Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Household Altars in Contemporary Japan: Rectifying Buddhist "Ancestor Worship" with Home Décor and Consumer Choice

Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Household Altars in Contemporary Japan: Rectifying Buddhist "Ancestor Worship" with Home Décor and Consumer Choice

Article excerpt

In Japan, where organized religion is increasingly viewed with a critical eye, one of the country's most enduring social and religious traditions-commemorating ancestral spirits-is undergoing rapid change. The highly competitive market for household altars is the source of innovative and sometimes radical concepts that represent a paradigm shift in how families and individuals should interact with ancestral spirits. No longer catering to guidelines from mainstream Buddhist denominations about altar style and function, companies building and marketing contemporary altars (gendai butsudan) present a highly-refined product that not only harmonizes with modern interior designs but also emphasizes individual preferences and spirituality in how the altar is conceptualized and used. Based on ethnographic fieldwork, this paper will demonstrate how some of the products, marketing strategies, and key players in this multi-billion yen industry help shape fundamental ideas of religious and ritual practice in contemporary Japanese society.

Keywords: Household altar - butsudan - ancestor worship - spirituality - kuyo

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

AS THE JAPANESE economy continues to recover from its long recession, one of its largest consumer markets-the sale of household Buddhist altars (butsudan ...) -is expected to reach around 175,000,000,000 yen (Kobori 2007).1 While an impressive amount of money, can this figure be equated in any way with the extent or depth of Buddhist practice and belief in Japan? By looking at recent innovations, new concepts, and changing consumer preferences that have little to do with established Buddhist denominations, this paper will try and complicate easy assumptions about the role and utility of household altars in present-day Japan.

In most retail markets, supply and demand is determined by variables such as consumer confidence, advertising, product familiarity, government regulations, and so on. The market for household altars takes on additional, rather convoluted dynamics. On the one hand, it is characterized and dominated by the predictable factors mentioned above. But it is also shaped in decisive ways through religious traditions, temple affiliations, contemporary news events, and individual beliefs. The sale of butsudan is also influenced by aesthetic notions about style and interior design, by individualistic preferences and consumer psychology, and by the power of advertising to synthesize these traditions and inclinations into a unique and easily-recognized product.

The following discussion introduces the marketing strategies and concepts behind one of Japan's most innovative producers and distributors of contemporary household altars. With fifty-four franchise outlets throughout the country, eight showrooms in major urban centers, and a catalog of over one hundred and fifty different styles, the Yagiken corporation ... epitomizes evolving notions of religious practice that complement rather than hold sway over emerging lifestyle choices. Their catalogs, website pages, and salespeople educate consumers about the memorialization of ancestors and relatives in ways that depart from established religious practice and progress towards a more individualized, expressive, and eclectic spirituality. In fact, though the company uses the generic term butsudan to describe what they sell, we will see how the concept takes on new and surprising referents. Similar to telephones, bicycles, or homes, the correspondence between the word and what it actually signifies may not be readily apparent at first glance.

It is common in the West to associate the tradition of Buddhism with meditation and enlightenment, and to project these assumptions on various regions of the world that are seen as traditionally "Buddhist." However, as many scholars and commentators have pointed out, this stereotype obscures a longstanding emphasis throughout East Asian Buddhism on venerating one's ancestors and petitioning their spirits (as well as those of familiar Buddhist bodhisattvas) for health, prosperity, and safety. …

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