Buddhism in Japan is sometimes described as funeral Buddhism, both because of the monopoly over the funeral industry held by Buddhists in Japan, and because some people perceive Japanese Buddhism as being overly focused on death and dying. As Buddhism loses popularity in Japan, some commentators have suggested the funeral Buddhism may be responsible, by not meeting the spiritual needs of modern Japanese. Some attempts have been made to reform the practice of the Buddhist faith in Japan in response to this.
Death and dying are extremely important in the Buddhist tradition, especially in Japan. People must follow a set of precisely prescribed rituals in the days leading up to the funeral and in the months and years beyond. Historically, Buddhist temples have dominated the funeral business in Japan, because of the complete assortment of services they offer; they care for the body, handle the rituals associated with the funeral, provide officiants, and guide families through the complex process of a traditional Japanese Buddhist funeral.
However, some critics have suggested that Buddhism in Japan is overly focused on funerals, failing to provide for the living. This has led to the slang term “funeral Buddhism” in reference to the practice of Buddhism in Japan, emphasizing the stress on holding proper funerals.
As Japanese culture has shifted, so have religious values. Many young Japanese have turned to funeral homes and secular providers, and as a result some Buddhist temples have closed, with many more struggling to survive. Surviving on the trade provided by older Japanese and traditional families may not be possible, leading some Buddhists to fear that traditional Japanese Buddhism could die out, or at the very least become drastically reduced.
Changing perceptions about funeral Buddhism may take time, and not everyone is convinced that this is possible. It would require a shift in thinking for many Buddhist temples, with attempts to more actively engage with the community, emphasizing the fact that Buddhism is not just for funerals. Japan, like some other societies, is also becoming increasingly secular, and the society may reach a tipping point beyond which there is no return.
The focus on the process of death and dying involved in Japanese Buddhism is backed by centuries of tradition. It is perhaps not surprising that people refer to the Japanese practice of Buddhism as funeral Buddhism because of the focus on funerals and ceremonies for the dead, but by the same token, it would be a pity for these traditions to be lost forever.