Scattering Ashes in Japan


With almost 100% cremation rate, ashes are either kept in home or scattered.

Scattering ashes in Japan is a traditional practice that has been observed for centuries. Here's a guide to help you understand about scattering ashes in Japan:

Meaning of Scattering Ashes in Japan 

In Japanese culture, death is seen as a profound transition, marking the journey from the physical realm to the spiritual realm. Buddhism and Shintoism play integral roles in shaping funeral practices and beliefs surrounding the afterlife.

  • Buddhism, with its emphasis on impermanence and the cycle of life and death, holds no importance on physical burial unlike other major religions like Muslim and Catholics.
  • Shintoism, Japan's indigenous religion, highlights the importance of harmony with nature and ancestral reverence. Even though scattering ash is not official mentioned, it is an event that signify returning to nature.
  • Water, wind and forest burial accrue the most merit, followed by cremation and then earth burial, which accrues the least merit as it does not offer the body for the benefit of wild plants and animals

It is a way for families to honor their loved ones who have passed away and to release their spirits into the afterlife. However, for those who are not familiar with the customs and traditions of Japan, scattering ashes can be a daunting process.

Critics may argue that cultural significance should not override potential negative consequences, such as environmental impact, unintended commercialization of death, or legal considerations. 

Legal and Practical Considerations of Scattering Ashes

Before scattering ashes in Japan, it is essential to understand the legal framework surrounding the practice.

  • Similar to other countries, ash scattering are usually in the grey region with no enforcement, as long as there is no transmissible diseases since it involved a family death.
  • While the Law concerning Graveyards and Burial (Article 4) does state that the remains of the deceased should be buried in a cemetery, this restriction primarily applies to conventional burials.
  • People can also bring in ash through airline as long as they also have the death certificate

In Japan, I've noticed that more and more people are embracing natural burial, also known as green burial. It's fascinating to learn about the Grave-Free Promotion Society (GFPS), a civic group established in 1991, which actively encourages the scattering of human ashes.

  • Natural burial practices in Japan often involve scattering ashes either at sea or in the mountains. It's interesting to note that there are specific services dedicated to facilitating these types of burials, including the Grave-Free Promotion Society (GFPS) and companies like Sun Life Group, which is even listed on the JASDAQ stock exchange. One of the pioneers in commercialized sea scattering services is a Tokyo-based funeral company called Koueisha, which was established back in 1994.

  • When it comes to the costs associated with these services, GFPS offers scattering packages ranging from ¥100,000 to ¥180,000, with an additional documentation fee of ¥2,000. On the other hand, Koueisha charges ¥283,500 for individuals who opt for sea scattering, and ¥105,000 per person for group ceremonies. It's interesting to see the range of options available for those seeking a natural burial in Japan and the various costs associated with these services.

Environmental Impact and Considerations

While the practice of scattering ashes in natural settings offers a profound connection with the environment, it is crucial to consider the ecological impact.

It is advisable to choose areas far from residential area for scattering ashes or seek guidance from environmental authorities to ensure minimal disruption to natural habitats. It is likely to hear water pollution or fear of hygiene issues from residents.

Scattering Locations and Options for Ashes

Various locations in Japan are commonly chosen for scattering ashes, each with its unique symbolism and significance. Crematoriums, often located within serene surroundings, provide a tranquil setting for families to bid farewell to their loved ones. Buddhist temples, with their spiritual ambiance, offer designated areas for scattering ashes, enabling families to incorporate Buddhist rituals and prayers. Natural settings, such as forests, mountains, or rivers, provide a connection with nature and the cycle of life.

Sea burials hold particular importance in Japan due to the nation's coastal geography. Scattering ashes at sea symbolizes the return to the eternal flow of water and represents a peaceful farewell. Additionally, designated scattering gardens, like the famous Unrinin Temple in Tokyo, offer serene spaces specifically created for scattering ashes, combining nature's tranquility with the spiritual essence.

Rituals and Ceremonies

Buddhist and Shinto practices intertwine and these rituals may include chanting of sutras, offering of incense, and the symbolic placement of ashes. Shinto elements may involve purification rites and prayers for the peaceful transition of the departed soul.

Participation in these ceremonies is not limited to religious practitioners; families and loved ones are actively involved. The collective act of scattering ashes, prayers, and shared moments of remembrance create a sense of unity, support, and closure during the grieving process.

Before the ceremony, it is important to prepare the ashes. In Japan, it is customary to place the ashes in a special urn. The urn is usually made of lacquered wood and can be decorated with symbols or designs that are meaningful to the family. Some families may also place flowers or other offerings in the urn.

  • Perform the Ceremony

During the ceremony, family members will gather around the urn and offer prayers and incense. The ashes will then be scattered into the earth, wind or water. It is important to remember that the ceremony should be conducted with respect and dignity. If you wish to scatter to the water, do check the wind is blowing towards the water (e.g. using a scarf) before scattering to the wind.

  • Observe the Aftercare

After scattering the ashes, it is customary to observe the aftercare. This may include cleaning the area and offering more incense or flowers. Some families may also choose to hold a memorial service or visit the scattering location on anniversaries or special occasions.

Ms. Meiko Mori, who scattered her father remains over said the leafy undergrowth of a silent cedar grove that he loved and said "He was always telling us not to spend money on fancy ceremonies. This is the perfect way to honor him.”

About a million Japanese die every year, and cremation is virtually universal. But only about 100 are ushered to the afterlife with their ashes scattered, not stored. The remains of nearly 1 million Tokyoites stored at relatives’ homes because of a lack of cemetery space and burial plot prices that soar to $20,000 a square yard, ash-scattering could be the look of the future.

Coping with Grief and Emotional Support

Critics may express concerns that scattering ashes prolong the grieving process or prevent individuals from fully accepting the loss. They might argue that alternative rituals or ceremonies could achieve similar emotional healing without potential environmental consequences.

In addition,

  • support groups allow individuals to connect with others who have experienced similar loss.
  • These groups provide a supportive community where individuals can share their stories, find empathy, and gain insights into navigating the grieving process.
  • Support groups may be facilitated by mental health professionals or organized by community organizations.

Honoring the memory of loved ones is an integral part of the grieving process. In Japan, this may involve creating personal rituals or dedicating special moments to remember and pay tribute to the deceased. Engaging in activities that were meaningful to the departed, such as visiting their favorite places or participating in their cherished hobbies, can provide a sense of connection and remembrance.

In conclusion, the scattering of ashes in Japan is deeply rooted in cultural beliefs and practices, offering a sacred farewell to loved ones. Understanding the cultural context, legal considerations, and various options for scattering locations is crucial. The rituals and ceremonies associated with scattering ashes provide solace and support during the grieving process. It is important to consider the environmental impact and seek eco-friendly alternatives. Finally, finding coping mechanisms and emotional support is essential for healing and honoring the memory of loved ones in Japan's rich cultural landscape.

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