japanese kanji for death

What Is Japanese Kanji For Death?

Jun 05, 2024Shopify API

What is the Japanese kanji for death? Read on to find out! 

The Japanese writing system is renowned for its complex characters known as kanji, which are logographic symbols borrowed from Chinese characters. 

Each kanji represents a specific concept or idea, making it a fascinating area of study for linguists, historians, and enthusiasts alike. 

One kanji that holds particular intrigue is the character for "death." In this article, we will delve into the Japanese kanji for death, its symbolic representation, cultural significance, and how it is perceived in modern Japanese society.

apanese Kanji For Death

Japanese Kanji For Death

The Kanji for Death: 死 (Shi)

The kanji for death in Japanese is 死, pronounced as "shi." This kanji consists of two radical components. The top part represents a roof or a shelter, while the bottom part signifies a person lying down. 

When combined, these radicals convey the concept of "death" as a person lying under a shelter, implying the end of life and the finality of human existence.

亡 (mou or bou)

The kanji 亡 represents the idea of "deceased" or "to die." It consists of two elements: 人 (person) on the left side and 勿 (negative) on the right side. The combination of these elements suggests the absence or loss of a person, signifying death.

While 死 (shi) is the more frequently used kanji for death, 亡 (mou or bou) can also be seen in certain contexts, such as in words like 亡くなる (nakunaru), meaning "to pass away" or "to die," and 亡霊 (boure), which refers to "ghost" or "spirit of the dead."

It's worth noting that both 死 and 亡 are kanji with distinct meanings related to death, and their usage may vary depending on the context and preference of the writer or speaker.

Symbolism and Cultural Significance Of 死 :

The kanji 死 carries significant symbolic weight in Japanese culture. It is important to note that death itself is a sensitive subject in Japanese society and is often associated with solemnity, respect, and spirituality. 

Consequently, the kanji for death is approached with caution and respect, especially in traditional contexts.

One reason for this reverence is the influence of Buddhism, which has shaped Japanese cultural beliefs and practices for centuries. Buddhism emphasizes the transience and impermanence of life, and death is seen as a natural part of the cycle of existence. 

Consequently, the kanji for death, 死, is deeply entwined with Buddhist rituals and funerary traditions.

The cultural significance of the kanji 死 extends beyond religious contexts. It is commonly believed that the pronunciation of 死 as "shi" contributes to its somewhat taboo nature in Japanese society.

In the Japanese language, the word "shi" (死) meaning death shares the same pronunciation with the word "shi" (四), which means the number four.

This linguistic homonym has led to a cultural superstition known as "shi no ko-shin" or "the avoidance of the number four."

In many Japanese hospitals, hotel rooms, or residential buildings, the number four is often omitted, similar to the Western avoidance of the number thirteen. 

This practice stems from the desire to avoid any association with death, as the pronunciation of both "shi" (four) and "shi" (death) is the same. Instead of the number four, the term "yon" (四) is used as a substitute.

Modern Perceptions and Contemporary Usage

While the kanji 死 continues to carry deep cultural and symbolic significance, it is essential to understand that perceptions of death in modern Japanese society have evolved. 

With increased globalization and exposure to different cultures, the once taboo subject is now becoming more openly discussed.

In contemporary Japan, the kanji for death is still used in various contexts, including funeral rites, tombstones, and literature. 

However, it is also important to note that alternative, less direct expressions are sometimes used to convey the concept of death, particularly in more delicate or informal settings.


The Japanese kanji for death, 死, carries rich symbolism and cultural significance deeply rooted in Japan's history, spirituality, and social norms. It represents the delicate balance between life and death and reflects the influence of Buddhism and traditional practices. 

While perceptions of death have gradually shifted in modern Japanese society, the kanji 死 continues to evoke a sense of respect, solemnity, and caution. 

Exploring the intricacies of kanji, such as 死, allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural tapestry and linguistic nuances of Japan.

Japanese Kanji For Death: FAQs

What is the kanji symbol for death?

There are two Japanese kanji that can be used to mean "death": 死 (shi) and 亡 (bō).

  • 死 (shi) is the most common kanji for death. It is used in a variety of contexts, including to refer to the act of dying, the state of being dead, and the deceased.
  • 亡 (bō) is less common than 死 (shi). It is often used in more formal contexts, such as in obituaries or funeral services.

Why are there two kanji for death?

There are two kanji for death in Japanese because the concept of death has been interpreted in different ways over time. The kanji 死 (shi) is the older of the two, and it is thought to have originated in China. 

It is a pictogram that combines the elements for "person" and "bone," which suggests that the original meaning of the kanji was "to die."

The kanji 亡 (bō) is a newer kanji, and it is thought to have originated in Japan. It is an ideogram that suggests the idea of "fading away."

In modern Japanese, the kanji 死 (shi) is the most common kanji for death. It is used in a variety of contexts, including to refer to the act of dying, the state of being dead, and the deceased.

The kanji 亡 (bō) is less common than 死 (shi). It is often used in more formal contexts, such as in obituaries or funeral services.

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