Todd Jay Leonard, Blog
A reader wrote to me regarding the proper way to offer one’s condolences to a Japanese person who has suffered the loss of a loved one. This person’s friend had lived in Shelbyville and has since returned to Japan. A series of tragedies had befallen her Japanese friend, including the death of a beloved pet.
The reader wanted to know how to pay respect to her Japanese friend in a way that is culturally sensitive with regard to Japanese protocol and etiquette.
Every culture has strict and elaborate social rules regarding funeral ceremonies, and Japan, like the United States, is no different in this respect. Japan, however, tends to be less flexible when it comes to making gaffes when observing certain funeral-related rituals.
Today in America, funeral customs have undergone tremendous cultural changes, from the way people dress to attend a funeral to what types of offerings are made in the form of flowers, plants, and keepsake gifts (things given to the family in memory of the deceased person).
Even the styles of services have metamorphosed greatly with “celebrations of life” often taking the place of the morose funerals of yesteryear. All in all, modern American funeral rituals have become much less formal in recent years and offer people attending funerals a lot more leeway in the etiquette department.
Not so in Japan. Japanese funerals are still very formal with a prescribed protocol that is strictly adhered to. For instance, Japanese people dress very formally to attend the wake, funeral or cremation ceremony.
Each attendee dresses from head to toe in black. Men even don a black tie to wear with their tuxedo-like suits. Anyone who sees a man wearing a black tie knows he is on his way to — or is just returning from — a funeral.
In contrast, a man wearing a black suit with a white tie is either on his way to — or is returning from — a wedding. The tuxedo-like suit doubles for both occasions; the color of the tie is what makes the difference.
Women usually opt to wear very plain (but formal) black dresses. These dresses are unique in that usually they are not at all fashionable but are often boxy and drab in appearance. It would be disrespectful to stand out at such an event due to stylish apparel. Matching black handbags and shoes also are worn.
Women also will wear black dresses to weddings, but these are usually stylish with colorful accessories. A woman attending a funeral wears no added color, with the possible exception of pearls, sometimes gray in color.
Even the meal that is served to the attendees at a wake is comprised of foods that are muted in color. Sushi and sashimi (raw fish) are rarely served at funeral-related dinners because of their bright and happy colors.
Only once have I attended a funeral where sashimi was served. It was for a well-known politician who was once the Defense Minister and Agriculture Minister; with so many important people in attendance, social protocol required that the meal be of the highest quality, which meant sashimi should be served. The way the caterers got around this cultural conundrum was to wrap the plate of sashimi lightly with gray-hued paper to hide the bright colors.
It is appropriate to offer flowers to people who have suffered a loss, but the flowers should be subdued in color and have no scent to them at all. Bright, garish colors are considered inappropriate at funerals, with white chrysanthemums being the flower of choice. Scented flowers in bright colors are reserved for only happy, joyous occasions in Japan.
When I first lived in Japan as a 17-year-old high-school student, I shocked my host mother with a gift of funeral flowers. I had no idea there was a difference — after all, to me, flowers were flowers. On my way home from the grocery one day, I passed a sweet old lady who was selling beautiful bunches of mums. I thought it would be nice to surprise my host mother with a bouquet of flowers.
Well, she was definitely surprised. I will never forget her facial _expression when I waltzed into the house with my offering of funeral flowers. She was horrified. I had no idea what I had done wrong, but I knew something was amiss because of her strangely nervous reaction to my gift.
Immediately, she went into the kitchen, hurriedly snipped the stems, then took them directly to the tatami (straw mat) room and placed them inside the very ornate and imposing Buddhist altar. She lit some incense, gonged a bell and prayed fervently.
Now I was really worried. What had I done?
When my host brother arrived home that evening, he quickly asked me why I had brought his mother “those” flowers earlier in the day. Still not knowing, I sheepishly queried “just to be nice?”
It was then that he realized that I had not the foggiest idea that I had committed a huge faux pas regarding this rather obscure custom. How was I supposed to know that certain flowers are reserved only for the dead?
To answer the original question, however, I think any Japanese person receiving a condolence card or a bouquet of flowers from an American friend would be touched. The person would be even more impressed if the flowers were in accordance with Japanese funeral customs and the card included a handwritten message of sympathy.
Fortunately for us, we foreigners are given a lot of leeway in the etiquette department when it comes to observing certain customs that are Japanese-based. Japanese people sometimes have a difficult time deciphering all of the intricacies of their own customs and traditions.
My offering of funeral flowers to my host mother was only the first of many cultural gaffes that I have since committed during my tenure in Japan. By now, though, I have been here long enough to know better. I am expected to be aware of and know what is proper and correct … and what is not.
Funeral rituals in Japan are strict, somber
Monday, August 15, 2005
A Buddhist priest consults a prayer wheel after returning to the temple following a funeral service in Japan. Submitted photo