- Bones of Contention: Animals and Religion in Contemporary Japan by Barbara R. Ambros
Barbara Ambros’s fascinating study of the increasing popularity of pet mortuary rites in contemporary Japan adds significantly to our knowledge of the changing character of funeral practices in postwar Japan. It joins a spate of recent monographs and essays on this subject by John Nelson, Mark Rowe, [End Page 487] Hikaru Suzuki, and others. Ambros, however, focuses her attention on a little-studied but surprisingly contentious choice that many Japanese are now making—what to do about their dearly departed pets and how to ritually care for their remains.
The “pet boom,” part of a larger global cultural phenomena that took hold in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s, led, by the 1980s, to new ways of drawing the boundaries dividing the human from the animal world. The anthropologist Edmund Leach, building on the structuralist approach of Claude Lévi-Strauss, long ago called attention to the liminal place pets have in human symbolic classifications. Humans “make binary distinctions and then mediate the distinction by creating ambiguous (and taboo-loaded) intermediate categories.” Pets as “man animals,” betwixt and between culture and nature, the tame and the wild, the human and the nonhuman, are ambiguous and taboo-loaded by definition.1
Ambros argues that this liminal or “hybrid” nature of pets has had a profound effect on Japanese religious life, particularly since the 1980s. Significant social and demographic changes—rising affluence, the predominance of the nuclear family, rampant urbanization, the rapidly aging population and declining birthrate, and so on—have caused a redefining of cultural boundaries with pets increasingly considered members of the family. This changing view of the pet as “our child” (uchi no ko), which Ambros calls “neo-familialism,” has altered the way the human household is conceived, which, in turn, has altered family memorial rites. Just as human death demands elaborate ritual technologies, necrogeographies, and cosmologies to deal with the emotional and spiritual upheavals it creates, so too does the death of a family’s nonhuman but nonetheless intimate companions. This has led to the explosion of the pet funeral industry since the 1980s, with over 900 pet cemeteries in Japan tied in some way to Buddhism and offering a wide range of mortuary services to deal with the demise of the family pet.
As Ambros carefully documents, many contemporary Japanese struggle with the spiritual, ethical, and deeply personal issues of how to dispose of the dead body, how to properly memorialize a pet to whom one was strongly attached, and how to make sense of one’s pet’s death and its possible afterlife. To capitalize on this, Buddhist clerics have cleverly made innovations, devising new mortuary practices to satisfy the consumer demand for pet funerals, cemetery spaces for pet cremains, and memorials for pets’ remembrance. These new ritual processes offer ample proof that funeral Buddhism is anything but dead in Japan. Indeed, “pet mortuary practices illustrate the ongoing changes in contemporary Japanese religions as they adapt to meet the changing needs of society” (p. 7). [End Page 488]
Ambros’s major contribution is to offer a new understanding of pet mortuary rituals. She dismisses previous scholarship, which has stressed either their continuity with human memorial rites, mizuko, and dolls, or relegated them to a subset of animal memorial rites (for example, the Hachikō Spirit Propitiation Festival) that are widespread in today’s Japan. Like the pets themselves, pet mortuary rites, Ambros argues, are liminal and hybrid, occupying an uneasy performative space outside the culturally sanctioned human and animal memorial rites, which are largely perceived in contemporary Japan as “traditional,” authentic, and legitimate ritual practices.
As hybrid rites, they are also controversial. And much of Ambros’s book is devoted to examining the controversies over them. Are they religious or commercial in nature? Where and how should pets be buried? Should humans and pets be buried together or remain distinct? What do pets become after death and where do...