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  • Modern Passings: Death Rites, Politics, and Social Change in Imperial Japan
  • John Breen
Modern Passings: Death Rites, Politics, and Social Change in Imperial Japan. By Andrew Bernstein. University of Hawai'i Press, 2006. 242 pages. Hardcover $39.00.

The Meiji emperor died early on 30 July 1912. On that same day, his body was placed in a coffin, and for the next fortnight, women of the court served him three meals a day. His encoffined body was then transferred to the confines of the hinkyū mortuary hall within the palace. Here, offerings of sakaki, rice, and water were placed before him to quell his potentially troubled spirit. How his body was preserved during the intense summer heat is unclear, but he remained in the mortuary hall for another month. His son, Emperor Taishō, then paid his final respects, and Meiji's spirit was transferred to the kōreiden, an ancestral shrine in the palace ritual complex. His body was now carried from the palace on an ox-drawn hearse southwest across Tokyo to the funeral hall, or sōjōden, erected in the Aoyama parade ground. The procession was solemn, public, and—joined by the high and mighty of imperial Japan and foreign dignitaries—it was long. At Aoyama, emperor and prime minister gave eulogies and offered sakaki, following which the coffin, placed on a steam train headed for Kyoto, set off for Meiji's final resting place. In Kyoto his body was laid to rest in a large, mounded mausoleum in Fushimi-Momoyama, built for that purpose.

It is curious that Andrew Bernstein makes only a brief reference to Meiji's funeral in his Modern Passings. After all, funerals, politics, and social change in imperial Japan are his theme. Grand state funerals like Meiji's were the invention of the modern nation-state. They were political events, articulating the values most dear to the modern state, and, indeed, by stirring a ferment of grief, they could effect social change. Meiji's funeral was unprecedented. Not for centuries had the funeral of an emperor dispensed with the services of Buddhist monks; the body of no previous emperor had been borne with such pomp so publicly or so far; also unusual was the burial of an emperor in a dedicated mausoleum. This was a modern funeral rite, and it became the model for those conducted for Meiji's son and grandson, too. [End Page 169]

On first reading Modern Passings, I thought the absence of this extraordinary event, or of any state funeral, was a grave omission. On reflection, though, I am not so sure. The one comment Bernstein makes on Meiji's funeral—that it "proclaimed to the world Japan's modern progress was anchored in a venerable Shinto past" (p. 98)—is apposite; and Meiji's funeral has been studied before, and so is pretty well known. And what Bernstein offers instead is a story little known but of great interest. What concerns him principally is the popular practice of funerals and the dynamic process of their refiguring in the great cities of imperial Japan. Bernstein acknowledges the role of the state in such matters at the onset of Meiji. Its insistence on setting boundaries between secular and religious, rational and superstitious, civilized and barbaric impinged on the modern practice of funeral rites. But death, as he points out, was no passive observer in these negotiations over meaning; the fundamental question of what to do with the modern dead frequently had a decisive impact on those boundaries.

The most authoritative voice in early Meiji death debates was surprisingly that of Buddhists like Ōuchi Seiran. Disestablished, reduced, and marginalized though it was in the aftermath of 1868, Buddhism found its modern redemption in the practices surrounding death. Buddhists articulated a position on death and death rites that eventually persuaded the Meiji state that Buddhism and civilization were not oxymoronic, that Buddhism had a vital social and cultural role to play. Death also gave to Buddhists essential leverage in their bitter struggles with the formative Shinto establishment.

In early Meiji, the state actively promoted the performance of Shinto funerals. This was not the doomed enterprise it may appear in...


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