Deaths Overwhelm Japanese Burial Process

Guests

Noriaki Ito, priest, Higashi Hongganji Buddhist temple
John Nelson, professor and chair of theology and religious studies, University of San Francisco

The magnitude of the tragedy has overwhelmed many of the burial rituals practiced in Japan, and added to the sense of loss for many families. Most Japanese adhere to Buddhist rituals to honor the dead, where priests read scripture and chant sutras before cremating and burying the deceased.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Hundreds of bodies washed ashore along Japan's northeastern coast in the days after the earthquake and the tsunami. The official death toll stands at over 9,000. Officials fear it could approach 20,000. In short, the number of dead is overwhelming, and Japan's religious leaders find themselves in many cases unable to perform long-established rituals meant to honor the dead. Japan is a largely secular country, but rituals of Shinto and Buddhism are important to many in Japan.

Joining us now is Noriaki Ito, a Buddhist priest at the Higashi Hongganji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles. I hope I didn't mispronounce that too badly. He was born in Japan, spent several years studying there for the priesthood.

And nice of you to be with us today.

Mr. NORIAKI ITO (Priest, Higashi Hongganji Buddhist Temple): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Have you been talking with colleagues in Japan since...

Mr. ITO: Yes, I have.

CONAN: ...the earthquake? And what do they tell you?

Mr. ITO: Well, you know, they're telling us that it's a horrible situation. In our denomination we have over a hundred temples that have been severely affected. Some of them washed away and destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami.

CONAN: And are the others overwhelmed?

Mr. ITO: Yes, they are. Yes.

CONAN: Help us understand the process. What steps would you normally take while preparing for a funeral?

Mr. ITO: Well, normally, right after death occurs, we have what we call a (foreign language spoken) or pillow service. And the sutra is chanted. And so in the old days, even here in Los Angeles we would be called at all times of the middle of the night to go to a hospital or to a home to perform this ritual.

And then following that, there would be a private memorial - funeral service just for the family with the casket and body present. And then cremation would take place, and then there is a ceremony called (foreign language spoken), which means picking up the bones. And the immediate family would gather, and they would pick up the bones of the deceased after cremation and place them into an urn. And then after that, then the formal funeral service would be held for relatives and friends. Then the ashes would later be buried or placed in a mausoleum.

CONAN: And is this ceremony to be performed over a certain period of time or within a certain period of time?

Mr. ITO: Yes. Well, in the United States we have embalming, but in Japan they generally don't, and so the first funeral service, the private funeral service, would occur within a couple of days. But here, you know, the mortuaries take care of everything, and so we usually wait about a week.

CONAN: And what happens if it is not possible for such a ceremony to be performed?

Mr. ITO: Then, you know, we would make other arrangements and possibly, for instance, skip one of - you know, maybe the private funeral service and go straight over to the public funeral service.

But in the case, you know, the case of the tragedy in Japan, even that cannot be done. And so, you know, I think that they're all just kind of scrambling to figure out, you know, how to honor the dead respectfully, but at the same time to take care of, you know, the massive need of so many people dying at one time.

CONAN: Is Buddhism a hierarchical religion where one leading figure can issue a decision about what should be done in this crisis?

Mr. ITO: Well, there are many denominations, and each denomination has its own, you know, hierarchy. And so in our case, in the Higashi Hongganji, we have an abbot and also a chief administrator. And most likely they would issue instructions as to how to proceed.

CONAN: What is the guiding principle of these rituals? Is it to comfort the living or to send the deceased on to somewhere else?

Mr. ITO: Well, the tradition is that we say that the person who passes away goes to the pure land. But generally speaking, in Buddhism we don't have a definite kind of belief in afterlife, and so it's as much for the people that remain as it is to honor the dead.

CONAN: And is there - as we mentioned, Japan is largely a secular country. But there have been, after disasters and earthquakes, in particular - you think of the Great Lisbon Earthquake several hundred years ago that caused many Christians to question the - how a God could - a just God could allow such a terrible thing to happen.

Mr. ITO: Yes.

CONAN: Will Japanese Buddhists question why this has happened?

Mr. ITO: Generally speaking, no. Buddhism - you know, the absolute truth that we believe in in Buddhism is the truth of impermanence. All things are constantly changing from moment to moment. And so that the acceptance that you see of the people in Japan in right now is the acceptance that these kinds of things happen and that we have to accept that reality.

CONAN: And would that same kind of acceptance extend to, well, ordinarily, yes, we would have like to have had these rituals with the same respect for the dead as normal, but these are not normal times.

Mr. ITO: Yes. I would believe that that kind of acceptance is also a part of the entire process.

CONAN: And as you talk to your colleagues back in Japan, what is the thing they are most concerned about at this moment? Obviously, their families and their coworkers, too.

Mr. ITO: Yes. The focus right now is on the survivors and trying to do the best we can to take care of their immediate needs, and then, later on, to rebuild -help rebuild their lives.

CONAN: Noriaki Ito, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. ITO: Thank you.

CONAN: Noriaki Ito, a Buddhist priest at the Higashi Hongganji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles.

Joining us now, John Nelson, a professor, chair of the department of theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco. He joins us from his home there.

And nice to speak with you today.

Professor JOHN NELSON (Chair, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of San Francisco): Yes. Thank you.

CONAN: And we're talking about Buddhism, there. Japanese society, though, there's another big religion: Shinto. And - yes - and also most people are secular?

Prof. NELSON: Well, when we think about religion in Japan, I guess we should think about it as a unique configuration of Japanese history, culture, society, and maybe not think about religion in the way that we do in the Western world, where we have churches, we have sacred texts, we have congregations and that type of thing.

So in saying whether people are mostly secular or religious, I think there's a real interactivity between religious actions and religious beliefs, and parts of the world that have nothing to do with religious belief or activity. So anyway, I approach the question with a little bit of caution, to say that Japan is an entirely secular nation.

CONAN: I - I said largely. But yes, the - can you give us an example of how someone's life might be divided into areas where religion is important, and in areas where it's not?

Prof. NELSON: Sure. Well, a very traditional example would be that a family could be considered Buddhist, and yet they have very little interaction with a Buddhist temple, a Buddhist priest or any of the teachings until someone falls ill or someone dies. And then Buddhism really becomes the mechanism that helps people deal with this type of life transition. So there's a - in fact, it's even a humorous aside that someone will say: Well, I wasn't sure what type of Buddhist I was until Grandpa died. And then we realized what denomination we are affiliated with. And then they would follow the guidelines of that denomination, such as Reverend Ito just outlined for the Pure Land sect.

CONAN: I've also heard a saying: You are born Shinto and die a Buddhist.

Prof. NELSON: Well, I've heard that, as well. But these days, in the post-war period, particularly Shinto is not really integrated into people's lives quite the way Buddhism is. And that's simply because Shinto provides more of a community affirmation and individual empowerment, but not in any real systematic way. I mean, there's really no doctrines or written texts that can be attributed to Shinto intellectuals or religious leaders that many Japanese would be familiar with. And at the same time, if a Japanese person considers themselves to be a Buddhist, they would probably be aware of that type of Buddhism specific to their denomination.

So basically, there are seven main denominations in Japan and - of which Zen is one and Pure Land is one. So each one of these denominations has their specific emphasis upon the original teachings of the Buddha, and then how those apply to society.

So going back to Shinto, it's really a very regional, even local type of religious and ritual practice, where certain times of the year or certain occasions will justify a ritual that brings people together - maybe not everybody, maybe only a few people that are affiliated with a Shinto shrine. But there's a type of purification, dedication and empowerment that takes place through these rituals.

CONAN: On Monday, the governor of Tokyo said: The Japanese people must take advantage of the tsunami to wash away their selfish greed. I really do think this is divine punishment.

Prof. NELSON: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Many were shocked by that.

Prof. NELSON: Well, it was an outrageous thing to say, and very irresponsible. He is known for his outrageous comments, so there are some precedents for him sort of speaking off-the-cuff. And yet, if we were to compare the situation with a political leader in a metropolitan area such as New York City or Los Angeles or Paris or London saying something like this, I don't think they'd be in power for very long, and they would probably be forced to resign.

This particular individual, though, does have a lot of political clout over the years, and so even though the - shortly after he made the comment, he refused to apologize for it. Two days later, he finally realized that this was not going to help his career. And, in fact, it was the local governor of the Miyagi Prefecture, which has been so hard hit, that criticized him openly for the unhelpful nature of this response.

CONAN: And would you agree with Reverend Ito that though the difficulties performing the rituals will disturb many, that this will be accepted?

Prof. NELSON: Well, yes. The rituals have to be performed, whether they are a matter of convenience or maybe more long term, you know, they connect with more traditional rituals in Buddhist tradition. But the important thing is that so many people have lost their lives so suddenly and under violent circumstances, and they - the spirits of the dead have to be consoled. This is a very important part of Buddhist ritual. And if the spirits of the dead are not consoled, then there is a belief that they can become uneasy, or even vengeful and angry. And they may cause problems in the realm of the living.

CONAN: But that may be able to be postponed.

Prof. NELSON: Well, the - yes. That may be able to be postponed, because throughout Buddhist history, temples had been called upon to sort of collectivize their ritual energy and direct it towards one particular situation or even location. So I'm thinking about how many Buddhist temples throughout Japan were organized in a kind of network that protected the state. And when the situation was dire, the state would call upon his temples to perform rituals, and the benefits or the merit of those rituals would then be sort of accumulated and then focused on the situation at hand, whether it was an epidemic or a crop failure, or maybe even political unrest. And by doing so, this is a way to harness a collective energy of Buddhist priests and rituals for, you know, the common good.

So I think something like that will happen in Japan through the network of Buddhist temples connected with each denomination, that they will hold nationwide prayer services and direct the benefits of those rituals to the spirits of the dead, as well as to those temples that have been destroyed or heavily damaged.

CONAN: Professor Nelson, thanks very much.

Prof. NELSON: Thank you.

CONAN: John Nelson of the department of theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco.

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