Household Altars in Contemporary Japan

Integrated butsudan

Integrated butsudan

Since this blog was created with the intention of addressing the weird and the wonderful in both anthropology and religion I’ve decided it would be a good idea to start producing reviews of interesting research.

My areas of ‘expertise’ are in the literature from the academic ‘study of religions’ and from anthropological studies (i.e. ethnographies) focusing on religion & East Asia so you can expect most of the material for these reviews to be drawn from those sources.

Now, to get things rolling, the first article I’m going to examine is a recently published article by John K. Nelson, a scholar specialising in Japanese religion, examining how the marketing of household altars in Japan reflects the changing attitudes towards spirituality and religion found in modern day Japan. The article is titled ‘Household Altars in Contemporary Japan: Rectifying Buddhist “Ancestor Worship” with Home Decor and Consumer Choice’ and was published in 2008 in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (incidentally, for anyone interested, the article can be viewed online, for free, here).

Household altars were, until relatively recently, ubiquitous throughout Japan. Today, they are still found quite widely, especially in rural areas, but in urban centres they have become less common and less important, with many families only keeping altars in their traditional households in the countryside.  The three most common altars in Japan are the Shinto kamidana 神棚, the Buddhist butsudan 仏壇 and the non-specific tamadana 魂棚 (spirit shelf). These altars serve overlapping functions and are often found together, with one or two missing or occasionally combined. A generalised summary of their differences would be: kamidana are for venerating Shinto kamis and the Imperial family, tamadana are for venerating regional household spirits and butsudan are for venerating the Buddha, Buddhist deities and the family ancestors. It would be fair to say however, that the most common function that all types of household altar serve are as ritual areas where ancestors can be venerated. 

Nelson’s article focuses specifically on butsudans and in particular, on a modern altar producing company called Yagiken, who entered the butsudan market in the 1970’s. Yagiken are quite an idiosyncratic company and produce what they call ‘Contemporary Buddhist Altars’ (gendai butsudan 現代仏壇). What makes them different from typical butsudan producers is that rather than focusing on ‘tradition’ or specific religious affiliation they have sought to cater to modern aesthetic and spiritual trends- most prominent amongst those living in urban centres. As Nelson rather poetically puts it:

Unhindered by guidelines imposed by the various Buddhist denominations on how to commemorate departed spirits at the family altar, a company such as Yagiken is like a nimble sailing vessel that can gauge the prevailing winds of society and respond almost immediately with concepts and products that resonate with today’s consumer. 

Some specific design innovations that Yagiken have developed illustrate this point quite clearly. For instance, unlike typical butsudans, Yagiken butsudans are not created to cater for any specific Buddhist sects, instead, they are universal in their design. Nelson described how this could potentially lead to issues during memorial services if a priest from the families traditional sect comes to perform memorial rituals. However, he also recounted that in interviews with priests from a variety of traditional sects that when shown the Yagiken altars they all professed that they had no problem with the contemporary design if it encouraged more families to honour their dead.


Contemporary butsudan

Contemporary butsudan

Yagiken’s universal altars also appeal to an atmosphere in Japan that post-State Shinto, post-Aum Shinrikyo (the religious group responsible for the Tokyo gas attacks in 1995) and post 9-11 is increasingly critical of organised religion. As Mr. Ueda, Yagiken’s chief strategist of the past 8 years, explained to Nelson Yagiken’s approach is to stress individualism and personal preference over sectarian or religious requirements.

Another of Yagiken’s innovations has been to actively promote transnational links, with subcontractors in Denmark and Italy producing butsudans actively marketed as being stylish Danish or Italian models. Nelson reports that this is particularly since there is a current ongoing controversy, among traditional butsudan retailers, over how cheaper altars made and imported from China are hurting the traditional craft in Japan. On top of it’s Italian and Danish links, Yagiken also opened, in 2005, a salesroom/art gallery in lower Manhattan, which by 2007 had only managed to sell 2 altars (the website for the store can be found here). The Manhattan store may not be the most successful business venture but what it does highlight is Yagiken’s desire to be seen as a company promoting a universal message- a message it summarises as ‘kuyo is love’- which it’s executives say was the main purpose for opening the Manhattan store.

Kuyo 供養, which, very broadly, can be defined as the veneration of something that has depleted its life essence, is the concept which the company chose to elevate to it’s central guiding principle. Yagiken has hopes that eventually the word kuyo will be as well known internationally as other Japanese words such as sushi and sumo. Somewhat dashing these hopes is an article written about the Manhattan store in New York Magazine with the rather telling title “Ancestor-Worship Chic: Do cramped New Yorkers want the spirits of their departed forebears as roommates?”.

Whether or not the message travels well internationally, Yagiken’s increasing sales revenue in Japan seems to suggest that it’s struck a chord with certain segments of the population there and this is the overall message of Nelson’s article. The significance placed on ancestor veneration in Japan is difficult to over estimate and yet it’s certainly not one of the features of religion in Japan that has received much attention in the West- meditation & Zen monks being more the typical image. Nelson’s article thus provides a valuable perspective on one aspect of how ‘religion’ is actually practiced in Japan and on top of this it also highlights the power that things like marketing and consumer demand has to transform religious tradition. Nelson also provides an excellent summary of how the tradition of household altars began in Japan and promises to provide a more detailed account in an upcoming article. From the brief summary provides it actually seems to be a much more interesting topic than you might think.

Despite raising alot of pertinent issues one drawback with Nelson’s article which he only somewhat acknowledges is that Yagiken is a relatively minor player in the butsudan market and it’s unusual perspective is not shared by the majority of larger and more succesfull butsudan retailers. Which means that placing too much emphasis on it’s innovations may actually lead to misrepresenting the general attitudes of the public at large. Nelson’s point that the larger retailers are facing a decrease in sales while Yagiken continues to grow is one possible response to this criticism however another explanation of this might be that Yagiken is exploiting a niche and simply hasn’t felt the effect yet of the overall market slump. 

This is a minor quibble however and overall Nelson’s points are well argued and well illustrated. An interesting set of studies that this article complements are those addressing the modern rituals performed at Buddhist temples for aborted babies (mizuko kuyo) which likewise highlight the role that economics and modern lifestyles and values can have in creating and transforming religious practice.

To conclude I thought I’d quote an amusing advert that Yagiken aired in 1997 as described by Nelson, I somehow can’t imagine something similar appearing on UK television:

Two elderly male and two female ‘ghosts’ float around the stylish interior of a contemporary home. As the four ghosts observe a cute little girl sitting respectfully with hands folded together in front of a Yagiken altar, a silver-haired male ghost begins to act proudly… With it’s contemporary design, craftsmanship, and quality, the altar glows brighter than the other pieces of furniture. The little girl then speaks to the photo on the altar, “Aren’t you happy, Grandpa?”. As the beaming ghost swells with pride an older female ghost sighs wistfully, “Ah, I’m envious!”.



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