Shinto death 10: Memorial rites

A mitamaya spirit shelf (see bottom of page for further explanation)

A mitamaya spirit shelf (see bottom of page for further explanation)

This is Part Nine of an ongoing series about the Shinto way of death, adapted with permission from an academic article by Elizabeth Kenney.  It shows how traditional Shinto arrangements differ from those of the Buddhist funeral.  Though the research was carried out in the 1990s and some of the information is dated, the fundamentals still apply.  For the original article, see Elizabeth Kenney ‘Shinto mortuary rites in contemporary Japan.’

Memorial rites
Shinto memorial observances are modeled on Buddhist memorial services. Buddhist memorial services are held every seven days after the death until the forty-ninth day (7 x 7).  According to Buddhist doctrine, a person spends forty-nine days in the intermediate existence before his next rebirth, so this transitional period is crucial.

According to popular understanding, it takes forty-nine days for the spirit to go the Pure Land (or to be reborn). During that interval, the spirit can benefit from the prayers and offerings of the living.
Some places in Japan count the day of the death itself as day number one, and other places do not. That is to say, if a death occurs on a Sunday, the seventh-day memorial service is held either on the next Saturday (six days later) or the next Sunday (seven days later), depending on the area.


Shinto rejects multiples of seven, since the Buddhist connotations are too strong. Instead, Shinto, using multiples of ten, and holds its rituals on the tenth, twentieth, thirtieth, fortieth and fiftieth days after death. (Notice that fifty ends up very close to the Buddhist forty-nine.)

The “epitaph” is described as a copper sheet or stone slab one shaku long (about 30 cm). Inscribed on the epitaph are the name and rank of the deceased and the dates of his birth and death. The single “epitaph” mentioned by Gorai (1992) is something different, for it reads like one of the Chinese land-purchasing contract for graves discussed in Anna Seidel’s “Post-mortem Immortality.” It seems that the Shinto dead need some identification and a brief curriculum vitae to take with them as they cross the border into a strange country.

The mourner’s staff is a widespread folk custom, and there is nothing specifically Shinto about it. In a Buddhist context, the staff is a pilgrim’s staff or a monk’s staff, which the deceased will use on his journey. In the folk tradition, the staff may represent fertility (phallic?) or generational continuity (which, after all, depends on fertility), or it may offer a kind of companionship to the deceased in his grave. Sometimes the staff is stuck straight up on top of the grave mound, making it a kind of lightning rod to attract the spirit or gods. The staff then also mimics the chopsticks stuck into the rice.

A Shinto graveyard in Kyoto Prefecture (courtesy Keith Adams)

A Shinto graveyard in Kyoto Prefecture (courtesy Keith Adams)

In the Buddhist case, the next memorial service after the forty-ninth day is held on the hundredth day. Then, on the first anniversary of the death, another memorial service is held. Afterwards, anniversary rites are held in the following years: third, seventh, thirteenth, seventeenth, twenty-second, twenty-seventh, thirty-third, fiftieth, and hundredth. Each of these anniversaries is calculated by counting the year of the death as 1 , so that the “third” anniversary is two years after the death, and so on.

In Shinto, the tenth-day and following memorial services are often conducted in front of the grave. After one year, the memorial services are held in the house. Later, Shinto memorial services are held on the following anniversaries of the death: first, second (optional), third, fifth, tenth, twentieth, thirtieth, fiftieth, and hundredth.

After fifty days, the reiji is moved from its solitary position on the temporary altar to the household ancestral altar, where it joins the other ancestors. The spirit has passed through its liminal period, shed its pollution, and is ready to assume responsibilities as the family’s guardian deity. The house is purified and the paper is removed from the kamidana (spirit shelf) and ancestral altar. The family is now free from impurity and may worship at a shrine as usual. In practice, many families prefer to wait longer than fifty days before entering a shrine, often for one year.


Mitamaya, a place for enshrining the spirits of ancestors

Mourning moon

What Is a Mourning Moon? Why You Should Care About Tonight’s Full Moon

On the eve of Thanksgiving, Pagans will celebrate a traditional and lesser-known occasion known as the “Mourning Moon.” Moonrise on Wednesday, which comes on the heels of September’s “blood moon” and a supermoon in October, is the last time the moon is full before the Winter Solstice.

In the Pagan religion, the Morning Moon marks a time of cleansing, and with it comes a number of rituals designed to help Pagans rid themselves of baggage. Alternatively called the Fog Moon or Snow Moon depending on the region, the type of rituals practiced on Wednesday are meant to rid a person of bad habits.

What Is A Mourning Moon? Why You Should Care About Tonights Full Moon

Source: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In the Pagan tradition, autumn is a time to physically and mentally prepare for winter. For Pagans, the last phase of preparation in anticipation of colder months involves letting go of old things, habits or people. The rituals are largely symbolic, yet are thought to help Pagans embrace the new year unencumbered by attachment to negativity or grief.

The mourning moon over Kyoto

Pagan’s delight: the mourning moon above downtown Kyoto

Yasukuni explosion

Explosion hits Yasukuni Shrine restroom during harvest ceremony

November 23, 2015  THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
Yasukuni bomb

Police search a restroom building at Yasukuni Shrine on Nov. 23 after a explosion was set off in a men’s stall. (Nobuhiro Shirai)

An explosion damaged a public restroom at war-related Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo during its annual Niiname-sai harvest thanksgiving ceremony on Nov. 23.

Although a large number of worshippers were at the shrine in Chiyoda Ward on Nov. 23, a national holiday, no injuries were reported in the blast, investigators said.

Police found a fire ignition device and a plastic tube that were apparently used to trigger the explosion in a men’s restroom stall located near the southern entrance to the shrine. A bomb disposal squad removed another tube from the site, Kojimachi Police Station officials said.

Visitors reported hearing the blast around 10 a.m. Officials from the Tokyo Fire Department and Metropolitan Police Department said the walls of the restroom were damaged by fire.

The shrine, which honors the nation’s war dead along with 14 Class-A war criminals, has been a source of friction with Asian countries, particularly China and South Korea, who say the shrine glorifies Japan’s military past. The Niiname-sai ceremony was conducted as scheduled, shrine officials said.

Explosion occurs at Yasukuni Shrine

Yomiuri Shimbun 

Jiji Press TOKYO (Jiji Press) — An explosion occurred in a public restroom at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo Monday, police said.

“No one was hurt,” an official of the Metropolitan Police Department said, adding a terror attack possibility cannot be ruled out.

According to the police, there was an emergency call past 10 a.m. reporting an explosion sound and smoke at the facility near the southern gate of the war-linked Shinto shrine.

The Kojimachi station’s police officers who rushed over to the venue saw a burn mark inside a men’s compartment and damage on a portion of the ceiling above the room. They also found a device believed to be a detonator. An MPD bomb unit collected residues of the explosive there.

Investigators examine the toilet at Yasukuni Shrine where the sound of an explosion was reported Monday morning. (Yomiuri)

A Shinto walk and haiku (Dec 12)

Emperor Meiji's burial mound, exemplifying the ancestral cult married to animistic worship which characterises Shinto

Emperor Meiji’s burial mound, exemplifying the ancestral cult married to animistic worship which characterises Shinto.  As symbol of the nation, former emperors are revered as kami and since they return to nature their graves act as features of the landscape.

Green Shinto readers are cordially invited to join me for a haiku walk on Dec 12, jointly organised by Writers in Kyoto and the Hailstone Haiku Circle.  Hailstones is an English-language haiku group based in Kyoto, who have been meeting off and on since 2000. One of their most popular events is their outings known as ‘Ginko’ in which a leisurely stroll is combined with haiku composition.

On Dec. 12 the walk will take in the burial mounds of the first and last emperors to reside in Kyoto (Emperors Kammu and Meiji), which exemplify the mix of ancestral worship and animism that characterises Shinto.  Also part of the itinerary will be two fascinating shrines, Nogi Jinja and Gokonomiya Jinja.

Walking time is one and a half hours, though there will be several stops along the way for penning poetry which will almost double that, allowing us to end for a late lunch in Fushimi.  It should be an enjoyable amble, and it should be a fun social occasion as well as an inspiring one. Walking and writing – a great combination!!


‘Emperors and Generals’ Historical Ginko, rendezvous 10:30 Kintetsu Tambabashi Station just outside the ticket barrier (Keihan Tambabashi is just next door).

Nogi Jinja, celebrating Meiji's victorious general who chose to join his master in death

Nogi Jinja, celebrating Meiji’s victorious general who chose to join his master in death by committing ritual suicide

First we will stroll to E. Kammus’ tomb (the founder of Heian-kyo), then skirting G. Toyotomi’s Fushimi-Momoyama Castle we pass through some woods to E. Meiji’s tomb (he was enthroned in Kyoto, but moved away to Tokyo) together with Empress Kōken’s mound nearby, then down a slope to Nogi Jinja (commemorating G. Nogi, who fought for E. Meiji) and on to Gokonomiya Jinja (named by E. Seiwa) for some spiritual water. We hope to share haiku over lunch, perhaps at one of Fushimi’s famous sake breweries.

The walk will be jointly led by John Dougill, representing Writers in Kyoto, and Stephen Gill of Hailstone Haiku Circle. Enquiries: John Dougill Cell-phones on the day: John 080 4028 3158, Stephen 080 5334 0990.


Entrance to the Honden at Gokonomiya Shrine, which boasts some splendid Momoyama decoration as well as sacred water

Entrance to the Honden at Gokonomiya Shrine, which boasts some splendid Momoyama decoration as well as sacred water

Shinto death 9: Funeral procession


This is Part Nine of an ongoing series about the Shinto way of death, adapted with permission from an academic article by Elizabeth Kenney.  It shows how traditional Shinto arrangements differ from the more prevalent forms of Buddhist funeral.  Though the research was carried out in the 1990s and some of the information is dated, the fundamentals still apply.  For the original article, see Elizabeth Kenney ‘Shinto mortuary rites in contemporary Japan.’

Departure of the coffin
This rite marks the departure of the deceased from the house (or funeral site) with a few brief rituals. If the wake is held at the house and the funeral somewhere else, then the departure rite will be conducted when the coffin moves from the house after the wake.

A pair of priest's shoes are placed on top of the coffin

A pair of priest’s shoes may be placed near the coffin to indicate preparing to move

Banners with the name of the deceased are set up, and a protective sword is placed on top of the coffin. In addition, a pair of black wooden clogs (like those worn by Shinto priests) may be placed on a small table near the coffin.

The purpose of the rite is to inform the deceased that he will soon be moving from his house. The ritual activities are similar to those seen at the wake and funeral: offerings of food and tamagushi, prayers, and bows.

The procession
The coffin is taken out of the house and transported in a hearse to the crematorium (or, less commonly now, to the grave). Until rather recently, at both Buddhist and Shinto funerals, the coffin was carried all the way to the grave site (in the case of burial) or to the crematorium by the mourners themselves. Nowadays the mourners, carrying the coffin on their shoulders, travel only as far as the hearse.

The relatives of the deceased may carry a photo, the reiji, the coffin, food offerings, sakaki, banners with the name of the deceased, brooms, torches, and lanterns. Anthropologists have extensively surveyed the local variations in the funeral procession. In addition to the Shinto items listed here, other things often seen are: 1. a rope (“rope of goodness”) attached to the coffin and held by women (fertility?); 2. a staff held by a man (also [phallic] fertility?), 3. drums; 4. parasols (a “spirit bag” is used in some places, which holds the spirit of the dead person and, it is said, can be felt to get heavier or lighter as the procession proceeds).

Poles are a common part of Shinto processions, symbolising the connection between this world and the other

One Shinto priest considered the pole “for the dead to go to the afterlife” (perhaps a kind of axis mundi); torches and lanterns light the path for the dead; banners “show that the dead is coming to Yomi no Kuni; “brooms clean and purify the path to Yomi no Kuni for the dead.”

A 1995 funeral procession for a Shinto priest in Shiga prefecture included the following members:

1 . Two men, dressed in black suits, carrying unlit torches
2. A Shinto priest carrying a purification wand
3 . A broom-bearer
4. One man holding a yellow banner
5. One man carrying a sakaki branch
6. The chief mourner (the son who is a priest) carrying a shaku (wooden pallet).
7. A grandson carrying the memorial tablet
8. A woman in white carrying rice. The rice must symbolize purity and fertility.
9. A woman in black carrying the photo
10. A lantern-bearer
1 1 . The coffin, carried by six men
12. Another lantern-bearer
13. At the end walked the widow and all the other mourners.

This procession did not have far to go, and the participants walked in a straggly line from the building to the hearse.

Myth relates that when Izanami dies, she goes to the land of Yomi (Yomi no kuni). This rock near Izumo is said to be the one used by Izanagi to block this world off from Yomi.

Myth relates that when Izanami dies, she goes to the land of Yomi (Yomi no kuni). This rock near Izumo is said to be the one used by Izanagi to block this world off Yomi from this world.

Shinto funeral processions used to be held at night. Now processions are conducted in daylight, with the torch-bearers and lantern-bearers providing no light with their unlit torches and lanterns. There are several ways to understand the importance of night for a Shinto funeral: 1. The darkness conceals the impurity of death and limits its range. 2. Because the land of Yomi is the opposite of the living, in order for the dead to arrive there during the day, they must leave here at night (something like a long-distance airplane flight). This explanation was offered by a Shinto priest. 3. The land of Yomi is a dark, shadowy place (recall that Izanagi had to light a torch to behold his wife’s putrefying corpse), so terrestrial night is the most appropriate atmosphere for the deceased’s move to a new environment.

Before the departure, the mourners may gather around the coffin to take one last look at the deceased. As at a Buddhist funeral, they may each put a flower (usually a chrysanthemum) into the coffin as a final offering to the deceased. They then may use a stone to pound the coffin lid shut (although this custom is considered by some to be a Buddhist practice, it is also often performed at Shinto funerals). Grasping the stone, the living use their own hands to seal the deceased into his coffin and segregate him from the realm of the living.

Meanwhile, back at the house, relatives and other mourners who have not gone to the crematorium dismantle the funeral altar. At the very time that the body is being cremated, relatives back at the house are arranging offerings and preparing the new residence of the spirit of the deceased. Priests ritually purify the ancestral altar, the family, other mourners, the interior and exterior of the house, and the grounds.

Chrysanthemums are used for graves and as a flower for commemorating death

Chrysanthemums are used for graves and as a flower for commemorating death


Save the trees (Shimogamo) is running a petition addressed to the priests of Shimogamo Shrine and to the mayor of Kyoto to save the trees of the historical Tadasu no mori, which belongs to the shrine, from being felled to put up accommodation designed to make money for the shrine to finance its rebuilding programme.  This is happening very close to where I live, and is far more shocking than I had imagined from the original plans put forward.  (For a previous posting on this subject, with background information, please click this link.)

Don’t construct apartments in the forest of a historical shrine in Kyoto, Japan

No! to the construction plan of apartments in the forest of Tadasu!!

Please sign up to oppose Shimogamo Shrine’s plan to build luxury apartments in the forest of Tadasu.

The forest of Tadasu is a sacred ancient grove which we inherited from our forefathers and has attained great age without significant disturbance.

The Shimogamo shrine, including its path through the forest of Tadasu, was designated as a World Heritage site in 1994. It speaks of our spiritual and cultural roots, and serves as a valuable indicator for ecological studies.

The shrine has already begun development in the southernmost part of the forest, within the UNESCO World Heritage Buffer Zone as designated in the heritage statement.
The Buffer Zone provides an additional layer of protection to the World Heritage site, but the construction company has started to dig away soil from the bottom of several trees.
Those acts may lead to a decrease in ground water or change in its quality, which also have a possibility to cause harm to Core Zone of the forest.

Tadasu no mori

Shimogamo Shrine claims that the destruction is necessary to raise money for a shrine tradition called the “Shikinensengu”. Shikinensengu is the traditional rebuilding of the shrine carried out once every 21 years in order to purify the spirit and to ensure transmission of craftsmanship skills.

We, the local residents have never been included in the discussion of these developments, nor have been given any detailed explanations.
Their claims may sound reasonable, and many people accept the apartment construction plan as if there is no other way to resolve the lack of funds.

However, there are many questionable points about those funds, and so we requested the disclosure of the shrine’s financial situation and the estimated cost for next Shikinensengu. The shrine has shrugged off our request.

Are we really out of options? Looking back on history, the Shikinesengu had been delayed or cancelled many times due to various reasons.

In order to preserve this important site as best we could, we need to start a consistent dialogue. Time is limited. We need to show our will to Shimogamo Shrine and the city government, before a natural preserve is destroyed forever.

If you would like to support our cause, please sign up to say No to this imprudent plan.

 Tadasu no mori

Shinto death 8: Funeral rite

Offerings for the dead, as for kami, may include favourite food or drink alongside water, saké, salt and rice grains.

Offerings for the dead, as for kami, may include favourite food or drink alongside water, saké, salt and rice grains.

Funeral ceremony
The funeral proper is but one in a series of rites for the deceased. Usually held two days after the death, it takes about two hours. Since a Shinto funeral cannot be held on shrine grounds (due to the impurity of death), it is conducted in a private house, a commercial funeral hall, a community center, or in a shrine-owned building adjacent to but not actually part of the shrine precincts.

The coffin is the basis of the altar. Arranged around the coffin are: a photo of the deceased; a banner with the name of the deceased; a protective sword or a mirror; a pair of black lacquered clogs placed on a table near the head of the deceased. Tables of food offerings (favorite foods of the deceased, salt, water, rice, vegetables, fruit, sweets) are also set up.

This coffin-altar is set up against the back of the room. Shimenawa (sacred rope) or curtains may be hung around the area, white and yellow banners stand near the coffin, while lights and sakaki branches are placed in front. The ritual area has usually been raised up higher than the floor on which the mourners sit. If it is not higher, it is marked off in some way from the other part of the room.

Shinto funerals naturally vary according to the local shrine customs, the status or personality of the deceased, and the influence of folk tradition. An outline of a typical funeral is as follows:

Gohei are offered to the deceased.  This is often used as a vehicle into which spirits descend.

Gohei are offered to the deceased. This is often used as a vehicle into which spirits descend.

1 . The mourners purify themselves by washing their hands and mouths.
2. The mourners enter the funeral site and take their seats. If there are musicians (who are usually Shinto priests themselves), they enter the room after the mourners.
3. The chief priest enters the room. The participants bow once in unison toward the priest.
4. Announcement of the start of the funeral: “We will now hold the funeral of So-and-So.”
5. Purification rite. The priests purify the room, offerings and participants. The participants make a deep bow while the priest performs the purification. If they are sitting on chairs, they should stand up and bow their heads.
6. The chief priest bows once, and others follow.
7. The priests present the food offerings and banners; gagaku music may be played, live or taped. In a 1995 funeral for a Shinto priest in Shiga prefecture, the offerings were more varied than the ritual manuals would indicate: sake, large flat rice cakes, fish, seaweed, radish, cabbage, carrots, bananas, melons, and apples.
8. The priests offer gohei (wood sticks with zigzag white paper attached; also called heihaku).
9. The chief priest presents an elegy praising the life of the deceased and prays that the deceased may rest in peace and become a guardian deity, like his own ancestors, to watch over his descendants. The mourners listen to the priest’s words with bowed heads.
10. A eulogy is offered by an assistant priest. He gives a brief biography and describes the virtues of the deceased.
1 1 . Expressions of condolence by the mourners.
12. Reading of condolence telegrams and other messages.
13. Offering of tamagushi. First the chief priest presents a tamagushi to the altar, then the other priests do so. Next, the chief mourner, family members and other guests offer tamagushi.
13. The priests remove first the gohei, then the food offerings.
14. The chief priest bows once. Then the mourners all bow once.
15. The priests leave the room.
16. Announcement of the end of the funeral.

Tamagushi are a common offering in Shinto, for both kami and the deceased

Tamagushi are a common offering in Shinto, for both kami and the deceased

Throughout the funeral, when the priests or others are called upon to clap, they should clap without making any noise. This is called shinobide (literally, patient hands). Ordinary clapping is a regular part of Shinto worship. The soundless clapping at funerals thus represents an inversion of normal practices. Some priests state that silent clapping should be practiced for one year after the funeral during the memorial rites. Others state that the clapping should gradually get louder and louder over the course of a year.

The 1995 funeral in Shiga for a Shinto priest included an additional eulogy by the chief mourner, the son of the deceased, himself also now a Shinto priest after a twenty-year business career. Toward the end of the ceremony, he stepped out of the building to address the many people standing outside who had listened to the ceremony over loudspeakers.

The priest thanked them for coming on such a cold day and spoke of his father with respect and affection. He used ordinary Japanese, not the high stilted voice and archaic diction he had used in front of the altar when delivering a eulogy directly to the deceased. One guest commented with approval that he sounded “like a real pro” (that is, a professional Shinto priest) inside, but outside he sounded “like a son.”

Next, gifts were distributed to the mourners. The gifts, contained in ordinary white supermarket plastic bags, were distributed unceremoniously from the back of a truck. As the guests waited for the funeral procession to begin, some of them looked inside the bags and took out small sweets and crackers.

Gagaku music may be played live or recorded during the funeral

Gagaku music may be played live or recorded during the funeral


7-5-3The magical symbolism of seven, five and three is derived from China, thanks largely to the teachings of Daoism with its favouring of odd numbers and distaste for static symmetry.  According to Chinese tradition, the world was created with 1 (which is why 1/1 is so powerful), established at 3, completed at 5, prospered at 7, and ended with 9 (last single digit).  Hence the sky is 90,000 li from the earth, as it’s the limit of the cosmos.  It explains one thing that always puzzled me, namely why 1/1, 3/3, 5/5, 7/7. 9/9 are holidays of some kind in Japan, but there’s nothing on 11/11.

Be that as it may, this weekend will be an excellent time for autumn colours and kimono spotting.  Hundreds of thousands of children nationwide will be cutely dressed up and taken to the shrine for ritual purification and blessing.  It’s one of the ways in which Shinto celebrates the passage through life, and it’s one of the great joys of the national culture.

Autumn colours(from Green Shinto 2014)

Back so soon –
Autumn colours
And Siberian seagulls

One of the joys of Shinto is that it marks the passing of time.  Seasonal celebrations remind us of the turning of the annual round, and the abundance of harvest thanksgivings is replaced now by preparations for winter.  I was reminded of this on my walks up the river when I saw this week the return of the Siberian seagulls, first harbinger of the long cold months ahead.  These joyfully lithe and lively birds add greatly to the beauty of the Kamogawa in winter, when greenery lies low and deciduous leaves have fallen.

With their splashes of white and beady intelligent eyes, the seagulls skim at dizzying speeds up and down the river, mostly in large groups but sometimes in pairs or singly.  As the day darkens, they whirl up into a dizzying spiral that reaches up to the very heavens before flying off to bed down for the night at Lake Biwa.  My heart leaps up when I see them, though I’m none too glad of the cold that clings to them from their Siberian north. (I was once delighted to find on my winter break in Kunming in the Yunnan Province of China that the Siberian seagulls migrate there too.)

Seagull yurikamome

Another way in which Shinto marks the passage of time is through the celebration of life events, such as the Shichi-go-san.  It’s the time of year when seven-, five- and three-year olds are celebrated, a rite of passage from ancient China.  As such it marks a stage of maturation for children and is a delightful life-affirming affair, one of Shinto’s prime events.  The explanation below by Yumiyama Tatsuya is taken from the Shinto encyclopedia produced by Kokugakuin University.

Rite of passage for the Shichigosan
Generally, on November 15th boys aged three and five and girls aged three and seven are dressed in their best clothes and taken on a pilgrimage to their ujigami (clan or tutelary kami) to express gratitude and pray for their continued health and safety. Sometimes formal banquets are also held for this occasion.
7-5-3 kimonos
In ancient times, both boys and girls would be shorn of their hair until they turned three, when a formal ceremony would be held after which they were allowed to grow it out. There was also a ritual for five-year-old boys in which they would put on a hakama for the first time. For seven-year-old girls there was the ritual of replacing the narrow belt of a child’s kimono with the much wider obi.

The particulars such as which sex does what at what age and the name for those celebrations varied based on region, era, and a child’s social standing, but generally we can say that these age-based rituals were conducted to pray for and celebrate children’s maturation from the precarious stage of infancy into the more stable stage of childhood. Shichigosan refers collectively to the performance of such rituals.

Although the date on which it is celebrated — the fifteenth of the eleventh month or November 15th — was already considered to be an auspicious day, Shichigosan became specifically associated with it when the fifth Tokugawa shōgun, Tsunayoshi, conducted rites for his child Tokumatsu on this day.  It came to be conducted in grander fashion from the Taishō era [early twentieth century], and these practices grew in elegance as they spread across the nation.

In Tokyo, many pilgrims visit Meiji Jingū and other famous shrines at the time of Shichigosan. Also, the selling of chitoseame (“thousand-year candy”) as a souvenir of Shichigosan, a practice that began at the shrine Kanda Jinja, in Asakusa, and other Tokyo sites, is said to have become widespread.


Though the actual day is Nov. 15, it’s customary to visit the shrine on the weekends either side of that date.  For a full account of a family visit, see this page.


Shinto death 7: Spirit Transfer

Buddhist style memorial with posthumous names

Buddhist style memorial with posthumous names

Transfer of the spirit of the deceased to the memorial tablet
This crucial and special rite, performed by a Shinto priest, usually takes place during the wake. The spirit of the deceased is called out of the body and installed in the memorial tablet. The senrei sai is found only in Shinto funerals. However, Edo-period Shinto funerals do not include the senrei sai, so it is probably of twentieth-century origin.

The Shinto memorial tablet is similar to a Buddhist memorial tablet in form and function, and for that very reason it is called by a different name: reiji, not ihai. The reiji, less ornate than the Buddhist ihai, is usually made of plain wood with the posthumous name painted in black. A mirror, shaku (the wooden pallet that symbolizes priestly authority), or something closely connected with the deceased may also be used as the reiji.

Shinto priests holding the 'shaku', symbol of authority

Shinto priests holding the ‘shaku’, symbol of authority.  This can be used as the ‘reiji’ into which the spirit of the dead is transferred.

In summary, the rite proceeds as follows:
1 . Priests and mourners enter the ritual site, usually a room in the house.
2. The chief priest bows once, and the mourners then bow.
3. The central rite is performed in darkness (see below for a discussion of the nighttime setting of Shinto funerals). The lights are extinguished, and the priest stands in front of the coffin. The reiji has been placed before the coffin. The priest removes the cloth covering from the reiji and faces the reiji toward the coffin. He may go right up to the coffin, open a small window in the coffin that allows one to see the face of the deceased and hold the reiji near the face (so that the deceased can “see” the reiji? or because the vital spirit comes out with the breath?).  The priest may wear a gauze mask over his mouth and nose, so that his own mortal breath (or, worse, spit) cannot defile the memorial tablet or the spirit of the deceased. At the same time, the mask protects the priest from the impurity of the corpse.
This ambiguity — deceased as divine, corpse as polluted — is evident at several points in the Shinto funeral. The priest recites the appropriate prayer, which effectively moves the spirit from the corpse to the reiji — from its fleshly housing to its new abode in the spirit tablet. The priest puts the cover back on the reiji. After the spirit has been installed, the tablet is placed in the temporary ancestral altar. The mourners maintain silence during this rite. Now the lights can be turned back on.
4. The priests and others sit in front of the temporary ancestral altar.
5. Offerings are presented. During this time, musicians may play particular gagaku music used only during wakes and funerals.
7. The priest offers another prayer. This prayer is intended to pacify the spirit of the deceased.
8. Offering of tamagushi [see previous entry for Shinto Death 6].
9. The offerings are removed (or they may be left out).
10. The chief priest bows once. The priests leave the site.

It is through this rite that the spirit of the deceased is transformed into a divine spirit. Thus, it is at this point that the posthumous name begins to be used. The spirit of the newly dead person is volatile, liminal and polluted. It is more dead (so to speak) at this first stage of its spirit life and therefore more polluted, due to its closer association with the impure corpse. One Shinto spokesman states that because the spirit of the deceased is polluted, it is placed in a temporary ancestral altar for fifty days after the death.

A Japanese funeral with photo of the deceased and name tablet (courtesy

A Japanese funeral with photo of the deceased and name tablet (courtesy

After the spirit has entered the reiji, the reiji should be moved to a separate room until the coffin leaves the house (probably to prevent the spirit from reentering the body, although there is no official Shinto support for this interpretation). The spirit is now considered to be separate from the body, but the body continues to receive attention.

Several Shinto priests described to me a dualistic understanding of the spirit/body relationship (the body is temporary clothing to be outgrown and thrown away; the spirit continues to live for a very long time, maybe forever [none had firm views on eternity]). Nonetheless, it seems to me that in practice Shinto, like most of Japanese religion, views a person as a conjoining of two or more essences that separate at death. One inhabits the memorial tablet; another stays with the bones in the grave. It is important to communicate with and make offerings to both.

It would be hard to argue that the grave can be forgotten (“it’s just bones in there”) and only the memorial tablet remembered. Or vice versa. This double-spirit is reminiscent of the Chinese “souls,” but there is no explicit use of the terms in today’s Shinto.

In twentieth-century Japan, the dead also seem to inhabit their memorial photograph. In funeral processions, three items are carried with equal solemnity: the memorial tablet, the cremated remains, and the photograph. After the funeral, the photograph is usually set in or near the altar and will remain there for decades. Some people tell me that the expression on the photograph changes in accordance with the mood of the deceased.

A look at the popular Japanese books on “spirit photographs” will convince anyone that Japanese spirits have an affinity for snapshots. The Japanese college students whom I teach make presentations using slides they have taken of religious places or objects (temples, shrines, statues, amulets, votive tablets, seldom graves). The students often do not want to keep the slides after they have finished their presentation because they are “afraid” of the “ghosts” or “spirits” in the slides. Throwing the slides out is not a good solution, since it would make the spirits angry. What to do? Give the slides to the teacher.

Finally, the deceased may appear in dreams. It is hard to say whether this is a fourth spirit or one of the other two or three that has left its usual station in order to contact a sleeping relative.
Sometimes two reiji are used and the spirit of the dead is installed in both of them. One of the reiji will be burned with the corpse when it is cremated, and the other one will be installed in the household ancestral altar.

One Shinto priest explained that a person’s spirit is “infinite, limitless, and divisible.” He made an analogy to the divisibility of a kami. During a festival with a portable shrine, part of the kami is in the mikoshi traveling around the shrine neighborhood, while another part of the kami remains in the main building of the shrine.

During festivals the spirit of the kami is transferred from the main shrine to the mikoshi and carried around town.  Similarly the spirit of the dead is thought to be transferred to the 'reiji' after death.

During festivals the spirit of the kami is transferred from the main shrine to the mikoshi and carried around town. Similarly the spirit of the dead is thought to be transferred to the ‘reiji’ after death.

Shinto death 6: The Wake

This is part of an ongoing series about the Shinto manner of handling funerals and death.  Though Buddhist funerals remain the norm, special Shinto funerals do take place and their ritual procedure is a little different.  In this adapted piece from Elizabeth Kenney’s article, the focus is on the wake, when people gather to commemorate the deceased. (For Part 1 of the series, click here.)


The Shinto wake, like the Buddhist wake, is usually held the day before the funeral ceremony. In some cases, the wake is a gathering of relatives and friends without a special program of activities. In other cases, the wake is structured very similarly to the funeral. And in yet others (increasingly the norm, it seems) the guests attend the wake very briefly, almost in an assembly-line fashion. The priests, of course, perform their ritual duties as before, but their only audience is the close family of the deceased.

Ritual ablution can be done in any flowing water

Ritual ablution has always been important for Shinto, dating back to hand washing in streams

The mourners at a Shinto wake must purify their hands and mouths with water before entering the room. Usually, the funeral company will have set up a small bucket of water and a ladle for the guests. White paper or small towels may also be provided.

If the wake is held in a private home, the purification may be performed at the bathroom sink, if no other arrangement is possible. In that case, the guest should simply wash his hands and not rinse out his mouth (because it would be too rude to spit in someone else’s sink — an everyday etiquette taboo being more compelling than the need to observe the established Shinto methods of purifying oneself, which definitely include rinsing out one’s mouth).

People perform the same simple purification again before attending the funeral. This hand-washing rite is one of the rituals that distinguishes a Shinto wake or funeral from a Buddhist one. It is not that purification is absent from a Buddhist funeral: participants in a Buddhist funeral purify themselves only after the funeral (with salt) before reentering their home or workplace. A guest at a Shinto funeral does this, too.

The mourners’ self-purification before entering the wake or funeral place is analogous to the simple purification called for before one enters a Shinto shrine. A funeral is too polluted and polluting to be conducted at a shrine. Nonetheless, the presence of the Shinto priests and their ritual implements, perhaps especially the purification wand, transforms the secular house (or other building) into a sacred place that demands purification before entering.

Upon leaving a wake or funeral, the guest receives a small packet of salt, printed with the word “purification”. Even if one does not attend the wake or funeral, someone who has given condolence money (say, to an office colleague whose father has died) will still receive the packet of purification salt, in this case at the time of receiving the return-gift for the condolence money, usually forty-nine days after the death.

Salt plays an important part in Shinto rituals as a purifying agent

Salt plays an important part in Shinto rituals as a purifying agent

The return-gift might be small white towels (themselves symbolic of — and actually useful for! — purification) or a department store gift coupon. The interesting point here is that the office colleague who did not attend the funeral may seem not to have incurred the impurity of death, but he is still in need of purification. Other office colleagues, who did not give condolence money, receive no purification salt.

This can be understood either as long-distance attendance at the funeral (on the model of the Shinto “worship from afar”) or long-distance “contamination” with death pollution, since a route of “infection” can be traced through a series of contagious hands (like the 0-157 bacteria): he touched the condolence-money envelope, gave it to his bereaved colleague, and that envelope entered the realm of death pollution.

It is not always salt that is distributed for purification to people who have attended a Buddhist wake or funeral. At two wakes I attended recently, the mourners were handed a damp towel after paying their respects to the deceased.

The wake might include the following stages:
1 . The coffin-altar has been prepared by arranging the offerings of washed rice, salt, water, sake, vegetables, seaweed, cakes, etc. Also set up is a photo of the deceased — an important element of modern funerals. Other decorations are arranged as described above.
2. The priests and mourners enter the room.
3. The chief priest bows once, then the mourners bow once all together.
4. Food offerings are made.
5. The priest offers prayers and an elegy. A purification ceremony may also be performed at this point.
6. Offering of tamagushi: first the priests, then the chief mourner, followed by relatives in order of closeness and status, and finally friends and other mourners.
7. The offerings are taken away.
8. The chief priest bows, and the mourners then bow in unison.
9. The priests leave the room, while the mourners watch silently.

A priest about to present a tamagushi offering to a participant in a ceremony

A priest about to present a tamagushi offering to a participant in a ceremony

When the mourners are called upon to present tamagushi at the altar of the deceased, they are on stage. This is the only real action they must perform, and, to judge by the attention devoted to the correct way of offering tamagushi in the etiquette books, it is something to worry about. The tamagushi offering takes only a few seconds, but to the novice it seems hopelessly complicated. Remember that most mourners, unlike the priests, have never done this before and have no chance to practice.


How to offer tamagushi:
a. Receive the tamagushi from the priest.
b. Hold the tamagushi by placing your right hand, palm down, over the stem and grasping the branch with your thumb. Hold the leafy part in your left hand, with your palm facing up so that the leaves are on top of your palm. Bow in front of the altar.
c. Keeping the tamagushi pointing upward, rotate it clockwise until the stem, still held in your right hand, is pointing toward you.
d. Switch hands, so that the left hand is holding the stem and the right hand is holding the leaves. The palm of the right hand should be facing up.
e. Continue turning the tamagushi clockwise, with your left hand still holding the stem, until the stem is pointing away from you.
f. Place the tamagushi on the table, with the stem pointing toward the altar.
g. Bow twice. Clap twice without making noise (see below).
h. Bow once more. Return to your seat.

The tamagushi offering occurs in various Shinto rites: weddings, building dedications, memorial service for used needles, and so forth. The tamagushi itself symbolizes sacredness and purity. In the ritual context, it serves as a medium of exchange among the kami, priests, and lay people.

At a funeral, the tamagushi travels from the kami (symbolically) to the priest to the mourner to the deceased. This is not a descent, but a loop. In the funeral setting, the tamagushi has the added function of representing Shinto against Buddhism and Christianity. All three types of funerals include offerings from the mourners to the deceased, but each is purposefully differentiated from the others. Buddhists offer incense, while Christians offer flowers, and Shintôists offer tamagushi.


Tamagushi often play an important part in Shinto rituals, and knowing how to present them is an important part of the protocol

Tamagushi often play an important part in Shinto rituals, and knowing how to present them is an important part of the protocol

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