Why Post-Death Divorce is Popular in Japan

Why Post-Death Divorce is Popular in Japan

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Couple pictured on Buddhist altar
Picture: SUKEN / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Why do some people - particularly women - go out of their way in Japan to divorce their spouse's families after death? Learn why shigo rikon has been on the rise since the 1980s.

You might think that death is “the ultimate divorce”. But some people in Japan go the extra step of officially parting ways from their dearly departed. Here’s why post-death divorce, especially among women, has risen in recent decades.

Don’t bury me with these people, I beg of you

For centuries, death and the manner of burial were centered on honoring generations of ancestors. But the past few decades have witnessed a shift towards alternative forms of burial less focused on traditional ancestor worship, spurred by changes in family structure, a declining birth rate, and rapid rural depopulation.

In the late 80s, the media clocked onto growing interest in separate graves (夫婦別墓; fufu betsu bo), and sociologist Inoue Haruyo was the first to coin the term shigo rikon (死後離婚) or “posthumous divorce” to explain this rising trend [1]. Reports and anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly place women, usually widows, at the forefront of these changes. (Though that’s not to say men and LGBTQ+ people don’t seek out separate graves or alternative burials).

Divorcing after death arises from a variety of motives. Maybe you don’t like the idea of spending eternity with the mother-in-law who judged your cooking and nitpicked you over every little thing. Maybe you’d rather be buried with your pet or your siblings rather than your husband. Or maybe you want to opt for a less traditional manner of consignment to the afterlife, like a tree burial (樹木葬; jumokusou).

Whatever the reason, shigo rikon is just one facet reflecting a larger shift towards assuming agency over one’s afterlife and the growing individualization of death.

Becoming part of the family – even after death

After the Meiji Restoration, there were attempts to govern burial practices, some successful, some not, like the ill-fated endeavor to permanently ban cremation. The 1898 civil code reinforced the Tokugawa-era ie system, but the government thought it necessary to ensure it carried into death as well.

The new civil code did away with several funerary practices and consolidated family graves into one ancestral grave handed down to successive generations as part of the family estate. Women marrying into the family became part of her husband’s ie both in life and in death.


While the ie system was abolished post-WWII, adherence to ie-style burial practices remained. The wording in the 1948 civil code emphasized that male heirs would assume upkeep of the family grave. And it was the wife who would be responsible for her in-laws, as per Article 788.

Currently, there’s no legal precedent for the wife to enter her husband’s ancestral grave. But the prewar custom is still the default, especially among older generations — although that too is changing.

An ancestral grave in Tokyo. (Source: Wikipedia)

The rise of posthumous divorce

Now, a true divorce isn’t feasible since one of the parties is dead. Shigo rikon basically means divorcing the deceased’s family.

In a rare departure from most bureaucratic processes, shigo rikon is relatively simple. It requires submitting a “notification of kinship termination”, or inzoku kankei shuuryou todoke (姻族関係終了届) to the local municipality office. Necessary documents include identification and a copy of the family register proving the spouse’s death. Even better, you don’t have to give advance notice to the in-laws [2].

Osaka’s notification of kinship termination. Despite its simplicity, many people didn’t know this was an option until the late 80s. (Source: Osaka City)

According to the Ministry of Justice, kinship termination applications more than doubled from 2006 to 2016 [1]. The reasons many choose shigo rikon vary, but the most common usually involves some discord with the husband or in-laws.

In one case, a 67-year-old widow went through shigo rikon to leave her toxic mother-in-law. “I’ve lost count of the number of times I tried to leave the house with my kids because my mother-in-law’s nagging was so awful,” she said. “I did a posthumous divorce because I truly loathed the idea of entering the same grave as my husband and mother-in-law” [3].

Others didn’t have the means or freedom to divorce their spouse when they were alive and seek a clean break from the past. Some do it out of consideration for their children, who may not want to deal with the hassle of ancestral grave upkeep.

In some cases, married women with still-living husbands also preemptively choose divorce after death. Inoue writes that at her organization Ending Center, which manages a sakura tree burial cemetery, it’s not uncommon for a husband to sign off as a witness on a wife’s application for a plot [1].

Taking charge of the Afterlife

Fortunately, there are plenty of alternative burial options for those foregoing ancestral graves. In order to maintain their revenue streams, many temples offer low-cost “eternally worshiped graves” (永代供養墓; eitai kuyobo) which don’t require an heir to pay for upkeep. Rather, the temples themselves assume those duties and observe the proper death anniversaries. People can choose a solitary grave, or be buried with friends or relatives [4].

Tree burials also provide a low-cost and environmentally friendly consignment to the afterlife. While researching tree burial, Sébastien Penmellen Boret met a woman, Machiko, whose mother purchased a tree burial grave for herself and her husband. She decided to join them instead of sharing a grave with her husband. “People are free to be buried where and with whom they want to share their life after death,” she said.

Boret also met Sachiko, who for years juggled both housework and caring for her ill husband, and detested the thought of sharing a grave with him, saying, “I spent all my life and old age taking care of my husband and he never once said thank you!” She successfully purchased a grave with her daughter’s help [5].

A tree burial cemetery in Tokyo’s Kodaira Cemetery (Source: Wikipedia)

Friends in Life and Death

For many, seeking out alternative burial rites offers a chance to create a non-patriarchal social circle to carry into death. Realizing that there was a need for companionship in the afterlife, prolific essayist Matsubara Junko founded SSS Network in 1998 to bring together older women:


SSS Network was launched in 1998, the very year I turned 50. At that time, it was common for women to get married and become housewives, but when I looked around me, I realized more women were increasingly working and living on their own. I had to wonder, “What will happen to them in their old age?”

The NPO quickly attracted women from all walks of life, and in 2000, it secured a members-only rose garden cemetery. Matsubara purposely chose a location not affiliated with a temple:

普通の共同墓は、お寺や霊園の隅に配置されていて、暗い雰囲気じゃないですか? 私、そんなところに入るのが嫌だなと思っていたんです。せっかく1人で生きることを選択して充実した自立生活を送ってきたんだから、美しいお墓に入りたいと思っていました。

Communal graves are usually set up in a corner of a temple or cemetery, and possess a gloomy atmosphere, don’t they? Well, I detested the thought of entering a place like that. Since I’d willfully chosen to lead a fulfilling life alone, I wanted to enter a beautiful grave [6].

A Grave Concern

Woman pulling off her wedding ring
Picture: ペイレスイメージズ1(モデル) / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

This growing individualization of death mirrors rising anxieties over the costs and time spent on ancestral grave upkeep.

Per a survey on grave visits (墓参り; hakamairi), 37.8% visited only one grave and 26.3% visited multiple graves, with a higher turnout among older generations. The top reasons for foregoing hakamairi included “It’s too far away and I don’t have the time” (27.3%), “It’s not our tradition” (17.2%), and “It’s a hassle” (13.2%). A small minority 22.2% have even considered dismantling the grave, or hakajimai (墓じまい) [7].

Lack of space is also becoming an issue, with some cemeteries holding lotteries for burial plots [4]. Funerals are also pricey; the average cost of a funeral in 2022 was 1.1 million yen (roughly $7,651.76), but compounded with a weak yen and stagnant wages, it’s a cost few can shoulder right now [8]. On top of that, families pay temples yearly grave maintenance fees, which also aren’t cheap.

Given these factors and more, it’s not hard to see why shigo rikon is an attractive option. While many outdated laws still put a damper on women’s freedom — separate spousal surnames still remain a long-sought dream — they do have more freedom to divorce, both in life and in death. Rather than seeing shigo rikon as a complete degradation of traditional family values, one can view it as an avenue for defining a family that’s beyond blood and distant, unknown ancestors.

Why This Japanese Couple Divorces Every Three Years


[1] 「死んでまで一緒はイヤ…」日本で死後離婚と夫婦別墓が増えた理由. Gendai Media.

[2] 死後離婚を選ぶ意味は?. Rikon Hotline.

[3] 自宅と遺産をもらってサヨウナラ 「死後離婚」の実例. News Post Seven.

[4] Tsuji, Y. (2018). Evolving Mortuary Rituals in Contemporary Japan. In A Companion to the Anthropology of Death, A.C.G.M. Robben (Ed.).

[5] Boret, S. P. (2017). Agency and the personalization of the grave in Japan. In Death in the Early Twenty-First Century: Authority, Innovation, and Mortuary Rites (pp. 217-253).

[6] 老後の「孤独」とどう向き合うか?. Ziel Magazine.

[7] FromプラネットVol.208 <お墓参りに関する意識調査>. PR Times.

[8] 葬儀費用の平均相場はいくら?料金の内訳や葬式代を安くするコツを紹介. E-Sogi.

Alyssa Pearl Fusek

Alyssa Pearl Fusek is a freelance writer and aspiring Japanese-English translator currently haunting the Pacific Northwest. She holds a B.A. in Japanese Studies from Willamette University. When she's not writing for Unseen Japan, she's either reading about Japan, writing poetry and fiction, improving her Japanese language skills, reading four or more books, petting cats, or drinking copious amounts of jasmine green tea. You can follow her on Twitter at @apearlwrites.

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