An Exhibition of Early Buddhist Funerary Urns (now finished) and a bit on the complicated history of burial and cremation in Japan
By Avi Landau
It was in the year 700 AD, according to the Shoku Nihongi (続日本紀), an imperially commissioned history completed in 797, that the body of Dosho, a Buddhist priest with connections to the Emperor Monmu(文武天皇), was burned on a funeral pyre in accordance with Buddhist practice.
This is the first recorded instance of a cremation having taken place in Japan (though archaeological evidence suggests that the practice had begun 200 years earlier).
Two years later, according to the same text, the first cremation of a (former) Emperor, was held. Though it would be more correct to say former EMPRESS, since Jito Tenno (持統天皇) was in fact the 3rd of eight women to have occupied the Chrysanthemum Throne.
From then on the practice of cremation continued to spread among the aristocrats, high ranking officials and of course – Buddhist priests, in and around the old capital of Nara.
From that area, cremation, along with Buddhism, spread throughout the realm- not as a custom or faith of the common people, but of the elite, or at least those closely connected with the government. This expansion was given a tremendous boost by Emperor Shomu`s decreeing in the year 741 that an official Buddhist temple and nunnery be established in every province of the realm. These were called KOKUBUNJI (国分寺) AND KOKUBUNNIJI (国分尼寺) and were, in fact, symbols of state power- with the monks and nuns chanting sutras and performing rites which would ensure the safety and prosperity of his majesty and the lands under his control.
Because of this, already by the end of the 8th century, cremation had become an entrenched practice among the government officials and important families of the far flung frontier regions of eastern Japan- including what is now called the Northern Kanto Region- and what are now Chiba and our very own Ibaraki Prefectures.
In the present day, more than 1,000 years later, Japan is the country with the highest rate of cremation in the world. Nearly everyone, it seems is cremated- and though there are exceptions, there are VERY few deceased persons indeed whose bodies are dealt with in any other fashion after death. The statistics say that 99% of Japanese are cremated (though the year of the great tsunami (2011) was an exception).
Does this current state of affairs show the result of a smooth and continuous spread of Buddhist funerary practices across Japan over the past millennium- or that Japan today is a devoutly Buddhist country?
The answer is NO on Both counts.
Cremation was NEVER universal in Japan- even among devout Buddhists, until the 20th century- it was just TOO EXPENSIVE! Large amounts of (valuable) combustible materials were needed to get the the time consuming job done.
And it must also always be remembered that Japan never gave itself over to one single religion or philosophy- there was always strong competition from the native system of beliefs called SHINTO- and occasionally from Confucianism and Neo-confucianism (especially in the Edo Period 1600-1868) which saw cremation as a sinful desecration of the sacred human body.
In fact, the last of the many Emperors to be cremated in Japan was Go-yo-zei Tenno back in 1617- at the beginning of the Edo Period (though the retired emperor Akihito has announced that he and his wife will be cremated in accordance with common practice in contemporary Japan).
Most surprising, in this country now so predominantly cremation-oriented, is the fact that the practice of burning bodies was actually BANNED in Japan between 1873 and 1875- because the government of the NEW Meiji Japan (established in 1868) had intentions of ridding Japan of any vestiges of the foreign faith- Buddhism.
The Meiji government eventually relented on this issue, because of objections from Buddhists- and because of public health considerations.
But probably the most important point favoring cremation was the introduction of NEW TECHNOLOGIES which made the process cheaper, less wasteful of resources, less smoky, and much FASTER.
With huge increases in population and the rapid development of all available land, there was also just LESS SPACE for burial (though in the flat, spacious Tsukuba area, burial remained common much longer than it did in other areas- and even continues, though very rarely, to be practiced today!).
If you were to ask your Japanese friends or acquantances about why cremation seems to be the RULE in this country, they will almost surely explain that burial is illegal here.
The fact is, however, that it is NOT ILLEGAL (except for within most of the densely populated limits of Tokyo and Osaka Prefectures)- it has just become unimaginable !
This is due to decades of local governments strongly promoting the practice of cremation.
.The Japanese also find small funerary urns more convenient than coffins for burying entire families together in a single grave- as is the custom now.
A bronze funerary urn found in Tottori Prefecture with the name of the deceased and the date of death (707 AD) engraved on its lid. Inscriptions bearing similar details have been found VERY RARELY- at less than 20 archaeological sites- all of them in western Japan.
Here, in eastern Japan, there have also been only a small number of funerary urns discovered with writing on them. And the inscriptions that have been found NEVER provide any details regarding the deceased.
The inscriptions most often consist of one or two characters- many of vague or obscure meaning. It is even possible they have no relation to the deceased or the cremation at all- and suggest perhaps previous markings on the vessels which had had other uses before functioning as urns.
I visited the Ibaraki Prefectural Museum of History. On display were HANIWA, the unglazed, hollow, earthenware figurines and cylinders which were used to decorate KOFUN- the large (sometimes immense) burial mounds in which the bodies of deceased Emperors and other men of power and influence had been interred in between the 3rd and 7th centuries.
Many of the artifacts had come from large tumuli near the shores of Lake Kasumigaura.
Just a few days later I found myself at the small (but excellent) Tsuchiura Archaeology Museum at the site of the Kamitakatsu Shell Mound (just a 15 drive from the Tsukuba Station).
There, on display, were artifacts found in same area- around Lake Kasumigaura- and they were also FUNERARY ITEMS. Though they were from the 9th and 10th centuries instead of the 5th,6th and 7th.
Seen one after the other, these two exhibitions illustrated a DRAMATIC break with the past in terms of funeral practices among the ruling class.
Instead of intact corpses, stone burial chambers, huge mounds, bronze mirrors, weapons, horse trappings AND the HANIWA figurines, were simple (yet surprisingly beautiful and intact) URNS which once contained cremated remains.
Ibaraki and Chiba Prefectures have proven to be especially rich in Nara and Heian Period cemeteries in which Buddhist funerary urns were buried
Just as the local strongmen who dominated this area (and ended up being buried in large tumuli) had come to the area from western Japan by ship and settled around Lake Kasumigaura (which until the late 20th century was open to the sea!) – early adherents of Buddhism- government officials, warriors, and priests, arrived in the area and moved around it by ship. Many of them also settled around the lake .
It was only that instead of building large burial mounds- those who arrived in later centuries chose to be cremated.
Making the urns found in this area especially interesting is the fact that some of them were inscribed with Chinese characters- which at that time were also used only by the elite and which in some way were also symbols of the state- utilized for issuing decrees and for writing the household registers which had been introduced in the 7th century- and writing out Buddhist sutras- which along with chanting, was an important form of prayer.
The Japanese court actively took up the task of introducing the Chinese writing system in the 5th century. Wani, a scholar from the Korean Peninsula (The Kingdom of Paekche) was invited to Japan to oversee this daunting undertaking.
Three hundred years later, these efforts bore fruit with a veritable explosion of WORKS written using Chinese characters. There were the great Histories of Japan- the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki (which tell the story of Wani becoming over from Korea during the reign of the Emperor Ojin), the MANYOSHU– the first anthology of Japanese poetry, the FUDOKIs, reports on the geography, people, customs, and lore in each of Japan`s provinces (only five of these are extant- with the most important of them probably being the Hitachi no Kuni Fudoki- which deals with what is now Ibaraki Prefecture) AND the great Codes of Law promulgating the Ritsuryo System – all of these appearing in the 8th century
CHINESE CHARACTERS ON THE FUNERAL URNS
Some of the characters found on the urns are names – for example O-TOMO, a family name which was important in this area during the Nara Period. It is probable that the bones interred in the urn with this inscription on it was a member of the O-TOMO Clan. However, it is strange that only the family name is given ( when compared with inscriptions found in western Japan), And since this clan had been, before the system of government had been reformed under the Ritsuryo System (in the early 8th century) in charge of preparing food for the Imperial Household, it seems to me possible, that O-Tomo could be a label saying that this vessel had once belonged in the Imperial kitchen. The existence of another urn (shown above) with the inscription GOVERMENT KITCHEN adds further weight to this theory!
There are also what appear to be full names- FAMILY NAME and GIVEN NAME.-
万小丸 and 宕丸, for example
though along with these there are no descriptions of the deceased`s- rank or date of death- such as the inscriptions found on certain urns found in western Japan.
Some of the other characters found on the urns in this area indicate a family ROLE, for example: 家長- HEAD OF THE HOUSE, AND 母- MOTHER or 父- FATHER.
There are also characters of religious significance: 佛- BUDDHA
and the more mysterious: 正- CORRECT, PROPER, 八- EIGHT, or INFINITY, and 万- TEN THOUSAND or ALL THINGS and even 億万- which could translated as BILLIONS AND BILLIONS
Given the fact that inscriptions on unearthed ancient funerary urns have been quite rare, and that the characters themselves are often vague and mysterious, it can be speculated that the inscriptions might have been made on some of these vessels BEFORE they were selected to be used to bury ashes and bones (as I have already suggested).
It the other hand, it might be evidence of a lack of confidence, out in the provinces, in Chinese writing skills. That could explain why sometimes only a single simple character- such as MOTHER or FATHER was written.
The small but memorable exhibition made it very clear that we know very little of the ancient cremation practices in this area.
What was really struck me though was the BEAUTY of the ceramics themselves- even after having been in the ground for more than a thousand years, many were richly hued and gave off an earthy warmth- exuding WABI AND SABI before there even was WABI AND SABI.
Once again, the curators of this small museum URN kudos for putting together an excellent exhibition.
The Tsuchiura Archaeolgy Museum is located here:
and here is its homepage (in Japanese ):