Grief, Mourning, and Funeral Traditions -- Japanese-Americans in Hawaii

by Cheryl Prince

Karen and I spent over an hour and a half talking this week about grief, mourning, and funeral traditions in families of Japanese ancestry living in Hawaii. I have known Karen as a co-worker and friend for nearly four years and we have had conversations in the past about culture and ethnicity. She is 35 years old, a third generation Japanese-American (her grandparents immigrated to Hawaii as plantation workers), and describes her upbringing as Americanized. This shift in her parents she attributes primarily to the pressure placed on Japanese-Americans during World War II. English was spoken in her home and she was educated in private Christian schools although her parents do not consider themelves Christian. She feels that her oldest sister is much more concerned with keeping Japanese traditions alive than she is but this is a rather mute point since Karen and her husband Patrick have lived with Karen's parents for the past five years and her mother can, therefore, carry on the responsibiilty for traditional practices and Karen and her nuclear family are still surrounded by them. I would imagine that Karen has described herself from time to time as a " banana" - yellow in the outside and white inside. She has a BA degree from the Unversity of Hawaii in human development and has worked in human service positions since then. Her responses to the questions were thoughtful and her training as a professional who looks as human behavior led her to make many insightful connections for herself and me as we spoke.

Karen's husband Patrick was raised in a much more traditionally Japanese environment. Japanese was spoken in his home and his ancestry is traced back beyond the time of feudal warriors - samurai. Buddhism was a strong influence in his life and he is now studying to become a practicioner of Oriental medicine - using Chinese teaching.

Most of Karen's experience with death and grief centers around the death of Patrick's father - Toshi -, in l989, from prostate cancer. Here is her story:

Years before Toshi's death Karen had tried to bring up the topic of advanced planning with Patrick's parents - both funeral arrangements and advanced medical directives - since she did so much of this kind of work professionally and her own parents were making these sorts of plans. The topic was clearly unspeakable in Patrick's family - talking about death is to tempt fate - so when Toshi died in a hospital there were no plans to put into place. Karen describes Patrick and his family as "deaf and dumb" upon the passing of father and all the responsibility for the arrangements fell directly onto her.

As soon as Toshi died his body was taken to the Buddhist chapel in the hospital and a Buddhist priest was summoned. The close family gathered there and within an hour prayers were being offered to insure that his spirit was sent in the correct direction "before it was lost" as Karen describes the ceremony. Interesting to realize that in Hawaii we often do have this type of multi-cultural awareness - to the point that this is standard protocol even in a large hospital.

The body was then transported to the funeral home - Hosoi Chapel - where all proper Japanese families make their funeral arrangements. Cremation was a given in this situation, both for religious preference and since the family plot only is large enough to accomodate urns and the family must be kept together at all costs. Once she began dealing with the funeral director Karen felt an enormous pressure of cultural obligations - from her comments to me she felt her decisions were influenced much more strongly by cultural requirements of hospitality and maintaining a good face than by the salesmanship of the funeral director. Her experience was that consoling the family during funeral rituals was much less important than caring for the guests - will there be enough chairs and food, will everyone be comfortable? This theme of not burdening anyone, not asking for help, not creating any situation in which anyone might be uncomfortable was an ongoing point of reference in our discussion.

An urn was chosen with much consideration of the symbols decorating it. The cremation took place without special ceremony. Food was ordered and a priest was asked to conduct the memorial service. Karen mentioned a number of specific funeral foods that were essential to make the "party" proper. The service and reception afterward were both held in the funeral home and evidently everyone was satisfied with the preparations for the guests and the appropriateness of the arangements. Few people knew that Karen and Patrick had to deplete their savings in order to pay for the event.

One of Karen's biggest shocks came after the memorial ceremony when the ashes were handed to the family and they carried them home to be kept there until the burial at the cemetary two weeks later. This turn of events hadn't occured to her and she was especially surprised when Patrick's family insisted that they be given a place of some prominence at her three year old son's birthday party the next weekend - so grandpa could enjoy the party.

The ceremony at the grave was similar to the one at the funeral chapel. In both events there was a focus on the person moving on to another world where he could be of help to those still living. He was given a new name in death and it was understood that he was now perfect, had joined the other ancestors and had achieved the rank almost of a semi-god. He could receive prayers and be of great assistance to the living. Clearly these were beliefs that could offer great comfort to the bereaved.

We talked for some time of the other customs that center on this relationship with the ancestors. Japanese connections with the dead do not generally extend back as many generations as do the Chinese and usually include only relatives who can be remembered by the living. Both Karen and Patrick's mother keep a number of small but frequently performed rituals to honor and remember the dead. There is a family shrine where incense is offered and each time rice is served a small portion is spooned out first into a bowl and left on the table for the dead. There are frequent comments about the dead and Karen and Patrick often tell their small children that grandpa and uncle are watching and helping them. Visits to the grave and placing flowers and other favorite foods and drinks take place weekly in some families, including Patrick's. New Year's is a time when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and dead are especially thin and many of the holiday customs take advantage of this. Also, the o-Bon festival in August is widely celebrated in Hawaii. This is a time of community dancing, feasting and processions through the cemetaries. The dead actually return to visit with the living at this time and as well as welcoming them there are many rituals to assure that they return back to their own plane of existence after the visit.

Helping the dead find their way is the focus of the immediate funeral and burial ceremonies and others that are held 30 days, 90 days, three and five years after the death. These are large gatherings that include not just the immediate family and, of course, large quantities of the proper foods are served in the party that follows. The priest talks to the dead person about the steps they need to take to move from level to level of afterlife so that they will not be lost in a sort of limbo.

Clearly, these beliefs and the traditions that support them can offer a great deal of comfort to the bereaved. Ideologically there should not even be sadness at the time of death since the dead person has gone on to a more perfect and exhaulted existence. But dealing with the loss and grief is highly problematic in Japanese culture, Karen felt.

From the time that Toshi first experienced symptoms of cancer the value of 'taisho' (or a Stoic attitude toward life) and the need to cause no discomfort in others was demonstrated. Although prostate cancer is a very slowly advancing disease his family did not know that he had symptoms because he did not want to burden them. In exchange, the family - once they learned of the seriousness of the condition - did not talk to him or one another about the possibility of his death. The objective was to keep him from thinking about death, according to Karen's observation. Even now, as Patrick's grandmother reaches her 92nd birthday and is in a physical decline, the family will not talk about advanced directives and the possibililty of her death.

Healthy grief, as Karen feels her mother-in-law and most other members of her generation would define it, consists of talking of her loss only occasionally with one or two of her closest female relatives. If friends come to pay a visit soon after a death it is expected that they will be entertained and the subject of how she is faring is quickly dismissed. "Oh, I'm fine and how is your son doing in college?" Food is used in almost all cases to symbolize caring. It is important not to show one's grief for a number of reasons - death should be seen as a time of liberation and not sorrow, one should bear up under misfortune with strength and acceptance, one never does anything to make someone else uncomfortable (including cry), and if there is a problem it should be handled within the family - to talk with outsiders indicates that the family is not strong enough to take care of it. Karen spoke about the proper amount of grief that should be shown by close family members at the funeral services - discrete weeping with a smile breaking through is good, sobbing is never acceptable and she actually remembers attending a funeral where the sobbing widow was secretely ridiculed by the guests. Clearly, Karen feels that her mother-in-law would define unhealthy grief as someone who "goes on and on about it" and complains about her fate even to close realtives.

We then discussed her own perceptions of traditional Japanese handling of the grief process. She feels that traditionally Japanese do not deal with the grieving process and that this is the cause of a number of problems. She has seen examples of disorientation and "nervousness" lasting well beyond what is expected in western families. A person cannot show what is hurting and has no way of reaching out for support from family and friends - don't even mention a bereavement support group! There is, she feels, a high incidence of suicide after the loss of a spouse and the tradition of willing oneself to die is also prevalent. Widows and widowers often report the dead spouse calling them to join them, she relates.

My sense is that Karen feels frustrated by the freezing of emotions in Patrick's family around the loss of his father and at this time in their inability to face his grandmother's illness. She is able to look at this situation through the lenses of her education and upbringing in a somewhat less traditional family and although nothing is more important to Karen than family ties, she wishes for a transformation of the cultural edicts that keep a person isolated and unable to acknowledge and share their grief.

Death and Dying Return to Cultural Interviews

Written for Grief in a Family Context, HPER F317, Spring semester, 1996.
(C) 1996, Cheryl Prince. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact her through the course instructor, at