Japanese Mummies

In Japan, the practice of mummification was an old custom beginning around 774 AD and enduring into the early 20th century. Unlike in the case of the Chinchorro, mummification in Japan was an exclusive practice only performed on certain priests. The only exceptions to this are the mummies of a powerful clan from the 12th century: the Fujiwara family.  The map to the right shows the locations of the 19 mummies still in existence in Japan.  With the exception of the Fujiwara family mummies, all of the Japanese mummies are of Buddhist priests who “achieved mummification through their own volition, even though other priests had to assist the process of transformation,” (Sakurai, 1980, pp. 215). The Japanese priest mummies, also known as the Sokushinbutsu, did not have their internal organs removed when they were mummified. The priests would gradually reduce their intake of

nutrition over a long period of time so that their body’s constitution would be altered in such a way that it would be resilient to decomposition. Thus, the process of mummification actually began during the lives of the priests. When a priest who wanted to achieve mummification died, the body would be interred in an underground stone chamber for 3 years (see left), after which it would be exhumed and dried. After this process, the body would be set out in the temple in which the priest had resided as a shrine to which people could come visit and pray.  Several of the existing mummies have been researched and tested  for the collection of data. The cause of their deaths was starvation caused either by asceticism (a process of self-immolation) or illness caused by asceticism. The brain and viscera of the priests were not removed. They were often mummified in a sitting position with their legs crossed, their backs hunched forward, and their arms bent forward in a gesture of prayer(the image to the right exhibits this bodily position in an X-ray taken of the mummy of Enmyōkai Shōnin).

In one rather poorly preserved mummy, the hands were clasped in a prayer-like gesture and then tied together with string to ensure this position remained permanent (see left). The mummy of Chūkai Shōnin was reinforced with a board to keep it in a sitting position, and the left arm was reinforced with a piece of wood to keep it “forward and holding a bamboo stick,” (Sakurai, 1980, pp. 218). The priest’s clothed body had probably been tied in this position to ensure that it did not collapse forward during the mummification process.

This mummy was partially painted black on its face and lips (see right). The best-preserved example of a  Sokushinbutsu is the mummy of Tetsumonkai

(see left)who died during the course of his ascetics in 1868. He was buried for the three year period, but when he was exhumed the other priests embalmed him; thus, unlike the other priest mummies, Tetsumonkai did have his internal organs removed. His abdomen was packed with lime powder and then sewn up with thread. This mummy has served to prove to scholars that Japanese mummification was, in fact, artificial mummification rather than natural mummification (a debate that had raged for years before the discovery of this mummy).

Unlike with many civilizations that practiced mummification, including the Chinchorro, we know the thought process and beliefs behind the mummification practice. According to Buddhist tradition, Maitreya, the successor of Sakyamuni Buddha, will come to this world exactly 5,670,000,000 years after Sakyamuni’s attainment of Nirvana. Maitreya is responsible for the “salvation of all sentient beings” (Calder, Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures). In order to assist Maitreya in accomplishing this feat, the priests waited for his coming in their earthly form, as preserved mummies.  When viewed in this light, it is almost as though these Japanese priests practiced altruistic suicide. Their death was an excruciatingly long and painful process, the last few years of their life essentially consisting of dehydration and starvation. And although many of these mummies were eventually enshrined and worshiped as gods, it is likely that the priests did this not for themselves but for the other followers of Buddhism. Not only would the priests be available during the coming of Maitreya to help save mankind, but many temples also claimed that the priests believed that their deaths would alleviate the sufferings of the people. Furthermore, this mummification practice was certainly not always successful. The body, buried for over three years before being exhumed for worship, would often deteriorate, indicating that the priest had failed to become Sokushinbutsu. If this were the case, the body would be immediately reburied, and the priest would never be worshiped. This fact further stresses that the priests were not doing this for their own longevity and prospects of being a deity. They apparently truly believed in their altruistic sacrifice.

The Sokushinbutsu monks self-mummified themselves for spiritual reasons: they hoped to achieve enlightenment through the art of mummification. The Buddhist monks underwent the difficult and torturous self-mummification process to become a form of Buddha. If the monk was successfully mummified at the end of the process, he was considered to have reached enlightenment, and placed on display after a three-year burial period. The organs were kept inside the mummy so he would be able to be resurrected when Buddha returned in the far-off future. In a sense, the monk’s bodies are in a process of “sticking around” before the next stage of death. Their process of self-mummification creates a liminal stage between actual death and a return to life.

While we do not have evidence or explanations for the ritual practices of the Chinchorro mummies, we can speculate as to the origins of their mummification process. As we’ve discussed in class, people are mentally and emotionally attached to the land that they live on. The Chinchorro, who lived in an area of stark contrasts, could have noticed that life flourished in the wet marshlands near the shore of the Atacama Desert, and death lorded over the dry region surrounding those small pockets of oasis. In addition, the Pacific Ocean, on which the Chinchorro depended upon for resources, lay just off the coast of the area where they lived. It is possible, but not provable, that the Chinchorro had some sort of symbolic belief in which they linked the wet and dry parts of their bodies to the land. We know that the Chinchorro eventually buried their dried-out mummies in desert cliffs. What we do not know is why. Perhaps the soft tissue of the body that was removed during the mummification process was deposited either in the wetlands or the ocean, while the dry parts of the body were buried in the desert. This could symbolize returning the body to the Earth.

The dark areas in between the mountains and the ocean are wetlands surrounded by desert.


Calder, Angela and Graeme Pretty. 1980. “Mummification in Australia and Melanesia,” in Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures. (U.K.: Cambridge University Press).

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