Life Education in Japan: Fully Living in the Present Moment

Teaching how to deal and cope with life and death situations is commonly known as Life Education in Japan. Life Education has become an increasingly important topic today, especially in these unprecedented times. There are so many notable moments where this type of education becomes essential and valuable. One of those moments was on March 11, 2011 where a magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck Japan’s northeastern shores. This horrifying earthquake was also followed by a tsunami and a nuclear disaster killing more than 15,500 people. The grief of these consecutive series of awful events have not subsided in the memories of survivors.

Another time where Life Education becomes helpful and important is when we age. As we all get older, the experience of death of family members and friends inevitably increases. Anyone who experiences losing a loved one may feel waves of intense and very difficult emotions, ranging from profound sadness, emptiness, despair, and regret.

Moreover the COVID-19 pandemic has recently contributed to the rise of the rate of suicides in Japan, especially among young adults and women. And recently, the Russia-Ukraine conflict poses a different type of threat to the Japanese economy, as well as the concern for people & their lives.

In Japan, educational books about coping with death are getting more attention during the pandemic. People now realize its necessity and how beneficial it can be to get this information out to the public. Furthermore, since Japan is the world’s fastest aging country, a large number of elderly people and their families seek to learn to better cope with end-of-life situations. In the country, with a median age of 48, more than one in five people of the population is 65 or over.

Multiple domestic surveys revealed that news and images of death are much more prevalent today which fuels an overwhelmingly more negative perspective, causing people to be more scared, anxious, worried, and sad. One Japanese religionist believes that not thinking about death actually reduces the meaning of death, and its importance of life. He goes on to say, “The best time to think about death is when you’re healthy. If your physical health is undermined, it is very difficult making those wise decisions for many things when you might feel your life is ending.”

It’s easier to cope with death situations today when we learn about our country’s historical views on life and death, from the beginning to the present. We are convinced that it can make a positive difference in our daily lives, giving us more perspective and thus the ability to live more mindfully.

In our society, the subject of death can certainly be taboo, as many of us don’t want to talk about death or plan for the end of our own lives. However, by learning ahead of time, we can better deal with the reality of these situations. When we better understand death, we can ultimately begin to cope with it when it arrives. Otherwise, we end up avoiding the topic until it’s too late. We believe death is a natural part of life. Thinking and learning more about death is important and also make us appreciate the life we live as well.

The Oldest Religious Text in Japan, Kojiki & Nihon Shoki

There is two primary sources for Japan’s native belief system of Shinto. Shinto is the oldest religion in Japan, and at the root of it lies animism—the belief that all things have a spirit or soul, including animals, plants, mountains, seas, and the sun. 

One of the sources called Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) is the oldest existing chronicle in Japan and was written in 711-712 CE. Kojiki is a collection of myths explaining the origin of the four home islands of Japan, and the Kami (god or deity). The second source is called Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan), which is the second oldest book of classical Japanese history which was completed in 720 CE. Nihon Shoki is more elaborate and detailed than the KojikiNihon Shoki includes the most complete extant historical record of ancient Japan.

In these two books, Izanami (woman) and Izanagi (man) gave birth to the Japanese archipelago/collection of the Japanese islands. They are the primordial gods of the Shinto religion.

To put it simply, in Shintoism, when a person dies, one goes to the land of Yomi. Yomi is located underground and is covered with the Kegare (impurity) of death. The world of spirits is separated from our daily world, where people cannot come and go freely. 

What is interesting about the myths is that the woman god, Izanami was fatally burned and went to Yomi. Izanami is depicted as afraid of death and eventually loses her lifeshe is a god but acts very human. Since the Japanese Gods also die, humans cannot rely on God, and must confront their death with their own wisdom. The Japanese believed every living thing is part of nature, and when they die, everybody eventually returns to nature.

Religious Syncretism/Medley: Process of Blending Shinto with Buddhism in the 6th Century

Buddhism was first introduced to Japan in the 6th century, during the Asuka period (552 to 645 CE). Buddhist missions were initially difficult because of Shintoism in Japan, but this situation changed completely when Suiko, who was devoted to Buddhism, became the empress in 592 CE. She is the first reigning empress of Japan in recorded history. Under the Buddhist monarchs and other authorities, Buddhism started to have a huge influence on the development of the entire society. As a result, countless numbers of Shrine-Temples were built everywhere in and around the country, while Buddhist temples were attached to local Shinto shrines. This Japanese fusion of Buddhism and Shinto belief systems is called Shinbutsu-shūgō. That’s very unique to the Japanese people as they tried to reconcile Buddhism with their indigenous Shinto religion.

One of the Shinto-Buddhist practice theories is named Honji Suijaku. It maintains that Buddha was the true image or nature of the spiritual beings to whom the people prayed, while Shinto deities were localized and provisional manifestations of these Buddhas. In this view, people saw the kami (god or deity) as manifestations of the Buddhist deities. There is no exact agreement about the extent of the fusion of Shinto and Buddhism, but Honji Suijaku preaches that the two religious are the same. 

The Vengeful Spirit: Shinto Beliefs & Rituals in the Heian period(794-1185)

In the Heian period, we see that the Japanese began to integrate different religious ceremonies even though they believed in Shintoism. For example, aristocrats who believed in Shinto still wanted a Buddhist funeral performed. This was because the Buddhist mindset of death is not something to be feared and should not be avoided, which is a more favorable concept. In contrast, Shinto sees death as dark, fearful, and impure. Thus in Japan, religions are often seen as being defined by their rituals and practices, more than by their beliefs. In the Edo period (1603-1867), Buddhist funeral services became more of a legal obligation even though many people believed in Shinto.

The Buddhist view on life and death is the concept of reincarnation. Death is not considered the end of life. On the contrary for Shinto, death is seen as impure and conflicting with essential purity. In Buddhism, death can be an opportunity for liberation from the cycle of life, death and rebirth. People are reborn many times after death. When the body dies, the soul owns another body and begins a new life. It’s a more opportunistic idea, which led to Buddhist funerals becoming more widespread among aristocrats.

The aristocrats in the Heian period were superstitious. One of the popular aristocrats’ customs is called Katatagae. This is when Shinto fortune tellers predict bad conditions or misfortune. Heian aristocrats would believe in these practices and readings and thus would change their plans accordingly in order to avoid unpleasant luck. In the pre-science era, the Japanese were afraid of unreasonable things. Many people feared the soul of a person who died while holding a grudge or jealousy, which is called Tatari. Tatari refers to a condition when a soul of human (sometimes a dead human soul) causes a calamitous condition for human beings, or a supernatural force that works within that condition.  

One of the famous historical stories of Tatari in the Heian period, is about a famous courtier-scholar and poet named Sugawara no Michizane (845-903). His vengeful spirit undertook a posthumous revenge. Michizane was falsely accused of treason by the Heian courts who were jealous of his enormous rise to power. He was exiled to Dazaifu on the Kyushu island from Kyoto in 901. At that time, Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan. He lost everything that he had and ended up living poor, passing away there alone two years later in despair.

After Michizane’s death, plague, drought and disasters coincidentally spread in Kyoto. Furthermore the son of the Emperor died soon thereafter, and the Emperor’s grandson also passed away in a mysterious manner. That wasn’t the end as more people died who were involved in Michizane demotion. A multitude of people became terrified as they believed these occurrences were caused by Michizane’s vengeful spirit. The government determined the only way to make this havoc stop is enshrine him in Kyoto and humbly offer him their apologies. The government built a Shinto shrine called Kitano Tenmangū in Kyoto, and dedicated to Michizane as the god of learning.

As mentioned earlier, Shinto’s view of death is seen as kegare (impurity). A bereaved family came into contact with the corpse was thought to be stained with death. People believed the bereaved family needed kegare wo otosu (to sweep away the pollution) to stop causing anomalies in the community.

One of a purification rituals for Shinto is using salt. The salt custom is still popular in modern day, and is called Kiyome-no-shio (salt for purification) in Japanese. See below pictures, some Japanese people have a home altars named Kamidana designed for home worship.

In the image, in the upper left, there is Kamidana which people worship daily basis. These are the household offerings of salt, rice, water, and sake (Japanese rice wine) to the shinto god.

There are two more well-known salt customs. The first is called Mori-shio, where the salt is placed in the shape of a triangular which is located at one’s house front door or one’s room door, or someone put on the Kamidana. The piled salt helps remove bad luck & ward off evil, meanwhile bring good luck to the house. The other salt custom is when funeral attendants receive a small salt package at the funeral ceremony. Before the participants enter their own house, they sprinkle the salt on their bodies to purify their body & soul.

A Japanese traditional practice morishio (piled salt).

Through the Looking Glass: Samurai & Ukiyo-e Views of Life and Death in the Edo Period 1600-1868

Samurai is a world famous Japanese warrior in the Edo era who fought to the death. The Samurai view of life and death was that it was important to keep death in mind, and preparing for death before going to battle was vitally important. This practice allowed a Samurai to participate in each battle free from fear of death. Samurai tries to have a mindset of living positively every day while accepting their own death in advance.

Ukiyo-e, Humorous Twists

Ukiyo-e is a genre of painting which is well known in the Edo era. A one of the type of ukiyo-e, called Shini-e means literally memorial portraits. It is like the obituaries of that time. Many shini-e were made when Kabuki actors, artists, or musicians passed away, which notified the community of celebrity deaths. See the below Shini-e pictures as you can see the citizens view of life and death. 

One of the memorial prints was issued upon the unexplained suicide of the young heartthrob actor Ichikawa Danjūrō VIII. He was only thirty-two. There were several hundred commemorative prints that were issued (more than any other genre of prints), often made anonymously. These ukiyo-e illustrations appeal to sense of curiosity of his death in a humorous manner.

The above shini-e, the Buddhas from heaven take the hand of Danjuro Vlll and ask him to go up to the lotus flower, which is one of the Buddhist most sacred symbols. Danjuro Vlll and the Buddhas wear a bright blue-green color kimonos (the robe color indicates it is clothing for the deceased). The humorous faces of Buddhas are depicted look more like Kabuki actors!

Image 1: Memorial Portrait of Actor Ichikawa Danjūrō VIII; Parody of The Death of the Historical Buddha, Utagawa Kunisada I (Toyokuni III) (Japanese, 1786–1864) ©National Diet Library
Image 2: Death of the Historical Buddha (Nehan-zu) 14th century @The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Above image 1 is a particular shini-e that is a parody of the Death of the Buddha, which is called Nehan-zu in Japanese. The above image 2 is the original nehan-zu where in the shini-e, female fans and cats are shown grieving while in nehan-zu depict disciples and animals grieving over Buddha’s death.

In these examples, we can see people are trying to keep a sense of humor while mourning death. This display of levity for these somber moments helps with the coping and grieving periods. At that time, the average life expectancy was around 50 years of age, because many people passed away due to earthquakes and fires, or sickness and because medical care was not well developed. They tried to be happier and more peaceful, focusing on living only for the moment instead constantly fighting fate.

Before we end our discussion about life and death in the Edo period, we would like to mention Atsutane Hirata (1776–1843), a Japanese thinker and Shintoist. In one of his books, Tama no Mihashira (True Pillar of the Soul, 1812), he talks about the journey after death as one goes to yumeikai (hidden world), which is realm of the dead that is invisible to living people. Hirata describes that Yumeikai is the original and permanent world, while we are living in the current world as a temporary passageway. Yumeikai is dark and invisible to those inhabiting the world of the living, but those in the spiritual realm could freely see the world of the living. Hirata says Yumeikai is different from the land of Yomi depicted in the Kojiki. He believes that humans all become kami who proceed to this concealed world.

Tama no mahashira (meaning the real pillar of the spirit), is Hirata’s interpretation of the Japanese myth of the creation of the universe which is in accordance with the principles of astronomy. He represented the sun as heaven, the earth as this current world, and the moon as the world of Yomi. Hirata concluded that comprehending the meaning the sun, earth, and moon will help one understand life and death.

Modern Japanese Belief

The Buddhist-Shinto syncretism theory was predominant until the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The Meiji emperor, in an effort to limit Buddhism’s influence in the spheres of religion, culture, and politics, decreed that Buddhism and Shinto were to be separated both ideologically and institutionally. This movement is named Shinbutsu bunri which means the separation of kami and Buddhas

The Heian period is the starting point of mixed religious life for Japanese people up to the present. The process of blending Buddhism with Shinto has still dominated some Japanese people, even though the government passed the legislation to divide them.

There is a saying that the Japanese views of life and death are roughly segmented into six thought beliefs which include: returning to nature; reborn as another human or animal; living forever in another world; disappearing completely; watching over the life of the descendants; and a departed human spirit is to remain in the mind of the deceased loved ones. These views were shaped and influenced by multiple faiths namely, Indian and Chinese religions including Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Japan’s native belief systems Shintoism took into account folk beliefs; ethnic religions; nature worship; and local custom & traditions. It has been picking and mixing of different religions and various traditions, which consequently made it very difficult to have a single clear idea of ​​life and death in Japan. 

Likewise, in modern Japanese society, many Japanese find it very common that weddings are held in Shinto (shrines) and funerals are held in Buddhism (temples). Furthermore some Japanese will have a church wedding as well as “Christian-style” wedding, even though they are not Christians—it’s not about religion, but a ceremonial ritual. 

Shinto Funerals

Many Japanese still hold funerals in the Buddhist style, but Shintoism also has its own funerals. Shinto funerals are called Shinsosai, which is a ritual for praying for the deceased to eventually become a god who protects ones descendants and their family homes. That’s a big difference from the Buddhism funeral which sends the deceased to paradise or heaven. In Shinto, all humans are children of God. When a person finishes one’s role in the world, they go to another world where the gods live. The ancestral spirits will protect their descendants. One Shinto priest says, “at Shinsosai, it’s better to pray with a positive feel than to pain of loss, because the deceased become actual gods.” 

Our conclusions about life and death philosophies are nebulous and somewhat unclear since the two main religions, which at times conflict each other, heavily influence Japanese culture. But living in the present seems to be one effective way to confront the fear of death that cannot be controlled by ourselves. In the moment, take the time to appreciate where you are, what you do, and who is with you.

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