Ancestor worship in Japan

What happens to you when you die; no one really knows. Do you go to a heaven, hell or just disappear into the ether? The fact is no one really knows and people fear what they don’t know. So to help deal with the unknown, people have fabricated religions and religious practices like funerals to help deal with the pain and confusion and out of these religious practice there have evolved some very interesting practices. Today I am going to touch on ancestor worship in Japan.


Japan is a country that practices Shinto, and Buddhism as well as Christianity as their main religions. However, the statistics show that most Japanese people don’t practice their religion and just observe most holidays like a day off and not a religious observance… Just like most Christians and Christmas. Even though religious ceremonies and attitudes are relaxed in Japan, ancestor has continued to be a part of Japanese tradition that will not go away.


A lot of the ancestor worship done in Japan is a combination of Shinto and Buddhist religions mixed with a heavy bit of influence from Chinese culture. Ancestor worship in Japan is varied from prefecture to prefecture, as well as family to family. For example in Okinawa prefecture, the eldest son in the family is generally expected to stay close to the family grave to care for it and hold ceremonies in the crypt every year. Therefore many Okinawan’s may move away for a few years but eventually move back to their homes to care for the family and look after the family crypt, a tradition very different from any other prefecture.


While there are many differences there are also many similarities, too. For example when a person dies, there is a wake, followed by the funeral. After that, there are purification/remembrance rituals done at 7 days, 49 days and 100 days, these stretch to years as well. Alongside the rituals, ancestor worship in Japan consists of ceremonies, graves/crypts and home altars as well as the annual OBON holiday, all these are different but similar, too through all of Japan.


But ancestor worship isn’t just a family event, it is a community event. The OBON is where ancestors return to their homes from the dead once a year to be with their families. Fresh fruit and snacks are offered at graves and altars and then eaten for good luck. At the same time there are big festivals with dances to commemorate the ancestors, although most of these festivals have moved away from religious ceremonies and are viewed as just a day off now a day.

All in all, Japan is a country of contradictions and ancestor worship is no different. It is both religious, and non-religious at the same time. No matter how far from religion people in Japan are, you can always be sure to see them at the graves during OBON. Is the separation of religion and ancestor worship good? Is it a just a waste of time to help people cope with death or is there more to it? No matter what the answer is, ancestor is a part of Japanese culture that makes them unique and bonds them as nothing I have ever seen.


The devil made me do it

Skateboarding in Japan


[Photo by me]

With the Tokyo Olympics coming to Tokyo in 2020 there is a lot of talk about the future of sports in Japan. Specifically, for my students, the future of skateboarding in Japan. So today, since testing in finally finished and all my students can finally relax I decided to take a detour from serious culture articles to more of a contemporary look at modern culture.

If you ever talk to a kid in Japan about sports,one that will almost never come up is skateboarding. That is, until it was added to the Olympic docket for the Tokyo Olympics. Now, students have begun to take an interest in skateboarding and just in the past few months, to my joy, I have seen skateboards pop up in many shops.

Even with the interest in skateboarding, the sport has a long way to go before people accept it. In Japan there are three styles of skateboarders that I have come across. Longboarders, flat landers and park skaters. The most popular style is park style skaters.In the picture above you can see a local skater (and an old student of mine) in a park that has been made for skaters in my local town.

Most of the parks you will find in Japan are the same as this one. They are very old, unkempt and rusted out.Only in larger cities will you find any parks made with concrete or any quality materials. Generally skateboarders are considered a nuisance that people tolerate but do not welcome with open arms.

That being said associations like  the SJSA and J-Skateboarding have emerged as the leader in bringing skateboarding to Japan and are slowly making a difference and spreading the word throughout Japan. It will be interesting to see what the future holds and see if Japan can produce any more skateboarding champions.


Making Wonka proud



Valentines day in Japan


Next week is Valentines week. The week where people confess their love for each other and single people hope for a Valentine ’s Day match made in heaven. Chocolates and cards fly off of the shelves while pens swirl while writing confession letters and messages that may never actually meet their destination and end up in the trash can in a fit of shyness. While Valentine’s Day is similar in Japan it is also very different. Today I will go into Valentine’s Day in Japan.


The first difference that throws off a lot of people when coming to Japan is that on Valentine’s Day only the girls give chocolate. There is an entirely different day called WHITE DAY where boys give the chocolate back. The chocolates that are given by the girls to the boys are generally hand made. Starting in mid-January stores begin to sell chocolate, molds and very ornate boxes. Over the next weeks preceding Valentines girls will work tirelessly to make chocolates for friends, boyfriends and potential love interests.


When Valentine’s Day finally comes the girls face a fair amount of stress. What make giving chocolate so stressful you might ask, that would be Japanese culture. Japanese culture is very group oriented. Therefore gift giving is generally done in groups to help people save “face” and relieve the stress associated with giving chocolates to love interests. However giving the chocolates leaves a girl vulnerable, especially because they have to wait until March for WHITE DAY where the boys give their own chocolates back in response.


While this is an innocent gesture between friends and love interests it can be very isolating, especially if a girl or boy are very serious and stray from the group to ask out a love interest. This adds a new level to the equation because not only is the person isolated from the group and at risk to lose face, but their feelings are put on the line as well. If all goes well, the person who risked stepping away from the group will be praised, but if all goes badly, they may face ridicule from their group and may end up being forced from the group.


Since I have been married for near a decade now, I haven’t participated in Valentines activities like I mentioned for a long time. Times have changed and there may be different methods to give presents and the stress might not be a prevalent now. So, if you have any stories about Valentine’s Day in Japan please share them so we can all learn. What other kinds of traditions have you observed from your own home countries during the month of love, if you even celebrate Valentine’s day. Please share, I would love to hear from you.

Shameless self-promotion time


[This is just a shameless self-promotion entry]

Greetings one and all;

I hope you are all having a great week.

Here in Japan is is finals week, which explains why I haven’t uploaded in a bit. This blog will just be a bit of shameless promotion because I don’t have much time at my computer this week.

I have begun a video and podcast with a friend and fellow ALT. In the podcast we talk about life in Japan as a foreigner. We just finished recording our first 4 episodes and are in the midst of editing and hopefully we can get them all up by the end of February.

So if you have found either my youtube or this blog interesting please go and check out the podcast because I am sure you will enjoy that, too.


Thanks, and hopefully more thoughtful content coming tomorrow, after testing.

-Austin “Lantz Sensi”