How to Express Condolences in Japanese: Guide to Funeral in Japan

When you find yourself preparing to attend a funeral in Japan, how do you express condolences in Japanese? Funerals are solemn respectful occasions to pay homage to the deceased and their loved ones. Therefore, it is imperative to learn the customs, traditions and etiquette in order to be dressed and act appropriately at a Japanese funeral to properly grieve for your friend, family or acquaintance. 

In this article, we explain Japan’s funeral customs and traditions, the process of funeral service in Japan, and how to express condolences in Japanese. We also briefly explain the memorial service and death anniversary that follows a funeral. 

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The Funeral Process in Japan

Funerals in Japan consist of a wake, the funeral service and the cremation or burial after the funeral service. Let us look at each in further detail below. 

1. The Wake Before the Funeral 

Funerals in Japan typically begin with the wake, which is a time for friends and family to pay their respects to the deceased and offer condolences to the bereaved. The wake is usually held at the deceased’s family home or a funeral parlor on the night before the funeral. A wake is called お通夜 (otsuya) in Japanese which can also translate to “overnight”. Originally, the wake is held overnight as mourners accompanied the deceased for one final night together but nowadays it only lasts a few hours. 

During the wake, mourners offer incense senkou (線香) and flowers to the deceased, as well as have a final meal of food and alcohol with the deceased, usually of vegetarian food as per Buddhist customs. Sometimes, there will be a sutra chanting called dokkyou (読経) performed by the monk. Burning the incense is called shoukou (焼香).

2. The Funeral Service

The day after the wake is when the funeral service is held. Funerals are called お葬式 (osoushiki) or お葬儀 (osougi). Both words actually have slightly different meanings but are used interchangeably these days. Religion is strongly reflected in funeral ceremonies. Buddhist funerals are the most common in Japan as it shares many similarities with Shinto funerals. 

In Buddhist funerals, monks recite sutras and incense is burned. Christian funerals are also held depending on the deceased’s faith.

3. Sending the Deceased Off

After the funeral service, it is time to say goodbye to the deceased in a farewell ceremony. Note that attendance is usually limited to the deceased’s family unless special permission is given to other guests. It is a very private and personal affair for the bereaved family so be considerate. Cremation is called kasou (火葬 ) in Japanese; cremation is the most common choice these days with more people opting for cremation over burial. 

After the cremation is completed, a ceremony to collect the remaining bones is done. A special pair of long chopsticks are used, and the lifting of bones is usually done by 2 people together. The lifting of bones needs to be done in a correct order that starts with the teeth, then the bones from the feet up to the head, and is finished with the larynx (throat bone). The bones are placed into an urn. 

Saying “I’m Sorry for Your Lost”: How to Give Condolences in Japanese?

What do you say to the bereaved family when being informed of someone’s death, or when attending a wake or funeral service? Here are a few Japanese phrases to give condolences. 

1. Okuyami moushiagemasu (お悔やみ申し上げます): My sincerest condolences. 

This is the most basic way to express condolences in Japanese, similar to saying “I am sorry for your lost” in English. If you want to add a deeper layer of sincerity, you can say:

心よりお悔やみ申しあげます.
Kokoro yori okuyami moushiagemasu.
My sincerest condolences from the bottom of my heart.

You can also say:

ご逝去の報に接し、謹んでお悔やみ申し上げます
Go seikyo no hou ni sesshi, tsutsushinde okuyamimōshiagemasu
I would like to express my deepest condolences upon hearing the news of their passing

2. Goshuushou sama desu (ご愁傷さまです): I am sorry for your lost

“Go shuushou sama desu” is a general expression used to express sympathy or condolences, it has the same meaning as the above “お悔やみ申し上げます”. You can also combine them into:

この度はご愁傷さまでございます。心よりお悔やみ申しあげます.
Kono tabi wa goshuushou sama de gozaimasu. Kokoro yori okuyami moushiagemasu.
I am very sorry for your loss. I would like to express my deepest condolences.

3. Gomeifuku o oinori moushiagemasu ご冥福をお祈り申し上げます: May they rest in peace (in the afterlife)

“Gomeifuku wo oinori mou shiagemasu” is a prayer for the deceased’s soul meaning “May his/her soul rest in peace” or “I pray for his/her happiness in the afterlife”. The kanji 冥 means “dark” and is used in 冥土 (meido, the underworld), while 福 (fuku) means good fortune. Together, 冥福 (meifuku) means happiness in the afterlife.

  It is normally used in condolence messages in Buddhist religion, so you need to be careful when using this phrase. It may be offensive if the deceased or bereaved family does not believe in the afterlife. It is best to avoid saying this if you are not sure of their religion.

4. Aitou no i o arawashimasu (哀悼の意を表します): Please accept my condolences

Although it expresses the same thing, this funeral phrase is less colloquial. 哀悼の意を表します implies, “I am sad and heartbroken when I think of the deceased”. While it is often used in messages, people avoid saying this verbally. It is usually reserved for expressing condolences in formal speeches — such as when Prime Minister Fumio Kishida expresses his devastation after Shinzo Abe’s passing — and in telegrams. 

Yasurakana nemuri ni tsukaremasu you oinori moushiagemasu (安らかな眠りにつかれますようお祈り申し上げます): I wish you a peaceful sleep

While Christianity is not a major religion in Japan, if you ever attend a Christian funeral or want to, you can say 安らかなお眠りをお祈り申し上げます. Rather than reincarnation, Christianity believes that you will go to heaven to be with God once you have died. Saying the third phrase above would be inappropriate.

What Not to Say During a Japanese Funeral 

There are a lot of taboos in Japanese culture, and the same can be said in greetings and condolences at funerals. 

1. Refrain from using the word “death” (死)

Avoid being straightforward when mentioning this, as it’s still a heavy subject. A way to cushion saying “death” is by using seikyi (逝去) or eimin (永眠), which means eternal sleep.

If it is a sudden death don’t use kyuushi (急死), which literally translates to “sudden death”. Instead, opt for kyuusei (急逝) or totsuzen no koto (突然のこと), which means “sudden event).

2. Avoid sensitive topics

Avoid discussing or asking about the details of the deceased’s death, cause of death, and days leading up to the death which may be too painful for the family. Also, avoid asking about any inheritance or financial matters related to the deceased.

Funerals are not the time to make friends or expand your social circle, so avoid doing so. It is a solemn occasion for mourning the deceased. Also, avoid controversial topics such as politics or religion. 

3. Don’t use repeated phrases

Japanese adverbs such as masu masu (ますます), tabi tabi (たびたび), kurekure (くれぐれも) evoke the idea of repeated unhappiness.  give the image of repeating unhappiness. Similarly, don’t use phrases that mean “again”, such as tabi (再び) and otte (追って). 

Check out more words to avoid using during Japanese funerals below.

JapaneseHiraganaEnglish
重ね重ねKasanegasaneOverlapping
たびたびTabitabioften
またまた
MatamataOnce again
重々JuujuuHeavily
いよいよIyoiyoFinally
ますますMasumasuMore and more
次々TsugitsugiOne by one
再三SaisanRepeatedly

4. Words such as “Do your best” and “Cheer up”

​​Words such as “Do your best” (ganbatte kudasai; 頑張ってください) and “Cheer up” (genki o dashite kudasai; 元気を出してください) are intended to be encouraging, but they can come across as insensitive. This is because you’re adding an extra burden to the bereaved family, so it’s best to empathize and grieve with them. 

Japanese Vocabulary Related to Funeral Culture in Japan

JapaneseHiraganaEnglish
お通夜OtsuyaWake
線香SenkouIncense
読経DokkyouSutra chanting
焼香ShoukouBurning incense
お葬式OsoushikiFuneral
お葬儀OsougiFuneral service
火葬KasouCremation
冥福MeifukuAfterlife
逝去SeikyiDeath
永眠EiminEternal sleep
急逝KyuuseiSudden death
香典KodenCondolence money
香典袋KodenbukuroCondolence money envelope
成仏JoubutsuEnlightenment or Nirvana (Buddhist term)
往生OujouDeath (Buddhist term)
帰天KitenReturn to Heaven (Christinaity)
召天ShoutenSummon

Preparing to Attend a Japanese Funeral

How to Give Condolences in Japan: Guide to Japanese Funeral

In this part, we will explain the funeral customs, etiquette and traditions for funerals in Japanese. The most important things to know are what to wear, preparation and giving of condolence money “koden”, and how to burn incense during the funeral service. 

What to Wear

When attending a Japanese funeral, it is important to dress in formal and respectful attire. Black clothing is the best. In Japan, funeral attire for men is a black suit and tie over a white shirt, and black dress shoes. Women should wear a simple black dress or a black blouse with a black skirt, black stockings and black dress shoes. Revealing flashy clothes and bright colors is inappropriate for the solemn occasion. In the case of accessories, generally, no accessories are best, but exceptions are made for wedding rings. Simple pearl earrings and necklaces or black onyx ones are also accepted. For students still in school, the formal attire for funerals is their school uniform. 

Preparing Condolence Money

Condolence money is called koden (香典). Originally, incense sticks and powdered incense were offered as koden, but nowadays cash money is given which covers the cost of incense burnt for the deceased, the funeral service, and other related costs. The bereaved family may even donate the condolence money to charities or religious institutions in memory of the deceased.

The appropriate amount of condolence money to give depends entirely on the relationship with the deceased; the closer the relationship, the higher the amount. Koden usually ranges from 3,000 yen to 30,000 yen with factors like financial status taken into consideration. In any case, koden is an expression of sympathy and support to the bereaved family, so you do not need to force yourself to give a lot if it is above your means, a heartfelt condolence message is also greatly appreciated. 

The condolence money is normally placed in a white envelope called a kodenbukuro (香典袋) which is wrapped in a small silk cloth. Never use new bills as condolence money. If you only have new bills, then fold them vertically first. The right time to hand over koden is at the funeral reception. Start by offering your condolences, then pass over the kodenbukuro after unwrapping it from the silk cloth. 

Burning Incense

Burning incense is the most important part of a Japanese funeral service. It is an important ritual for offering prayers to the deceased and for mourners to gain closure. The process for burning incense is slightly different depending on whether powdered incense or incense sticks are used. 

For both incense types, start with a deep bow to the bereaved family. Then, hang the prayer beads over your left hand. For powdered incense, lift some incense using your right hand’s thumb, index and middle finger and touch the incense to your forehead before lowering and dropping the incense into the burner. This is usually done 1~3 times depending on the religious sect. For incense sticks, light incense sticks with a candle and use your hand to extinguish the flames by fanning, never blow on the incense sticks. The number of incense sticks to burn, 1~3, also depends on the religious sect. After that, bring your hands together in prayer facing the deceased’s portrait whilst offering a silent prayer, then bow to the portrait. Bow once more to the bereaved family. 

Aside from burning incense, offerings like flowers and fruits are also common at Japanese funerals. These are usually placed on the altar. If you bring flower offerings, make sure to get the right funeral flowers. If in doubt, just inform the florist of the purpose of these flowers and they will help pick and arrange them accordingly.   

Memorial Service and Death Anniversary

In Japan, a memorial service is usually held on the 7th or 49th day after the funeral. There is a possibility that you will be invited to attend. The customs and traditions are the same as for the funeral service so you should have no problems attending. Your dressing and how to prepare condolence money is the same, the average amount is 5,000 yen to 100,000 yen depending on the relationship with the deceased.

In Japan, the first and second death anniversaries can be quite big and important events. The dressing is different, casual clothing in dark colors like black, navy and grey are expected. Furthermore, the funeral envelope used is different from those used at the funeral service and the memorial service(s), so be careful when preparing. The range of condolence money is between 3,000 yen to 100,000 yen depending on the relationship with the deceased. 

Conclusion

Image by HeungSoon from Pixabay 

Funerals are solemn and formal occasions in Japan. It is very important to know the proper funeral customs and etiquette that are practiced in Japan before attending the funeral of someone you know. Not only does it show respect to the deceased, it also helps to not further upset the already aggrieved bereaved family. Most importantly, it allows you to properly mourn and grieve over the loss of a friend or acquaintance, or to be of comfort to other mourners. 

When you are unsure of the grieving family members’ beliefs or religious denominations, it is best to stick to the standard expression. Avoid mentioning any words that are considered taboo, and don’t bring up sensitive or political topics.

How to give condolences in Japanese?

1. お悔やみ申し上げます。

“Okuyami mōshiagemasu” means “my sincerest condolences”. 

2. ご愁傷さまです。

“Go shūshō sama desu” is a general expression used to express sympathy or condolences.

3. ご冥福をお祈り申し上げます。

“Gomeifuku wo oinori mōshiagemasu)” means “may his/her soul rest in peace” or “I pray for his/her happiness in the afterlife”.

How to give condolence money in Japan?

Condolence money is called “koden (香典)” in Japanese. The amount to give depends on the relationship with the deceased. Koden usually ranges from 3,000 yen to 30,000 yen. The recommended amount for friends and acquaintances is a minimum of 5,000 yen, and for relatives a minimum of 10,000 yen.

How to burn incense at a Japanese funeral?

For powdered incense: 

  1. Bow once to the bereaved family.
  2. On your left hand, hang the prayer beads. 
  3. Using the thumb, index, and middle finger of your free right hand, pinch some powdered incense.
  4. Touch the incense to your forehead before lowering your hand to drop them into the incense burner. Repeat 1 to 3 times depending on the religion sect. 
  5. When done, put your hands together in prayer and bow once to the deceased’s portrait.
  6. Bow again to the bereaved family

For incense sticks:
Generally the same procedure as above.

  1. Bow once to the bereaved family.
  2. Light an incense stick, usually only one but sometimes 2 or 3, with a candle.
  3. Fan with your hand to extinguish the flame, do not blow on the incense stick. 
  4. Stick the incense sticks into the burner. 
  5. Put your hands together in prayer and bow once to the deceased’s portrait.
  6. Bow again to the bereaved family


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