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  • Mortuary Practices, Buddhism, and Family Relations in Japanese Society
  • Nam-lin Hur (bio)
Mark Rowe . Bonds of the Dead: Temples, Burial, and the Transformation of Contemporary Japanese Buddhism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 256 pp. $91 (cloth), $29 (paper).
Satsuki Kawano . Nature's Embrace: Japan's Aging Urbanites and New Death Rites. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2010. 232 pp. $47 (cloth), $27 (paper).

In Bonds of the Dead, Mark Rowe, who focuses on "the grave as the center of the ancestral orbit" in Japanese mortuary practices, observes that, due to the gradual loss of its gravitational pull, "the economic and social bedrock of temple Buddhism in Japan has eroded to the point where even its continued existence is publicly called into question" (222). Here, Rowe speaks to the decline of what is commonly known as the danka system. In contrast, in Nature's Embrace, Satsuki Kawano finds that the dominance of Buddhist death-related rituals couched in the tradition of the danka system remains by and large intact.

Whether the danka system is in decline or not, both Rowe and Kawano agree that in understanding the religious texture of mortuary and memorial practices in Japanese society today, it is essential to acknowledge enduring Buddhist death customs from the Meiji to the present— customs that are deeply rooted in the legacies of the danka system. Like many scholars before him, Rowe renders the danka system in English as "the temple parishioner [End Page 194] system" (3). In my work on the danka system, I have suggested that an English rendering that includes the word "parishioner" or "parish" is misleading, for it connotes a geographical zoning or territorial unit in the affiliation between patron families and funerary temples. In fact, the danka system simply denotes the affiliation between patron families and funerary Buddhist temples. Most commonly, patterns of affiliation between family and temple are so crisscrossed that it is almost impossible to group them into territorial units (Hur 2007, 121-124).

In the Meiji period, the danka system lost the legal or semi-legal clout it had enjoyed in the previous period. A new family registration law that did not assume anti-Christian certification by Buddhist temples of all residents was introduced. Nevertheless, Buddhist mortuary and memorial rites weathered the anti-Buddhist climate of early Meiji and eventually regained their previous vigor. Although the legality of the temple certification system, which had helped cement the danka system, was rescinded in early Meiji, the conventional customs of the danka system were fully utilized by the Meiji government, which, in 1884, "established a series of laws concerning burial and graves, setting national standards for the definition of a grave and regulating disposal" (Kawano, 59); these laws worked more favorably for Buddhist death. In particular, the Meiji policy had decisive influence over what a grave should be, how it should be cared for, and to whom it should be passed on. All this reinvigorated the Buddhist family-grave system.

In examining the legacies of Meiji policies on family graves in contemporary Japan, Rowe and Kawano diverge. Rowe examines how the new modes of graves that stray from the conventional customs reflect, and are projected onto, the evolution of Japanese Buddhism. On the other hand, Kawano explores what is behind the new modes of graves in today's Japanese society with a focus on the shift in family system. Nonetheless, both authors seem to agree that new modes of graves are a critical indicator of the sociocultural changes embraced by Japan in recent years.

Rowe examines the implications of a new type of grave by analyzing the changing relationship between the force of money and the Buddhist temples. He explains that, "from 1946 onwards, the government forced absentee landlords to sell their land back to farmers" (26). Because of this policy, temples, which were mostly absentee landlords, were impoverished. As an important source of income (land) was removed, Buddhist temples scrambled to solidify [End Page 195] what still remained. Rowe notes that "the most significant result of the land reforms was the increased dependence by temples on revenue from temple graves, funerals, and memorial rites" (29), which further pushed temples to be "complicit in...


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pp. 194-201
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Archived 2020
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