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Contemporary Japanese view of life and death as depicted in the film Departures (Okuribito)
  1. Atsushi Asai1,
  2. Miki Fukuyama1,2,
  3. Yasunori Kobayashi3
  1. 1Department of Bioethics, Kumamoto University Graduate School of Medical Science, Kumamoto, Japan
  2. 2Department of Nursing, School of Health Sciences, School of Medicine, Kumamoto University, Kumamoto, Japan
  3. 3Textbook Division, Elementary and Secondary Education Bureau, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Tokyo, Japan
  1. Correspondence to Professor Atsushi Asai, Department of Bioethics, Kumamoto University Graduate School of Medical Science, Kumamoto, 1-1-1 Honjo, Kumamoto 860-8556, Japan; aasai{at}


Through films, we can see many aspects of a country and its times: culture, morality and religion, and views on life and death. The best films can both entertain audiences and provide viewers with opportunities to think about fundamental human problems. In this article, we use Departures (Okuribito) to examine the contemporary Japanese view of life and death. All sorts of deaths are depicted and each scene provides an insight into the contemporary Japanese view of death. We use the medium of film to consider the issue of death: what death is, the relationship that exists between life and death, and how the impurity and dignity of the dead are recognised by contemporary Japanese people. The ritual of ‘encoffinment’ will also be discussed, and what it suggests and reveals about Japanese views on what happens to a person when they die, and what requirements exist for someone to be able to depart from this world to the afterlife. The view of death depicted in Departures is thought to accept and even hope for a worldview that postulates continuity between life and death, wherein not only the soul but also personal individuality continues on as it existed in life. The rite of encoffinment is required to relieve the family's grief as well as to wipe away the impurity of the dead. The Japanese traditional view that the ‘dead are impure’ seems to die hard. It is also suggested that complicated and ambivalent attitudes towards the dead exist among contemporary Japanese people.

  • Departures (Okuribito)
  • Japan
  • film
  • view of life and death
  • funeral
  • cross-cultural studies
  • medical anthropology

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The lives and deaths of all sorts of people are commonly depicted in films and literary works, and research in the field of life and death is also widespread. In contemporary Japanese society, however, death is a taboo topic. Furthermore, a widespread illusion exists that medicine can cure every problem.1 Japanese society has been referred to as ‘a society that forgot death’.2 In Japan, the ‘dankai no sedai’ or baby boomer generation born after World War II between 1947 and 1949 will soon become old; they will be over 80 years old by 2030. In other words, Japan will soon experience a sharp rise in deaths.3 Thus, with an unprecedented age of increased mortality expected in the very near future, discussions regarding life and death have taken on a greater significance than ever before.

Views of death held by religious leaders and academic scholars are clear, but ordinary people do not always share these views. In addition to researching philosophical views held by experts on death and dying, it is equally important to use a variety of methods to examine views of life and death held by ordinary people living today. In this article, we will use Departures (Okuribito), the first Japanese film to win an American Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, to examine the contemporary Japanese view of life and death.4

We will use the medium of film to consider the issue of death: what death is, the relationship between life and death, and how the impurity and dignity of the dead are recognised by contemporary Japanese people. We will also discuss what the ritual of ‘encoffinment’ suggests and reveals about Japanese views on what happens to a person when they die, and what requirements exist for someone to be able to pass from this world into the afterlife.

The movie Departures and Nokan (‘encoffinment’)

In February 2009, Departures became the first Japanese film to receive the award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st Academy Awards. The title Departures refers to people who assist the dead in their departure from this world to the afterlife. The film generated considerable publicity in Japan, becoming a huge hit and enjoying an unprecedented long run. It also received the Grand Prix at the 32nd Montreal World Film Festival and won the most awards out of the 13 categories, including Best Picture at the 32nd annual Japanese Academy Awards. This film, which was produced at the suggestion of lead actor Masahiro Motoki, was based on the original screenplay of Kundo Koyama, rather than a book. The global recognition it received may have been due to the uniquely Japanese funeral rites, human relationships and views of life and death. However, the themes of love of family and pride in one's work are universal and likely to appeal to viewers worldwide.

The plot of Departures may be summarised as follows: after losing his job in Tokyo, Daigo Kobayashi returns to his hometown, where he eventually accepts a job placing the deceased in coffins, due to a printing error in an employment advertisement. The employer Sasaki likes Daigo, who reluctantly begins this work only because he needs the money. However, Daigo is not able to tell his wife Mika about the nature of his job. Daigo assists Sasaki in a number of funerals before performing ‘encoffinments’ himself. Daigo gradually becomes accustomed to his job, but just as he begins to feel a sense of pride in his work, Mika learns about his ‘filthy’ job and leaves him. Upon learning that she is pregnant, Mika returns and urges him to change jobs. Just then, news arrives that Tsuyako, the female proprietor of the bathhouse frequented by Daigo and his wife, has died. For the first time, Daigo performs an encoffinment in front of Mika, who comes to realise the true value of her husband's work. Then one day, as the seasons change, a telegram arrives notifying Daigo that his father has died and Daigo personally assists in his own father's ‘departure’.

As the main character develops as an encoffinment specialist, all sorts of deaths are depicted. The death of a little boy, the death of a delinquent teen girl killed in an accident, the suicide of a male high school student with gender identity issues, the solitary death of an older person, and the peaceful death of an older person surrounded by family members are all depicted, as well as deaths of loved ones and family members of the main character. Each scene provides an insight into the contemporary Japanese view of death.

The rite of Nokan (encoffinment) is the act of enclosing the corpse in a casket during the funeral. In contemporary times, this ceremony is meant to relieve the family's grief by cleansing the deceased of all worldly suffering, with the hope of reward in the afterlife.5 The encoffinment specialist handles the necessary preparations to ease the passage into the afterlife. Their raison d'être is summarised in the funeral director Sasaki's words: “We hope the deceased have a peaceful trip”. The encoffinment procedure depicted in Departures is as follows. First, cotton is placed into the oral cavity to create a peaceful countenance and then the entire body of the deceased is washed (yukan). Next, the deceased is carefully clothed so that relatives and attendants cannot see the skin. The deceased is clothed in a burial gown or clothes that were frequently worn before death. Next, the deceased receives aesthetic treatments, so that his or her skin colour and hair appear life-like. Finally, they are encoffined.6

Families express feelings such as “I managed to make them look nice” and “we too were able to see a graceful face at the end”.5 In the Shinto tradition, the deceased as well as the household from which he/she came are considered impure, thus yukan (the practice of washing a corpse) is important for purification.7 In Japan, it is believed that the soul remains impure for a fixed period after death before being purified through memorials held by descendants of the deceased, after which the soul is deindividuated into a general ancestor god (kami).8 The traditional Japanese view that the ‘dead are impure’ is often cited as being based in a Kojiki myth, wherein maggots emerge from the rotting body of a god. On the other hand, this notion probably also arose from the fact that dead bodies tend rapidly to change, decay and release a stench in a high-temperature, high-humidity climate. The burial gown is considered a travel garment that prepares the deceased for the journey to the other world.7

The rite of encoffinment used to be performed by the family members themselves. In keeping with the traditional idea of death as impure, encoffinment cleanses and purifies with water. In the modern version of this rite, family members wipe the corpse with a cotton cloth infused with alcohol. The rite was generally performed by the family with the help of funeral specialists.7 Encoffinment as depicted in the film is the modern version practised in contemporary Japan, of specialists acting on behalf of the family.

Japanese funeral ceremonies

To understand and appreciate this film, it may be necessary to understand Japanese funeral ceremonies as well as the ideas on which they are based; namely, the Japanese concepts of life and death and their views on corpses. In Japan, a funeral serves as a prayer for the repose of the deceased's soul. At the same time, it is the family's public mourning and is meant to keep the deceased in their memories. Another view is that it helps the family members through the grieving process.9–11 The funeral customs and practices comprise a mixture of those derived from Buddhism and those derived from Shinto, and the borders between the two are ambiguous. In Japan, the two religions have historically been ‘syncretised’ to form a unique religious climate.

The Japanese funeral typically follows these practices: when a person dies, he/she is placed to rest in his/her home. The corpse is laid with the head pointing north, emulating the deathbed of Gautama, and the head of the bed is solemnly decorated. Next comes the aforementioned encoffinment. The first night after death is called the Tsuya (the wake); this night is for close family and friends to remember the deceased. The meal served at the wake may also be called Okiyome (cleansing). The funeral is then performed. Here, the rite of Jukai (receipt of commandments) allows the deceased to receive the commandments of Buddhism, which make the deceased a disciple of the Buddha, and the deceased is given Buddhahood. The deceased is then sent off on the journey to the other world. Finally, the coffin is carried out of the house and burned to ashes in a crematorium.9

These days, 99% of Japanese are cremated and only 1% interred. Long-term changes in relative popularity of cremation and interment have been greatly influenced by the nation's primary religion, residential environments and changes in available technologies. In the high-growth period of the 1970s, cremation became widespread outside metropolitan areas. Crematoria were built in various places as a matter of national policy.9

Japanese views on corpses

In general, the Japanese do not tend to perceive body and soul as a duality, as in ‘flesh and spirit’. The corpse is an important entity; therefore, if funeral rites are not performed, the soul cannot be mourned. It is important that the deathbed is attended, and the death is lamented by as many close family members and friends as possible. In addition, the corpse must be looked after until all rites have been completed. A body is not considered to be a mere object or a shell for the soul. The body itself is an entity with a unique will, rights and hopes, and the family has a responsibility to respect them.12 According to Shinto, the body is not mere substance, but is also something precious that is given life by the parents, and if one goes back far enough, leads to the two gods who gave birth to the country.13

The idea that the deceased must be treated with care and seen off by a loving family is expressed in the film by Yuriko, an employee of the encoffinment company. A telegram arrives informing Daigo that his father has passed away; however, Daigo cannot forgive the father who abandoned him and his mother for a younger woman, and says he will not participate in his father's funeral because it has nothing to do with him. Filled with tears, Yuriko pleads with him to “please be with your father at his end!” She probably felt that “the father would want his son to be there at the end” and that “he cannot attain Buddhahood if Daigo does not see him off”. Perhaps she thought that the deceased father was still capable of feeling emotion.

There is also one scene in which family members clearly believe that the deceased has individuality, desires and dignity that remain unchanged in death. Daigo and Sasaki pay a visit to a home where a beautiful young woman is lying on the floor. Daigo washes the body, and as he begins to wash her genital area, he is caught off guard. He turns to Sasaki and says, “There's something there”. Sasaki, who confirms that ‘something’ for himself, asks the family members whether he should use men's or women's makeup, because there are two kinds. In life, the deceased struggled with gender identity issues. Born male but female at heart, the deceased had suffered in the gap between the two before committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. The parents request women's makeup.

Continuity of life and death

In one scene in Departures, a character speaks directly about death. The lines are spoken by Shōkichi after the death of Tsuyako, the bath house proprietress. The main character has known Tsuyako since he was young, and Shōkichi is a regular customer of Tsuyako's bathhouse and also had a slight love interest in her. Shōkichi, who works at a crematorium, says to Tsuyako's son, “Death is a gate… death is not the end. It's a hurdle that we pass through on the way to what comes next. It's just a gate.” Shōkichi also states that he is the gatekeeper who sees the deceased off saying, “Have a nice trip. See you again.” In this film, Daigo, the encoffinment specialist, is the first character seen to assist in departures, but Shōkichi may also be said to do the same.

The view of death as a gate or a way station—a place where reunion with the dead is possible—is thought to correspond to the traditional Japanese belief that the spirits of the dead permanently reside close at hand in the world of the living.14 In this view of death, people do not fade into nothingness, and ‘I’ and ‘you’ do not pass into extinction upon death. Instead, life and death are connected by a gate. Departures does not explore the meaning behind the longstanding tradition of caring for the dead; rather, it depicts a viewpoint in which the living and the dead remain in direct negotiation. In this film, it is presumed that the dead will retain their individuality as it existed in life and will be waiting for us in the next world.

Imagining death as a way station leads to the continuity of death and life. The absolute distinction between life and death, and faith in a divine being or essence are fundamental beliefs for religion. However, the world of this film, in which everything is brought to a conclusion by humans, may be considered as non-religious.

Communication across the border

Departures depicts not only the continuity between the living and the dead, but also continuity with the world of the unborn. Daigo encoffins his deceased father in the final scene of the film. As he is doing so, a stone rolls out from his father's tightly clenched fist. The stone is small, smooth, and white. It was a stone-letter (a form of communication in which the sender chooses a stone that signifies his thoughts, and the recipient ascertains the sender's feelings from the shape and weight of the stone) that Daigo had given his father as a child. Mika picks up the stone and hands it to Daigo.15 The two of them grasp it together and press it against Mika's belly, where a new life is residing. The father, who once again looks just as he did in life, lies before them at the bottom of the screen. Depicted this way, the feeling is shared by all three generations—even by the dead and the unborn.

The message shared among the four characters on the screen is unspoken. No one directly reveals this message; it is left to the interpretation of the viewers. In another scene, Daigo passes the stone-letter to his wife at the riverside. He asks Mika what she feels, but she replies only that it is a secret. While this wordless method of communication is certainly a cinematic device, it might also be described as characteristically Japanese. The ability of people in this world to wordlessly understand each other's feelings and thoughts may also hold true for communication across the border between life and death. Perhaps this self-contained method of picking up on another person's thoughts may allow for communication of thoughts and intentions of the dead and unborn babies.

Contradictory ideas regarding the dead

In the film's most dramatic scene, Mika, having just learned of Daigo's job, yells at her husband, “Don't touch me. You're dirty” as he reaches out to her. Even Daigo's good friend from childhood urges him to quit his job as soon as possible. Aoki, a former encoffinment specialist, explains that “Perceptions among the living of death and blood impurities are deeply rooted. These issues cannot be explained with logic.”16

Encoffinment specialists work in close contact with the dead and are discriminated against as being impure. In Japanese society, some young encoffinment specialists have been rejected by families of their potential marriage partners on account of their jobs.5 In rural areas, the belief persists that pregnant women will miscarry if they attend funerals; in instances in which attendance is mandatory, an outward facing mirror on their stomachs is worn to drive away the spirit of the deceased.17 In Departures, the prejudice against Daigo rooted in the belief in the impurity of the dead is shared by his wife and his old friend. It is ultimately eliminated through the realisation of the significance of Daigo's job and his professionalism. However, in the real world, it remains unclear whether the perception of death as impure can be so easily cast aside.

The Japanese have complex and contradictory ideas regarding the dead.12 Although they long for the deceased and hope for their resurrection, they fear the spirit and the return of the deceased based on the Shintoist idea of impurity, as expressed in the funeral rites. Because impurity is thought to be transmissible, a household that experiences a death and those handling the body are also impure. Thus, removing the impurity associated with death is an important function of funeral rites, allowing the dead to rest in the afterlife while family members live in peace.

Japanese funerals contain a mixture of rites for reaffirming death, protecting the corpse, and preventing curses and the resurrection of the dead. Some rites invoke the spirit of the dead from a feeling of longing; these include Ichizen-meshi (single bowlful of rice, offered to the deceased) and Matsugo-no-mizu (water given to the deceased at the time of death). In contrast, customs such as Sakasa-buton (upside-down futon, in which the deceased's blanket is placed upside-down), Sakasa-byobu (upside-down folding screen, in which a folding screen is set upside-down at the head of the deceased's bed), and Sakasa-mizu (upside-down water, in which water for washing the corpse is prepared by adding hot water to cold rather than cold to hot) separate the abnormal situation of death from everyday life so as to not drag others in.9

There are also customs that make it impossible for the deceased's soul to remain in this life or to return to this life. These include the lack of closed stitches or backstitches on the burial gown, and the practice of turning the coffin around three times when carrying it out of the house to confuse the deceased and prevent him/her from returning home. In addition, the deceased's rice bowl is broken, and the deceased leaves the house via an exit other than the front door. Salt throwing is another custom meant to remove the impurity associated with death. Even now, there is Kichu, a 49-day mourning period, during which the family refrains from attending festive events. During this period, the family is considered impure and shunned. Mochu is the one-year period in which the family grieves the death of a family member and remembers the deceased.9

In Departures, Daigo states that an encoffinment specialist “resurrects a person whose body has become cold and gives the person eternal beauty”. In every funeral scene, it is only after the encoffinment specialist provides ‘eternal beauty’ that the family members burst into tears. Might it be that fulfilling this family responsibility allows the heart some breathing room, so that one can experience heartfelt sadness as a blood relative? Is it impossible to experience sadness if the deceased does not appear as they ought? With a corpse that is cold, pale, stiff, and ‘completely altered,’ does a feeling of repugnance inevitably arise in the mind? For the Japanese, a dead body is ‘something fearsome, dangerous, and eerie,’ even if it is that of a close blood-relative.12

On the other hand, Departures does not depict repugnance or fear towards the deceased by the family members. Instead, feelings of impurity are directed at the encoffinment specialist. Perhaps the encoffinment specialist removes the elements of repugnance and fears from the ambivalent emotions of love and hatred that the family members hold for the deceased, and having thus left the family members filled solely with love, the deceased is able to embark on the journey. Had the film included a scene in which family members performed the work of encoffinment themselves in the traditional manner it might have depicted captured these ambivalent feelings towards the deceased.

By contrast the figure of Daigo performing the rite of encoffinment on the father from whom he had been estranged for many years is that of a person who has completely cast aside any feelings of impurity. What remains is the pure love between parent and child. The deceased receives a warm treatment and is seen off by his son, his son's wife, and grandchild. Daigo caresses his father's face repeatedly and longingly. Perhaps this is the ideal departure.

Departures and religion

Death, as depicted in Departures, has no specific religious overtones. The funerals that are depicted are predominantly Buddhist ceremonies, and most of the encoffinment scenes feature Buddhist monks reading sutras. However, none of the monks speak any lines and Buddhist teachings are not used to lead the deceased. The main character also performs an encoffinment in a church. It is noteworthy that religious people are not depicted in a movie that deals with death.18

With impurity wiped away and the body encased in the coffin, funeral rites by a religious figure are initiated after the deceased is separated from the living. In the film, funeral ceremonies of various religions including Buddhism and Christianity appear only incidentally. The fact that funeral ceremonies are not depicted with greater significance may express the distance that many contemporary Japanese people feel from established religions. In recent years, Buddhism has lost influence in Japan, and the incidental nature of actual funeral scenes in the film may reflect Soshiki Bukkyo (turning to Buddhism only for funerals).

In another scene, people from the encoffinment company celebrate Christmas on Christmas night. The three people, who are not Christian, celebrate Christmas while listening to ‘Ave Maria’ in a room filled with Japanese style coffins. Daigo, who has been asked to play the cello, asks the company president Sasaki whether there are any religious constraints. Sasaki responds, “We are equipped to deal with Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism—anything”. In fact, many Japanese people possess both a Buddhist altar and a Shinto kamidana, and embrace Shinto rites for the New Year, the Buddhist festival of obon (festival of the dead), as well as Christian Christmas traditions.19


In the wake of the film's success, the hitherto unknown profession of encoffinment specialist has attracted wide attention. The term ‘Okuribito’ was also used for the first time in this film. After the film received an Academy Award, a new book was published by an encoffinment specialist, and the number of young people interested in becoming encoffinment specialists increased sharply.5 The film provided many viewers with opportunity to think about death, the deceased and bereavement, which they may not normally encounter. In taking on death—a topic normally considered taboo in Japanese society—head on and with humour and joie de vivre, Departures has had great cultural significance.

In this article, we suggested that the rite of encoffinment is required to relieve the family's grief as well as to wipe away the impurity of the dead. The traditional view that the ‘dead are impure’ seems to die hard and complex and contradictory ideas regarding the dead are indicated. The film also emphasised the beliefs that the corpse is an important entity with a unique will, rights and hopes, and that the family has a responsibility to respect them because it is presumed that the dead will retain their individuality as it existed in life and will be waiting for us in the next world. The idea that death is a way station can lead to the duality of death and life, and the continuity makes it possible for us to communicate with the dead. While endorsed by a large number of people, the view of death and bodily remains put forth in this film is not shared by all Japanese. However, it may reveal one end of the spectrum of views on life and death. It is thought that the encoffinment specialist removes the repugnance and fears from the ambivalent emotions of love and hatred that the family members hold for the deceased, and having thus left the family members filled solely with love, then, the deceased is able to embark on the journey to the afterlife.


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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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