As Buddhism spread through eastern Asia during the first two millennia AD, so did the practice of cremation. Death created pollution, people believed, and the ritual disposal of bodies was supposed to be cleansing. Until the last few years of the 19th century, cremation was controversial in Japan because a portion of the population—Confucians, specifically—believed the burning of corpses to be morally indefensible and more polluting than full-body burial. Although Buddhism propelled cremation’s spread across Asia, its staying power, particularly in Japan, has been for practical reasons. This is the story of how Japan came to have the world’s highest rate of cremation.
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Two important deaths in quick succession launched Japan’s cremation movement: that of Dosho, a Buddhist priest, in 700 AD, and Emperor Jito in 703. The emperor’s cremation was particularly influential, and it set a precedent Japanese aristocracy would follow for centuries.
However, it was not until the end of the Heian period (794-1185), which began shortly after Dosho and Jito’s corpses were burned, that cremation became closely associated with Buddhism in Japan. Buddhist philosophy teaches that everything—including life and the body—is impermanent, and that the cleansing fire of cremation is transformative. Cremation helps to disperse “pollution” created after a person dies and to move the spirit into the ancestral realm—from a “polluting spirit” to a “purified ancestral spirit,” as scholar Masao Fujii wrote. During the Kamakura period (1192-1333), the practice of cremation spread from the aristocracy to the people.