Japanese memento mori


These days, a lot of Japanese have forgotten the meaning of death. It might be a good thing such as not being afraid of disease or crime too much. In spite of longevity, the rate of suicide is really high in the world. The view of life and death is little bit complicated. As for “memento mori” in Japan, in my opinion we have had no traditional motifs about it until now. Memento mori, means “Remember death.” It evokes death using some motifs such as skull, and works for one’s subconscious to inevitability of death.

Memento mori is a popular theme in Western painting. It connects Western religion and teach people importance of life comparing to death. There are a numbers of motifs of memento mori like skull, empty glass, worm, and elderly human, and so on.

1280px-Memling_Vanity_and_Salvation  images

In Japan, we have a lot of stories of ghosts, which is different from japanese monsters. Yet I feel entertainment and teaching, which is not “memento mori”, from those stories. It is important to know that Japanese ghosts appear without feet. Their no feet appearance may be connected to memento mori to a certain extent, but this is little bit different from “remember death.” I mean people are afraid of them and try to do the right thing to avoid them. One of the functions of these forms of entertainment was to provide topics for people to discuss when they gathered together. In that age, people don’t need to remember death because it was always nearby in the forms of famine, poverty, war and so on.

Ghost with a Severed Head - Kawakami Togai

And our most popular religions, Buddhism and Shinto, they usually combine with them, are related to death. Especially Buddhism has household altar in each home for their ancestor. They already live with people passed away every day. There’s a ritual of going to a cemetery to invite their ancestor from another world a week in summer, it’s called “Obon.”

Yoshimatsu altar

In short, we usually don’t forget the death because of our custom. It has changed nowadays, though. Maybe we need a motif of “memento mori” in this modern age remembering of the meaning of the death and life.

– Toru

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