Buddhist Altars

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Kazunori Jokai

    Main guest

    Kazunori Jokai is the 11th-generation owner of a butsudan supplier based in Iiyama, Nagano Prefecture that has been in business for 300 years. Jokai’s job involves bringing artisans from various fields together to create the Buddhist altars featured in this program and selling them at his store, located on Iiyama’s famed “Butsudan Street.”

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April 4, 2017

Buddhist Altars

*You will leave the NHK website.

If you’ve ever been in a Japanese home – or seen a TV show, film or even anime set in a Japanese home – you’ve likely set eyes on a Buddhist altar, a butsudan. These miniature altars allow Japanese families to pray in the comfort of their own home, and are specifically geared toward the veneration of deceased loved ones and ancestors.

A kind of communication hub between the worlds of the living and the dead, butsudan are used whenever a family member wants to pay respects to, consult, or share news with a deceased ancestor. When grown-up children living away from home return for a visit, perhaps during one of Japan's main holiday breaks, one of the first things they'll do is kneel down in front of the butsudan, often striking a bell to begin prayer. These holiday visits also often include o-haka mairi, a visit to the family grave, showing just how important ancestor veneration is in Japan.

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A kind of Buddhist temple in miniature, some butsudan are very ornate.

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Today’s guest Kazunori Jokai tells Peter Barakan about the process of butsudan assembly.

As Peter Barakan points out in the program, the use of butsudan appears to be a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, and there are several historical reasons why butsudan have become such a staple in Japanese households. Though ancestor veneration existed in Japan before Buddhism arrived on its shores, the use of physical household altars appears to have started as a result of a decree by Emperor Tenmu around 686 (one of the earliest forerunners of the modern butsudan, Tamamushi-no-zushi, can be viewed at Horyuji, a temple in Nara).

Edo period politics also played a large role in the promulgation of butsudan. The authorities in those days required Japanese citizens to register with a local Buddhist temple, partly to prove they weren’t secretly practicing Christianity (which, as the recent Martin Scorsese film Silence demonstrates, was not looked upon kindly). The easiest way to prove your affiliation with Buddhism? Show off the butsudan in your home.

It has also been suggested that wandering Buddhist priests called hijiri were another factor in the adoption of butsudan. These nomadic shamen carried portable altars on their backs, showing the people of the villages they visited it was possible to worship using a relatively compact and personal device.

The butsudan is not always the only object of veneration in the home: it’s often paired with a kamidana, an altar for worship of Shinto spirits, or kami. The pairing of butsudan and kamidana in the household reflects a key feature of Japanese religious attitudes: Shinto and Buddhism are comfortably intertwined.

As you might imagine, with modernization and ever-evolving values, Japan’s relationship with the butsudan has also changed. According to a 2013 survey, slightly over 50% of single-family homes contain a butsudan, and that percentage tumbles to just 21.1% when it comes to those living in apartments or condominiums. Breaking things down by age is also revealing: 71.5% of those between 70 and 84 years old possess a butsudan, compared to just 29.9% of those between 20 and 39.

Butsudan makers like the one Matt Alt visits in the program are grappling with these changes in several ways, including compact, modern designs adapted to 21st century city lifestyles. There’s also been a push away from altars corresponding to a certain denomination of Buddhism and toward models that allow for a more individualistic, user-friendly style of veneration. If these and other innovations win favor with younger Japanese in the years ahead, then this ancient tradition should be secure for decades to come.

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Compact butsudan are aimed at residents of crowded cities like Tokyo, where space is at a premium.

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The gold that is a prominent feature of butsudan from Iiyama, Nagano Prefecture, represents the promise of Buddhism’s pure land paradise.

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Takeshi Washimori, who has been working on butsudan for 60 years, assembles intricate parts almost entirely from memory.

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Artisan Toshio Washimori employs over 500 different chisels to work designs into metal butsudan fittings.

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