text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
They can be found in almost all Japanese homes and invariably in all the homes of elderly people since in Japan (as happens all over the world) religion is basically a pursuit of people past their 60th year. From the outside they look like cupboards and very often very mundane ones so they won’t invite the interest of casual viewers but occasionally you come across specimens whose elaborate wood or bronze furnishings make it obvious that these aren’t common objects but something of much greater importance. And when they are open (something that varies depending on their owners’ judgment and faith) even someone not well versed into Buddhism can understand that they are miniature temples which, again depending on their owners’ faith, can be used from a daily basis to a few times a year.
They are called “butsudan” (仏壇), literally “Buddha’s dais” but as is usually the case with religious things in Japan they don’t always house a statuette of Buddhism’s founder or some strictly religious object (e.g. some holy scripture). Ancestors’ veneration and respect for the family’s dead are fundamental elements of Japanese spirituality which means that often found in a butsudan are pictures or memorial tablets of family members who have passed from this world. And in front of them there are special trays for the placement of candles, incense sticks, fruit, tea or rice –virtual sacrifices that mark the beginning of a new day or specific periods in a year, for example the O-bon in August.
Having a butsudan at home doesn’t necessarily mean that the owner has a deep relationship to Buddhism; as is the case in all religions, many Japanese think that belief is a personal matter and doesn’t need accessories to establish it. My personal feeling is that the butsudan (as well as the kamidana, the corresponding Shintoistic altars with which they often coexist, frequently in the same room) are objects that have more to do with the country’s culture and less with religion: every time they offer to the butsudan a little rice, some fruit or a bow stopping for a while in front of them with their palms together in the “gassho” (合掌) gesture, the Japanese make a pause in their everyday life to feel that besides the present they experience all around them, there is also a past to which they owe their existence and which is worth keeping alive.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.