As Buddhism spread through eastern Asia during the first two millennia AD, so did the practice of cremation. Death created pollution, people believed, and the ritual disposal of bodies was supposed to be cleansing. Until the last few years of the 19th century, cremation was controversial in Japan because a portion of the population—Confucians, specifically—believed the burning of corpses to be morally indefensible and more polluting than full-body burial. Although Buddhism propelled cremation’s spread across Asia, its staying power, particularly in Japan, has been for practical reasons. This is the story of how Japan came to have the world’s highest rate of cremation.
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Two important deaths in quick succession launched Japan’s cremation movement: that of Dosho, a Buddhist priest, in 700 AD, and Emperor Jito in 703. The emperor’s cremation was particularly influential, and it set a precedent Japanese aristocracy would follow for centuries.
However, it was not until the end of the Heian period (794-1185), which began shortly after Dosho and Jito’s corpses were burned, that cremation became closely associated with Buddhism in Japan. Buddhist philosophy teaches that everything—including life and the body—is impermanent, and that the cleansing fire of cremation is transformative. Cremation helps to disperse “pollution” created after a person dies and to move the spirit into the ancestral realm—from a “polluting spirit” to a “purified ancestral spirit,” as scholar Masao Fujii wrote. During the Kamakura period (1192-1333), the practice of cremation spread from the aristocracy to the people.
In 142 years, there arose in Japan a vocal antagonist to cremation: Confucians. Confucians viewed cremation as disrespectful to the dead and “unnatural”—and the fact that it was a Buddhist practice didn’t help. Buddhists or Buddhist temples owned and ran most of the crematoria throughout Japan and China, and as a result, cremation was seen inextricably as a Buddhist practice. A Confucian scholar living in the 17th century demeaned cremation’s use throughout more than 60 of Japan’s provinces.
In 1654, nearly a thousand years after Jito was cremated, Japanese aristocracy ended the cremation streak: Emperor Gokomyo’s body was buried instead of being burned. By this time, Confucian scholars, the most vocal opponents to the practice, were firmly entrenched in Japan’s elite class.
The conflict over cremation came to a head in the late 19th century. In 1868, Emperor Meiji took the throne and began transforming Japan into a modern nation-state. This period, which became known as the Meiji Restoration, was marked by dramatic social and political reform, including the abandonment of feudalism in exchange for a capital economy. “In the eyes of many Meiji bureaucrats, anything ‘Buddhist’ was incompatible with ‘civilization,’” scholar Andrew Bernstein wrote in “Fire and Earth: The Forging of Modern Cremation in Meiji Japan.”
In the late 1860s, government officials made several failed attempts to ban cremation. They found their first real opportunity in early 1873, when Tokyo’s police requested that the government order crematoria to move outside “the red line” surrounding the city, calling the smoke from dead bodies damaging to the public’s health. On July 18, 1873, despite public opposition, Japan banned cremation. To justify it, government officials claimed that burning bodies was disrespectful to the dead and jeopardized public morality and that the resulting smoke was, Tokyo’s police claimed, a public health concern.
Opponents focused on undeniable problems the ban caused: Full bodies took up space faster than ashes; separating ancestral remains was a moral and emotional hardship for families; and cremation was actually more sanitary than in-ground burial because, particularly during disease epidemics, fire was the only sure way to kill contagions.
The conflict played out in urban areas where the law was easier to enforce and had the biggest and most immediate negative effect on residents. Japan’s increasing urbanization in the late 19th century meant cities had denser populations, putting pressure on the limited land available in temple cemeteries. Some families chose to keep their relatives’ ashes at home, but for the most part, they placed ashes in family plots. Because the ashes of a single person take up so little room, families had been able to inter generations of their ancestors’ ashes together using relatively little land. As space ran out in the cities, families began burying their loved ones outside of city limits, making it harder for city dwellers to visit their dead relatives’ remains. Especially given the government’s claim that cremation would corrupt Japan’s moral center, the disruption the ban caused was a slap in the face to the Japanese people: Family is sacred in Japanese culture. With limited space to bury bodies and a dense population that overwhelmingly opposed the ban, something had to give.
At the same time, scientific researchers in Europe touted the sanitary benefits of cremation, including its use in helping control the spread of disease. And so, opponents of Japan’s ban framed Europe’s growing interest in cremation as approval from the West, rejecting the claim that it created more pollution than burial and, effectively, in the minds of the government, separating cremation from Buddhism. Rather than a spiritual practice, people came to view it as a sanitary one.
In May 1875, less than two years after it passed, the ban was reversed. Two decades later, in 1897, the Japanese government ruled that anyone who died of a communicable disease had to be cremated. In an ironic twist, government officials began actively promoting the cleansing power of fire and its ability to destroy diseases.
In the 1890s, Japan’s cremation rate hovered around 40 percent, gaining or losing a couple points year after year. It wasn’t until 1930 that it surpassed 50 percent. From 1950 to 1980, the rate increased from 54 percent to 91.1 percent, and it has only continued to climb.
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Japan is a country without space to spare. Totaling less than 150,000 square miles, the islands of Japan amount to less than 4 percent of the total size of the United States. Meanwhile, Japan’s population today, which is just over 127 million, is nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population of 319 million.
A 2012 report by the Cremation Society of Great Britain recorded Japan’s cremation rate, the highest in the world, as 99.9 percent. Taiwan has the second highest rate with 90.8 percent, followed by Hong Kong (89.9 percent), Switzerland (84.6 percent), Thailand (80 percent), and Singapore (79.7 percent). By comparison, the cremation rate in the United States is projected to surpass the rate of burial for the first time in 2015.
Confucians weren’t, of course, cremation’s only opponents on moral or religious grounds. Elsewhere in the world, the Catholic Church, up until 1964, banned cremation for its adherents. In-ground burial was mandated in the hopes that, like the body of Christ, the deceased’s body might be resurrected. But mainly the Church instituted the ban because cremation, which was seen as a rejection of the possibility of Christ’s resurrection, had been practiced as a form of protest against the Church as recently as the late 19th century.
As in Japan, the Church ultimately reversed its doctrine for practical reasons: Officials recognized cremation’s public health and economic merits. And they understood that people chose cremation for private reasons, including a desire to keep family members’ remains close.
As long-distance travel became easier in the 20th century, families dispersed around the world, which meant ancestors’ buried remains stayed behind. The Cremation Association of North America attributes the increase in cremation in part to wanting to bring along a loved one’s remains. As the century progressed, another change took place: Cities around the world blossomed in size, putting pressure on limited cemetery land within city bounds. Cremation has made it possible to fit more remains in the same limited space.
Over the past century, and primarily after the Second World War, traditions in Japan, like so many places in the world, have changed. Cremation, which was previously seen as a Buddhist practice, has now become a secular, nation-wide tradition. Buddhist practice in Japan, too, has relaxed: Traditionally, in Buddhist funerals, the whole family had to be present at the cremation of a body. The period of mourning began at cremation and lasted 49 days, after which the deceased’s spirit was said to be with ancestral spirits. Now, instead of observing the death day of a loved one for decades, most families stop after a few years.
Decoupling Buddhism and cremation has resulted in another change: In the place of priests, funeral cooperatives and then funeral directors and undertakers ultimately took over corpse disposal and ceremonies for the dead. Cooperatives did business locally, servicing a neighborhood. Tokoro’s first undertaker opened for business in 1963.
Although traditions have changed, cremation has endured. The Japanese government’s ban in the 1870s forced a conversation about the pitfalls and merits of burning bodies over other forms of final disposition. In the late 19th century, cremation transformed from a spiritual practice to a practical one, and for those practical reasons cremation has earned Japan’s total embrace.