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Japanese Ancestor Veneration in Comparative Perspective

by Michael Pye

The practice of caring for one's ancestors is, of course, not unique to Japan. On the contrary, it is a basic element of "primal religion" in all cultures.

It is well known that the idea of "caring for the ancestors," used here as an approximate rendering of the Japanese phrase senzo-kuyo, is one of the key features of contemporary Japanese religion. It includes not only the management of death itself, or even of funeral and cemetery matters, but also a much wider range of religious activity. Caring for the ancestors involves fundamental concepts of family life understood as a succession of generations.(1) In particular, the important ideas of affinity (en) and obligation (on) are brought into play. The rites involved include, therefore, not only "rites of transition" or "rites of passage," to use the phrase of the well-known anthropologist of earlier times Arnold van Gennep,(2) but also rites of transaction.(3) That is to say, necessary dealings are carried out between the generations, which fulfill obligations and secure well-being.

Some care must be taken over English terminology. One phrase widely used in this connection is "ancestor worship," found for example in the title of Robert J. Smith's well-known Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan, a valuable work in many respects.(4) Unfortunately, the word "worship," which is used not only in the title but also quite freely in the text, commonly implies the ritual celebration of a being or beings with divine qualities, and in its strongest sense the praising of God by his creatures. Although this may be relevant in special cases, for example, with respect to the veneration of religious founders and political heroes (see below), it is surely not the right way to understand the general cult relating to ancestors in Japan. While senzo means the ancestors, the word kuyo means to offer respectfully (ku-) and to nurture or care for (-yo). The point is that the ancestors are still considered to have their needs, and indeed they themselves probably made provision for these while they were still alive, doing their best to ensure that they would have descendants who would be able to look after them on the home Buddhist altar in due course.

Consequently they need to be treated properly and cared for. Simple food and drink are respectfully offered to them. Moreover, one should report any important matters to them, and in so doing their presumed wishes or expectations should be taken into account in the future conduct of life. All of this can be summed up in the expression "caring for the ancestors," which was also used by Smith. When respect, admiration, and gratitude are being emphasized, phrases such as "reverence for the ancestors" or "ancestor veneration" may also be used.

Let us now take a look at this from a comparative point of view. The practice of caring for one's ancestors is, of course, not unique to Japan. On the contrary, it is a basic element of "primal religion" in all cultures. The simpler the society, the more fundamental is the care for the dead. It is not just that the bodies have to be safely disposed of. It is also important for the social group to recover its structural balance in a new constellation. This is achieved not merely through the assumption of responsibility by those who replace the dead in their roles but also by rites that recognize the positions of those who have died. It is therefore an obvious case of "rites of transition." This is true not only of small-scale societies. The same pattern is written large in the funeral cultures of ancient Egypt, ancient China, and elsewhere. Both in Egypt and in China, we can also see a gradual transfer of the practices and values that were first visible in the funeral arrangements for political rulers, the pharaohs and emperors, to the wider population. This process may be referred to as "the democratization of death." It is notable that the famous, though no longer contemporary, work by J. J. M. de Groot, The Religious System of China,(5) is in very large part devoted to the treatment of the deceased ancestors, which had become one of the dominant themes in all Chinese religions. It may also be presumed that the dramatically lavish arrangements for rulers in ancient times themselves post-dated even earlier, simpler procedures for the burial of ordinary persons, which are one of the oldest features of religion worldwide.

One of the starting points for the emergence of religious systems in prehistoric times was the careful, and indeed the caring, disposal of the dead. The point was that the deceased, who are the ancestors, were somehow cared for and not just thrown away. In many cultures they are regarded to this day as continuing members of the family. In Japan the home Buddhist altar is not just a place in front of which sutras are recited now and then. It is also a place where the family members can report on significant events in their lives, joyful or sorrowful, and even ask for guidance before making major decisions. In the well-known case of traditional Malagasy society, the bodies of deceased persons are exhumed after a certain time, wrapped up well and entertained as if present among the living, and then returned to the ground. This provides an evident parallel in structure, if not in the detail, to the Japanese rite or "festival" of o-bon, during which the ancestors (though not dug up, because they have been cremated) are invited back into the neighborhood for a cheerful party with dancing in the warm summer air, before being returned to the world of the buddhas.

A word might be added here about the practice of placing objects in graves or at tombs. Such a procedure has been documented worldwide by prehistoric archaeology. However, the motivation is not always obvious. One evident, but not universally demonstrable, reason is that such objects are thought to be needed by the departed in a future existence. The same idea can be observed today in the Chinese-style veneration of ancestors, which includes the provision of huge quantities of imitation paper money, usually offered by being ceremonially burned. On Japanese tombs it is common to see grains of rice, fruit, drinks such as beer or rice wine, or even a packet of cigarettes, placed there on anniversaries or at the important seasons of o-higan (the spring and autumn equinoxes) and o-bon (in summer), when many people pay a call on the ancestors in the cemetery. This is meant, symbolically, for their use. A rather different motive is that some items closely identified with a particular individual are thought to partake of his or her life and therefore cannot simply be taken over by others. Common examples from older periods are personal weapons or ornaments. A clear example in modern Japan would be the special shirt of a lay Buddhist pilgrim, marked with the seals and calligraphies of the temples visited. This is usually placed in the coffin before cremation. By extension, particular body parts such as umbilical cords or hair, or things used as some kind of extension of the body such as glasses, combs, wigs, needles, or rice bowls can all be disposed of through ritualized burning or burial. This ritual disposal is referred to as kuyo, the same term that is used for the paying of reverence to the ancestors themselves.

While there are important points of similarity among cultures in the care of ancestors, the leading founded religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam have built on earlier practices in their own particular ways, leading to considerable variation. Just as soon as distinctive religious teachings appear, the question of how ancestors are regarded depends in part on what is thought to happen to the individual after death, according to the new teaching. Both early Christianity and Islam shared the notion that the individual would be bodily resurrected at the end of the world in order to stand before God's judgment. This idea was inherited from late pre-Christian Judaism. In Christianity, the idea of bodily resurrection was overlaid, quite early, with the concept of the immortality of the soul, understood in Platonic terms as the essence of the human being. This shift occurred even though "the resurrection of the body" continued to be asserted in the historic creeds. The pressure to take a more Greek, philosophical view was intense, but how could these two be combined?

One of the more remarkable books of the early patristic age is a work by Athenagoras called De Resurrectione, in which he argued that it was necessary for the right bodies to be restored to the right souls. He therefore tried to defend the concept of bodily resurrection by describing in detail just how God, being almighty, would be able to completely reverse the process of the decay of the human corpse and even its consumption by worms and other beings. However, this-worldly realism also proved to be quite strong, and the words "ashes to ashes and dust to dust," spoken at Christian funerals over the centuries, seem rather to emphasize the finality of the physical death of the body.

This is the background for the steady shift toward cremation that has taken place in modern times in many parts of Europe, especially in those countries where Protestantism is strong, or where a secularized, post-Christian culture has become dominant. The question about what happens next is then left open. Some believe that the immortal soul continues to exist, in paradise or in heaven, or even in some kind of rebirth. Others conclude that death is final in all respects as far as the individual being is concerned. These later developments have not been paralleled in the Islamic world, where cremation is not permitted and bodies are still buried under stone or wooden markers at the head and the feet, to show where the body lies awaiting the resurrection.

But reverence for ancestors is not precisely the same subject as beliefs concerning the postmortem status of the individual. As long as the straightforward traditional picture has been maintained, it has been normal for departed family members in the Christian world to be held "in loving memory," as the saying goes, this being complemented by the comforting thought, as in Islam, that they are probably in heaven, in the presence of God. With the weakening of this picture, on the other hand, the retrospective veneration of ancestors has become, if anything, somewhat more important. It is not uncommon for an atheist or agnostic to argue that one "lives on" in the memory of those who follow after. This means that any future that can be considered in any sense as satisfactory is based, not on the reception of a deceased person by God in heaven, but on the memory, and goodwill, of later persons. Since this can only be based on a kind of social contract, a renewed motivation for ancestor veneration may arise.

This can be encouraged by specific bequests of fortune or property, and in some countries this has led to a considerable tradition of benefaction, often to the exclusion of natural heirs. Thus, there sometimes seems to be a certain amount of freedom in the selection of one's preferred descendants, or followers, that is, of those from whom one might expect a certain degree of "filial piety." In most cases, however, the natural family unit remains the dominant channel both of the transmission of expectations and of respectful memory. Even those with a poor reputation during their lifetime can come to be regarded with a kind of forgiving affection later on, if only as "the black sheep of the family," who is nevertheless still a member of the retrospectively revered family as a whole.

This is all a little different from the idea of caring for the deceased who have no one to care for them, or more precisely, for "buddhas without affinity" (muenbotoke). This idea, current in Japan, may be regarded by some as a wise precaution, for it might happen that the spirits of untended ancestors could become unruly, it is thought. However, it can also be a warmhearted, generous idea. This is because people ordinarily care only about their own personal ancestors, whereas it is an act of special compassion to care about neglected ancestors who happen to have no more descendants to care for them.

The cultures seem to meet again when we consider the reverence paid to extraordinary individuals after their death. This covers a very wide range. First, we may include in our perspective the establishment of ritualized cults around figures such as Augustus Caesar or Sugawara Michizane, who are presumed to have become divinities, that is, to have gone through the full process of apotheosis. In such cases, the usual term for a divinity in the particular culture is used, for example, deus or kami. Second, in many religious traditions, including both Christianity and Islam, profound reverence is paid to saints and martyrs. There is a certain difference, in that in the case of Catholic Christianity, the saints are themselves directly addressed in prayer, so that they are in effect regarded as supernatural agents. Thus, for many believers, they are what in other contexts would be regarded as "gods," although, of course, trained theologians would quickly deny this.

In some Buddhist countries very holy monks may be venerated in various ways and considered by faithful believers to be able to assist them in their need. In Mahayana Buddhism, Buddhist leaders are sometimes retrospectively designated as bodhisattvas, thus linking them with the world of supernatural beings believed to provide assistance in suffering, such as the mythical bodhisattvas Kannon or Jizo in Japan. Third, the founders of new religions are usually the focus of deep reverence that sometimes borders on worship. This is typical of Indian religious orientations, in which a guru is often regarded as a gateway to the divine realm. In some Japanese new religions the male or female founder is regarded as no less than a kami, and even in Buddhist cases such as Rissho Kosei-kai or Shinnyo-en, the reverence paid to them is hardly less, though differently understood. The common feature may be seen in the terms kyoso (which is made up of the elements kyo, meaning teaching, and so, meaning ancestor, the so being the same character as the zo of senzo-kuyo) and soshi, which means "ancestral teacher." In other words, the male or female founder is regarded retrospectively as the "ancestor" of the new teaching and hence deserving of veneration.

In fact, this is a very old idea. Confucius is the "ancestor" of the Confucian tradition, Kobo Daishi is the "ancestor" of Shingon Buddhism, and so on. This explains why there are temples in honor of Confucius, though he is not a "god." This leads to the fourth type. While the veneration or care of ancestors in East Asia is often regarded as being a matter for Buddhism, in many Chinese temples overseas there is a place for veneration of the founding figure or the authoritative ancestors of the particular place or community. In the context of Shinto, this applies to the kami from whom living people such as the Japanese imperial family and many priestly families are thought to be descended. In addition, the process of enshrining prominent individuals as kami has continued right up to recent times. Fifth, we should not overlook the secular forms of respect that are more widespread in modern times, for example, naming buildings, streets, or cities after famous people, erecting statues in their honor, or providing them with particularly fine tombs or mausoleums. In this sense the mausoleum for Chairman Mao in Beijing is a clear example of "civil religion," for he is regarded as the common ancestor of the modern Chinese state. This is why he continues to be revered, even though social and economic policies have turned somersaults since his time. The cult surrounding such special figures, who also include the founders of successful industrial companies such as Matsushita Electric, may therefore be regarded as embedded in the more general practice of caring for ancestors.

We may conclude as follows: It is notable that in Japan the ancestors are not only revered but also taken into consideration or "cared for" as continuing members of the family. At the same time, the veneration of ancestors is a widespread phenomenon that, for all the many differences, displays common threads over the whole world.


(1) I was able to explore this theme in 1990 with the help of a grant from the Niwano Peace Foundation, for which I would like to express my gratitude.
(2) Arnold van Gennep, Les rites de passage: Etude systematique des rites de la porte et du seuil, de l'hospitalite, de l'adoption (etc.) (Paris 1909). It is often overlooked that van Gennep proposed an analysis of rites in general, not just life-cycle rites.
(3) The concept of "rites of transaction" was initially proposed by the present writer, for example, in a section entitled "Rites of Transaction as an Analytical Key" (pp. 16--22) in Michael Pye, The Structure of Religious Systems in Contemporary Japan: Shinto Variations on Buddhist Pilgrimage, Occasional Papers No. 30 (Marburg, Germany: Centre for Japanese Studies, 2004). See also Katja Triplett and Michael Pye, "Religiose Transaktion--Rational oder Irrational?" in Workshop Organisation und Ordnung der Japanischen Wirtschaft IV, ed. W. Pascha and C. Storz (Duisburg, Germany: Institut fur Ostasienwissenschaften, 2004), pp. 27--38.
(4) Robert J. Smith, Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974).
(5) J. J. M. de Groot, The Religious System of China, 6 vols. (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1892--1910).

Michael Pye had been professor of religious studies at the University of Marburg, Germany, until 2004. He is now a visiting professor at Otani University, Kyoto. From 1995 to 2000, Dr. Pye served as president of the International Association for the History of Religions. His books include Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism and MacMillan Dictionary of Religion.
This article was originally published in the July-September 2007 issue of Dharma World.

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