3 minute read

Ancestor Worship

Ancestor Worship In Japan

Most of the historically known practices of ancestor worship in Japan are adaptations of Chinese customs. With the passage of time and in coexistence with the Shinto religion, Japanese Buddhism began to emphasize death rites and commemorative ceremonies. Although Confucianism was never fully developed in Japan, quasi-religious Confucian ideals of filial piety became important and were sometimes incorporated in the teachings of Japanese Buddhist sects, thereby reinforcing respect for ancestors (Tamaru 1972).

Japanese rites, like those of China, consist of elaborate funerals and many commemorative rites at home, temple, and gravesites. A Butsudan (family altar to ancestors), which displays tablets with inscribed ancestors' names, is present in many Japanese households. An annual ancestral ceremony, Bon, takes place in either July or August and along with the New Year's celebration, is considered to be one of the two most important observances in Japan (Yanagita 1970). During Bon ceremony, family members return to their parental homes to honor all spirits of the dead who are believed to return to their homes at that time. As was the case in China, fresh fruit, flowers, and cooked rice are offered on the family altar. Many family members go to meet the souls of their ancestors in the cemetery or at the temple. In many neighborhoods, an annual Bon dance is held to celebrate this special observance in which adults and children dance to Japanese folk music. In addition to the annual ancestral festival, ancestors are remembered and worshipped through the purification rituals that take place seven days, forty-nine days, and one hundred days after the death of a family member, during the first Bon, and the first, third, seventh, thirteenth, seventeenth, twenty-third, twenty-seventh, thirty-third, fiftieth, and one hundredth year anniversaries of their death.

In modern Japan, ancestors have declined in importance, and Buddhist ritual tends to emphasize funerals, giving less attention than formerly to commemorative ceremonies.

To many Japanese, the ancestral festival, Bon, has become nothing more than a few days of rest. In a 1968 survey of religious attitudes of Japanese men, Fernando Basabe found that one in four Japanese men believed that the spirits of the ancestors return to their homes during the Bon festival. Although the lives of most Japanese are intertwined with religious observances such as Bon, and most have Buddhist altars in the homes, the majority of Japanese do not consider themselves believers in any religion (Reischauer 1981). This suggests that Japanese people are slowly losing interest in the worship of ancestral spirits.

Despite these modern trends, ancestor worship continues to be an important mechanism through which the living feel that they are spiritually connected to the deceased family members, thereby ensuring the continuity of family lineage.


Ahern, E. M. (1973). The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Basabe, F. M. (1968). Religious Attitudes of Japanese Men: A Sociological Survey. Tokyo: Sophia University Press.

Granet, M. (1975). The Religion of the Chinese People. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hsu, L. K. (1948). Under the Ancestors' Shadow. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lee, R. W., III. (1964). "General Aspects of Chinese Communist Religious Policy, with Soviet Comparison." China Quarterly 19:16–173.

Levenson, J. (1965). "The Communist Attitude towards Religion." In The Chinese Model: A Political, Economic, and Social Survey. Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong Press.

Reischauer, E. O. (1981). The Japanese. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tamaru, N. (1972). "Buddhism." In Japanese Religion: A Survey by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, ed. I. Hori, F. Ikado, T. Wakimoto, and K. Yanagawa. Tokyo: Kodansha.

Thompson, L. G. (1973). The Religious Life of Man: The Chinese Way in Religion. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Welch, H. (1969). "Buddhism Since the Cultural Revolution." China Quarterly 40:127–136.

Yanagita, K. (1970). About Our Ancestors: The Japanese Family System. Tokyo: Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsAncestor Worship - Ancestor Worship In China, Ancestor Worship In Japan