Pre-Funerals in Contemporary Japan: The Making of a New Ceremony of Later Life among Aging Japanese (1)

By Kawano, Satsuki | Ethnology, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Pre-Funerals in Contemporary Japan: The Making of a New Ceremony of Later Life among Aging Japanese (1)


Kawano, Satsuki, Ethnology


Managing an increasingly negative view of old age as the time of decline, older persons in Japan have shaped pre-funerals as ceremonies of later life celebrating their agency, self-sufficiency, and personal pleasure in steering their remaining years. Whereas new policies have been employed to handle the growing social and economic stress of eldercare on the nation's shrinking younger population, pre-funerals ceremonially engage Japan's aging society, where longevity is considered not a gift but a burden. Using symbols and practices found in various life-cycle rites in Japan, during pre-funerals aging persons express their gratitude and say goodbye to those close to them. By designing, conducting, and consuming their own pre-funerals, older persons playfully construct an age-specific ideal of independence against a treasured, mainstream value of mutual dependence. (Aging, ceremony, life course, Japan, personhood)

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Longevity's recent increasing presence in Japan has undermined its cultural value. Older persons today are reconsidering the meaning of a long life in their family and social lives, but also ceremonially. Japanese folklore studies show that people's desire for achieving long life pervaded customary celebrations, which were conducted for persons aged 61, 77, and 88 (Tomaru 1978). Celebrating older persons for achieving the culturally desired condition of advanced age, these ceremonies also sanctified the life force that ensured the well-being and long life of fellow community members. The desire for prolonging life was also present in other ceremonial occasions, as when sharing food symbolizing longevity during the New Year celebration, when all people grew one year older together. Although people today still participate in ritual activity for seeking and honoring longevity, it is on a reduced scale. Due to the "gift of mass longevity" (Plath 1980), long life is a destiny for most. Japan is known for having one of the longest life expectancies in the world: 85 years for women and 78 for men (Mainichi Interactive News 2002). Older persons today sometimes reject the value of long life, stating that they do not mind living long as long as they have their health. Long life otherwise implies a burden; it is tied to physical and mental decline. A 76-year-old woman put it bluntly: "I pray to deities that I would not live long. I don't want to live long and become a nuisance (meiwaku) to others."

By painting grim futures for the world's most rapidly aging society, policymakers amplify uncertainties surrounding old age. Considering the declining fertility rate, they say there will be too few of the younger generation to pay for pensions and medical care for the rising number of elderly. The social-security system, policymakers add, will go bankrupt without serious reforms. This sense of crisis led to the implementation of new policies such as the Long-Term Nursing Insurance (kaigo hoken) to cope with a growing elderly population. If in the practical realm of policy-making old age has become a problem, and if this is expressed in the ceremonial realm, in what ways do ceremonials for older persons reveal the changing value of a long life? This article examines the emerging phenomenon of Japanese pre-funerals (seizenso). These are conducted before death and express new ideals of independence and self-sufficiency in later life. Against the growing perception of old age as the period of dependence, aging persons celebrate their agency by creating personally meaningful ceremonies.

The anthropological literature on life-cycle rites has customarily highlighted their power of transforming people's identities along the culturally defined life course; from child to young adult, unmarried to married, and elder to ancestor (e.g., Van Gennep 1999 [1909]). Rather than treating life-cycle rites as reproducing pre-existing social categories, this essay explores the ways in which older persons use previously available ceremonial frameworks to create new identities as the deceased-to-be (Grimes 2000).

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