Friday, April 19, 2013

Departure (death) - a way of life?

I am sure many of you must have watched the Oscar award-winning film - Departures or Okuribito (in Japanese) This is one visually and emotionally stunning movie because of the way it portrays death, as an inevitable part of human life. If you have noticed, the four seasons, which in a way depict human life, have been beautifully and very articulately woven into the story.
The movie inspired me to come up with this write-up that talks about how the Japanese perceive death. I have also tried to compare this with the belief and attitude of the Indian culture towards death and all that is related. Death is invariably a taboo topic in societies all over the world. Keeping that in mind, the way the movie depicts and tackles the subject death, both in a dignified and a humorous way, is truly commendable.  

I have never had a chance to talk about death with a Japanese and so all that I write here is purely what I could understand from the movie, which I assume gives a true picture of the Japanese culture and belief (If not, I would love to receive inputs from my Japanese friends, that is if they don't mind talking about it ) , and also from what I have read on the web.

The movie revolves around the life of a Nokanshi (an encoffinment apprentice) and how he takes up this jobs by mistake and eventually starts to love and respect it. It is indeed amazing to see how a Nokanshi glorifies death, how he turns the simple task of encoffinment into a heart-warming ritual, conveying respect and passion to a lifeless body as if it was alive.  

While watching the movie, I realized that there were so many similarities between the way death is perceived in India and Japan. I could not help but draw the similarities between the ritual of encoffinment** in India and Japan. 

The complex ritual of encoffinment in Japan is very similar to that in the Hindu Culture***

Just before an expected death, or right after a death occurs, the dying (or the deceased) person's lips are moistened with water. This practice of giving water to the dying or the dead is known as "water of the last moment" (末期の水 matsugo-no-mizu). This is quite similar to the practice of offering gangajal (holy water of the Ganges) to a dying person in the Hindu religion, so that the soul may attain liberation. Matsugo-no-mizu is probably also offered for similar reasons. 

In both the cultures, the purification of the body involves the cleaning of the body with water after which the orifices are blocked with cotton. The fact that "purification" is carried out means that death is considered as impure by the Japanese and Indians alike. The body is then dressed up in new clothes, after which make-up is applied. In India, the body of a married woman, whose husband is still alive at the time of her death, is usually dressed up in bright colored clothes and adorned with jewelry. This whole ceremony is basically held to prepare the deceased for a journey into the next life, which stresses the fact that both Japanese and Indians believe in life after death or 're-birth'. 

 After the cremation, it is customary for the relatives and friends to spray salt over themselves before they enter their house to purify themselves. This practice is again quite similar to the practice in India of spraying holy water over oneself for purification. 

It is believed by the Japanese that the soul of the dead wanders for 49 days before it finally goes to heaven. In Hinduism, the belief is that the soul wanders in this world for 13 days before it finally attains "Moksha" (or eternal freedom from the cycle of life and death) 'Moksha' is one aspect of Hindu religion which is quite intriguing and complicated, and I would rather not touch upon it in detail for my understanding of it is quite minimal :). From what I know, this concept of liberation has it is origins in Buddhism so I wonder if the Japanese also have something similar in their religious traditions or culture? 

The concept of "Obon" and "Shradh" is also very similar in the two cultures. During "Obon" or "Shradh", the souls of the dead are thought to return to their homes. The families hold prayer ceremonies during this period and the favorite food of the deceased is prepared in order to welcome their souls. In India, people avoid eating any non-vegetarian food during this period as non-veg is considered to be impure. It is a way of showing reverence to the dead. ('Shradh' comes from the word 'Shraddha' which means 'unconditional reverence')

Coming back to the movie and the topic of Nokanshi, one can see that there is a social stigma attached to the job, which is exactly how it is in India, where the person who cremates the dead is usually a person from a lower caste. In Japan, these men are referred to as 'Burakumin' (literally 'filthy people') and are (were?) considered as social outcasts, which is very similar to the concept of "untouchables" in India.

These similarities probably have their roots in Buddhism which came to Japan from India and intrinsically linked the two cultures together. This is reflected not only in death but also in other aspects of life.

Summing up, one cannot help wondering how death can "hold us all together", no matter how far apart we may be in our lives. 

** The word "encoffinment" per se would not be applicable in the "Hinduism" context as the dead are cremated and their ashes are deposited in the Ganges or sea. In Buddhism, the body is put in a coffin, then cremated and the ashes are then buried.

***Although, Japan is a secular society, 91% of the funerals are held according to Buddhist customs"" (""quoted from Wikipedia) 


  1. Once again Puneeta it is fascinating to read your comparisons between the cultures. You highlight similarities that are perhaps hinted at but not so clearly defined in western culture in my opinion.

    1. Thank you Norma. This reminds me of the phrase "a stiff upper lip", which is considered as an attribute of the British. The first time I heard this phrase was when princess Diana died and there were talks of the family keeping a stiff upper look. Do you think this is true of the British people?

  2. Interesting about the similarities, I like the movies a lot and have watched it twice. It is a very appealing tone throughout the movie! /Susanne K

    1. Thank you Susanne. I loved the movie too and have seen it many times. Thanks once again for your blog./Puneeta

  3. Its a beautifully written work. I love this movie, and have myself thought about the similarities between the Japanese and Indian world many times.