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Bonds of the Dead: Temples, Burial, and the Transformation of Contemporary Japanese Buddhism

Bonds of the Dead: Temples, Burial, and the Transformation of Contemporary Japanese Buddhism

by Mark Michael Rowe

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Despite popular images of priests seeking enlightenment in snow-covered mountain temples, the central concern of Japanese Buddhism is death. For that reason, Japanese Buddhism’s social and economic base has long been in mortuary services—a base now threatened by public debate over the status, treatment, and location of the dead. Bonds of the Dead


Despite popular images of priests seeking enlightenment in snow-covered mountain temples, the central concern of Japanese Buddhism is death. For that reason, Japanese Buddhism’s social and economic base has long been in mortuary services—a base now threatened by public debate over the status, treatment, and location of the dead. Bonds of the Dead explores the crisis brought on by this debate and investigates what changing burial forms reveal about the ways temple Buddhism is perceived and propagated in contemporary Japan.

Mark Rowe offers a crucial account of how religious, political, social, and economic forces in the twentieth century led to the emergence of new funerary practices in Japan and how, as a result, the care of the dead has become the most fundamental challenge to the continued existence of Japanese temple Buddhism. Far from marking the death of Buddhism in Japan, Rowe argues, funerary Buddhism reveals the tradition at its most vibrant. Combining ethnographic research with doctrinal considerations, this is a fascinating book for anyone interested in Japanese society and religion.

Editorial Reviews

“This is a very readable account of how religious, political, social, and economic forces have placed Buddhist tradition at the center of Japanese funerary practices. It offers valuable insights into Buddhism’s relevance to contemporary Japanese people in general.”
William Kelly
Bonds of the Dead is an intriguing and impressive work of social analysis that helps us understand the current state of religious practice and spiritual concern in Japan. It makes us think not only about how these Buddhist practices are responding to changes in Japanese society but about how they are helping to constitute those changes. Rowe succeeds in triangulating field observations and interviews with textual analysis, and he uses his time in Niigata, Tokyo, and elsewhere to situate his analysis of these movements in convincing detail. An appealing, instructive, and entertaining book.”

Helen Hardacre
“Reading this book, I came away with renewed admiration for Rowe’s skills as an interviewer and as an analyst of contemporary developments in Japanese Buddhism. Bonds of the Dead will be widely recognized as setting a new standard in studies of contemporary Japanese religious life.”

William Bodiford, UCLA - William Bodiford
Bonds of the Dead contains a wealth of fascinating information that reminds us that human societies rely on religion to confront the insurmountable problem of death. Rowe’s first-person perspective allows the reader to gain insights into how ordinary people approach Buddhist temples and how ordinary priests attempt to serve them, and he writes in a breezy and entertaining manner that is accessible to a broad audience of people interested in contemporary Japanese society and religion.”

Journal of Buddhist Ethics
“This book provides a wealth of ethnographic material on the transformation of contemporary burial forms accompanied by insightful commentary that looks beneath the novelty of eternal memorial graves to identify important changes and continuities in contemporary Japanese Buddhism.”
“The tone is lively, the style elegant, the arguments are well made. . . this is on the whole a very convincing, successful, and most pleasurable book indeed.”
Religion Watch
“This book reminds us that death has more meanings to the living than the dead, and thus mortuary practices are closely related to changes in society. This book serves as a significant contribution to the understanding of what Rowe calls the ‘post-danka era’ of Japanese mortuary practices.”
Japanese Journal of Religious Studies
“Rowe’s skillful consolidation of Japanese and English scholarship, years of fieldwork, and thought-provoking analysis has set a high standard for works on contemporary Japanese Buddhism.”
Monumenta Nipponica
“Mark Michael Rowe . . . engaged in intensive fieldwork in various parts of Japan. Drawing on this research, he has crafted an insightful analysis full of interesting observations. . . . Bonds of the Dead is an innovative study of funerary Buddhism in Japan deserving of attention from scholars both here and abroad.”
Journal of Japanese Studies
“Rowe succeeds impressively in presenting an insightful and compelling account of important developments that illuminate and foster a greater appreciation for the role that funerary Buddhism continues to play in contemporary Japanese society.”
Social Science Japan Journal
“The problem with an exclusive focus on doctrine emanating from the leadership is that it only offers us one side of the conversation. Rowe, by adopting an ethnographic approach, has given us a compelling glimpse into the other side.”
Journal of Religion in Japan
 “A work that is as compassionate and eloquent as it is astute.”
Journal of Asian Studies
“Mark Rowe has provided us with a rich and insightful critical inquiry into one of the most common assumptions about contemporary Japanese Buddhism, namely, that it is a ‘funerary religion’ and that this fact is inextricably tied to its long-standing decline. His innovative analysis of recent to current developments is based upon almost a decade of fieldwork and study pertaining to innovations in Buddhist and non-Buddhist funerary ‘technology.’ . . . Rowe’s book deserves to be read and discussed widely by scholars and students of Japanese and comparative religion.”

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Buddhism and Modernity Series
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt


Temples, Burial, and the Transformation of Contemporary Japanese Buddhism


Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-73015-8

Chapter One

The "Death" of Japanese Buddhism

What meaning does a temple hold for people? What meaning does a temple hold for priests? —Nichiren sect booklet

In the early 1980s, researchers at the Nichiren Buddhism Modern Religious Institute ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Nichirenshu Gendai Shukyo Kenkyujo) undertook a project to explore troubles facing temples in depopulated areas. The project team visited temples across the country and conducted detailed studies of ten geographic regions. Initial reports were published in the center's journal, but as the researchers were keenly aware, this did not mean that anyone would read them. A simplified version of their findings was printed in the form of a booklet for all Nichiren temples, and the booklet soon spread beyond the sect with requests for extra copies coming from other Buddhist groups and the Ministry of Culture (Nichirenshu Gendai Shukyo Kenkyujo 1989). Though generally approving of the research, Nichiren leaders complained that sharing it outside the sect amounted to airing dirty laundry.

The booklet itself, though academic in approach and tone, was intended to be provocative. Its layout hints at a kind of discourse outside the usually conservative writing of the research center, with the cover page almost screaming the title: "Do you know what's going on at temples in depopulated regions?" in a large, tabloid-style font. Opening the booklet, the reader is immediately confronted with the following question: "Are temples becoming extinct?" with "extinct" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] hokai) suggesting both the physical collapse of individual temples and the general disintegration of the entire temple system.

The introduction, arranged like a poem in short, one-line sentences and written by then head of the research center, Akahori Shomei ????, is translated here in full because it so clearly introduces the central themes of this chapter.

    Are temples becoming extinct?
    A temple has been left behind.
    Deep in the mountains at the end of a winding road stands a temple
      with a small thatched roof.
    Three years ago, the old priest passed away and now there is no one
    When someone dies, the priest from the next village will come and
      chant sutras.
    Until the postwar land reforms, a few acres of rice fields provided for
      the land tax.
    Even after that, the villagers would offer enough to the Buddha for the
      priest to live on.
    After the war, the young people gradually left for the cities.
    Only old people remained in the village.
    Even now, with no priest, they gather once a month at the temple to
      continue the "Confraternity of the Lotus Sutra."
    Two years ago, the temple living quarters collapsed from rot.
    The pillars in the temple are warped, and the screens do not fully open.
    No repairs can save it now.
    Years from now, perhaps all that will recall the history of this place
      will be overgrown graves.
    What meaning does a temple hold for people?
    What meaning does a temple hold for priests?
    What meaning did a temple hold for Sakyamuni and Nichiren?
    Originally for Sakyamuni, a temple was a monastery ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] shoja) where
      the dharma was taught and where disciples were trained.
    A temple is a place where people pursue the Buddha's teachings.
    Nichiren Shonin said, "Since the Dharma is sacred, the person [who
      pursues/upholds it] is noble. Since the person is noble, the place
      [where that person pursues the Dharma] is sacred."
    The abode of those who study the Lotus Sutra is pure, and it is taught
      that those who gather there are also purified.
    This is the meaning of a temple.
    And so we will ask again, why was this temple built here?
    Is it simply that a building, which happened to be a temple, grew old
      and decrepit?
    Is it that there were no longer kind-hearted people to take care of it?
    Is this temple today no longer of any use?
    In a changing world, was the temple unable to keep up?
    Was it a problem not with the temple itself, but rather with the priest?
    We want to know who or what did this.
    We fear that if we cannot find out, we will no longer be able to speak of
      the future of the Nichiren sect.

This small, dilapidated temple vividly captures the issues confronting Contemporary temples and their organizations: rural temples abandoned for lack of a successor or maintained only through irregular visits by a priest from a neighboring village, loss of temple income and support since the redistribution of temple land in postwar land reforms, and a parishioner base diminished by age and rural depopulation.

Equally significant, however, are the more abstract questions posed in this passage that relate to the deeper meaning of temples in contemporary Japan. How do temples get left behind? What exactly is the role of a temple, or Buddhism for that matter, in a rapidly modernizing world? Although the passage speaks of the purificatory power of the Lotus Sutra as the "meaning of a temple," it is the wretched image of a temple graveyard overrun with weeds that both reminds us of the central place of death and burial to the continued existence of Japanese temples and hints at a potentially bleak future for Buddhist sects. The "death" of Buddhism thus covers three related connotations: the fundamental and long-standing relationship between Buddhist temples and death rites, the negative perceptions of this funerary Buddhism, and, finally, the fear, expressed so plainly in the introduction to this pamphlet, that the tradition may not merely be dying but may be going extinct.

The goal of this chapter is to trace the main historical circumstances—from the Tokugawa period (1603–1867) up to the present day—that have led to this dire assessment of Japanese Buddhism. What factors gave rise to funerary Buddhism? How have critiques of funerary excess and Buddhism evolved over time? How did the professional funeral industry grow to be so powerful? How has the encounter with Western modernity transformed Japanese Buddhism? The answers to these questions will provide important background for what follows in later chapters.

Much of this historical overview focuses less on the explicitly "Buddhist" aspect of mortuary practices than on the social, economic, and legal developments that have had the greatest impact on temples. My intention here is not simply to decenter Buddhist sectarian or doctrinal history but rather to consider equally relevant forces such as changes in the civil code, postwar land reforms, new family structures, and the perennial desire for social status. I am particularly interested here in demonstrating the ways in which funerary ritual and graves act as important sites of status and control, be it social, economic, legal, or cultural. Furthermore, as I hope to show both here and throughout this book, not only are graves and funerals reflective of the status quo, of social norms, and of various technologies of control, but they are also sites where people challenge those norms and test the limits of that control.


Although Buddhist mortuary rites had been performed in Japan since the early eighth century, it was the changes in the Tokugawa period that brought families, temples, and death together in the way that we see them today. Ironically, it was the introduction of another religion, and the subsequent reactions to it in the seventeenth century, that began the process.

Beginning in 1613 with bans on Jesuit padres and gradually expanding to include all Christians, a progressively more pervasive system of investigation, rewards for information, and certification served not only to increase the shogunate's reach but also to establish the role of temples in matters of local governance. A key element of the shogunate's anti-Christian campaign involved employing local temples to essentially monitor the populace. Under the temple certification system ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] terauke seido), each household had to receive proof every year from its temple that it was not Christian. Anyone branded a Christian faced a gruesome death. With the spread of this system in the second half of the seventeenth century, the relationship between temples and commoners became decidedly more coercive. Ostensibly implemented to counter the perceived threat of Christianity, this policy transformed temples and priests into organs of the state, giving them an inordinate amount of control over the lives of their parishioners, who were beholden to local priests for certifying them as non-Christian.

As several scholars have shown, temples were not shy about using their position as identifiers of heterodoxy to build and maintain temple membership. The bond between the local populace and temples thus became formalized into the so-called parishioner system (danka seido). Though the danka system did not constitute official government policy, the Buddhist sects attempted to make it appear as such, locking the populace into a multigenerational, obligatory relationship with temples. Parishioners were expected to provide financial support for temple construction and repairs, as well as to hold all funerals and memorial services at their home temples. Temples were so successful in their efforts that the danka system would go on to define the relationship between the Japanese and temples right up to the present day.

The emergence of the parishioner system in the Tokugawa period, especially with the spread of the temple certification program, also had considerable impact on how the dead were buried. While previous generations of commoners would have built communal monuments, in the seventeenth century we begin to see stones dedicated to individuals and couples. In the centuries that followed, these graves expanded to include families. Tokugawa period grave excavations reveal a significant mid-eighteenth-century surge in family-centered graves in Edo and surrounding areas. These new styles of gravestones "represent the heightening of a family-centered consciousness—a shift in thinking in which the modern extended family (ie) became the central unit of society, and for which memorial services for the dead became prevalent" (Tanigawa 1992, 288–89).

By the end of the Tokugawa period, several historical trends had coalesced to provide the first foundations of the modern relationship between temples and households, namely, Buddhist funerals and memorial rites for all levels of society, grave sites for the general populace, and an emerging ideal of the extended-family household.

Graves and the IE System

The transition to the modern period was not a smooth one for the Buddhist sects. Beginning in 1868, a series of separation edicts ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] shinbutsu bunrirei) attempted to disassociate all aspects of Buddhism from Shinto shrines and worship in order to advance Shinto as the state creed. The resulting suppression of Buddhism ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] haibutsu kishaku) entailed the destruction of tens of thousands of temples, the laicization of thousands of priests and nuns, and the loss of countless objects of Buddhist art. So devastating and widespread was this disassociation, that it has been compared to China's cultural revolution (Grapard 1984). Once Shinto was "purified" of Buddhist accretions, it could be put to work.

To further integrate Shinto into people's lives, the government shifted various ritual and bureaucratic responsibilities from temples to shrines. For example, it mandated household registration at Shinto shrines ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] uji aratame), criminalized cremation (seen as a Buddhist practice), and took steps from 1872 to pave the way for Shinto funerals. But Buddhist mortuary rites could not be simply legislated away, and the ban on cremation was lifted after two years (in 1875). Only a few years later, in 1882, Shinto priests would in turn be banned from officiating funerals.

Other attempts at social engineering in Meiji had similarly mixed results. The family registration law ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] jinshin koseki), which took effect in 1872, officially abolished temple certification and thus moved families outside the reach of temple control. Subsequent legal changes, however, transformed the very nature of families in ways that would bind them to temples across generations. In 1898, with the promulgation of the Meiji Civil Code ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] minpo), the extended Japanese household, or ie, was codified as law. This law was intended to project and maintain an elite, idealized vision of family that, though based on actual family structures dating back to the late Tokugawa period, was quite alien to most Japanese (White 2002, 8). In addition to acting on families locally, the extended-family ideal was to act nationally to help form the basis of a family state with the Emperor as the symbolic father. This family ideology, premised on a hierarchical Confucian model, was part of a broader attempt to create a unique Japanese culture that could stand up to the pressures of modernization and state formation.

The civil code attempted to homogenize not only families but also disparate burial customs. Under the Meiji government, the wide variety of burial practices that existed throughout the country were quickly brought under government control. In the years leading up to the 1898 promulgation of the Meiji Civil Code and within the code itself, a single unified framework of burial and ancestor-based ritual was mandated to rationalize the process and promote the concept of the extended family and ancestor worship as the cornerstone of the Emperor system.

In addition to codifying the ie, the civil code also addressed issues of succession. The most significant aspect of the civil code for our purposes is clause 987, the right of household succession ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] katoku sozoku no tokken), which stated that the "ownership of the genealogy, the ritual implements, and the grave passed to the head of the household" (quoted in Mori 2000, 219). In other words, ownership and maintenance of the family grave was both a right and an obligation, and thus fundamental to defining the ie as a unit and the successor as its head. Legal scholar and modern historian Mori Kenji sees this "ancestor ideology" as concrete proof that the Meiji government was fundamentally concerned with maintaining the continuity of the ie through memorial ritual, as well as legally establishing ancestral rites as the cornerstone of a national morality (ibid.).

This clause continued to bind temples to the family system via succession and graves right into the postwar period, despite the legal dissolution of the ie system in 1947. The current civil code, promulgated in 1951, reflects a compromise between those groups of legislators who wanted to abolish the household system and those who wanted to preserve it (Mori 2000, 49–51). Clause 897, covering the inheritance of ritual/religious assets ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] saishi zaisan no keisho) states that it is no longer the "head of the household" inheriting the grave, but rather the person whom "custom" dictates.

The genealogical records, ritual implements, and the rights to the grave, not bound by previous statutes, shall be inherited by the person who, according to custom, should perform the ancestral rites. However, if the progenitor designates a person to perform rites for the ancestors, then this person shall be the inheritor. In the case where custom is not clear, the family courts will determine the person who shall inherit. (H. Inoue 1990, 246)

The custom that is being referred to here is the ie, and thus the inclusion of "according to custom" ensures that the ideals of the extended- household system remain strongly entrenched in the current code even though they are not explicitly named.

The problem is that the rapid urbanization during the twentieth century, particularly during the period of high economic growth from 1955 to 1970, has caused the actual extended-family household to largely disappear from the national landscape. Yet, despite these drastic demographic changes (or, precisely because of them), the extended-family ideal remains ingrained in both the popular imagination and the law. I will return to the repercussions of the postwar civil code on contemporary burial in the following chapters.


Excerpted from BONDS OF THE DEAD by MARK MICHAEL ROWE Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Mark Michael Rowe is associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University.

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