How to Dress for a Japanese Funeral

The death of my grandfather-in-law--"Otou-chan," as the family calls him--was unexpected. He literally caught pneumonia overnight, but the doctor confirmed it was the lifetime of smoking that caused his lungs to give up in the end. He passed away in the evening, and the immediate family gathered at the hospital for a private farewell. For the first time that I can remember, my husband actually left work at 10pm to meet us, and seeing him so early in the evening, out of the house, still in his business suit--it was all so very odd, but no more odd than Otou-chan himself, who looked light and fragile, like a hollow wax figure. It was not the real Otou-chan, with his gap-toothed smile, sipping happily on o-sake, and flustering me with his frank stare and usual refrain of "You grow more and more beautiful every day." I think Otou-chan fancied himself something of a ladies' man. He was a published poet and a boy at heart.

After returning home from the hospital, the first thing my husband grilled me on was what I had in the way of funeral attire. My old boss had nagged at me to get a black suit. "You'll need it," he'd assured me. And it is true that if there is one item of clothing in every Japanese person's closet, it must surely be The Black Suit, good for every occasion: job interviews, weddings, funerals, birthday parties, you name it. But, men, take note that you only wear an all-black tie for funerals; white tie for weddings; every other occasion, go crazy. (I was just teasing about the birthday parties part, though you can if you want to.)

Unfortunately, I'd failed to heed my boss's nagging. A waste of money, I'd thought, I'll never wear it. If you're a woman though, it doesn't *have* to be a suit; that's just your safest bet. Here are the key rules when putting together your funeral ensemble:

  • Your top and bottom really have to be black--no navy, dark brown, or whatever. Swallow-up-all-ambient-light black would be preferable. If you think I'm kidding, go check out the extremely expensive, extremely depressing outfits in the funeral section at your nearest Japanese department store.

  • No shiny, happy things. Everything has to be dull, muted--this includes buttons, clothing material (no silk, for example), hair accessories, and other little details like those shiny, happy buckles on your black dress shoes (bad!).

  • In keeping with the first point, no jewelry. Except pearls, for some baffling reason.

  • Keep modestly covered up, even in the dead of summer. No short sleeves or dippy necklines--think stereotypical spinster librarian; really, the dowdier you make yourself, the closer to the ideal model you will be. Knee-length skirts are okay, but black stockings are a must.

  • One last important point, boys and girls: make sure there aren't any holes in your socks/stockings because this is Japan and you're going to have to take off your shoes eventually, and then the state of your hosiery will be exposed for all the Japanese world to see (horrors).

  • I did have most of the important bits: tights, shoes, and a seriously ugly-ass skirt I'd bought in a fit of rage one afternoon in New York right before a job interview, not able to bear one more lascivious "Ay, mamma" from those delivery truck guys who, I swear, would mutter and stare at anything remotely female. Two sizes too big, the skirt hits at the most unflattering possible point around the calves, and that day, I stalked defiantly out of the store wearing my new purchase, daring any fool carting stacked boxes of bottled water to even glance my way. I almost cackled with glee as I made my way down Broadway, ignored.

    Anyhow, the skirt was perfect. All I needed was a top, but I didn't have much time. I'd never realized how fast funerals are set in motion in Japan. Maybe it's the same all over the world, but the morning following Otou-chan's death, we promptly received a phone call regarding the funeral details. It seems I had only a few hours to get myself an appropriate jacket that would not shock or shame my Japanese family, before I was to hustle over to my mother-in-law's house for the otsuya, the wake.

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    I dont mean any disrespec to anybody alive or otherwise - but... only you could make dressing for a funeral seem funny! :)

    10/13/2005 11:12:00 PM  

    Thank you, Shammi :)

    10/15/2005 01:09:00 AM  

    Sorry about your grandfather-in-law and do let me know how the shopping went. I always find that when I shop for soemthing very specific (even something as innocuous as a blue baseball cap) it is impossible to find.

    10/15/2005 05:41:00 AM  

    Hi Rachel - I'm sorry to hear about your grandfather. I know exactly what you mean though. I was surprised when I went to my grandmother-in-law's funeral here, I just learnt how you think of the person, not what to wear.

    10/17/2005 02:42:00 PM  

    I'm sorry for your loss, Rach. I just hope it's not a shinto funeral. I heard relatives are invited to pick a bone as a souvenir after the cremation.

    10/17/2005 03:23:00 PM  

    Hi Jaime, I did feel a bit of stress over whether I'd be able to find something in time, but I did! And now that I have a funeral jacket, I'll be prepared (clothing-wise, anyway) the next time someone passes away.

    Hi Keiko, I was rather surprised at how strict the rules are, especially at a time when people might not have all their wits about them, and for good reason. But I suppose worrying about little details might help some people deal with the incomprehensible blow of losing a loved one.

    Hi Lynn, I was pretty terrified that, being somewhat part of the immediate family, I'd be expected to pass bones with chopsticks, but so far that part hasn't happened, and hopefully never will. I *knew* there was a good reason for Akito nagging at me to improve my chopstick-holding skills.

    from Rachel

    10/20/2005 12:03:00 AM  

    I love this post. It is so unsentimental.

    10/22/2005 07:49:00 AM  

    Great post. As it happens, I'm using this for school, and that's ok. I guess I'm the first visitor in a few dozen moons, but good work!

    1/11/2011 12:58:00 PM  

    THANK YOU for posting this! One of my English students just had a death in the family, and while she did explain some of the rules, I definitely made some changes after reading.

    3/09/2011 05:42:00 PM  

    I have visited many funeral ceremonies in my life in different countries and regions of the world but never had a chance to be at a funeral in Japan. I will surely consider this post as a guide if I will ever have to join a Japanese traditional funeral.

    8/19/2015 01:44:00 PM  

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