Gospel Inversion: Japanese Memorial Rites and the Great Exchange

The last few months have been crazy in the Rice household—from Laura getting a new job, to fundraising for the Japan trip, to working on my dissertation, things have been crazy on several levels. Busy times in life are critical moments to re-orient ourselves and recognize that for all our busyness, rushing, and self-importance, everything that matters is already done. Christ has secured our salvation thanks to what he accomplished upon the cross, and has been appointed over all things by the Father. This should give us hope, for despite our failings and distractions, we are held fast by the love of God.

Of course, the frenetic pace of life is not solely a feature of the United States; rather, the entire industrialized world is consumed by time pressure, the constant feeling of running out of time to fulfill one’s obligations within.

In Japan, this extends even to their religious practices. Most Japanese families take part in both Buddhist and Shinto practice, but Japanese memorialism (also called, with very different connotations, ancestor worship) is primarily a Buddhist ritual. Japanese families remember and honor the dead, and venerate particular ancestors; where this memorialism blends into worship isn’t exactly clear. For one thing, Japanese often mix and match their own religious notions. Often, the words kamisama (a closer fit to the monotheistic word God) and hotokesama (Buddha or venerated ancestors) are used interchangeably, just as kamidana (a Shinto “god-shelf”) might be used for ancestor memorialism, and a butsudan (a Buddhist ancestor shelf) might be used for worshiping a kami (spirit or god).

While most Japanese syncretically practice these rituals without investigating the religious background of these practices, there is a clear familial and economic element involved. Typically, the eldest son is designated as the chonan: as eldest, he is required to perform the various memorial rituals and visit his parents’ graves (at least once a year), but for this service, he is also given the largest portion (sometimes all) of the inheritance. This practice is somewhat like primogeniture in the European context, but with a critical difference: in Europe, the eldest was given the largest share of his father’s property purely by his fortune in being born first, whereas a Japanese son had obligations to fulfill in order to deserve this preference.

The Shinto aspects of Japanese syncretic religion are also built on the notion of reciprocity: a parent can curry favor with a particular god, or kami, by participating in certain rituals at a Shinto temple, or by a donation to a Shinto priest. Again, the idea here is driven be exchange: the gods can be placated, and good fortune nearly guaranteed by practicing particular rituals, offerings, and careful attention to the lucky and unlucky times of the year. In fact, these Japanese religious ideas have turned into a social practice, zoto, or reciprocal gift-giving. The Japanese give and received gifts year round, between friends, coworkers, bosses and employees, and even between family members; this is not Christmas gift-giving either—zoto is considered an important part of maintaining relations with other people.

But, when it comes to Japanese memorialism, this is much more difficult to accomplish in our very busy world. Japanese society is mobile, and many Japanese adults—like many Americans—no longer live where their parents do. So, many chonan will pay someone else to do these particular rituals—the logic being that the chonan’s greater inheritance will enable them to afford this. In the same way, it is not considered inappropriate for a chonan to pay someone else to perform the proper rites simply because the chonan is too busy to do them.

If a family does not have any sons (or if parents have an estranged relationship with their son and do not want him to inherit), they will pick a yoshi (yes, like the Nintendo character). Typically a relative, but not always, a yoshi promises to venerate his patrons and perform the Buddhist rites for their deaths as if they were his actual parents, and they will bestow upon him their inheritance. Again, we see that even in the case of a broken family (and in a patriarchal culture like Japan’s, having no sons could fit under that definition), the Japanese create fictive family relationships so that the reciprocal exchange of memorialism and inheritance can be maintained.

It is here that we turn to the message of the gospel. Consider 2 Corinthians 6:18: “and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” In fact, the Holy Spirit is the proof of our adoption, as seen in John 14:18: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” Finally, consider Romans 8:15-17: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ….” Finally, consider, 1 Peter 2:9-10: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

We, who were outcasts and orphans have been made into sons and daughters, the very people of God.

Christ was co-eternal with the Father and son of God—the chonan of everything, as all things were made by him and for him. He fulfilled completely the demands of the Father, meeting the obligations of God, yet he was forsaken. Instead, we, who had no relation to God, but were his enemies, have been made his yoshi, receiving the favor of God and an everlasting inheritance as if we were his children. And further, Christ has performed the duties which we could not, and yet now we wear the righteousness of Christ, as if it were our own.

This is our hope and prayer for Japan: that the Japanese would see echoes of the transformative power of the gospel even in the pagan practices of their own culture; that they would learn the gospel story of the Great Exchange, that Christ, God himself, would take on our sin, and make us righteous, the yoshi and chosen people of God. The gospel upends and destroys reciprocity, replacing it with grace. This is the hope that we are beginning to see in our sanctification, and this is our prayer for the Japanese people.

For a great song that will encourage you in this, listen to Tongue & Pen’s “Sons and Daughters”.

For Japanese gift giving and Shinto offerings, see Roger Davies, The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture (Tuttle Publishing, 2002), 233-241. For more on death and Buddhist memorial practices, see Davies, 201-217, and David C. Lewis, The Unseen Face of Japan (Tunbridge Wells, Kent, UK: Monarch Publications, 1993), 179-199.

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