Image of death: similarity between Mexican and Japanese mind

“Just saw Obon ceremony, and I felt it’s similar to Mexican’s “día de los muertos” , I mean, they both don’t show tragic emotion. It’s completely different from the feeling of death in Europe. ”

I got inspiration from what a German guy said as above, at a cafe in Nara (you’ll have great espresso there.) That was exactly the same opinion as I had when I lived in Mexico 12 years ago, and during the funeral of my great-grandma.

I appreciate him to remind me and share the idea, and I would like to write about “death”, the difference of feeling among Japan, Mexico and Europe, before forgetting it again.

・”Death” for Mexicans

Surprising “dia de los muertos”

“Dia de los muertos (day of the Dead) is the festival from 1st to 2nd of November which takes place in everywhere in Mexico. I say “festival”, because the ceremony has no sense of sadness.

The detail of the day of the Dead, please see Wikipedia :) anyway, Mexican people gather together on this day, decorate their grave, drink alcohol and party. They also have sugar-made skull or such a thing. They write a letter or poem with title of “if you are dead…”. (I don’t know about it exactly but I remember that some Mexican teachers mentioned about it. If you are professional Mexican, explanation please! )

Mummy and Mummy candy

There is a “Mummy museum” in Guanajuato, where you can see many many mummies found at desert around the city. That is kind of awesome. Each mummy is laid in glass case, but the case has small hole (for ventilation use or I don’t know) and you may be able to touch the mummy through it, and besides, you literally breathe the same air as the mummies,  once you get into the museum!

There are not only “adults”, but also infantile mummy. I never forget when I was in front of the mummy baby, a Mexican family was by me and a 3 or 4-year-old girl just murmured: how cute it is! Wait, how can you say that a mummy is cute…?? :)

Finally you will find smiling Mexican guys at the exit, selling so-called “mummy candy” which has the shape and color of mummy, so that you always remember the mummies you saw at the museum.

・”Death” for Japanese

Obon, a day of the Dead

Japanese “day of the Dead” is called “Obon”. Originally it used to be on 15th July, but now almost all celebrate it on 15th August (it was due to the change of calender, from lunar to solar or something like that. )

The cap of the hell is open on 1st of Aug. The Deads stay in this world until 15th (when the cap is closed again) so Japanese people celebrate to “meet again” the Deads. Obon is not so loud as Mexican one, but it is one of the rare opportunities of gathering families and relatives, so it should be fun event.

Strange “Bon dance”

According to Wikipedia, Bon dance (which is normally small dance festival during Obon,  held by local communities)  is “dance of Deads, expressing joy and happiness of escaping from hard life in the hell”. Awesome.(below is an example of Bon dance)


I came back from Mexico in 2001, and my great-grandma passed away that summer. My family arranged the funeral at home, together with relatives.  Yeah of course everyone was sad, but the busyness of organizing the funeral exceeded the sentimentalism. Informing related people, arrangement with monks about the ceremony, parking notice around our house, etc etc…. we were totally busy whole 2 days.

And then, after all ceremonies done, we had small supper. I guess that the feeling we shared at that time was not much sorrow, but relieved from the busy days, mentioning old memories with her, smiling, and thanks to her for gathering us here.

We all enjoyed the supper in good mood, laughing, smiling. A grand-uncle (I awfully respect him. He also passed away this summer) ordered me to sing. My selection was “Messenger from Sunday” of the High-Lows, which is Clash-like rock band.  Someone said “Hey, you sing so loud and granma will wake up!” and everyone laughed again.   (*it also reminds me the anime movie “Summer wars” by Mamoru Hosoda.)

Anyway, I think we can say that both Japanese and Mexican people may take (unexpectedly) the concept of death easy, even it is the biggest negative issue in the life.

・”Death” for Europeans

The contrary of Life

I have not considered about European’s feeling of death during my life in Frankfurt, but my friend pointed out interesting thing during the chat in the beginning, said: “Mexican or Japanese way of treating death is somewhat unbelievable in Europe, where people think that death is contrary of life and taken as absolute taboo and untouchable.

Image of skull

For example, this difference can be shown on the description of skull. Typical Mexican skull is always comical and cheerful (as you see above picture) but in Europe, the first thing you can imagine from “dancing skull” is Dance of Death. During 14 century people were in terrific situation, kept dancing desperately due to terror of death from Black Death which killed one – two third of Eurpean population, and also from Hundred Years War in France. (Japanese “Bon dance” is also kind of dance of death, but the context is completely different.. )

16 century pirates’ simbol or EU’s toxic substance simbol are also skull. No funny image is there.

・Briefly speaking about 3 Death

So we looked around Mexican, Japanese and European death and we found a gap between Mexico/Japan and European. My conclusion is that is because of religious background of each place.

Mexico is Catholic country today, but it has strong influence of Aztec solar / universe religion. According to this report (in Japanese, sorry!) Aztec people, famous for their extraordinary ceremony,  considered that they need to “feed” the solar system with human’s life energy(=blood) .  In other words, the concept is that individual life (energy) is to be unified with the universe, so called, a kind of “transmigration”. From this viewpoint, death is not negative but in some sense honorable.

Japanese religious view has been changing in a quite complicated way (I always struggle to explain it when a foreign friend asks me about it..) But if we talk about the concept of death, both buddhism and shintoism has idea of reincarnation. (typical buddhist way of thinking: you should behave so that you can be human in the next life. If not, you can be bug or worm. On the other side, Izanagi, one of the original gods in Japanese myth, go to Hades looking for his wife, as exactly same as Orpheus did, and come back to real world again.)

14 century, during Aztec started having power in middle America and Samurais also started building their unique culture (including unique buddhism sects), Europe was in the middle of desaster. Terror of death and wish for life were extremely high level while your family and friends died day by day. From Christian “straight” viewpoint, in other (very rough) words, you are born, and dead, and arrive at heaven or hell, that is goal and you never come back to this world — therefore “death” means “absolute end”. (reincarnation is allowed only for Jesus. If any normal guys can be reincarnated, Jesus cannot be miracle! :)) If death is an end, we must live as much as we can, and try to avoid death by all means. I imagine that is the way Europeans think.

That’s all!

This post is also available in: Japanese Spanish

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