ashes to ashes, pearls to pumps
OR how not to be a dweeb at a Japanese wake
(don’t be jealous of my
A while ago I mentioned I purchased (very expensive) mourning clothes, hoping I wouldn’t need them but glad to be prepared. Sadly I had to use them the other day when a coworker lost his mother.
Working in Japan, there’s a chance that someday you, too, will need to attend a wake and not make a total ass of yourself. So I wanted to give some basic tips so you won’t make a sad time even sadder.
(note: different areas of Japan have different customs and preferences, so be advised)
Unless you’re family, chances are you’ll only be going to the 通夜 tsuuya, aka wake or vigil. This typically happens the day after the death, and the day before the legit funeral. For the family this night is pretty long, but you’ll probably just be attending the service, which is fairly short.
Black black everything black. For men, clothing is really simple, and you probably own what you need already: a black suit, white shirt, black tie, black shoes. If you’re coming straight from work, any dull/dark colors are acceptable; these men tend to sit in the back of the room to blend in.
For women… welllll, it’s more of a pain. The typical outfit is: black dress (or blouse/skirt), black jacket, black stockings, black shoes, black bag. And just black isn’t enough, fabric is also important: no shiny bags, colored/blingy accents, etc. The less skin showing the better; even ‘summer’ mourning clothes tend to be long sleeved.
(a cute family, ready to mourn; click for source)
Most formal clothing stores sell mourning clothes in sets, but you can use your own clothing. However, be careful about the cut: skirts must be below the knee and very conservative. Cleavage or skintight clothing is (obviously) no good.
Here’s my outfit from the other day:
(protip: take all photos from an iphone sitting on the floor)
2. Hair, Makeup, Accessories
For guys, whatever is appropriate for the office is probably fine.
For girls…. hahahaha yeah no surprise, it’s more complicated.
Hair needs to be nice. If you have long hair, you need to tie it back or put it up; it needs to look put together. Any hair accessories must be understated and dark colored, so leave the bling at home.
Makeup is weird. Too much makeup, things like colored/sparkly eye shadow or lipstick is no good, but at the same time, no makeup is also rude. Most websites I checked suggest just foundation, concealer, and eye makeup in very subtle muted tones.
Accessories are also weird. Jewelry and such is a no… unless it’s pearls. I have no idea why, but pearls are considered acceptable and pretty much everyone and their mom will be wearing a string of pearls.
Most people will also be carrying a string of buddist prayer beads. If you bring some, they are worn on the left hand, loosely held around your fingers.
3. Condolence Gifts
So you have your outfit ready, and you’re accessories on point. But before you go, there’s one more thing you need to prepare: your 香典/kouden, or condolence gift. This gift is money and it goes towards offsetting the cost of the funeral.
Just like for the wedding, you need to use a special envelope. It looks just like a wedding envelop, except with a different message and instead of bright colors it’s all black and grey.
(fancy; click for source)
It’s very important that you write your name on the front. Write it vertically down the center, below the ribbon, much like the message is written above the ribbon. Fancier envelops have a separate message insert; if so, write your name on that and slide it in.
Inside, you put your money (obv.). For a young person who isn’t closely connected, 3000 or 5000 is fine (NOT 4000, for bad luck purposes). Manners dictate that you must use old bills (because the death was a shock so obviously you didn’t have time to get fresh ones at the bank, unlike a wedding), but seriously don’t sweat it.
When you’ve put money in, glue shut the flap and write an X across the sealed edge, to show that it hasn’t been tampered with.
4. The Actual Service
Ok, so you got your clothes, got your kouden… Let’s get to the service.
When you arrive at the wake, the first thing you’ll do is give your kouden to the receptionist. You may be given a gift in return. You don’t have to say anything, but if you want, something people say is:
「ご霊前にお供えください」- Go reizen ni osonae kudasai.
Next, you’ll take your seat. There will most likely be staff to show you where to sit.
The ceremony will most likely be Buddhist, so get ready for some serious chanting. When the priests enter, press your hands together in prayer. From there on, just follow everyone: when they put up their hands or bow, do the same.
At some point it will be time to burn incense in prayer. Depending on the venue and the amount of attendees, you will either approach the altar or a small incense tray will be brought around through the seating area. If you approach the altar, the first and last thing you do is bow to the family.
At the altar or in your seat, the incense is the same. First, clasp your hands and bow. Then, with your right hand, take incense from the right hand area and sprinkle it on the pyre on the left hand side, 1-3 times.
Sometimes, people bring the incense up to forehead-level. You don’t need to do this, but if everyone else is, might as well. FInish with another bow, hands clasped.
click for source
Finally, when everything is complete, the family will line up at the door and you can offer them your condolences as you leave. Make sure that, if nothing else, you bow your had to them as you leave. If you’re at a loss for words, a common saying is:
「このたびは御愁傷様です」- Kono tabi wa go shuushou sama desu.
…. and, you’re done!
A wake can be a very emotional time, and you might feel like you’re not doing enough, but honestly the best thing you can do for the family is to keep your manners and make the wake pass as smoothly and peacefully as possible.
….and no, no bathroom breaks, children.