Home Political science Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty
The story of a seventy-Three-year-Old woman Living alone. Her thoughts on Death rites
“i've decided to have my cremated ashes scattered at sea. I have had a contract drawn up and deposited the fees,” Mrs. Noda, a seventy-three-yearold woman living in a city near tokyo, told me as we enjoyed tea and sweets one afternoon in February 2003. She felt relieved that everything had been set up. I asked her, “what did other people say about the scattering?” Mrs. noda replied, “no one said, 'that's so nice.' everybody was, like, 'why would you or should you?' But when i told my kids, my son agreed to take care of it. He did not say anything or complain.” At first, Mrs. Noda's story seemed to be a happy case of having a supportive adult child who promised to realize the wish of his parent. Soon after this exchange, however, i discovered that the son was not her own but the child of her husband's deceased first wife. Indeed, a much more complex story about Mrs. Noda's choice to have her ashes scattered gradually emerged over more than a year of my fieldwork in tokyo. The scattering of cremated ashes is a relatively new practice that developed since the early 1990s with the formation of a citizen's movement, the Grave-Free Promotion society of Japan (sosō no Jiyū O susumeru Kai; GFPs). The founder of this group is yasuda Mutsuhiko, a former Asahi Shinbun journalist whose career focus prior to the birth of the movement was on
316 Water-conservation issues. The organization had approximately sixteen thousand members in 2011. All the data for this chapter were collected during my fieldwork conducted at the GFPs between 2002 and 2004.
In contemporary Japan, the norm is to inter the cremated ashes of multiple family members in a family grave (the so-called iebaka) with a single underground structure to hold the urns. This practice is sometimes seen as “traditional,” evoking the timeless past. However, it is in fact a relatively new development in Japan's history (Fujii 1993, 18; Makimura 1996, 112). Before world war ii, burial and cremation were both practiced, but burial was more common (Kawano 2010). After the war cremation rapidly replaced burial in many parts of Japan. By the 1990s, cremation was taken for granted, facilitating the establishment of a family grave to accommodate the ashes of multiple family members.
a number of previous studies that have examined mortuary practices in Japan since the 1990s highlight the changes and diversification in the practices (e.g., Boret 2012; inoue 2003; Kawano 2010; Mori 2000; rowe 2006, 2011; suzuki 2000; tsuji 2006). among a variety of factors examined in previous studies, demographic shifts and changing family relations have been examined in depth (e.g., inoue 2003; Kawano 2010; Makimura 1996). Some older persons today do not have culturally preferred caretakers of their family graves—typically a married son and his wife. As families are smaller, some people have no sons. An increasing number of younger people remain permanently unmarried, and people with permanently unmarried sons might find it difficult to secure a ritual caretaker once their sons have passed away. Divorce is not uncommon, and depending on who takes custody of a child, a divorce could lead to the loss of a future caretaker. New burial systems, such as ash scattering and graves with permanent ritual care (eitai kuyōbo),1 provide practical alternatives to people in diverse family situations who cannot secure a future ritual caregiver. Although the family, rather than an individual, is the unit for acquiring and using a conventional family grave, these new mortuary systems allow for individuals to secure their own posthumous destinations. Moreover, these alternatives are much less expensive than conventional family graves. In particular, with the GFPs, volunteers, rather than funeral or religious specialists, help conduct ash-scattering ceremonies for members or their kin, and they cost much less (often less than $1,000).
While it is not difficult to see new and old practices as opposites or new ones as replacing the old, some studies have highlighted the ways in which survivors combine a new mortuary practice with more conventional ones Followed to venerate the deceased (Kawano 2004). By examining Mrs. Noda's case, this chapter will examine the adoption and meaning of ash scattering as seen from a social actor's viewpoint and will illustrate that a person who adopts ash scattering does not necessarily reject the conventional mortuary practices. Mrs. Noda frequently visits her marital family grave, where her deceased husband as well as his parents and his first wife rest. She has also conducted conventional Buddhist memorial rites for the family dead with the help of a Buddhist priest. Nonetheless, she has chosen not to burden her stepchildren with the responsibility of her memorial care by electing ash scattering. Although she has provided memorial care to deceased family members for many years, she does not wish to receive the same care from her stepchildren, even though she is on good terms with them. Rather than exploring her case of ash scattering mainly as an expression of personal religious faith, this chapter thus examines her attitudes toward death rites that are embedded in the larger context of her family relations and lifestyle choices.
This chapter illustrates that a new mortuary practice such as ash scattering can be a strategy to manage a sense of distance felt by a person in non-normative family situations. Because new burial systems such as ash scattering and graves with permanent ritual care provide a person with a posthumous destination away from his or her family, these systems are sometimes used to resist the persistent gender or family ideologies that limit women's mortuary choices (inoue 2003; also see Kawano 2003). It is thus that married women who have endured unhappy marriages can get “divorced” after death or single women can express their sense of independence through the choice of their own posthumous residence.
Mrs. Noda, however, does not fundamentally challenge the gender and family ideologies like women seeking posthumous divorce, though we do find an expression of agency in her selection of ash scattering. On several occasions during my fieldwork, i heard about adult children rejecting the interment of their stepmothers' ashes in their family graves because they felt that their stepmothers were not part of their families. Mrs. Noda's is the only case of a stepmother declining to join her husband's family grave.
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