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  • Bones of Contention: Animals and Religion in Contemporary Japan by Barbara R. Ambros
  • Ellen Schattschneider
Bones of Contention: Animals and Religion in Contemporary Japan. By Barbara R. Ambros. University of Hawai‘i Press, 2012. 280pages. Hardcover $55.00; softcover $29.00.

In Bones of Contention, Barbara Ambros examines a fascinating, relatively recent development in relations with domestic animals in Japan. Over the past three decades a significant sector of the Japanese public has begun to perform kuyō (Buddhist memorialization rites) for pets, especially dogs and cats. In some instances, bereaved owners have arranged for kaimyō (posthumous Buddhist names) to be given to deceased [End Page 309] pets, which are then memorialized within family butsudan. Ambros gives close attention to recent legal battles over attempts to intern pet remains in human cemeteries, as more owners increasingly come to term their animal companions “uchi no ko” (our child). She places this intriguing ethnographic material within a larger history of animal memorialization in Japan. She notes, for example, that in the early nineteenth century, whalers at times assigned posthumous death names to slaughtered whales and held memorial services for these nonhuman leviathans. She also recounts the familiar story of the loyal dog Hachiko, who in popular mythology stood vigil at the Shibuya train station for his late owner.

As many anthropologists, historians of religion, and folklorists have long noted, animals have for millennia in Japan functioned as intermediaries between human and divine worlds and between the living and the dead. In the shishimai dance at the New Year, lion-like creatures “bite off ” impurities from spectators and confer longevity. Kitsune spirits, alternating between fox and human forms, transport people between conventional life and fantasy dreamworlds. Dragon divinities, or ryujin, themselves hybrid beings composed of elements from diverse animals, move between undersea depths and mountain peaks and help transport humans between mortal and immortal domains.

Yet why, starting in the years of the Bubble Economy, should a good number of Japanese have come to memorialize something so prosaic as household pets? Ambros situates this phenomenon in the memorialization boom of the 1980s, in which a great range of nonhuman entities, from needles to dolls to eels, were subjected to such rites. Ambros argues that “. . . the hybrid status of pet memorial rites—their liminal place between human and animal mortuary rites . . . makes their study a compelling topic for inquiry” (p. 9).

In the book’s opening chapter, Ambros juxtaposes premodern models of human-animal relations with contemporary transformations of animal symbolism. She notes that the admittedly modern notion of the “pet”—an animal taken into domestic space as a quasi-family member—expresses a substantial departure from earlier, rather functional relationships. At the same time she argues that there were ethical and sacral dimensions to the premodern management of the animal world: the killing and consumption of whales, for example, produced a lingering sense of obligation and anxiety. Early memorialization rites for whales can be thought of, in a sense, as anticipating modern practices of pet memorialization. Building on this insight, Ambros persuasively argues in chapter 2 that the early modern use of animals as resources in Japan cannot be accounted for in purely economic or technical terms; instead, this commodification was infused with religious sensibilities, although these by no means ensured the compassionate treatment of animals.

Future researchers may wish to build on this argument and consider broader ways in which premodern representations of animals may have had, in a general sense, memorial or ritual functions. Might we think of many such practices as having bridged the conventional gulf between spheres of existence? For example, painting an image of a pair of hawks in a shrine or temple has for many centuries functioned as a form of [End Page 310] veneration, and in colloquial (if not strict doctrinal) terms as an act of kuyō. The composite figure of ryujin, predicated on the creative recombination of familiar animal elements (fur, scales, horns, claws, and so on), might in turn be conceived of as a kind of metamemorialization, geared toward allowing a whole host of beings to move through the great arc of creation and transmutation toward buddhahood.

Chapters 3 and 4 are to...


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pp. 309-314
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