Rites of passage

History of funeral practices intertwined with religion

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 143(11), 16 March 1989, pages 67, 70

Cremation has been a bone of contention in the Christian world since Roman times. In Japan, too, the funeral pyre has long inspired religious and political conflict. Japan's monarchs have not escaped the debate, and the history of their funeral rites illustrates how the monarchy has been both an agent of social change and a tool of conservatism.

Buddhism, which favours cremation, arrived in Japan in the 6th century. Cremation began to replace burial by the 7th century, and it was adopted for use in the funerals of progressive monarchs at the start of the 8th century. Since then, Shinto purists have mounted two anti-cremation campaigns, both at peaks of xenophobia in the 17th and 10th centuries.

It was during the 8th century, when Japan's most influential rulers were women, that Buddhism came to replace Shinto as the religion of the rulers. The first sovereign to be cremated was Empress Jito, who reigned from 686 to 697 and died in January 703. Contemporary records state that when Jito was cremated the following year her ashes were placed in the tomb of her husband, Emperor Tenmu, who had died in 686. The delay may have been caused by a dispute over burial methods.

When the Tenmu-Jito mausoleum was pillaged in 1235, a silver urn which is thought to have contained Jito's relics was found on a road where the looters had thrown it away. The urn is surmised to have been in a gilt bronze bowl which had been placed at the end of Tenmu's dry-lacquer coffin.

Japan's monarchs continued to be cremated until the death of Emperor Gokomyo in -- 1654. Shinto nationalists disliked cremation, not only because it was an alien practice, but because they shared the Confucianist belief that disfiguring the body is cruel. Although the imperial family was persuaded to end its 1,000-year practice of cremation in favour of interment, all cremation rites except the actual lighting of the pyre continued down to the funeral of Emperor Ninko in 1846.

In the middle of the 19th century, Japan faced the possibility of colonialisation if the politically divided nation failed to unify. The civil warring was resolved in favour of Shinto royalists who restored nominal power to the emperor and tried to nationalise as many Shinto traditions as possible.

The 1867 funeral of Emperor Komei, Ninko's son and Emperor Meiji's father, provided Japan's new leaders with an opportunity to purge all traces of Buddhism from imperial funerals and return to the practice of interring the coffin in large mounds or tumuli (though these were smaller than the tumuli built before Buddhism reached Japan).

In 1873, the government prohibited cremation as part of its bid to establish Shinto as the national religion and drive out Buddhism. But the anti-cremation law was abrogated only two years later when people in crowded cities such as Tokyo and Osaka made it clear that they had no place to bury their dead. Some families had to abandon the bodies of their dead in fields. Bodies sent back to home villages for burial would putrefy before they arrived.

Sobered by such threats to public order, sanitation and propriety, the Meiji government began to promote cremation as the most economical and practical means of disposal. Although once an upper-class practice, cremation became cheaper than interment as modern incineration methods were introduced from Europe and improved in Japan. The ashes of an entire family could be kept in a burial crypt requiring only as much land as was needed to inter a single person; and the ashes could be moved with the family, or divided if the family branched.

National and local laws were passed to control burial practices for reasons of public health. The government ordered that the bodies of those who had died of infectious diseases be cremated, and so cremation spread even to rural areas where burial had been customary. Still, it took 60 years for Japan's cremation rate to double from 26.5 percent in 1896 to 54 percent in 1955. But it reached 79 percent by 1970, and in 1987 it was 95.7 percent.

During Japan's tumultuous history, the imperial family lost track of many of its graves. Most of the ancient burial mounds, some of them comparable in size to the pyramids in Egypt, have remained conspicuous landmarks. But the identities of the people interred in the tumuli that predate reliable records is a matter of considerable academic debate.

When imperial authority was restored in the 1860s, the government scampered all over the country and "identified" the tombs of all past (including many legendary) monarchs and important princes. It then compiled an official directory of imperial family mortuary monuments that the Imperial Household Agency considers accurate.

All the monuments in the directory are considered the property of the imperial family. At public expense, the government's Imperial Household Agency maintains more than 890 monuments at more than 450 sites -- all of which are off limits to archaeologists, who would like to explore at least the oldest, pre-6th century tombs to help answer questions about the imperial family's continental, particularly Korean, roots.

The Imperial Household Agency abhors the thought of disturbing sacred imperial relics for the sake of historical truth. How would you feel, it asks, if someone started digging up your relatives? But the government failed to protect the sanctity of common tombs when it appropriated property for the Musashi Imperial Cemetery, in Hachioji city near Tokyo, where Emperor Taisho was buried in 1926, and where his son the late Emperor Hirohito was buried last month.

Shortly before Taisho's burial, the Imperial Household ordered the relocation of some 587 graves associated with two temples and six private cemeteries within the new imperial compound. The graves were seen as polluting earth that had to be physically as well as ritually pure in order to receive the deceased emperor's body.

More than half of Japan's 124 deceased monarchs have been cremated. Even today, all members of the imperial family, except the emperor and his empress, are cremated. "There is simply not enough room to inter the others," an Imperial Household Agency official told the Review.

No laws govern the burial of imperial family members who are buried on imperial property. And so the agency did not apply to Hachioji city for permission to bury Hirohito in the Musashi Imperial Cemetery. Hachioji generally prohibits interment, but a city official said that the city does not expect the Imperial Household Agency to apply for a burial permit since the agency can do what it pleases on its own land.

The agency is not required by law to report births and deaths of imperial family members to the Ministry of Health and Welfare. Hence, Japan's official vital statistics, as reported to the World Health Organisation, do not include the imperial family.