Changing Times for Japan’s “Butsudan”

Lifestyle Society Family

In Japanese homes, butsudan, small Buddhist shrines used to remember dead ancestors, are becoming less traditional, more individualized, and more in line with modern décor. Seventy percent of butsudan sold are now nontraditional types, a trend due partly to changing living arrangements and the removal of graves. Some families even put their butsudan in the living room so they can sit around it every day.

A Modern Butsudan for the Modern Home

This May, a butsudan dealer named Gallery Memoria opened an outlet on the tenth floor of Nagoya’s Dainagoya Building. Boasting an attractive range of the home shrines, the stylishly decorated premises felt more like an interior design shop than a purveyor of religious supplies.

The Brillio butsudan retails for ¥918,000.
The Brillio butsudan retails for ¥918,000.

In the Brillio model, what looks like an elegant glass-fronted cupboard opens up to reveal the shrine while LEDs illuminate the ancestor’s photo. Other models resemble European antiques.

The showroom contains around 80 butsudan, all of them looking more like furniture than shrines.

The Maria retails for ¥810,000.
The Maria retails for ¥810,000.

Some models also employ wall mounting or upward-sliding doors to save space.

The Passat, a wall mounted butsudan, retails for ¥745,200.
The Passat, a wall mounted butsudan, retails for ¥745,200.

Traditionally, butsudan are colored black and gold and placed in a dedicated room called a butsuma. However, store proprietor Aratani Shinjirō says that nowadays, with more people living in apartments, demand for nontraditional butsudan is increasing.

Before modern butsudan came on the scene, traditional models like this were the norm.
Before modern butsudan came on the scene, traditional models like this were the norm.

Aratani reflects: “More people live in apartments these days, tatami flooring is less common, and fewer homes have a dedicated butsuma space for the butsudan. This has created a demand for a butsudan that can go in the living room.”

With the market share of such nontraditional models having jumped from 30% just four years ago to some 70% today, this style is actually now the norm.

We asked a visitor to the store, a woman in her seventies who was visiting with her daughter where she would put her butsudan. “In the living room,” she said.

The woman’s daughter said that her father had wanted to be remembered with a butsudan that expressed his personality. Another visitor in her sixties told me that she felt a modern style butsudan was preferable when it came time to pass it down to her son.

A Move Away from Burial Plots?

There is another surprising reason for the popularity of nontraditional butsudan that has nothing to do with housing arrangements.

The grounds of Myōrakuji, a temple in Toyota, Aichi, contains some 20,000 graves, all of which contain ashes that were transferred from other graveyards. The chief priest explains that the temple created a special mound to accommodate remains from graves that no longer had anyone to tend them. Every year the ashes of over 200 people are exhumed and brought here.

With extended families increasingly living apart, the tending of family graves is becoming more of a burden, leading to an increase in cases in which graves are removed and ashes relocated. The last 10 years have seen a 40% increase in the relocation of graves and reburial of remains; the number cleared the 100,000 mark for the first time in fiscal 2017, according to Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare statistics.

Another style of butsudan has also been created for the growing number of users who do not want their ashes interred in a grave. Showing us the space for an urn, Aratani explains that the model is aimed at customers who do not want to buy a cemetery plot. In response to customer demand, the store also offers nontraditional styles of urn.

Aratani says that peoples’ values and ideas about how the dead should be remembered have changed dramatically. He believes that one reason for the growing popularity of nontraditional butsudan is the industry’s desire to respect the wishes of such customers.

Not Out of Place in the Living Room
Not Out of Place in the Living Room.

The Ōmura family of Nagoya, Aichi, are one such purchaser of a nontraditional butsudan. Their purchase, bought to remember the family’s late father, in her living room, across from the dining table.

“Having it here means that I can see him every day,” says Ms. Ōmura. “I wanted to put it in the space where everyone spends their time.”

This model comes with changeable glass doors. The Ōmura family changes the handmade stained-glass panels with the changing of the seasons.
This model comes with changeable glass doors. The Ōmura family changes the handmade stained-glass panels with the changing of the seasons.

When asked what visitors think of the butsudan, she responds with satisfaction. “They are impressed. I think it blends in because it doesn’t look like a butsudan.”

Butsudan are adapting to changing lifestyles and changing ways of remembering the dead. With more temples now welcoming their parishioners’ choices of nontraditional butsudan and butsudan from different sects of Buddhism, the new trend looks likely to receive wide support.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on September 1, 2019. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)

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