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The word 生後 means something like "after birth". 明鏡国語辞典 defines it this way:

生まれてから以後。

But 生前 doesn't mean "before birth". Instead, it means something like "before death; while [someone] was still alive". From 明鏡 again:

その人がまだ生きていたとき。死ぬ前。存命中。

In fact, 広辞苑 explicitly says it's the opposite of 死後, not of 生後. I find this a bit counterintuitive!

Is there a reason why people say 生前 with this meaning instead of something like 死前? Is there a way to understand it intuitively, or some sort of etymology that makes it make sense? My dictionaries don't explain why 生 + 前 has the meaning 死ぬ前.

Or is it one of those things I should just memorize, perhaps?

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I also find this confusing; I think this has a Buddhist origin. –  virmaior Jun 26 at 22:37

2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

There seems to be two prevailing explanations about this.

① 生 in 生前 is in fact 死, in Buddism

In Japanese there is a word 往生【おうじょう】, which apparently means "to go alive" but actually means "to die". This is based on the idea of 輪廻転生【りんねてんせい】 (cycle of existence) in Buddism, and "往生" can be interpreted as "to go to the next existence / the second life." So 生前 also is "before he goes to the second life", hence "before death."

The weakness of this explanation is that I feel "生前" is not a Buddism-origin word at all. It also fails to explain why "死後" is not "生後" then, anyway.

② This 前 means "before now"

生前 has a special nuance which makes it not interchangeable with 死ぬ前 in certain cases. Note "まだ" and "生きていた" (past tense) in the dictionary definition.

Basically, 生前 is only used after someone's death, by people who know he's already dead. If you want to say "I want to do X before I die", you have to say "死ぬ前にXしたい" . If you say "私は生前にXしたい", people will laugh at you saying "まるでもう死んだみたい."

So 生前 should be interpreted not as "before death" but as "before (now), when (he was still) alive".

By contrast, 死後 can be used before he dies, and refer to something both in the past and in the future. (cf. 「死後の世界はどんなものだろう?」) As far as I know, "生後" has no such requirements, either.

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As to "why 「死後」 is not 「生後」", it's interesting that, according to this source, in ancient Chinese 「生後」 was used to mean 「死後」. Although it seems that it's another euphemism, i.e. 「身后」, that was more widely used and still retain its vitality in modern Chinese. –  Noir Jun 27 at 1:07
    
It seems that 「生前」 can be used before someone's death in some cases, e.g. 『「生前予約」は、葬儀や供養に意思を反映したい、残された遺族に負担をかけたくない方などに、本人が生前のうちに自分の葬儀について葬儀社を選び...』(Sourc‌​e). The very reason why 「私は生前にXしたい」 sounds weird may be that it's applying an euphemism to oneself. –  Noir Jun 27 at 1:31
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Yes "生前予約" or even "生前葬" exist, but I think they are possible because they are normally done after death. Generally you can't use "生前に" in articles like this. –  naruto Jun 27 at 1:49

In a Buddhist worldview, birth and death are two sides of the same coin:

enter image description here

Birth and death form the cycle on the left. To escape the cycle you need a special birth, i.e.「往生」, which lead you to "the land of Perfect Bliss".

On the other hand, in order to be polite to the 「死者{ししゃ}」 and his/her relatives, people tend not to directly use 「死」 to refer to his/her death. That's when the worldview above comes in handy.

A reference, in which a relevant article in Asahi Shimbun was quoted.

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