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Old Apr 2, 10, 10:22 pm   #1
 
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Japanese death/grieving customs?

The company I work for is represented in Japan by a small (~6 people) family owned sales organization in which the father & son head the company. We received word today that the wife/mother, who also worked there, passed away suddenly yesterday.

We consider the people at this company to be our friends in addition to being close business partners and are deeply saddened to hear this news. Our hearts go out to the family as we know how close they all were and how difficult this situation must be for them. The husband and wife were inseparable and have been gracious hosts to myself and my coworkers during our visits to Japan.

Can someone provide any insight on the best approach to take in this situation? We want to pay our respects, express our sympathy, and offer our support, but aren't familiar with Japanese death/funeral/grieving customs and don't want to make a colossal blunder in the process. We haven't had any direct contact with the family since this happened, we were informed by a mutual business partner in Japan this morning. All we have done so far is to FedEx a sympathy card.

Any feedback from those who have been in this situation would be appreciated. Thanks.
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Old Apr 2, 10, 11:52 pm   #2
 
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Generally it goes in this fashion: Otsuya followed by Ososhiki and finally a period of mourning (40 days? someone will correct me I am sure) !

Last edited by Q Shoe Guy; Apr 3, 10 at 12:05 am.
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Old Apr 3, 10, 12:27 pm   #3
 
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The o-tsuuya is the wake, at which the body is present, its face covered by a cloth.

O-soushiki is the actual funeral service prior to the cremation, usually presided over by a Buddhist priest unless the family is strongly Shinto-oriented or Christian, but I'd say that the vast majority of people have Buddhist services, even if they're not particularly religious.

After the person's death, his/her photo is put up on the family's butsudan (Buddhist altar). If you visit the family during the mourning period, you kneel before the altar and burn a stick of incense and offer a brief prayer for the soul of the deceased.

Some families keep the person's photo on the altar permanently.

The dress code for attending a wake or funeral is a black suit for men and a black dress with a string of pearls for women. Attendees bring money (I don't know what the current suggested amount is) in a special envelope (available at any stationery store).

On the 49th day after a person's death, there's a custom called "katami-wak" in which the deceased's personal possessions are divided up among friends and family members.

Since you aren't in Japan and have evidently never lived there, the family would not expect you to know their customs. I'd say that your prompt sympathy card was greatly appreciated.

You don't send New Year's cards to people in mourning, but I'm not sure what the "statute of limitations" is on this. Does it apply to people who have lost someone since the previous New Year?

In any case, you DO send a "Thinking of you during the cold weather" card late in January in place of a New Year's card.
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Old Apr 3, 10, 8:34 pm   #4
 
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Originally Posted by ksandness View Post
The o-tsuuya is the wake, at which the body is present, its face covered by a cloth.

O-soushiki is the actual funeral service prior to the cremation, usually presided over by a Buddhist priest unless the family is strongly Shinto-oriented or Christian, but I'd say that the vast majority of people have Buddhist services, even if they're not particularly religious.

After the person's death, his/her photo is put up on the family's butsudan (Buddhist altar). If you visit the family during the mourning period, you kneel before the altar and burn a stick of incense and offer a brief prayer for the soul of the deceased.

Some families keep the person's photo on the altar permanently.

The dress code for attending a wake or funeral is a black suit for men and a black dress with a string of pearls for women. Attendees bring money (I don't know what the current suggested amount is) in a special envelope (available at any stationery store).

On the 49th day after a person's death, there's a custom called "katami-wak" in which the deceased's personal possessions are divided up among friends and family members.

Since you aren't in Japan and have evidently never lived there, the family would not expect you to know their customs. I'd say that your prompt sympathy card was greatly appreciated.

You don't send New Year's cards to people in mourning, but I'm not sure what the "statute of limitations" is on this. Does it apply to people who have lost someone since the previous New Year?

In any case, you DO send a "Thinking of you during the cold weather" card late in January in place of a New Year's card.
New Years card......not for this coming New Year (2011)! 2012 OK to go....

Excellent post Ksandness
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Old Apr 3, 10, 10:25 pm   #5
 
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Thanks for the excellent info, ksandness. I've been to at least one Buddhist temple with the family, so I expect it will be a Buddhist service. My colleagues and I haven't heard anything more so we're just waiting for information when they're ready to give it to us. Showing up for the funeral without an invite didn't strike us as being a good idea. We'll offer them whatever support we can and recognize that their mourning takes precedence over business for the time being.
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Old Apr 4, 10, 2:23 am   #6
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I'm sorry for your loss, and I'm afraid I haven't much to add, and that's despite having been in a similar position to yours twice. ksandness has done a wonderful job covering the basics (and I can confirm Q Shoe Guy's last post).

Many families won't welcome those from outside the family at the initial rites. The sympathy card and waiting for your cue from your colleagues seems the best thing you could have/can do.

But as you do feel close to the departed, if you choose to do so, I believe it would be appropriate to let the family know that you would like to pay your respects when you next go to Japan, even if this is outside the traditional mourning period. This will probably depend on the people involved, but for many families the deceased member stays as a vital presence in their lives and the household shrine can be a focus for ongoing communion and dialogue. If you are invited to their home to pay your respects (and even if you are not) you should bring an exquisitely wrapped or presented gift of food or candy, this gift (hopefully, something she enjoyed in life) will probably be placed on the alter so she can enjoy the essence - once the departed has had their share it will be eaten by the other family members.
You might be invited to light some incense for her, if so, you'll be shown where to put it. Without clapping just bow your head and have a silent chat with her. When you are finished, bow again.
The same goes if you are invited instead to pay your respects at the grave.

But I'd suggest that it's best not to make the request if any of this would make you feel awkward. It's the kind of thing that would make everybody embarrassed unless your heart was in it.

There's a beautiful movie I'd recommend to you. The Departed directed by Yojiro Takita.

In the coming years, the family may mark the anniversary at certain points. The first anniversary is a key event, and so is the 3rd and 7th anniversary (sometimes the 5th), there are other noted anniversaries after this (particularly the 13th) but they become less important. The priest may also set a day for memorial rites that doesn't coincide exactly with the anniversary date. You may like to mark these anniversaries on a calender. Again, depending on how close you were, some flowers or other token of acknowledgement appropriate for a shrine might be welcomed over the coming years.

The only tricky part is figuring out when these anniversaries are - the first will be next year, but the third may be the year after that (2012). The 7th anniversary is marked 6 years later (2016). It would be kind to respect these in regard to visits and company obligations.

Last edited by LapLap; Apr 4, 10 at 2:57 am.
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Old Apr 4, 10, 4:11 am   #7
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If you want to do what Japanese people would do, you take money in a special envelope to the otsuya or the funeral itself (some people go to both). You won't receive any invitation to the funeral. You just go unless it's made very clear that the funeral is for the close family only (somewhat unusual unless there is a separate service for non-family members later).

The going rate for the amount of money depends on the relationship between the person (or company) giving the money and the deceased (or more likely the surviving family member(s) of the deceased). When my brother died a few years ago individuals from his company younger than him brought 3,000~5,000 yen each, many of those in the same generation as my brother or older (or more senior in the company) brought 10,000 yen. Departments within his company and other companies he had business contact with brought 20,000~50,000 yen and his company sent 410,000 yen which I thought was a strange figure (numbers 4 and 9 are considered unlucky in Japan and should be avoided even for funerals). There must have been some going rate within the company based on the length of service.)

Japanese funerals are very expensive and monetary gifts are supposed to help towards the cost. Especially after the otsuya food and drinks are offered and although (un)fortunately I missed it since I couldn't be there in time my brother's otsuya apparently ended up as a company drinking party!

My idea of Japanese funerals is better represented by this film.
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0089746/
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Old Apr 4, 10, 10:53 am   #8
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Originally Posted by NewbieRunner View Post
(somewhat unusual unless there is a separate service for non-family members later)
Obviously, it's different for everybody, and perhaps it isn't the norm, but I would not say it is particularly unusual.
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Old Apr 4, 10, 7:31 pm   #9
 
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Like with any country there is a lot of minor variation on how to go about funerals and this applies to weddings as well.

The example that NewbieRunner provided is, I think quite accurate particularly in a corporate context. His example seems to represent quite large funerals. I just wanted to add a few things to be aware of for smaller funerals where it isn't the company member but his or her family member for whom the funeral is for.

It is getting increasingly common in Japan to have smaller funerals and to these it is usually family members only, quite frequently even girlfriends/boyfriends aren't invited, although there is no invitation as such and the information usually filters down to the relevant people. If you become aware of the death and you have a close enough relationship then you would contact them to express your condolences. If the date, time and place are mentioned to you then I guess that counts as an invitation of sorts. You can always ask and if it is for families only they will be clear about this. Bear in mind that it is not unusual to have meals and a room prepared for the attendants so going completely unannounced can cause logistical problems. If you do go unannounced then be prepared to leave after offering incense. Also very important, like Newbie Runner mentioned - take money - I would say at least 20,000 but ideally 50,000 (avoid 40,000 as number 4 can be pronounced shi which means death in Japanese and hence there are no number 4 rooms in hospitals). The money has to be placed in a special envelope - to somebody new they don't look that different from wedding ones so be careful and which way the bow is arranged is very important too. Most will come with instructions at the back. You will need to write your name on the envelope (again follow instructions). This is done so that the family can keep track of who came and what gifts they can send to you afterwards, thanking you for attending the funeral.

Just as a final note, I think the example of 410,000 yen that the company contributed in NewbieRunner's example is a symbolic gesture to avoid the whole number 4 problem - I guess they felt that 300,000 wasn't enough and 500,000 was too much or the people that couldn't attend contributed and ended up being 400,000 and someone added another 10,000 in order to avoid the 4 - ! Finally, you always increase the amount to avoid the 4 and never down.
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Old Apr 4, 10, 8:58 pm   #10
 
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With regard to services, and I am strictly speaking about customs related to the Jodo-Shu sect of Buddhism here in Hawaii, there are services held on the 7th day, 25th day, 49th day, 100th day and successive years - 1, 3, 7, 13, 17, 23, 25, 27, 33, 37, 43, 47, and finally, the 50th year when the soul has achieved enlightenment - Nirvana. Since a person is deemed 1 year old at birth (gestation), the deceased is considered a year older at death, and service years are actually less 1, so for example the 50th anniversary service is actually held on the 49th anniversary of the death.

Since it may be difficult to keep track of the service anniversaries, a lot of families make arrangements with a local Buddhist temple to perform services for the deceased on the anniversary date.
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Old Apr 5, 10, 8:58 am   #11
 
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A couple of other notes. May not apply to the OP, but maybe someone else. Money in the special envelope given at the funeral should not be new, crisp bills, opposite of a wedding, for example. The wake will generally take place the night of the death and the funeral the next day. There is a Buddhist calendar system that consists of 6 days that generally rotate. One of those days is called "tomobiki" and a funeral will never be held on that day, as the kanji imply bringing your friend, in other words pulling your friend into death. If the next day after dying is tomobiki, then they will wait an extra day. Many business calendars have these days printed on them.
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Old Apr 6, 10, 4:52 am   #12
 
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There's a beautiful movie I'd recommend to you. The Departed directed by Yojiro Takita.
Just FYI, while Okuribito is indeed an excellent movie, the custom of preparing the "departed" in front of a live audience is pretty much obsolete, at least in the cities.

One rite that does live on is that, after the cremation, any remaining bones are picked out with chopsticks, passed around from chopstick to chopstick by attending family members (hence the taboo), and then laid in an urn. However, this is only for the immediate family.
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Old Apr 6, 10, 6:01 am   #13
 
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One rite that does live on is that, after the cremation, any remaining bones are picked out with chopsticks, passed around from chopstick to chopstick by attending family members (hence the taboo), and then laid in an urn. However, this is only for the immediate family.
Doesn't the passing go from youngest to oldest, with the oldest placing the remains into the container? I think that I've heard that, but have never actually witnessed this part of the ceremony.
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Old Apr 6, 10, 6:07 am   #14
 
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IME customs and expectations can vary from region to region - even within the same sect of Buddhism.

In my father-in-law's home town, various rites have been accelerated and abbreviated for the sake of convenience. (For example, the "vigil" is a short ceremony rather than an all-night endurance test and the "seven-day" rites are performed on the same day as the cremation). His cousins from the island of Sado were rather horrified by these modern touches. By contrast, some other guests from the big city were accustomed to the "Las-Vegas-wedding-style" funeral rites, but they were a little too "Las-Vegas" in the extravagance of their monetary gifts, which left my wife and her brother with a burden of obligation. Fortunately, the local funeral director was well versed in the variations in etiquette around the country and he helped them to avoid embarrassing themselves or the various attendees.

Having observed Japanese people getting tangled up in their own traditions, I would always seek out someone who is close to the situation to advise me on what's appropriate for that specific situation.
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Old Apr 7, 10, 12:49 am   #15
 
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However, this is only for the immediate family.
Not in my case....attended the funeral and then the cremation of my sponsors father back in 1991 (pretty much my first year in Japan) and was involved in the chopstick rite!
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