Following the tumultuous 1868 Meiji Restoration, the new government was dead-set on doing away with practices and institutions deemed uncivilized. They introduced new tax laws, a conscription army, and began emphasizing nativist teachings over Buddhism. There was no room for anything considered barbaric, not even in death. While full-body burials were the norm, cremation was becoming more popular, much to the annoyance of Japanese Confucians and nativists in the government. In a bid to embrace modernity and advance the nation, in July 1873 the government made an unprecedented first: banning cremation nationwide.
A Brief Overview of Cremation in Japan
Cremation isn’t a new phenomenon in Japan; there’s strong evidence suggesting cremation was performed to some extent beginning in the Jomon period. The 700 AD cremation of Buddhist priest Dosho, followed by Empress Jito’s cremation in 703 AD, legitimized cremation among the aristocracy. Cremation spread to the common people in the Kamakura period when it became more closely associated with Buddhism.
While Buddhist doctrine didn’t mandate cremation as the sole means of burial, cremation became inseparable from Buddhism due in part to the temple-parishioner or danka system. The Tokugawa regime required all households to be registered with a temple, and many temples relied heavily on income from funerary rites to stay in operation.
The close association between Buddhism and cremation would prove detrimental after the Meiji Restoration. The metropolitan triumvirate of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka began contending with shrinking land and crowded temple cemeteries as populations increased. Cremation and the resulting compact, easily transportable remains quickly became more appealing to residents.
People also held fast to the prevailing folk belief that burning the dead eradicated pollution, or kegare (汚れ). Yet it would be concern over the supposed pollution of cremation that prompted the government to take steps to outlaw it.
Out With the Old, In With the New
Small-scale attempts to ban cremation weren’t uncommon in the Edo period.