Bonds of the Dead Temples, Burial, and the Transformation of Contemporary Japanese Buddhism
by Mark Michael Rowe
University of Chicago Press, 2011
Cloth: 978-0-226-73013-4 | Paper: 978-0-226-73015-8 | Electronic: 978-0-226-73016-5
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226730165.001.0001


Despite popular images of priests seeking enlightenment in snow-covered mountain temples, the central concern of Japanese Buddhism is death. For that reason, Japanese Buddhism’s social and economic base has long been in mortuary services—a base now threatened by public debate over the status, treatment, and location of the dead. Bonds of the Dead explores the crisis brought on by this debate and investigates what changing burial forms reveal about the ways temple Buddhism is perceived and propagated in contemporary Japan.

Mark Rowe offers a crucial account of how religious, political, social, and economic forces in the twentieth century led to the emergence of new funerary practices in Japan and how, as a result, the care of the dead has become the most fundamental challenge to the continued existence of Japanese temple Buddhism. Far from marking the death of Buddhism in Japan, Rowe argues, funerary Buddhism reveals the tradition at its most vibrant. Combining ethnographic research with doctrinal considerations, this is a fascinating book for anyone interested in Japanese society and religion.


Mark Michael Rowe is associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University in Ontario.


Bonds of the Dead is an intriguing and impressive work of social analysis that helps us understand the current state of religious practice and spiritual concern in Japan. It makes us think not only about how these Buddhist practices are responding to changes in Japanese society but about how they are helping to constitute those changes. Rowe succeeds in triangulating field observations and interviews with textual analysis, and he uses his time in Niigata, Tokyo, and elsewhere to situate his analysis of these movements in convincing detail. An appealing, instructive, and entertaining book.”

— William Kelly, Yale University

“Reading this book, I came away with renewed admiration for Rowe’s skills as an interviewer and as an analyst of contemporary developments in Japanese Buddhism. Bonds of the Dead will be widely recognized as setting a new standard in studies of contemporary Japanese religious life.”

— Helen Hardacre, Harvard University

Bonds of the Dead contains a wealth of fascinating information that reminds us that human societies rely on religion to confront the insurmountable problem of death. Rowe’s first-person perspective allows the reader to gain insights into how ordinary people approach Buddhist temples and how ordinary priests attempt to serve them, and he writes in a breezy and entertaining manner that is accessible to a broad audience of people interested in contemporary Japanese society and religion.”

— William Bodiford, University of California, Los Angeles, William Bodiford, UCLA

“This is a very readable account of how religious, political, social, and economic forces have placed Buddhist tradition at the center of Japanese funerary practices. It offers valuable insights into Buddhism’s relevance to contemporary Japanese people in general.”
— Choice

“This book provides a wealth of ethnographic material on the transformation of contemporary burial forms accompanied by insightful commentary that looks beneath the novelty of eternal memorial graves to identify important changes and continuities in contemporary Japanese Buddhism.”
— Journal of Buddhist Ethics

“The tone is lively, the style elegant, the arguments are well made. . . this is on the whole a very convincing, successful, and most pleasurable book indeed.”
— Religion

“This book reminds us that death has more meanings to the living than the dead, and thus mortuary practices are closely related to changes in society. This book serves as a significant contribution to the understanding of what Rowe calls the ‘post-danka era’ of Japanese mortuary practices.”
— Religion Watch

“Rowe’s skillful consolidation of Japanese and English scholarship, years of fieldwork, and thought-provoking analysis has set a high standard for works on contemporary Japanese Buddhism.”
— Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

“Mark Michael Rowe . . . engaged in intensive fieldwork in various parts of Japan. Drawing on this research, he has crafted an insightful analysis full of interesting observations. . . . Bonds of the Dead is an innovative study of funerary Buddhism in Japan deserving of attention from scholars both here and abroad.”
— Monumenta Nipponica

“Rowe succeeds impressively in presenting an insightful and compelling account of important developments that illuminate and foster a greater appreciation for the role that funerary Buddhism continues to play in contemporary Japanese society.”
— Journal of Japanese Studies

“The problem with an exclusive focus on doctrine emanating from the leadership is that it only offers us one side of the conversation. Rowe, by adopting an ethnographic approach, has given us a compelling glimpse into the other side.”
— Social Science Japan Journal

 “A work that is as compassionate and eloquent as it is astute.”
— Journal of Religion in Japan

“Mark Rowe has provided us with a rich and insightful critical inquiry into one of the most common assumptions about contemporary Japanese Buddhism, namely, that it is a ‘funerary religion’ and that this fact is inextricably tied to its long-standing decline. His innovative analysis of recent to current developments is based upon almost a decade of fieldwork and study pertaining to innovations in Buddhist and non-Buddhist funerary ‘technology.’ . . . Rowe’s book deserves to be read and discussed widely by scholars and students of Japanese and comparative religion.”
— Journal of Asian Studies


List of Illustrations


- Mark Michael Rowe
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226730165.003.0001
[contemporary japanese buddhism, twentieth century, funerary practices, japanese temple buddhism, existential doubts, buddhist ideals, death]
This book is a study of contemporary Japanese Buddhism and the care of the dead. It shows how religious, political, social, and economic forces over the course of the twentieth century led to the emergence of new funerary practices in Japan and how this has made the care of the dead the most essential challenge to the continued existence of Japanese temple Buddhism. This challenge extends beyond the economic, demographic, and social forces of change into the realm of more existential doubts about the role of the tradition and the true meaning of Buddhist understandings of death. Secondarily, it is a study of the primary overseers of shaping tradition within Japanese Buddhism today; of the interplay and tensions between Buddhist ideals, as reflected in the activities of Buddhist intellectuals; and the often conflicting practical needs of temple priests in the context of their daily responsibilities as caretakers for the dead. (pages 1 - 16)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Mark Michael Rowe
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226730165.003.0002
[historical circumstances, tokugawa era, japanese buddhism, death rites, funerary buddhism, mortuary practices, doctrinal history]
This chapter endeavors to trace the main historical circumstances—from the Tokugawa era up to the present day—that have led to this dire assessment of Japanese Buddhism. The “death” of Buddhism covers three related connotations: the fundamental and long-standing relationship between Buddhist temples and death rites, the negative perceptions of this funerary Buddhism, and, finally, the fear that the tradition may not merely be dying but may be going extinct. Much of this historical overview focuses less on the explicitly “Buddhist” aspect of mortuary practices than on the social, economic, and legal developments that have had the greatest impact on temples. The intention here is not simply to decenter Buddhist sectarian or doctrinal history but rather to consider equally relevant forces such as changes in the civil code, postwar land reforms, new family structures, and the perennial desire for social status. (pages 17 - 43)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Mark Michael Rowe
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226730165.003.0003
[contemporary japan, muen, economic shifts, graves, relatives, abandonment]
This chapter addresses the difficulties of finding a grave in contemporary Japan and the dangers inherent in not finding one. It begins by introducing the concept of muen (to be without bonds), a multivalent term that encapsulates the fears of Japanese who do not have graves, as well as those who lack relatives to maintain their graves into the future. Although the fear of dying alone, without anyone to care for your grave, is certainly not limited to the modern period, demographic, social, and economic shifts have recently pushed the problem of muen into the national spotlight. Muen implicates twenty-first century Japan as a society that is not only incapable of caring for its dead but also cannot even identify them. (pages 44 - 68)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Mark Michael Rowe
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226730165.003.0004
[eternal memorial graves, asahi article, ogawa's fax, burial technology, muen, temple buddhism, burial systems]
This chapter addresses two sets of important issues, as presented by the Asahi article and Ogawa's fax. The first concerns societal aspects of eternal memorial graves such as lack of grave space, changing family and social structures, and the relation between gender and burial. It is demonstrated here that the ways this new burial technology serves to counter muen by creating new types of bonds also can be used ritually to sever traditional bonds. The second concerns issues confronting temple Buddhism, specifically the need for innovative burial systems in the face of new social realities. In response, Ogawa offers a critique of the obligatory nature of religious affiliation and a staunch belief that fundamentally rethinking the traditional parishioner system is the only way to save his temple. The Asahi article set in motion events that began a nationwide discussion of the postwar fissures between traditional grave ideals and modern family realities. (pages 69 - 111)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Mark Michael Rowe
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226730165.003.0005
[downtown tokyo, tochoji, eternal memorial grave, burial society, en no kai, traditional graves, shinjuku, soto zen temples]
This chapter focuses on Tochoji in downtown Tokyo and arguably the most successful eternal memorial grave in Japan. When it first created its eternal memorial grave and burial society, En no Kai in 1996, Tochoji was already considered quite prosperous. Within eight years, En no Kai had approaching six thousand new members, and by 2008 it had sold out all of its ten thousand spots. Needless to say, such staggering numbers would have been impossible with traditional graves, particularly in central Tokyo, where any land, let alone that designated for graves, is at a premium. Located on three-quarters of an acre near the heart of Shinjuku, Tochoji is hardly representative of the nearly fifteen thousand Soto Zen temples spread across Japan. Established early in the Tokugawa era, this wealthy urban temple displays a fascinating mixture of traditional and modern imagery. (pages 112 - 151)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Mark Michael Rowe
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226730165.003.0006
[scattering ashes, buddhist graves, burial practice, eternal memorial graves, buddhist identity, temple priests, mortuary rites]
This chapter moves outside the idiom of Buddhist graves and memorials to consider the scattering of ashes, an innovative burial practice that began around the same time as eternal memorial graves. Despite that fact that more than 99 percent of all Japanese are cremated today, scattering is still a very recent and controversial practice. After tracing the modern development of scattering and the civic group that has been instrumental in its promotion, this chapter will explore a wide range of responses and consider what further insights they may offer into the relationship between Buddhist doctrine, families, and burial. It is also shown here that despite demographic, household, and economic shifts weakening the hold of temples on Japanese deathways, Buddhist identity in Japan is still intimately connected to the central role of temple priests in mortuary rites. (pages 152 - 177)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Mark Michael Rowe
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226730165.003.0007
[temple priests, institutional networks, folk beliefs, mortuary practice, funerary Buddhism, institutional dilemmas, existential crises]
This chapter situates temple priests in institutional networks and investigates a more conceptual, but equally critical, aspect of the funeral problem: the changing interpretation and unclear role of doctrine in mortuary practice. Specifically, it is examined here how “concrete” aspects of funerary Buddhism are transformed from institutional dilemmas into existential crises by influential sectarian scholars whose discourse guides the way Buddhist priests think about their vocation. The chapter then analyzes differing conceptions of funerary Buddhism within the activities of certain sectarian intellectuals and researchers in the Jodo, Soto, Shingon Buzanha, and Nichiren sects. This dilemma assumes a number of forms: from debates over the relationship between “true” Buddhism and folk beliefs, to concerns over the dissonance between the training of priests and the day-to-day work of local temples, and to irritation over institutional gaps between sectarian elites and local priests. (pages 178 - 219)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Mark Michael Rowe
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226730165.003.0008
[grave, ancestral orbit, temple buddhism, burial, buddhist mortuary practices, religious life]
This book has focused on the grave as the center of the ancestral orbit. In so doing, it has traced the modern history of why that center is losing its gravitational pull and how, consequently, the economic and social bedrock of temple Buddhism in Japan has eroded to the point where even its continued existence is publicly called into question. In detailing these changes, the author has covered a broad range of materials including the social and religious elements of burial and the economic, legal, political, and commercial factors that bear upon the choices people make when they decide how to be buried and memorialized. Buddhist mortuary practices provide scholars with far-reaching insight into religious life as it is lived, institutionalized, debated, advertised, promoted, paid for, legislated, bureaucratized, studied, surveyed, and described by everyone from middle-aged metropolitan housewives to rural priests to sectarian scholarly elites. (pages 220 - 230)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Appendix: Jodo Sect Survey of Funerary Buddhism (1994)

Works Cited