Graves

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Yoko Nagae

    Main guest

    Yoko Nagae is a professor at Seitoku University and the third-generation president of Sekisho Azumaya, a gravestone and stone supplier. Born in 1953, she grew up next to a public cemetery in Chiba and was the first Japanese person to graduate from the American Cemetery Association University (now called the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association University). Nagae has traveled to 45 countries to conduct comparative research on gravestone and cemetery administration practices from a cultural anthropological standpoint. Additionally, she’s worked as a grave planner and has experience with everything from individual graves to cemetery layouts, making her Japan’s foremost grave expert. Nagae has published books that focus on topics including graves around the world and how graves are changing in the 21st century.

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June 19, 2018

Graves

*You will leave the NHK website.

The way a society deals with death, and how it pays tribute to those who have passed away, will tend to reveal a great deal about that society's values. That's as true of Japan as anywhere else in world—and like other regions and countries, Japan has a long history of grave-making, together with thousands of years of rituals and practices. These days, as Japanese attitudes toward family life, financial matters, and more evolve, so too are attitudes toward graves. On this edition of Japanology Plus, we explore the past, present and future of graves.

Let's start at the beginning: as we learn on the program, people in Japan were already burying their dead in the ancient Jomon and Yayoi periods. The oldest burial ground discovered to date (as of 2018) is estimated to date back 8,300 years. Unearthed in modern-day Gunma Prefecture in 2016, the ground included the remains of an adult buried using an ancient method called kusso, where the body is positioned with bent knees and a hunched back.

Moving on a few millennia brings us to kofun, large burial mounds that began to appear in the 300s AD. These mounds are so culturally significant, in fact, that the era of Japanese history from around 250 to 538 AD is referred to as the Kofun period.

The mounds, which often resemble a giant keyhole surrounded by a moat, are shrouded in mystery (and shrouded quite literally by trees). The largest kofun is Daisenryo Kofun in Sakai, Osaka.

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Expert guest Yoko Nagae and host Peter Barakan pay respects at a Buddhist temple graveyard.

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The Daisenryo Kofun in Sakai, Osaka.

The tomb is administered by the Imperial Household Agency, which restricts access by archaeologists. It is said, in fact, that the main part of the tomb—the round part at the top of the "keyhole"—has been untouched for over a thousand years. One thing we do know: this impressive spot is one of the largest tombs in the world, rivaling sites like the Great Pyramid of Giza.

The mysterious kofun are just one example of impressive Japanese burial grounds. Some of the country's most famous sightseeing spots are graves of a sort, though they might not be immediately recognizable as such. Take, for example, Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, a shrine dedicated to the Meiji Emperor and Empress Shoken. While their physical remains were interred in Kyoto, both are memorialized at Meiji Jingu. Another impressive destination is Nikko Toshogu, a shrine and designated World Heritage Site built to serve as the burial site of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shogun who united and ruled Japan in the early 1600s.

Suffice it to say, most Japanese graves are not quite on the same scale. After Buddhism took root in Japan, graves began to take on the form they have today, and people began to be entombed in temple cemeteries. This became especially prevalent in the 18th century, when the Shogunate commanded that every family belong to a Buddhist temple.

These days, as we learn on the program, this Buddhist tradition continues, and while graves are an important part of spiritual life in Japan, costs associated with graves and burial plots can come as a bit of a shock.

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The look of a typical temple cemetery.

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A new type of Buddhist altar, or butsudan, which actually incorporates an urn into the base.

With families getting smaller, older Japanese are reluctant to burden any descendants with the costs of grave upkeep. It was estimated in 2014 that the industry had shrunk by about a quarter over the course of a decade. This has led to alternatives such as independently-operated cemeteries and even high-tech solutions, such as urns stored in futuristic spaces like the ones visited by Matt Alt in Plus One. Another recent high-tech addition in the industry: gravestones fitted with a smartphone-readable QR code, which can pull up detailed information on the deceased, plus a log showing when family members last visited.

All the innovation happening in the world of graves means that while the physical appearance of graves may be changing, the age-old Japanese spirit of respect for ancestors is alive and well.

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Matt Alt gets a look at a futuristic type of gravesite.

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