The Japanese View of Corpses: The Sacredness of Things
@@@@@@@@7 December, 1999@

Yoshinobu Miyake
President, Relnet Corporation.

1) Different cultures; different approaches to the corpse

It was 58 years ago to the day that Japan and Great Britain were thrown together as enemies in the Pacific War. It is all the more significant, therefore, that we should be gathered here today at this inaugural conference to discuss issues of death in contemporary Japan.

On November 12th this year, I was prompted to put pen to paper for my presentation by an extraordinary item on the evening news. The news reported that a man had been taken into custody by the police after it was discovered she and her son had been living in a hotel room, not far from Narita airport, for the past four months, with the mummified corpse of her husband. The woman and her son belonged to a 'cult' - they actually refer to themselves as a 'self-enlightenment seminar' - called ironically enough 'Life Space'. My purpose here is not an analysis of religious cults in contemporary Japan, so I shall make no further reference to this particular incident, but I mention it at the outset because the family's attachment to the mummified corpse of the deceased offers some valuable pointers to the Japanese attitude towards the corpse.

All of us who inhabit this contemporary world, whether we like it or not, learn through the media daily of all manner of incidents that produce corpses in their thousands: wars, terrorist incidents, accidents, natural disasters, and so on. There are, of course, many other occasions, too, when we encounter death in a more 'traditional' sense; I refer to the deaths of friends or family from sickness or old age. Moreover, the striking progress of genetic engineering and medical technology means that we also come face to face with death issues in a third, 'man-made' sense: I refer to the issues of cloning, brain death and organ transplant. All of this is of great interest and relevance, but here I should like to direct my focus particularly toward Japanese views of the corpse.

Over the past few months, the earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan have between them produced well over ten thousand victims. Something disturbed me about the media reports I saw on television about the rescue endeavors and the restoration work that followed in its wake. It is natural that, for the first few score hours, rescue squads raced to the scene from around the world and got stuck into their rescue activities, searching for possible survivors beneath the ruins: after all who would dispute that saving human lives is the top priority? All countries in the world would wish that the saving of lives comes before all else. From this point on, however, it strikes me that patterns of behavior begin to diverge on cultural grounds. What is different is the nature of the restoration work that generally begins two weeks after the earthquake or disaster has hit, and when it is clear there is no longer any possibility of uncovering survivors.

Let us assume an earthquake where 5000 people are reported missing, and where subsequently 4000 bodies are retrieved. This should mean, in simple mathematical terms, that 1000 bodies are still buried in the ruins. However, once the 'flow' is redirected from rescue work to restoration work, the authorities order in the power shovels and other heavy-weight machinery, and start to clear away the collapsed buildings. Surely, I ask myself as I watch the TV screen, there must be many abandoned corpses lying under those heavy machines. I have no doubt that the many Japanese who watched those scenes of restoration work after the Turkish earthquake were glued to their TV screens with exactly the same emotions as mine.

2) In search of 'crash corpses'

Let me give you an example that for me typifies the Japanese attitude towards the corpse. The event took place after the crash of the Japan Airlines jumbo jet in August 1985. There were 520 victims in this crash, the worst air disaster involving a single aircraft in aviation history. Among the victims was Sakamoto Kyu (β–{‹γ) who sang a very famous song called 'Let us walk with our heads in the air (the Sukiyaki song)'; this was an additional reason why the crash was given such coverage throughout Europe and the US and why some of you here might remember the disaster today. Flight JL123 was packed with people returning home for the O-Bon (‚¨–~) holidays encountered the unthinkable as it headed for Osaka from Tokyo. In flight, the pressure wall at the rear end of the plane and the vertical tail simply blew off. Owing to the superhuman efforts of the crew to control the doomed craft, it flew for a further 30 minutes around the skies of the Kanto region (that is, the passengers on JL123 were subjected to thirty minutes of unimaginable terror) and then it plunged in to Mt. Osutaka (Œδ‘ƒ‘ιŽR) in Gunma Prefecture. 520 out of the 524 passengers and crew on board perished in this tragic incident. It was reported that some of those on board calmly amid the terror scribbled notes to their loved ones. 22 of the victims were foreigners.

This JL 123 incident was no exception to the rule that the scene of any plane crash is gruesome. Fragments of the jumbo jet and bodies were scattered across the side of the mountain in a radius of several kilometers. There were bodies so badly burned that it was impossible to identify them; somebody's left arm was found caught in the branches of a tree; the lower halves of peoples torsos were to be found in the valley below. Naturally, the police authorities quickly embarked upon the task of identifying the corpses. There were some corpses easily identified by their families, but there were many more whose identity was only confirmed after dental records were checked or after families assumed a corpse was that of a loved one because of the clothing, or jewelry worn. Some extreme cases were reported where all that remained was a victim's finger, an ear. Iizuka Satoru (”Ρ’ΛŒP) who was the doctor in charge of identifying corpses at the scene of the disaster wrote in his book, Tsuiraku Itai (’Δ—Žˆβ‘Μ), that it took 127 days to confirm the identity of all the dismembered corpses. It is clear that the authorities were more intent on the pursuit of corpses than they were in their pursuit of the technical causes of the crash.

There is much of interest in Iizuka's book. Iizuka reports, for example, how different the attitude of the bereaved Japanese families was to the corpses they had come to collect when compared to the attitude of the bereaved from, say, Britain, the US, Australia and Korea. As the foreign families stood before the gruesome scene of the accident - so gruesome it was impossible to think of survivors; locating a corpse in one piece was nigh on impossible - a Japanese policeman explained how diligently they were conducting their searching for the remains. To which the puzzled response was 'Why do you go so far as to identify every hand and foot?' As reported by Iizuka, the foreign bereaved went on to protest that their loved ones were dead; their sprits has left them; hands and feet were mere objects. 'Why don't you simply gather the remains and cremate them? We want to turn to discussions of compensation.' The identity of the dismembered corpse of a 20-year-old foreign woman was confirmed by birth marks on her two legs and the finger prints on her left hand. The bereaved family said that these were without doubt the remains of their daughter, and they thanked the police. When asked what they would like to do with the girl's remains, the said 'Our daughter is happy because she is with God. Please bury her remains alongside those who died with her.'

The attitude of the Japanese bereaved was quite strikingly different. They were obsessed with the idea of a body with all limbs present. In cases where the identity of the victim was easily confirmed by the face, but there was, say, a leg missing, the family would insist that the authorities carried out a thorough search for that missing limb. Where the body had not been recovered, or where identity was impossible, they would request at least some object that the deceased had been carrying with them: a watch or a pair of shoes. To this day, in August, 14 years after the disaster, TV transmits pictures of hundreds of the bereaved climbing Mt. Osutaka. The families can be seen carrying out rites to comfort the souls of the deceased, gathering soil form the mountain-side to bring home with them and sprinkling on the mountain side wine or some other food or drink that the deceased was especially fond of. How many men have been president of Japan Airlines in the last 14 years I do not know, but none has failed to climb Mt. Osutaka on the 12th day of August and make offerings to the spirits of the deceased.

3) The i (ˆβ) in itai (ˆβ‘Μ)

In writing what I have so far written, I have become aware of terminological issues. @I have had no choice but to use, in the Japanese version of this paper, the word itai (ˆβ‘Μ) for a corpse. @I have used many other words too which, in Japanese, employ the same i or yui (ˆβ)character that features in itai. @Idenshi Kogaku (ˆβ“`ŽqHŠw) is the Japanese for genetic engineering; yuigon (ˆβŒΎ) for a final message; iki (ˆβŠό) for abandoned (corpse); iryuhin (ˆβ—―•i) for articles belonging to the deceased, izoku (ˆβ‘°) for the bereaved. @There is I think here a clue as to the Japanese view of the corpse. Check the meaning of the i character in the Kojien dictionary and you will find the following:
1) to forget; to leave behind;
2) to remain behind; to leave behind one after death;
3) to fail to complete;

The entry for itai, the Japanese word for a corpse, gives:
1) one's own body;
2) the corpse of another;

It is easy enough to see how the critical i character in the word for 'a last statement' might be the same as the i in itai meaning a corpse, but odd perhaps that it should also be found in the word for genetic engineering. How might this be? Who was responsible for attaching the idenshi to the English gene I do not know, but it was quite some achievement. The Book of Filial Piety (FŒo in Chinese), is a record by a disciple of Songtzu of his master's dialogue with Confucius, and in that well known book, there is this passage: A man receives his body, his hair and his skin from his mother and father. That a man does not presume to harm these gifts is the beginning of filial piety.

Westerners baptized in the enlightened tradition of the modern world regard their bodies, as long as they live, as their own, theirs to do with as they please. But an interpretation more typical of East Asian animism holds that even the living body is a gift left to one (itai) by one's parents; the fact of death does not mean that one is freed to do with the body what one wishes. Indeed, the body is something entrusted to descendants by the ancestors. If I may be permitted to borrow a phrase from Richard Dawkins, 'The body (one's character) is a vehicle for genes.' The body in this sense is not a corpse, a cadaver.

The Japanese do not adhere to a Western a Christian perspective on human life which thinks in terms of a spirit-flesh dualism, according to which the spirit is 'noble, imparted to the living by God' while the flesh is 'of little consequence, being simply one variety of created matter'. Rather, the Japanese find themselves in a world where the animistic sense prevails and where distinguishing clearly between the spirit and the flesh is not possible. In Japanese the word shitai (Ž€‘Μ) denotes not simply a 'dead body' but a body left one by one's parents over generations from ancestor to descendant. This is not a position that legitimates the distinguishing of humans from other living forms as something 'uniquely noble'; rather it is a world which finds spirit in all things, or rather it believes that it is above all in 'things' that spirit resides. This is the world in which, literally, 'mountains, rivers, grass, trees, may all achieve Buddhahood'.

4) Human organs and their rituals?

Two topics over the last year or so have offered important hints to an understanding of the Japanese view of the corpse. The first was the phenomenal commercial success of a book called Gotai Fumansoku (Œά‘Μ•s–ž‘«) which might be translated into English as Physically defective. The book, which sold in the millions, was written by Ototake Hirotada@(‰³•—m‹§), a university student who had had all his four limbs amputated. The title of the book catches you off guard; the cover carries a photograph of the face and trunk of a young man, Ototake himself (he has no arms or legs), seated on his electric wheel chair facing the reader with a nice smile on his face. Title and cover make an impact. There are bound to be many foreign scholars of Japanese Study who have come across the book. As the author writes in his book, the vast majority of Japanese, as birth approaches, hope that their child may be healthy and they voice the mantra: 'May my child be born with no physical defects!'

My second example relates to the four cases this year of organ transplants, heart transplants, in fact, from people declared brain dead. Since the first heart was transplanted some thirty years ago, the whole organ transplant issue had remained something of a taboo subject. The advanced medical facilities and the technical expertise of Japan's doctors were more than adequate to the task of transplanting organs from one human to another. It was not for lack of medical know-how that Japan had for so long not removed organs from someone declared brain-dead. During that period a large number of Japanese in desperate need of transplants traveled to Europe and the United States, at great personal expense, to have their operations. In a country with a population the size of Japan's, some 125 million, there are bound to be cases of men, women and children suffering brain death every day of the year whether as a result of car accidents, or brain infarction, or subarachinoid hemorrhage. There are also bound to be countless patients too suffering heart or liver dysfunction so severe that organ transplants offer the only hope they have. The only possible explanation for the failure of the Japanese to carry out organ transplants on the brain dead for so long is that Japanese religiosity, which fails to distinguish between flesh and sprit, has been to blame.

In June of this year, I organized an event to which I invited doctors from Kyoto University's prestigious teaching hospital, who have carried out more transplants of livers from alived donor than anywhere else in the world, and representatives of Japanese religions, Shinto, Buddhism and the so-called 'new religions'. The idea was to get them to debate the issue of brain death. What was fascinating was that Japanese religious representatives who, compared to their western counterparts, are much more technologically inclined showed very little interest in the theological pros and cons of removing organs from the brain dead or of transplanting them to a needy patient. What seemed to obsess them, rather, was the way in which the removed organ was had to be conveyed (in a cooler box strikingly similar, in fact, to those used by fishermen to carry home their catches); this method of transport was regarded by the religious experts present as showing inadequate respect for the organ of the deceased. It is vital, they said, to carry the organ with a greater show of respect....

Doctors at the conference explained how, when operating on the deceased patient, they always gave an aesthetic when removing an organ. Surely this is bizarre? If, as the doctors say, brain death is truly the death of the person concerned, those who have died of brain death should not be able to feel anything. And yet, doctors inject the deceased with pain killing drugs. If the deceased can feel pain, that surely must mean they are alive. If so, they can not then be brain dead. There is, clearly, a contradiction here somewhere. However, the doctors argued that all of this was part of the etiquette essential towards the organ donor. What can one say other than that the religionists and the doctors were both nothing if not Japanese in their approach.

5) Encountering pain beyond the point of death

Nowadays it is not only in those special medical cases involving organ transplants but a general rule in Japan that people die in hospital. In most cases, the patient can be found prone on the bed attached to all manner of life support apparatus and sensors of one sort or another. It certainly looks a painful situation. After bidding farewell to their loved ones, many Japanese are asked by doctors to confirm their position on the performance of an autopsy in order to ascertain the precise cause of death, or on donating the corpse for medical research or, in the event that the deceased is comparatively young, they may be asked about the possibility of donating organs. The bereaved typically refuse saying they do not want their loved ones to suffer pain beyond the point of death. They come to the hospital to retrieve their loved ones 'in one piece', as it were, with no physical defects, and bring them back home where they were used to living.

Indeed, in the funeral itself rite the bereaved do not venerate the deity which is the focus of their religious practice, nor do they revere the scriptures read out by the priest who presides; rather they lower their heads respectfully towards the corps of the deceased or his/her photograph. And, when the funeral rites are concluded, the body, the complete body, is cremated and the family together respectfully gather up the charred remains by chopsticks. They then place the remains with the utmost respect into a pot and take them home. They then place the remains before the family's Buddhist altar (•§’d) and, every day, just as when the deceased was living, they make offerings of food morning and evening. In the seventh week, they bid farewell to the remains and bury them in the grave where the family's ancestors are buried.

So it is that a death without remains is not a proper death. That is why, if one were so unfortunate as to meet the sort of disaster as that of JL 123 in my first example, there is inevitably such a thorough-going search for the remains. 54 years have passed since the end of the Pacific War and even today parties are dispatched every year to Saipan or the Philippines or to Okinawa which was the only part of Japan which saw a land battle on a mission to retrieve the remains of those they lost in war. If they uncover, as they sometimes do, a corpse from the depths of the jungle, they cremate the corpse and perform a memorial service for the corpses. The issue is not one of whether certain acts of war are right or wrong. It is a question ultimately of the etiquette with which the living must approach the dead.

If, through my analysis of Japanese attitudes towards the corpse, I have enlightened to some extent Japanese attitudes towards life, towards the world, then my presentation will not have been without purpose.