmoniously intermingled with each other for centuries.

Christianity, led by St. Francis Xavier tried to sneak into Japan in 1549 AD, but that never took hold as well as the Christians had hoped, as there was a massacre in Nagasaki back in 1597 when the Japanese executed 26 Christians. They were tortured and crucified on crosses in a macabre form of irony. I shall talk about more about Christianity in a later blog. 

In Shinto (神道), a name actually derived in the 19th century though its practice is from the 8th century AD, the Japanese believe that a kami (god) lives as a force of nature, and that things such as rocks or trees or mountains or rivers or rice paddies or waterfalls all have their own kami. Shinto actually means "the way of the Gods".

Nowadays, Shinto relates to the kami who are enshrined within jinja (shrines)... and always have torii (gateway) before their entrance. The image above is of a torii.

What does a kami look like? Maybe like a human... maybe like an animal. It's not really important to the people of Japan. It is vague... just like what they do for people. It's just a form of respect to nature.

That all has nothing to do with anything, but despite Japan's non-desire to define a kami, it still has a defined ritual and process for the dead... at least until modern times.

Back in the old days, a corpse was feared. Yes, there was respect for the dead body of a friend or family member, but there was a greater fear that the spirit was going to be trouble for the living.

As such, shinto purification rites had to be performed on a corpse, as well as the home it was kept in, not to mention the place where the death occurred.

Part of the reason for purifying the corpse was to help the spirit move onto the next stage of its journey. They other was to ensure it wouldn't try to stick around and kill the living.

Now that's superstitious.

"Grandma's dead..."
"Oh crap! Now she's an evil spirit! Is the dog levitating?"

I jest, but the example is sound.

Now, with the Buddhism, which originated in India but came to Japan from China in the 6th Century, the proper care of a dead body, or rather its vengeful spirit was undertaken.

Now... in order for a spirit to not become an avenging ghoul, Buddhist ceremonies needed to take place to move the spirit along a journey that would soon enough make it a much respected ancestor - but only if you followed the proper Buddhist traditions. I smell financial gain for those doing the ceremonies!

I hate you all!

During these Buddhist rites, the newly deceased spirit (shirei) would eventually become a hotoke (a spirit that becomes enlightened - a Buddha). After 10 years, the hotoke would transform into a senzo (ancestor), and eventually into a kami and thus become a part of the natural area.

According to beliefs, the ancestral kami would always be a part of the land, and would work tirelessly to ensure the prosperity of its family for as long as the memory of the deceased was maintained. If its memory was forgotten, the spirit was then treated as though it was part of a kami collective for the family - but perhaps it would no have to work as hard.

And, just so you know, for those people who died and had no relatives to mourn for them or to pray to them or died a violent death, these spirits became muenbotoke  - the Buddhas of no affiliation - and these are the spirits that people truly feared as perhaps taking the living to task. These muenbotoke are the basis for all of the ghost stories.

That's the five-yen version of the old and ancient view of death and ghosts et al of Japan.

Andrew Joseph  

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