Birth, Life and Death: The Three Ceremonial Stages of Life in Japan (Podcast Recap! S2E9)
Japan has a lot of traditions. We delved more into the ceremonial traditions that take place at certain stages of life in the Nihongo Master Podcast Season 2 Episode 9.
From my years of living in Japan, I feel like there’s always some sort of ritual or celebration going on every other week in Japan, and that’s in no way a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s splendid that the Japanese commemorate all the various phases of life.
In every culture, we have our own ways of acknowledging parts of life. In Japan, a country so rooted in culture and etiquette, they have quite a unique take on them all. Recapping the podcast episode, there are three ceremonial stages of life in this article: rituals for the youth, the commemoration of the union of two souls, and the service of paying respects to the passing of a life.
1: Rituals for the youth
Why shouldn’t we celebrate life? Life is great. Life is wonderful. Life is full of opportunities and unlimited possibilities. The Japanese are very well aware of that, and so they have multiple rituals for life — some even before the birth of life itself, others are spread out all the way to when they reach adulthood.
The first celebration one will have right after one is born is the hatsuzekku (初節句), a celebration of the birth and prayers for their healthy and fruitful growth, as well as rituals including ones to ward off bad luck. Depending on whether the newborn is a boy or girl, there are different hatsuzekku dates — baby girls celebrate “momo no sekku” (桃の節句) on the 3rd of March, while baby boys celebrate “tango no sekku” (端午の節句) on the 5th of May.
These celebrations involve decorating the household with colourful carp streamers on a poll outside the home and ancient Japanese samurai helmet replicas, known as kabuto. The carp streamers came from a legend of a carp that turned into a dragon when it swam up the Ryumon waterfall, and now these streamers are a symbol of hope for success.
There are also other decorations involved depending on the gender. For the boys, decorations also include samurai dolls called gogatsu ningyo — ningyo is the Japanese word for “doll”, and gogatsu is translated to the fifth month. For the girls, instead of samurai dolls, they have Heian period princess dolls, which are believed to protect the children from harm.
Give it a couple more years and the children are celebrating again — specifically at the ages of 3, 5 and 7. These autumn celebrations are collectively called Shichi-Go-San, which literally means 7, 5, 3. For the girls, they get to have this celebration at all three ages, while the boys only get to celebrate at the ages of 3 and 5.
While it’s traditionally observed on the 15th of November, nowadays, families schedule their shrine visits on a weekend around the date, praying for health and growth. Unlike hatsuzekku, there are no decorations, but the children dress up in formal kimono — the girls with hair and makeup done and the boys with a fake katana.
If you haven’t noticed already, both ritual celebrations are to pray for a child’s healthy growth — and that’s because, back in the day, there was a serious issue with infant mortality. During the time, medicine wasn’t as developed as it is now, so the Japanese people turned to prayers.
Now, thanks to 21st century medicinal technology, we don’t have to worry about that as much. These rituals then become a custom and tradition that Japanese people still religiously practice.
Almost every girl’s dream is a big wedding. Some of us are at that age where we’re getting invites to our friends’ wedding ceremony or reception. For the Japanese, it’s not just the bride and groom becoming one, but also the two families. While nowadays it’s becoming more common for Japanese couples to have a modern wedding in a chapel, traditional Japanese weddings usually take place in a shrine and follow the customs of Shinto religion.
Traditional weddings are usually extremely private, with only family members and a select few guests present. And as usual, the bride and groom get extremely busy on their wedding day — not only are there a few outfit changes, but there are a couple of rituals to go through before they officially tie the knot.
One of the ceremony rituals (other than the purification, oaths and prayers), the couple has to share nuptial cups — three sizes of sake cups, all filled with sake — and sip each cup three times. Then their parents do the same. This ritual is known as the san-san-kudo — each three sets of sips represents something: the first set represents the three couples, the second set represents hatred, passion and ignorance, and the final set represents the freedom from the three flaws.
The bride’s first outfit usually consists of a white kimono to symbolise her submission into the new family, with a headdress consisting of a hood called wataboshi and a wig called tsunokakushi. All in all, the outfit can weigh up to 20kg! For the traditional ceremonial rituals, the bride and groom are to be in the traditional wear for them.
While the bride changes into a few other types of kimono, the groom is only in one outfit throughout: a montsuki haori hakama, a kimono set with his family crest on them. Both of them then usually change into a more modern white dress and suit for the reception.
The first two are celebrations of life — this one’s a little bit different. Some may say it is a celebration of one’s life, but when they have passed. Every culture has their own rituals for burial services — and in Japan, unlike weddings which are usually Shinto, funerals follow Buddhist customs.
If you’re invited to a Japanese funeral, it probably goes without saying but be sure to dress in full black. Bring with you Buddhist prayer beads and condolence money (known as kōden) for the family of the deceased. There’s an unspoken rule that the closer you are to the deceased, the more money you should give. Give odd numbers, and definitely avoid the number 4, as the word in Japanese is “shi”, which also means “death”.
On the day before the actual funeral ceremony, there’ll usually be a ceremonial wake called otsuya (お通夜), where family and friends gather to say their farewells to the dearly departed. A Buddhist priest would be present to chant a sutra while the bereaved offer incense. Nowadays, those who can't make it to the funeral go to the wake.
There’s also the okiyome (お清め), where guests eat and drink and talk about the good ol’ times — wait till you hear the “kenpai” toast from the deceased’s household before downing your drink!
The ososhiki follows a similar procedure to the wake, but with a few extra ceremonies: the biggest one is the cremation ceremony, a significant part of the Buddhist faith. This is usually conducted with family only, and after the body has been cremated, family members use tools similar to chopsticks to pick bones out of the ashes and pass it to the person next to them before placing them in a burial urn.
So if you’ve heard not to pass food from chopstick to chopstick, it’s because the act mimics this funerary ritual.
Here’s a list of all the new vocabulary words we used in the podcast episode:
Koinobori (鯉の?ぼり) — carp streamers
Gogatsu (五月) — fifth month, or May
Ningyou (人形) — doll
Ohinasama (お雛様) — princess
Shichi-go-san (七五三) — a name of a celebration for children ages 7, 5, 3, but the name comes from the actual words for 7, 5 and 3 in Japanese
Katana (刀) — a Japanese sword
Kekkon shiki (結婚式) — wedding ceremony
Kekkon hiroen (結婚ひろ園) — wedding reception
kekkon suru (結婚する) — to marry
Shiromuku (白無垢) — white kimono for the bride
Montsuki haori hakama (紋付き羽織袴) — kimono set with the family emblem for the groom
Sakazuki (盃) — sake cups
Kokubetsu shiki (告別式) / Ososhiki (お組織) — funeral service
Otsuya (お通夜) — ceremonial wake, it literally means “to pass the night”
Okiyome (お清め) — the meal where friends and family talk about the good times
Kenpai (兼杯) — the funeral version of kanpai (乾杯), which is like “cheers”
Juzu (数珠) — Buddhist beads
Kōden (香典) — condolence money
The Three Ceremonial Stages of Life!
And that’s our quick run through life in the form of Japanese ceremonies — the rituals of praying for a healthy growth for when you’re a kid, to a celebration when you find “the one”, and the last goodbye to a loved one at their final stage of life. I personally love the fact that the Japanese celebrate everything. Life's too short not to! What does your culture celebrate that’s similar to these ceremonies?
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