Differences in Belief in Life After Death

In the interviews conducted for his book, Gordon Mathews discovered that people from the US, Japan, and China hold diverse beliefs concerning life after death. Among these three, it became evident that Japanese individuals were more receptive to this concept.

How people accept the idea of life after death

Nick: I'll share some of the questions you asked your interviewees. And these could be questions people could reflect on later:

  • If you died right now, what do you think would happen to you?
  • What do you think happens to you after you die? And how certain are you of this?
  • How often do you think about what might happen to you after you die?
  • If you believe that there's no life after death, what do you think will be left of your existence after you die?
  • What, if anything, do you think may last beyond your time on Earth?

So pretty deep and profound questions, people might need time to reflect on this. So when you prepared your interviews, did you give people like a heads up and say, ‘Look, we're going to be having these deep and meaningful discussions.’ Did you give them time to consider these things? Or did you just talk about it on the spot?

Gordon: I didn't, I just talk about it on the spot, and people do want to talk about this. Now, the three societies I looked at are quite different. China is most interesting in the sense of so many people are afraid of death. And so when my student, Yang Yang, would ask somebody, could we interview you but life after death? ‘No, God, no! Think about a more positive topic.’

Japan was the opposite. Everybody wanted to talk about this. A couple of times, I had the experience of interviewing one person, like in a bar, for example, and then a total stranger would walk up and say, ‘Wow, this is really interesting. Can you talk to me, too?’

All kinds of people would talk about this. I've got to tell the story here; this makes your sequence of of questions, probably screws it up, but it's such a good story. I remember being at a bar in Sapporo, Japan, and I was talking to somebody and then it must have been after midnight, a really drunken young man came up to me and said, ‘You see that woman over there? She's my mistress. But I can't take her home. I can't take her home and go to bed with her.’ And I said, ‘Well, why? Are you afraid of your wife?’

‘Oh, no, my wife lives in a different city, I'm afraid of my grandfather.’ And then he pulled out a watch and said, ‘My grandfather lives in this watch. And he would see everything I'm doing, and I just can't do it.’

And life after death truly has a big effect and how this guy is living his life. He was a graduate student in science, but it didn't matter. This was something that was pretty important in how he lived. And this is true for an awful lot of people I talked to in all three societies, that they do have this notion.

Now one key element of the larger picture here is that it used to be back 300 years ago, most people knew what other people in their society believed about life after death, you had these collective faiths. And in the US, it might have been belief in the Christian God or in God. In Japan, probably ancestor veneration, may be coupled with Buddhism. And they're different in some sense, but some combination of those two,

In China, too, probably reincarnation, maybe ghosts, but people had a common belief. Today, it's not common anymore. And you might not know what your own neighbors or friends even think happens to them after they die. So you may think about it, but it's a much more private matter. And it makes it very interesting to go into.

People do want to talk about it very often because they have these ideas, but it's not really socially acceptable to go into this a whole lot. People normally don't talk about it, yet, people do want to talk about it.