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.


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