Death in Japan

October 6, 2017

When I was living in Japan, my apartment complex was across the street from a cemetery. This wasn’t uncommon as small graveyards are dotted throughout towns and cities, sometimes attached to a shrine or temple but also independent of either.



When I first moved into the apartment in the middle of summer, the manager warned me that the bamboo that surrounded the building would sometimes make popping noises as the moisture inside overheated and that I shouldn’t be alarmed.


Therefore, I wasn’t all that surprised when loud popping sounds (similar to the sound of a gun being fired) awoke me one morning. After the sounds had continued nonstop for a good half hour I decided to head out and investigate.


It hadn’t been the bamboo. Across the road, the graveyard was crowded with families drinking, cleaning and letting off fireworks.



What I hadn’t realised was that it was Obon, a Buddhist festival to honour the spirits of the dead held in the middle of August. All over Japan, people had returned to their ancestral family places to visit and clean their ancestors’ graves. It’s celebrated on different days and in different ways across the country. What this meant on my little island in Nagasaki was that there was a mini party cum family reunion happening across the street from my apartment.


Over my years in Japan, I often found myself dodging stray fireworks during Obon, ducking and weaving like I was in some kind of action movie. It added some excitement to my summer holidays.



Aside from this, my experience of death in Japan was limited. Sometimes my students or co-workers would disappear from school. The initial mourning period (忌中 kichuu) is 49 days but nowadays workers are granted only a week’s bereavement leave. During this time, the family will withdraw from regular life to fully commit themselves to mourning the deceased and attending to their own emotional wellbeing. A sign is attached to the doorway to let everyone know the family is in mourning. After 49 days the sign is removed but the family is still considered to be in mourning (喪中 mochuu) for a full year after the death, abstaining from amusements and refraining from participating in celebrations.



The Japanese have a custom of sending New Year’s postcards equivalent to the Western custom of sending Christmas cards. Starting at the beginning of December, post offices around Japan begin stockpiling the billions of New Year’s cards that are sent every year so they can all be delivered exactly on January 1st. It’s very exciting to open your mailbox on New Year’s Day and see the neatly bundled stack of cards, and a credit to Japan’s postal service that they pull it off seemingly so effortlessly. As a part of their mourning, families who have experienced a loss in the previous year don’t send these cards and are not supposed to receive them. Instead, they should send out a mourning postcard to let people know not to send them anything.


I suppose it’s a little peace of mind that I’ll probably never have to worry about dodging errant fireworks at the Terang or Camperdown Cemeteries, but it was nice to see the graveyards full of life: families eating, drinking and celebrating together as they remembered their dead.