Thesis Abstract

I submitted my PhD thesis in August 2019. Below is the summary abstract.

This thesis examines transforming material relations with the dead in contemporary Japan focused on one artefact of Japanese death culture, the Buddhist altar or butsudan (仏壇). Butsudan are complex material artefacts with deep histories of religious symbolism that have been a key site for ancestor veneration, Buddhist practice, and connecting with the dead in Japanese homes for many generations. They are also an unstable technology of mediating the dead in Japan. Once present in the vast majority of households, butsudan sales have seriously declined and traditional artisan products are being replaced by modern, fashion-conscious, and secular designs. The progressively marginal position occupied by butsudan in Japanese religious and family life has contributed to a growing sense of unease, if not crisis, within the religious goods industry and temple Buddhism. Decline occurs against a broader backdrop of transformation to Japanese death traditions, precipitated by demographic changes, secularisation, and economic stagnation. In an age of “precarity” (Allison 2013), in which the socio-religious structures once relied upon to secure a good death have significantly weakened, how do relations with the dead proceed? 

This thesis traces the dynamics by which artefacts of mediating the dead like butsudan emerge, circulate within religious and funerary economies, come to mediate intimate exchanges between the living and the dead, and ultimately fall into disuse. I draw on ethnographic fieldwork with artisans, retailers, consumers, and clergy, including several months working in Buddhist goods companies in Tokyo, Osaka, and Toyama. Attending to the rich details of material practice at the altar, I further elucidate modes of necrosociality beyond memorialisation, in particular, kuyō (供養) or veneration, as they operate in contemporary Japan. I suggest that kuyō requires an investment in material forms, either altars or their growing alternatives, which make the absent dead present, facilitating acts of care that are also practices of disposal and disconnection. The contemporary form of butsudan emerges out of collaborative efforts to care for the dead, which are increasingly reliant on commercial actors and which must be balanced with considerations of convenience, economy, and personal taste. 

The five main body chapters of this thesis trace the life course of butsudan, through sites of their crafting, retail, encounter, disposal, and innovation. This structure illuminates the mutability, and ultimately mortality, of necromaterial forms, which I argue is an increasingly significant factor in how people navigate relationships with the dead in Japan today.This thesis thus contributes to our broader understanding of how absence through death is made sensorially present through the life and death of material culture.

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