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Honoring the Dead in Japan

I am an expat living in Japan. Every day is an adventure and a blessing. Here are some of my most memorable experiences.

Help at the haka

This is the haka once the ritual is complete

This is the haka once the ritual is complete

Like many other cultures, honoring the dead is taken seriously in Japan. However, unlike many other cultures a visitor is expected to do this by a ritual that consists of tasks done in special order.

But the graves (or haka) in Japan look completely different from anything back home! How do we even get started? Don't worry, I'm here to help. Keep reading and you'll do fine.

First, the main reason the haka look different from Western graves because the Japanese cremate their dead. The remains are in a container at the base of the stone pillar. That stone pillar is like a tombstone which includes some information about the deceased. To the side, there may be something that looks more like a tombstone that includes more information.

In front of all this things may look complicated. There's a lot going on. This is because Buddhism and Shintoism have shaped Japanese thoughts of the afterlife for centuries. The haka reflects that.

Friends and relatives of the deceased can visit at any time but usually visit towards the end of summer, or Obon season. They may also visit during holidays such as New Year's Day.

Whenever you go, the ritual is the same.

Start! What will you need?

The haka before the ritual

The haka before the ritual

There are a few things you'll need to get started. Some will be available at the cemetery. Others you'll have to bring with you.

1. Water. This will be available at the cemetery. Water is sacred in Japan and will be important during the ritual. There will be numerous pumps throughout the grounds. Keep an eye out for the closest one to the haka you are visiting.

2. Water bucket (taoke) and dipper (hishaku) as seen at the left in the photo above. These will also be available at the cemetery. Close to the main entrance of the cemetery there will be a shed. In the shed there will be numerous taoke with hishaku. Pick any one you like and you're ready to go.

3. A clean cloth or sponge. Bring your own but be careful here. If the sponge or cloth is used for other things then there might be chemical residue on it. Try to avoid that.

4. Candles (rousoku). You will have to bring your own but only a special kind will do. The rousoku will be small, thin and white--the same size as birthday candles. They are available at most flower shops, supermarkets and just about every temple.

5. Incense (osenko). You'll have to bring this as well. Also, only a special kind will work: temple incense. They'll be right next to the candles. You can't miss it.

6. Flowers. Bring your own. Go to a nearby flower shop. Get two small bouquets. When picking, think of the types of flowers or colors that the deceased liked. Don't worry about the price, you'll do fine paying under 800 yen for both. Tell the staff you're visiting a grave. They'll cut the stems at the right size.

7. Offering. This is optional but choose something small that the deceased liked. For example, a certain kind of tea or alcohol. If you choose a beverage, bring a plastic bottle or tea cup. Glass might break. Avoid snacks or edibles, there will be birds all over the place ready to snatch your gift. Not cool.

Let's do it! Here's how

Once you get to the cemetery go to the shed and grab your taoke and and hishaku. Go to the haka you are visiting. On the way, if you see a pump, give your taoke and hishaku a quick rinse then fill the taoke with water.

At the grave, remove any weeds or moss you see. Then wet your cloth and clean the haka. Do not use any chemicals! Start from the top and work your way down. There's no need for scrubbing, just do the best you can. Next pour water on top of the haka using the hishaku. This will purify and cleanse (kiyomeru) it.

Now, the flower vases--these are metallic and removable. Toss old or dried flowers into the nearest trashcan. Take out the vases and empty them of old water at the nearest pump. Clean the vases with your cloth and rinse them with water. Fill the vases with clean water and put them back onto the grave. Put your flowers into the vases.

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Then put your candles in the lanterns (rosoku tate). If you brought the right kind, they will fit perfectly into the holders inside. Oh, be sure to light your candles!

Take your incense. Light it with the flame in one of the lanterns. Usually, incense lights up in a small flame. Do not blow it out! Wave it until the flame is out. Put your burning incense into the incense holder (senko tate).

If you brought an offering this goes in front of the grave--in front of the gravel. If it is edible, don't leave it there, take it back with you.

In front of the senko tate and between the rosoku tate is a kind of pond or pit. This is the suibachi. Fill the suibachi with water. This is to serve water to the deceased. Only water goes in the suibachi; no beer, sake, soda or anything else.

Finish! The end result

This is what the haka looks like after you've paid your respects

This is what the haka looks like after you've paid your respects

This is what a haka should look like after you're finished. As you can see, the grave is clean and flowers are in their place in the flower vases. Candles are lit and in the rosoku tate. The incense is lit and in the senko tate. There is clean water in the suibachi which is also clean.

If you look at the very bottom-right, there is a plastic bottle. In this bottle is a small amount of green tea. The deceased liked green tea.

The only thing there is to do now is to say a prayer. The traditional position is to kneel: knees on the ground, sitting on your ankles, bowing your head, hands together and eyes closed. However, based on your religion (and any joint problems) this is up to you.

Now you're finished. Don't forget to put to put the taoke and hishaku back into the shed!

Take a closer look!

Trivia time! Look for gravestones with pointy tops!

A Japanese graveyard--notice how close the haka are to each other

A Japanese graveyard--notice how close the haka are to each other

Take a close look at the picture above. You'll notice that some of the haka have pointy tops. A haka with a pointy top is the grave of a Japanese service member. Because Japan's last war was World War II, many of these graves are of those who died in the Pacific War.

These haka will include the person's branch of service, the date of his death and the battle he died in. My friend told me of places such as Guadalcanal and the Philippines that mark some of these haka. I was fascinated. Who wouldn't be?

I wanted to get up close and take a picture for this article but decided against it. The same reason my earlier pictures didn't include the entire haka we visited: privacy.

As an Army veteran, I've never seen graves of foreign soldiers. They made the ultimate sacrifice for their side. Now the war is over. The empire is gone and has been replaced with a democracy dedicated to peace.

Your resources - For more information

Is it often enough?

What do you think? - How do you honor the dead?

Arun Dev from United Countries of the World on July 10, 2015:

The Japanese indeed respect their ancestors!

mikeydcarroll67 on May 20, 2015:

Never knew that the Japanese had such intricate rituals associated with their burials.

TransplantedSoul on March 06, 2013:

Every person handles this differently. There is no right and wrong - just different.

neotony on December 09, 2012:

thank you for spreading the word about the Japanese culture, knowledge is the best way to achieve world peace.

pawpaw911 on October 17, 2012:

Interesting to see how other cultures honor the dead.

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