Learn More About the Solemn Japanese Custom of Ohaka Mairi

Every country in the world has its own unique customs, and Japan is unique. From having a “Genki” (an entrance where you remove your shoes) to their culture with arcades and work, it’s a culture to behold. There are also customs that deal with darker topics such as death, and how society honors its ancestors or loved ones who have passed on. In Japan, one of those customs is Ohaka Mairi.

By Tokyo Watcher, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2208539

What Is Ohaka Mairi? 

Ohaka Mairi (お墓参り) is a traditional Japanese custom of when Japanese people go and visit the graveyards of their ancestors and relatives. It is a custom that Japanese people take seriously. “Ohaka” means grave or tomb, and “Mairi” means to visit. It is a very important Japanese ritual of going to honor and pay their respects to their ancestors. 

The Japanese believe that there is a link between the living and the dead, and this social interaction happens through Ohaka Mairi. The ancestors are watching over and protecting the living, while the living offers the flowers and food as a show of gratitude. This give-and-take is enacted often in other rituals performed in Japan. 

It is also believed that ancestors need emotional support and care. They enjoy being involved the world of the living, and the living, in return, receive the help of the dead in their daily life struggles. 

The History of Ohaka Mairi

Although the exact root of the practice of Ohaka Mairi is unknown, what is sure is that the custom stems from religion and beliefs, from possibly even before the Kamakura period. The top two religions that exist in Japan are Shintoism and Buddhism. Only a small percentage of the Japanese population are Christians. Shintoism has a focus on the afterlife, honoring the dead and going to grave sites to pray for the ancestors. 

The Japanese worship both the Buddhist and Shinto deities as well as their ancestor’s spirits in the hope of bringing peace to everyone and ensuring good fortune. The chance to visit the final resting place of their loved ones show honor, respect, and dignity. In the Shinto faith, visiting the grave becomes an act not just to remember them, but also to worship them. 

Interestingly, most of the Japanese identify themselves as non-religious. They are more spiritual than religious. They do not like to call themselves as Buddhists or Shintoists. However, at least 80% of Japanese pray and worship ancestors in cemeteries and keep their gods or kami in private altars in their homes or Shinto Shrines. 

Most Japanese still carry on practicing old traditions and observing rites of the native Shinto, but that also includes customs of Buddhism, and sometimes Christianity. A person may join a celebration of a local Shinto festival or attend a wedding in a Christian church, and a funeral at a Buddhist Temple. The Japanese people most likely will practice all these as part of a nation’s present culture. Intertwining Buddhism, Shinto and Christianity are common.  They will say they do not believe in any deity but go to cemeteries during Obon and New Year, as well as some special Holidays to offer prayer requests at shrines to ask for guidance with problems, or for luck. 

One Thing In Common

The one thing common that all Japanese have, being Shinto, Buddhist or Christian is their deep respect for their departed deceased relatives and ancestors.  They show their homage by visiting and maintaining their tombstones regularly. The Japanese treat their dead with utmost respect. The people can go anytime to visit the graves of their beloved. They may go during the death anniversary of their ancestor, or when there is a new member of the family to be introduced.  But there are certain dates in the year, especially some holidays when everybody makes it a point to go to the cemeteries.

By Vanvelthem Cédric (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

When Is Ohaka Mairi Practiced?

Obon called the “Japanese Festival of the Dead” is the customary time for family reunions and to visit ancestors in their graves. It is around mid-August when the Obon Holiday is celebrated. This is the time when the Japanese visit their dead, but it is believed that the dead also visits them. 

It is believed that the ancestral spirits visit the people in their homes and altars. This Buddhist-Confucian custom has been celebrated for more than 500 years. The holiday lasts for three days. People return to their ancestral homes, visit, and clean their ancestral graves. Popular offerings; botamochi and Ohagi, a sweet dessert made with glutinous rice (mochi) covered with adzuki- bean paste or soybean flour are placed in front of altars. All the houses are thoroughly cleaned and paper lanterns (chochin) are used to decorate to welcome the spirits. Incense sticks are lit.  This summer holiday is a time to think about the past and remember the departed ones. 

Vernal Equinox Day or “Shunbun No Hi” is another national holiday when the Japanese people go to visit their deceased loved ones. They put rice cakes covered with bean jam and dumplings on their household shrines. This occurs on March 20 or March 21, when the sun crosses the equator making night and day equal in length. The holiday is a seven-day period starting three days before Vernal Equinox Day and ending three days after Vernal Equinox Day.  

These days are called Haru-no-Higan which means (“another world”) or (“the other side of the river of death”) The side of the river is where those who are alive are, and the other side is the place where the souls of the departed are). Simply this is the time when winter ends, and spring starts. The chill of winter disappears following Vernal Equinox Day, as the days start to get longer and the nights shorter. It is a Buddhist belief that during Higan, Buddha appears on earth and stays for a week to save stray souls and lead them to Nirvana. 

The Autumnal Equinox Day or Shubun No Hi is another Japanese Holiday when visits are made to the family graves to pray for the repose of the deceased. Cleaning, offering flowers and incense is made to console the ancestral spirits. People flock to the cemeteries to do Ohaka Mairi. Higan again is celebrated for seven days. The smell of incense fills the air. It usually starts on September 22 or 23. Again, it is a time of celebration, reflection, and admiration of nature. This is the season when Summer ends and Autumn starts. The origin of Haru no Higan is unknown but it has been celebrated since the 8th century since the Emperor of Japan made it mandatory. 

Cremate or Bury?

The Japanese usually cremate their dead. After the ash and bones are collected and placed in an urn, the family keeps the ritual of their faith and takes the urn home for 49 days. Small portions of the ash of the deceased are given to the closest family members and kept in small vials at home. 

The urn, with the remaining ashes, is then transferred to the cemetery where a stone monument is built. Often engraved on it is the name of the deceased person, along with the dates of when that person was born and passed away. Some stone monuments can be elaborate in size and décor. Two stone vases on either side are there for the flower placements, with a small pocket for the incense. There’s also a small basin at the front contains water for the cleaning. 

The urn containing the ashes is placed in a chamber underneath the stone.  The Japanese grave is normally where the whole family is buried. A grave site is a sacred place for friends and family to mourn the deceased and reflect on life. 

How Does Ohaka Mairi Go?

First, the visit starts with the cleaning of the grave. After everyone’s hands are purified from water, water is collected in a pail. Water from the pail is poured carefully using a dipper onto the tombstone. The water is believed to alleviate the thirst of the dead. The tomb, filled with dirt and moss, is scrubbed. The sides of the tomb are swept, and the weeds removed. The bushes are trimmed.  

By Σ64 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1380565

After the grave is cleaned, food and fruits are offered. Beer or sake (rice wine) are placed on the altar if the ancestor liked these. Flowers are placed in their containers, and Chrysanthemums are a favorite. With each hand clasped and head bowed in reverence, prayers are said. 

The Japanese believe that their ancestors are resting and enshrined in the graves. They go and pray for the repose of the souls of the deceased. They express their gratitude and tell them how their lives are getting along. They request the ancestor to send some good luck their way. Lighting of candles and offering of incense (osenko) give the place a solemnity. 

As you walk around, the sounds of people scrubbing the tombstones and the smell of incense will fill the air. If you are a Buddhist, you may bring with your prayer beads (Juzo) If you are Shinto, you place Sakaki branches (an evergreen considered a Shinto holy tree representing immortality) instead of flowers. Buddhist graves have wooden sticks (otoba) with writing on them and place these behind the tombstones. If you are a Japanese Christian, the tombstone will have a cross. Christians also bring flowers and say prayers to their God for their dead relatives. 

Popular Cemeteries

Tama Rei-en (Tama Cemetery) is a commonly picked as a place to bury one’s loved ones. When you go on a quick tour to see this area, you’ll notice its Cherry blossoms blooming (in spring) and the brilliant play of red, orange, and yellow leaves of Redwood trees - during Autumn. This place sets off a peaceful, yet fascinating tone to guide those who have passed to rest. Tama Cemetery is in Tokyo Metropolis and is the largest municipal cemetery in Japan. It is between the cities of Fuchu and Koganei. It was established as Tama Cemetery in 1935. This sacred place is where the ashes of long lines of ancestors and descendants are placed. 

Joe Mabel [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Another beautiful cemetery is Yanaka Cemetery. It is a part of Tokyo’s famous graveyard list, giving off the feel of a park instead of the stereotypical, eerie resting place. Cherry trees bloom during Spring and during Autumn its deciduous trees give a colorful show of autumn glory. It has 7000 graves and is about 25 acres huge. It has beautifully maintained graves from the ancient to the modern. 

This practice of paying homage and looking after their family tombs has been made more difficult for the Japanese in the modern age due to many moving to settle down in the bigger cities, far away from their hometowns. Also, there are the modernization of lifestyles and changing of family traditions. But despite these changes many Japanese, being Shintoists, Buddhists or Christians, still try as much as possible, to make time during their holidays and vacations to brave through traffic or travel thousands of miles to return to their birthplaces and visit people they love but have crossed over.