Funerals in any culture are solemn occasions, and especially so in Japan. Japanese people have a set of practices to follow to give the dearly departed a proper sendoff. Unlike most other occasions in Japanese culture which follow Shinto traditions, Japanese funerals follow Buddhist customs. 

If you have been invited to a Japanese funeral, it might throw you off a little bit if you don’t know the customs. It’s better to be prepared so as to not offend anyone during the event. This article will cover what you need to bring, what to wear and what to expect during the services. 

What to bring 

One of the most important parts of a Japanese funeral is the preparation before attending it. You need to be mindful of the things that are needed with you. 

First of all, you ought to have with you some Buddhist prayer beads, which are called “juzu” (数珠) in Japanese. Some might say that this is not compulsory, but if you can get your hands on one in advance, it would be ideal.

The most important thing you should not forget is the kōden (香典), which is condolence money for the family of the deceased. The amount is usually used to pay for the funeral, and it can be anywhere from 5,000 yen to 30,000 yen – this is approximately USD50 to USD300. The rule of thumb is that the closer you are to the deceased, the more money you put in.

Be mindful that it is best to give odd numbers as even numbers have negative associations. Definitely avoid the number 4, as the word for the number in Japanese is pronounced as “shi”, which has the same pronunciation as the Japanese word for“death”. 

There is a special envelope to put the condolence money in, and you can purchase them at any 100-yen shop in Japan. The best envelope to get is one that is white with a black-and-white ribbon on it. Avoid red-and-white envelopes as they are for celebratory events. In the envelope there is another small envelope, which is where you put the money in. Write the amount on the front of the inner envelope and your name and address on the back, then place it in the larger envelope that’s decorated. 

A step extra is to put the condolence envelope in a cloth called the fukusa (福砂). Black, brown or purple coloured ones are ideal. You can get them at department stores in Japan. Ask a Japanese pal to know the proper way of wrapping this cloth.

What to wear

Just like most cultures’ funerals, the best colour to wear to a Japanese funeral is black. It’s best for men to come dressed in a white shirt and black suit, complete with a black necktie. 

As for the ladies, black is also the best colour to wear to a Japanese funeral. A non-revealing black dress is the most common type of clothing for this occasion. If you want to wear jewellery, pearls are the most ideal type of jewelry for funerals. Most women opt for one string of pearls as a necklace or pearl earrings as they symbolise the purity of the human spirit.

Avoid bright colours as this is distracting for the occasion.

What to expect

There are two days of visiting — the day before the funeral ceremony, which is the ceremonial wake, and the funeral day. Friends, other than close friends, are expected to only attend one of the days and not both. 

The wake, called otsuya (お通夜), usually takes about one to two hours for the deceased’s friends, associates and family to come together. ABuddhist priest would be present to chant a sutra while the bereaved offer incense. Nowadays, those who can’t make it to the funeral go to the wake. 

Afterwards, there’s the okiyome (お清め), where guests eat and drink and talk about the good ol’ times. 

The funeral day is similar to the wake, but more elaborate. If you are invited to the funeral day, a common ritual held is the intended rite called Oshoukou (お焼香). This is to pray for the soul of the dearly departed. How it goes is you walk to the altar, take a pinch of the insincere and touch it to your forehead. Then, you sprinkle the incense into a different bowl. 

You will also be given a chance to view the body in the casket, but you don’t need to feel pressured to do so.

There is no okiyome and instead includes the cremation ceremony, a significant part of the Buddhist faith, which is usually conducted with family only. During this event, the family waits in a designated room while the body is being cremated. Afterwards, the family members will go into a room where the coffin was taken from the furnace. They are each given a pair of chopsticks and proceed to pick up a bone of the deceased from the coffin and into an urn. Only the bones are kept and not the ashes. 

Conclusion

Funerals are not only sad but stressful times for the family and friends affected. Therefore, it is crucial that we know the customs and traditions of the deceased’s culture before attending their funeral so as to not cause unnecessary situations during the events.

If you want to know more about Japanese funerals, give Season 2 Episode 9 of the Nihongo Master Podcast a listen. We also talked about the procedures of Japanese funerals in that episode.