Forefront of research Hiroo Sato

Professor Hiroo Sato, Department of History of Japanese Thought
Made “Where Do the Dead Go?” public (March 2008)

When did the Japanese people conceive their ideas for “views of life and death” and “recognition of death?”

For conventional theories, we may often ask fundamental questions such as, “Is it true?” or “When did the theory start and how did it come about?” We want to know the answers to such questions as, “When and how did human beings come to have cognitive powers?” “When and how did the Japanese people come to speak Japanese?” “How did the Japanese people become Japanese?” and, “When did people come to recognize the difference between life and death?”

His book “Where Do the Dead Go?” which was published in March 2008 by Iwata Shoin, answers such great questions as, “How have the Japanese people accepted death and how have they treated the dead?” “Has the present-day custom of periodical visits to our ancestors’ graves been common throughout the Japanese archipelago?” and How does the Buddhist doctrine of “Human beings going to another world after death” merge with the ideas held before Buddhism was introduced and accepted in Japan.

“Where Do the Dead Go?” with such themes is latest book written by Hiroo Sato, Professor of History of Japanese Thought in Tohoku University, Graduate School of Arts and Letters. The body text is 227 pages in A5 size. There are citations and bibliography used of 19 pages.

The Prologue has the following passage with the subtitle “Philosophy of Death and Culture.”

Human beings must all die. There are no exceptions.

Although death is a phenomenon that nobody alive in this world has experienced, even those of us who have not experienced death can imagine the fear of our own existence being completely erased
from this world. In an instant, death robs us of all human relationships, social status, honor, and property in this world, which people have assiduously built. People have to set foot in the dark world of death alone, losing all that they had in this world. No one can accompany the dead.

The form of a corpse as it decomposes in a grave or even on a roadside, would make the negative image of death much more realistic, and stoke our fear. In fact, death is man’s most fundamental fear.

Throughout history, countless people have wished for eternal youth and longevity using whatever method they could. Moreover, many thinkers and philosophers have confronted the question of death, and pondered the question many times. Buddhism thinks of death as one of the four kinds of suffering (others are birth, old age, and disease) that man must shoulder. When looking at all the religions in the world, there is no religion that does not talk about death. Moreover, death often serves as a motif for creating art and culture in every ethnic group in the world.

Since death is a universal phenomenon that goes beyond an individual, race or nation, it was a good subject for comparative culture and comparative thought in modern learning. Death is a universal theme in various fields, such as folklore, philosophy, literature, art history, history, cultural anthropology and religion, and there is a tremendous amount of material written about it.

The passage subtitled “the Dead Who Communicate with the Living” follows:

In this book, I consider how death has been dealt with in Japan as based on the results and achievements of past research. I did not select a single prominent thinker and reconstruct his/her view of life and death, or enumerate the writings representing during each period of history as death was discussed. This book does not aim at describing a specific intellectual’s view of life and death. This book aims to clarify the idea of death, which people in every period of history share.

How do most people in Japan consider the subject of death and the dead? How have their views changed with the different periods of history? The book aims at clarifying such questions from a comprehensive world view. A systematized view of life and death as conceived by leading thinkers is incorporated into the thinking of the different eras, and this makes it possible to finally understand
the meaning of death.