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An Anthropological Study of a Japanese Tree Burial: Environment, Kinship and Death


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Based on two years of fieldwork in Japan, this chapter explores the demographic and family changes as well as the economic and ideological factors motivating people to choose Tree-Burial. The first section introduces the concept, the community, and the ecological incentives and activities surrounding the Tree-Burial sites. In the second section, I investigate the underlying demographic and family conditions that compel or encourage a section of the Japanese population to renounce the customary ancestral grave. The third section argues that Tree-Burial is, for some subscribers, a means of contesting the exorbitant cost of customary gravestones and the way some Buddhist priests run their burial and funeral business. Finally, the last section of this chapter discusses how Tree-Burial provides for a more individualized form of memorialization, and novel ideas of the afterlife based on its subscribers' aspiration to return to nature (shinzen ni kaeritai) for eternity.
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9 An anthropological study of a Japanese
tree burial
Environment, kinship, and death
Sébastien Penmellen Boret
On 28 September 2007, a local branch of Japans national television broad-
cast (NHK Tokyo) devoted its primetime to a documentary raising pressing
issues about Japanese cemeteries and graves (see Photo 9.1). The programme
started in the assembly room of a public cemetery. Its operators, unable to
meet the demand for new grave plots, were running a lottery for the selection
of new members. The commentator explained that public cemeteries are often
less expensive and more attractive than privately run burial grounds. Among
the participants, a man in his seventies looked anxious. It was already his
twelfth attempt and he was bracing himself for yet another disappointment.
When his number nally came out of the rolling machine, he clenched his sts
in delight and expressed his joy and immense relief to the camera. The
unlucky participants, however, were left visibly frustrated. In the same vein,
the documentary showed the case of a woman and her two adult daughters
who had been keeping the remains of their deceased father in their living
room for several years. They explained that having limited nancial resources
and no male heir to succeed to a family grave, they could not nd a cemetery
that would accommodate their socioeconomic condition. In response to the
hardships involved in nding a burial method suited to ones needs and/or
aspirations, the programme reported on the proliferation of new, accessible,
and less costly forms of burial systems (NHK 2007).
One such innovative grave system in Japan is tree burial (jumokuso
-). In Novem-
ber 1999, a Buddhist temple held its rst tree mortuary ritual in the prefecture
of Iwate, northern Japan. Within a vast woodland in lieu of a cemetery, the
funeral began with the digging of a hole in which the cremated remains of
the deceased were deposited directly into the earth. The conventional mem-
orial stone was replaced by a bush tree
planted on the place of burial. Since
this rst ceremony, the temple has endorsed over 1,500 subscribers, buried
the remains of 600 people, and inspired 50 other cemeteries across the country
to provide a similar form of tree burial. Because their aims and practices vary
(see below), I refer to the particular form investigated in this chapter as Tree-
Burialin order to distinguish it from other Japanese tree burials.
Based on two years of eldwork in Japan, this chapter explores the demo-
graphic and family changes as well as the economic and ideological factors
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motivating people to choose Tree-Burial. The rst section introduces the con-
cept, the community, and the ecological incentives and activities surrounding
the Tree-Burial sites. In the second section, I investigate the underlying
demographic and family conditions that compel or encourage a section of the
Japanese population to renounce the customary ancestral grave. The third
section argues that Tree-Burial is, for some subscribers, a means of contesting
theexorbitantcostofcustomarygravestones and the way some Buddhist priests
run their burial and funeral business. Finally, the last section of this chapter
discusses how Tree-Burial provides for a more individualised form of
memorialisation, and novel ideas of the afterlife based on its subscribers
aspiration to return to nature(shinzen ni kaeritai) for eternity.
Tree-Burial: its concept, practices, and community
The concept of Tree-Burial was created in 1999 by Chisaka Genpo
-, the head
priest of a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple located in Ichinoseki, a city of
northern Japan. His revenues, like most temple priests, are based on his
management of a customary gravestone cemetery, and rely upon the perfor-
mance of funerary rites and other religious services. For the creation of Tree-
Burial, however, Chisaka Genpo
-established a new temple in the citys sur-
rounding countryside, for he professes that the concept and the aims of Tree-
Burial have an anity with the natural environment and, as such, are funda-
mentally at odds with a customary cemetery.
On the way to the Tree-Burial site, one passes through a landscape com-
posed of rice paddies, picturesque farmhouses, abundant forests, owing
rivers, and imposing mountains. Referred to as satoyama, this environment is
often seen as the archetypical countryside of Japan, where people, animals,
forests, and all other forms of life coexist in harmony (Takeuchi et al. 2001).
The site of Tree-Burial has been created on a deserted satoyama. On the
lower part of the site, through which a river ows, there is an old farmhouse,
lodgings, a watermill, and a Zen meditation hall. The upper part is the ver-
sant of a mountain, and is composed of an oce, a small Buddhist ritual hall
as well as rice elds, vegetable gardens, and, nally, the woodland constituting
the Tree-Burial cemetery.
The concept of Tree-Burial
In Tree-Burial, the usual gravestone is replaced by a tree. The burial proce-
dure itself consists of digging a hole (one metre in depth) into which the cre-
mated remains are directly poured. The bush tree(s), which may be planted
prior to, or on the day of the burial, has to be chosen from the 22 varieties
that have been selected by the Tree-Burial oce and the local forester. Most
species are owering shrubs and native to the region in which the cemetery is
In addition to a bush tree, each burial site is marked by one or sev-
eral small wooden tablets on which are written the secular name(s) of the
178 Sébastien Penmellen Boret
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deceased (zokumei). This practice contrasts with the customary use of a
posthumous Buddhist name that symbolises the deceaseds change of status
from living to dead and becoming an ancestor (hotoke). The last section of
this chapter discusses the implications of this shift.
To contract a burial spot costs 50,000 yen (470 USD) plus an annual fee of
8,000 yen (60 USD) for the maintenance of the burial ground. While the
initial fee includes the burial of one individual, a client can add several names
(those of friends and/or family members) to the contract for an additional
10,000 yen (approximately 100 USD) per person. The same amount is
required for the purchase of the bush tree planted on the grave. The contract
lasts for 33 years, after which the burial spot may be recycled and sold to a
new client if no relative or friend of the deceased has agreed to take over the
Finally, it is important to note that this subscription is not based
on any religious aliation or Buddhist denomination, and that the sub-
scribers, unlike those of many Buddhist temples, do not become supporting
members(danka-san) that contribute nancially to the running of the temple.
I return to these issues in the second part of this chapter (see Photo 9.2).
Forming a new community around death
According to a survey carried out on 183 individuals (Chisaka and Inoue
2003: 18992), and as conrmed by my own observations, most Tree-Burial
subscribers come from large urban areas including those of Tokyo and its
periphery (54.7 per cent), Sendai, Morioka, or even the distant capital of
Hokkaido, Sapporo. The subscribers are mainly between 60 and 90 years of
age (78.7 per cent), with a remaining 4559 age group (19.7 per cent). Fur-
thermore, the survey informs us that the people expected to enter the grave
include notably the subscriber (92.3 per cent), his/her spouse (62.3 per cent),
his/her children (18.6 per cent), his/her own parent(s) (11.4 per cent), and
friend(s) (2 per cent). My own research conrms that people often contract a
Tree-Burial grave either as individuals, together with their spouse, or even
with friends. There are also several cases where a household has decided to
remove the remains of its ancestors from the original family gravestone and
(re)bury them in a Tree-Burial space. In addition, there are those who have
purchased this unorthodox burial form on behalf of relatives or parents that
have recently passed away and had made no provisions for a burial ground.
By becoming a Tree-Burial subscriber, one can become part of the com-
munity and participate in the various events organised by its stathat
includes priests, laypeople, and local inhabitants. Twice a year, 20 to 30 sub-
scribers are invited to participate in workshops during the spring and summer
seasons. The participants share a retreat-like experience during a period of
four days. They become involved in the maintenance of the forests owned by
the temple, hike a local mountain, practice Zen meditation, take part in local
cultural events or festivals, visit historical sites, and are given lectures by the
priest and a local forester on issues in Buddhism and ecology.
A Japanese tree burial 179
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Besides seasonal workshops, subscribers are also invited to participate in
an annual memorial. This event has taken place every year since the
opening of the cemetery and presently attracts over 300 participants.
During the memorial, the audience takes part in a series of rituals for the
deceased, including musical performances and prayers by Christian, Shinto,
and Buddhist priests. In addition to rituals, the visitors are invited to stop
by a mini-market set up in the parking lot of the temple, where local
farmers and artisans sell vegetables, cheese, wine, and crafts. At the end of
the memorial, while most participants make their way back home, up to
50 people may join an excursion to the neighbouring mountain where they
spend a night at a hot spring and hike the mountain on the following
The emergence of Tree-Burial cemeteries in Japan
Since its introduction in 1999, the concept of Tree-Burial has seen its popu-
larity grow considerably. The success and originality of this practice have
attracted mass-media attention. Two national newspapers, Asahi and Main-
ichi, have published articles reporting on this phenomenon (Asahi Shinbun
2003, Mainichi Shinbun 2003). On several occasions, there has also been
widespread television coverage by NHK (the national Japanese television
station) on the emergence of Tree-Burial(s).
The concept of planting a tree on the burial ground has also become very
popular among professionals of the funeral industry. An association for the
development of new burial practices in Tokyo, Ending Centre (Endingu
Senta), has actively contributed to the debut of Tree-Burial in Tohoku and
has recently published a list of 50 additional temples and cemeteries that
reportedly oer a tree burial graveyard. Inoue Haruyo, a leader of the Ending
Centre and expert on Japanese death studies, developed a new practice in
2005, known as sakuraso
-or burial under the cherry tree(see Inoues chap-
ter). Located within a gravestone cemetery, sakuraso
-consists of burial of the
cremated remains around a single cherry tree (KS 2007). One of Japans lar-
gest cities, Yokohama, has also planned to provide space for the practice of
Tree-Burial in its public cemetery.
The expansion of tree burials across Japan suggests that this new form of
disposal might indeed be one of the responses to social changes and new ideas
of death in contemporary Japanese society. However, the aims and practices
of Japanese tree burials vary signicantly. First, a tree might mark one or
several burial plots. Second, in most cases the tree burial ground occupies a
small section of a conventional cemetery constituted of tombstone and con-
crete alleys. Underlying these dierences is a business orientation and/or a
need for individually catered forms of disposal. In the case of Tree-Burial,
however, the predominant discourse permeating its community and governing
its practice relates to environmental concerns.
180 Sébastien Penmellen Boret
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An eco-logical cemetery: environmental activities at Tree-Burial
The head priest, Chisaka Genpo
-, explains that his motivation for the creation
of Tree-Burial is his ambition to contribute to and promote the rehabilitation
of Japans ecological environment, especially its forestland. He argues that the
latter has been severely damaged by the creation of industrial forests (i.e.
timber plantations), Japanese industrialisation, changes in livelihood, and the
importation of exotic and foreign plants.
Considering these ecological issues and the lack of initiative from state
agencies, the priest explains that his aim was to develop a concept that would
enable the purchase, restoration and maintenance of a forest and its satoyama
while fullling the basic function of a cemetery. When initially purchased, the
ground for Tree-Burial was a forest of densely planted cedar trees that stunted
the growth of other vegetation. Today, the same forest is composed of sparsely
growing cedar, maple, and cherry trees and other newly planted species. A network
of narrow paths covered by woodchips has been created to prevent visitors
from stepping oestablished footpaths and damaging the rooting systems of trees,
owers, and other plants, which have naturally sprouted after rehabilitation.
Moreover, this network of footpaths breaks down a forest of ten thousand square
metres into smaller sections, creating easily accessible locations for burial spots.
The rehabilitation of forests and their natural habitat by the Tree-Burial
staand subscribers is not limited to the cemetery alone. Since its creation in
1999, the temple has purchased two neighbouring sites. Each parcel of forest
contained in these areas is subject to forestry management. These locations
are not designed to become burial spaces but are mainly conceived as ecolo-
gical sites and a means to provide the Tree-Burial clientele with private or
collective experiences of nature and teachings about ecology. Since April
2007, these sites have become the subject of research carried out by graduate
students of the Department of Ecosystem Studies at the University of Tokyo,
under the supervision of Washitani Izumi, one of Japans leading scholars in
the eld of environmental studies.
The subscribersaspiration to protect nature
The ambitions and ecological activities of Chisaka Genpo
-(e.g. as leader of a
non-prot organisation for the protection of To
-hoku regions main river) are
certainly one of the reasons that motivate subscribers to choose the Tree-
Burial forest for their resting place. This is partly explained by the fact that
many proponents are mountain hikers and/or fervent horticulturalists who
have developed a particular anity with nature (see Photo 9.3). Others are
simply seduced by the ecological project and take this opportunity to learn
about and experience the ecological environment.
Yukiko, an active subscriber of Tree-Burial, explained during our rst
interview at a seasonal workshop that she and her recently deceased husband
used to spend a great deal of their time mountain hiking. She bemusedly told
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me, my husband used to say with a humorous tone that he would like his
ashes to be scattered in the sea so that he could travel all around the world!
Although Yukiko considered shizenso
-or scattering his ashes at sea (see
Kawanos chapter in this volume) as a viable option, she expressed her
apprehension at having no xed location where she could grieve for her hus-
band. Tree-Burial accommodated both her husbands will to rest peacefully in
natural surroundings and her own needs as a mourning widow.
A number of Tree-Burial subscribers believe that the construction of con-
ventional cemeteries is partly responsible for the deforestation of mountains
and for severely damaging Japans natural environment. Moreover, some
subscribers argue that by rehabilitating and protecting this environment and
its satoyama, they are leaving a worthwhile legacy for their children and
future generations. Finally, although they might be living in urban areas,
these people are well informed about Japans progressive destruction of its
natural environment. They express their regret that their nations economic
miracle (post-war exponential growth) has led to the partial destruction of its
native forests and the desertion of its countryside.
The dierent voices of Tree-Burial subscribers echo a growing concern for
the environmental crisis that has taken place in Japan since its industrialisa-
tion, which, as in many other nations, has become a prominent issue in public
debates. Since the 1920s, an outgrowth of Japanese proletarian literature has
been concerned with the destruction and pollution of Japans environment
(Colligan-Taylor 1990: 23). This early literature led to the emergence of a
more distinct environmental campaign in the 1970s, which included poetry, short
stories, novels, and dramas, reecting and contributing to a rising consciousness
of environmental issues in Japan(ibid.).
Since the 1980s, Japan has seen the emergence of environmental move-
ments (mura okoshi) promoting nature or green tourism. In her study of mura
okoshi, Moon suggests that these movements also reect a desire to return to
traditional Japanese values where human beings are perceived as part of
nature rather than as its one-sided utilizer(Moon 2002: 237). These identied
trends for the revival of the countryside and improved relationship with the
environment constitute one of the raisons dêtre of Tree-Burial.
Renouncing the ancestral grave
Without undermining the pressing environmental concerns of Tree-Burial
subscribers and the priest, I now explore the underlying demographical, economic
and social factors that motivate a section of the Japanese population to make
this non-ancestral grave system their rst choice. I investigate how the cus-
tomary family grave has been transformed or altogether became inadequate
for some people, in the face of substantial changes within the structure and
values of Japanese households. This discussion begins with an overview of the
development and principles of the ancestral grave system that has traditionally
bound the individuals identity to that of their family in life and death.
182 Sébastien Penmellen Boret
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The family and ancestral grave systems
During the Meiji period (18681912), Japan entered a new era during which
grand reforms aimed at the centralisation of political authority in a unied
nation-state (Waswo 1996: 2224). Among these major reforms, the Meiji
New Civil Code of 1898 established the ie [i.e. household] system as a legal
entity to which every subject must belongand which exists under the
authority of its head (Tsuji 2002: 180). It was established that under all cir-
cumstances the head must be of male descent. He should be chosen according
to his position within the group, preferably the older son or an adopted son,
and must assume responsibility for the rest of the household. As noted by
Plath, the ie system greatly emphasises the need for continuity within and
outside the family unit (Plath 1964: 308).
The precepts of this household system are reected in the practice of
ancestor reverenceand its loci, the ancestral grave and the family domestic
altar. After the interment of the cremated remains of the deceased in the
family tomb, the living members are to perform a series of post-mortem rites
contributing to the pacication of the spirit of the dead. These memorial
services are usually conducted on the rst, third, seventh, thirteenth, seven-
teenth, twenty-fth, thirty-third, and ftieth anniversary of the death,
although the timing of these rites varies across and within dierent regions of
Japan (Beardsley et al. 1959; Smith 1974).
In addition to rituals for the recently deceased, the members of a household
are expected to gather each year during national festivals for the ancestors: (a)
higan, the spring and autumn equinoctial weeks; and (b) o-bon, the summer
festival for the dead. During the time of o-bon, the members of each house-
hold are expected to invite the spirits of their ancestors back home for several
days (Smith 1978: 16162). They cleanse, pray, and make oerings (e.g.
incense, food, and drinks) at the ancestral grave at the beginning of the festi-
val (see Photo 9.4). At home, the familys Buddhist altar (butsudan) contain-
ing the ancestral memorial tablets (ihai) is also cleaned, adorned with special
bon-lanterns, and contains a variety of oerings, such as vegetables and fruits.
At the end of each festival, outside the house or on a riverbank, lanterns are
lit in order to send back the ancestral spirits to the world of the dead.
Implying permeability between the world of the living and the realm of the
dead, these collective rituals are essential in reinforcing and maintaining the
identity of each household. The design, location, and number of generations
of ancestors it contains represent the history, status, and position of a house-
hold within the wider community. The enactment of these rituals in front of
the family grave also constitutes a time when the members of a household
recognise their common origins and family bonds.
Another institution that binds the individual to his or her family line is the
household register (koseki). Established in 1871 and 1872 respectively, the
Household Register Law and the decree of the Administrative Council made
the patrilineal family a required ideological structure to which everyone must
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subscribe(Stevens and Lee 2002: 92). Article 746 of the civil code stipulated
that [t]he head of a house and its members bear the (family) name of such
house(Tsuji 2002: 180). For the sake of the ideology that says that building
cohesive family units leads to a strong nation, the ie household system and
the register became two important institutions dening the individual within a
continuing household (in life) and its family grave (in death).
Changing Japanese families and uncared-for spirits
Since the Meiji period, several demographic and family conditions have been
challenging the continuity of Japanese households and their ancestral graves.
Anthropological studies have addressed the various impacts that these chan-
ges have had on Japanese families (Traphagan and Knight 2003). However,
there is a growing need for discussing the problems that are faced by those
who are now responsible for establishing or maintaining their family graves,
and which, as we have seen, were established at a time when the continuing
family system prevailed and when there were enough children to carry out the
social duties prescribed by law and custom.
The rst changing condition is record low birthrate in the country. The
total fertility rate (the number of children that a woman bears), fell from 4.32
in 1950 to two in 1955, and after a stable period until 1974, plunged again to
1.57 in 1989 to reach 1.38 in 2000 (Ochiai 1996: 38; Roberts 2002: 56). Given
that typical contemporary families have at most two children, Ochiai con-
tends that if these households ran according to a strictly patrilineal principle,
one in four graves would be left unattended by any descendants(Ochiai
1996: 152).
Many Tree-Burial subscribers are unable to establish a family grave of their
own because they do not have a proper male successor. A survey conducted
by Inoue Haruyo suggests 23 per cent of the Tree-Burial subscribers did not
have a son or son-in-law to succeed to their grave (Chisaka and Inoue 2003:
192). Among my own informants, a typical example of this dilemma is the
case of Hiroshi, a retired engineer of a prestigious company in Tokyo.
After losing two of his siblings to cancer, he grew increasingly conscious of
his own mortality and decided to make provisions for his grave. According to
the ie system, Hiroshi, because he is not the eldest son of his family, should
set up his own family grave. The problem is that Hiroshi has no proper male
to succeed to his grave but two married daughters who he expects will be
buried in their husbandsfamily graves. Therefore, the purchase of an expen-
sive customary tombstone (see next section) for him and his wife, which no
children will inherit and is doomed to be abandoned, became meaningless
and unworthy. Nevertheless, Hiroshi and his spouse wanted to provide a
burial place for themselves where their daughters could mourn their death
and carry out the necessary memorial services for their souls. In search of an
alternative model, he turned to Tree-Burial, which, as I discuss below, does
not require a male successor to the grave.
184 Sébastien Penmellen Boret
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The second factor inuencing grave matters is the decrease and delaying of
marriages among younger generations. The marriage rate (per 1,000 popula-
tion) fell from over 10 in the 1970s to 5.7 in 2005 (Ochiai 1996: 17273). The
decreasing marriage rate has been accompanied by an increase in the average
age of rst marriage during the same period. The percentage of unmarried
men aged 3539 increased from 4.7 per cent in 1970 to 22.6 per cent in 1995.
Likewise, unmarried women aged 3034 reached 20 per cent in 1995 against
7.2 per cent in 1970. In 1995, the percentage of unmarried men and women
aged 2529 were respectively 66.9 per cent and 48 per cent (Roberts 2002: 55).
In a country where birth out of wedlock is almost non-existent (Hertog 2009),
the current decline in the number of marriages means that many parents are
unlikely to have, or do not trust their children to provide them with, a suc-
cessor to their household and family graves. If these gures only prove a sig-
nicant delay in marriages, these facts nevertheless cause concern among the
older generations, at least with regards to family succession.
Because of the changing marriage patterns, the succession of the ancestral
grave troubles also those families with potential male successors. Among Tree-
Burial subscribers, Kumiko, a woman in her sixties and mother of two children,
explained that although she has a son, he is yet to be married and shows little
prospect of having children of his own. For this reason, Kumiko decided not
to purchase a grave because without grandchildren to look after it and ensure
its continuity, it would become an unwelcome duty for her children.
Faced with this problem of succession, Ochiai suggests that a growing
number of temples will allow a married daughter to take nancial responsi-
bility for the upkeep of her own familys graves(Ochiai 1996: 15253). As I
now discuss, however, Tree-Burial subscribers often expressed their awareness
of the burden and responsibilities entailed in maintaining two family graves
and have often expressed their desire of not wanting to impose such duties
upon their daughters.
The problem of maintaining an ancestral grave has recently been intensied
by the increased life expectancy and the aging of the Japanese population. In large
part due to medical advancements, Japanese people have reached a life
expectancy of 78.5 years for men and 85.5 years for women (Facts and Fig-
ures of Japan 2007: 26). At the same time, demographers reported an exponen-
tial increase in the population over 65 years of age. Between 1950 and 1995,
the proportion of elderly people increased from 4.9 to 20.8 per cent. Specia-
lists predict that almost one person out of three will be aged over 65 by 2020.
The improvement of health and mortality had a twofold consequence
(Raymo and Kaneda 2003: 46). At rst, it temporarily relieved children from
having to care for their aging parents. More recently, however, medical pro-
gress means that elderly peoples lives are prolonged at the expense of their
own adult children who have to care for them either at home or in hospital.
Without discussing the complexity of the problem, one should be aware that
these demographic facts have caused many tensions. Bethel (1992) reports the
problems between elderly people who wish to live independent lives in old
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peoples home and the lingering sense of lial piety in Japanese society. On
the other hand, these situations have led to innovative living arrangements such as
two-generation houses (see Brown 2003). Although a direct causal eect
cannot be established, growing concerns over old age have visibly had an
impact on an already problematic ancestral grave system.
When I asked Tree-Burial subscribers why they chose not to establish a
generational grave, many interviewees replied: We do not want to trouble our
children(kodomo ni meiwaku wo kaketakunai). This statement reects that
the aforementioned trends have increased the duties of now fewer children
towards their parents but also the sentiment among elderly people of poten-
tially becoming a burden in old age for their children. If they become a lia-
bility in life for their next of kin, elderly people are all the more inclined to
choose a grave system such as Tree-Burial, which will not impose further
responsibilities on their children.
The problem of grave succession is not limited to the practical and ideolo-
gical continuation of the family line and its ancestral grave. In Japan, indivi-
duals who are not buried in a family grave are classied as unrelated spirits or
muenbotoke. Within the system of ancestor worship, this category constitutes
an antithesis to benevolent and proper ancestors. The dead that have not been
properly cared for by the living members of their households are said to be
wandering around their grave in a state of perpetual melancholy (Smith
1974). In some cases, unrelated spirits are considered as threatening. In this
vein, communities and temples have traditionally, out of compassion and/or
fear, held special rituals for the uncared-for dying in their vicinity. People who in
all evidence are expected to die as muenbotoke suer from this prospect
during their lifetime. Some of my informants were disdained and even sometimes
blamed by their relatives for encountering such a fate.
The inadequacy of the ancestral grave system and the prospect of becoming
amuenbotoke are most unbearable for individuals already tormented by grief.
For instance, Akiko gave details of her own struggle during a private con-
versation at a Tree-Burial seasonal workshop. Akiko has had two children, a
daughter and a son. She lost her son in a tragic accident when he was still a
student. His ashes were placed in a small grave in a public cemetery, which
she found dark and cold. Years later, her husband died of a sudden illness. In
addition to the loss of her husband, she had to face the dilemma of looking
for a grave for her husband, her son, and eventually herself. Her daughter has
been living in North America ever since she started high school and showed
little prospect of returning to Japan. Having no successor to carry out the
necessary rituals at the grave, Akiko feared she would become an uncared-for
The growing number of muenbotoke also presents a problem to cemetery
operators. Since the 1990s, the growing number of graves without caretakers
(muenbo) has become a real burden for cemetery operators. Burial grounds
located in urban areas have been facing a lack of space for the establishment
of new graves. While they might wish to recycle the space occupied by the
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graves, the regulations concerning the handling of human remains makes it a
very costly and time-consuming operation. Graves without caretakers repre-
sent a direct economic loss since their maintenance fees remain unpaid (Tsuji
2002: 191). As a result, some of my informants and previous studies have
reported that some cemeteries refused to allow the purchase of family graves
by those without a male successor.
The development of non-ancestral grave systems
Faced with these problems, the burial industry has developed new services that
do not require the presence of family members to attend to the graves. One of these
new non-ancestral burial systems is the eternal worshipped grave (eitai kuyo
For a nominal fee, a Buddhist priest carries out the duties of the living, such
as making oerings of prayers and incense, as well as cleaning the gravestone.
However, this new service only adds to the cost of a customary grave and the
establishment of an eternal grave might cost as much as 1.8 million yen
(approximately 20,000 USD) (Tsuji 2002: 188). Alternatives to eternal graves
are non-lial ossuaries or communal graves, which are less expensive and
require no maintenance (Suzuki 2000: 174 and Inoues chapter in this volume).
Other options include shizenso
-or natural burial, which consists of the scat-
tering of the ashes of the deceased at sea or on a mountain (Kawano in this
volume). It appears that my informants are not always aware or show little
interest in ossuaries or communal graves, which may be perceived as the utmost
standardisation of death. In contrast, I argue that Tree-Burial oers a greater
level of personalisation with regards to memorialisation and ideas of death.
Renouncing lavish funeral businesses
In addition to problems of succession, my research shows that Tree-Burial is a
means of contesting the exorbitant costs of gravestones, of renting cemetery
grounds, and of performing customary Buddhist memorial services. The
typical price of setting up a grave in central Tokyo is on average ten million yen
(93,000 USD). This cost is inclusive of the tombstone, the gravesite and its
maintenance fee. The price of a burial plot alone varies between 380 thousand
(3,600 USD) and over ve million yen (52,300 USD) per two square metres
(NHK 2007). Although the tremendous cost of these cemeteries is specic to the
Tokyo area and surrounding prefectures where the price of land contributes
to the high cost of establishing and running cemeteries the price of a grave
is on average three million yen (28,000 USD) (Inoue 1990: 220; Japan Time
2002). During our interviews, a considerable number of Tree-Burial sub-
scribers stated that they chose not to, or were simply not able to, undertake
the considerable expenses of a gravestone and the rental of a burial space.
Participants in my research have often criticised the business-orientated
practices of some Buddhist temples. The law regarding burial grounds, in
eect since 1948, restricts the construction of cemeteries to sites that have
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received State permits, and limits their ownership to city oces and religious
institutions. This regulation also stipulates that only Buddhist priests have the
right to expand burial sites, which, as a result, are in the great majority owned
and managed by Buddhist temples (Suzuki 2000: 174). Article 190 of the
Criminal Code considers it a crime to destroy, abandon, or steal human
remains and bones which in all circumstances must be buried in a cemetery
(Tsuji 2002: 18384). With few and overcrowded public graveyards available,
most people depend on those managed by Buddhist temples in collaboration
with private funeral companies.
Tree-Burial subscribers often lament that the traditional role of the priest of
a community temple is too often comparable to that of a businessman.
Owing to the erce competition of private funeral parlors, the income of
many Buddhist temples has been increasingly conned to performing mor-
tuary rituals. In order to increase their revenue, priests have developed
sophisticated marketing devices for selling funerals and other mortuary ser-
vices (Suzuki 2000: 174). Incidences of temples charging between several
hundred thousand and several million yen for a funeral (inclusive of chanting
sutras and the writing of a posthumous name) are typical. A common
aphorism for a Buddhist priest amongst the Japanese is the shaved-head
making prot(bo
-zu maru mo
In contrast to Buddhist cemeteries, Tree-Burial is not a religion-based
practice. Its oce requires neither the performances of costly rituals nor the
purchase of a posthumous name. Moreover, the subscribers as well as the
members of his urban community temple celebrate the Tree-Burial priest for
his aordable funeral and memorial services.
Another critical aspect for some Tree-Burial members is the customary
relation between Buddhist temples and their parishioners.
Known as danka
seido, this system works on the premise that when a household establishes its
family grave in the cemetery owned by a temple, it becomes one of its sup-
porting members (danka-san). Like many cemeteries managed by non-reli-
gious institutions, the subscription to a Tree-Burial grave does not initiate a
danka relationship between subscribers and their temple.
Some of my informants have argued that this relationship can be dicult and
nancially taxing.
For example, a married couple explained that the priests of
their family temple had been asking for large nancial donations in order to
renovate its buildings and expand its cemetery. The authority of the temple as well
as the pressure from the village community did not permit them to negotiate
or simply refuse to make nancial contributions. In order to free themselves and
their two sons from the ties with of their temple and further nancial pressures,
the couple decided to move their familygrave (ancestor remains) out of the temples
cemetery to that of the Tree-Burial site. Aware that their decision would be
disapprovedby the local community, and their temple priest, they called upon a
third party (i.e. their uncle) to negotiate the transfer of the familygrave.
As we have seen so far, Tree-Burial appears to break away from traditional
family-grave structures and bonds whose nancial cost, maintenance, and
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requirements for succession, do not meet social changes and the shifting
values of a growing number of Japanese families and individuals. Moreover,
Tree-Burial subscribers have often expressed that, because of their own
experience of the nancial and practical diculties involved in the caring of
the family grave and being emancipated from the danka system, they have
resolved not to impose a similar burden upon their children (kodomo ni mendo
wo kaketakunai).
However, Tree-Burial is not the only system to meet these
conditions and we must therefore investigate further the subscriberspractices
and ideas of death in order to better understand and appreciate the popularity
of Tree-Burial as a mode of burial in contemporary Japan.
From ancestral worship to personalised memorialisation
In the last section of this chapter, I present additional, yet equally pressing fac-
tors for the growing popularity of Tree-Burial and other tree burial cemeteries.
First, I demonstrate how this burial system provides people with the ability to
(re)negotiate their social relationships and to celebrate their personal history
and their relationship with the deceased. Second, through an analysis of Tree-Bur-
ials annual memorial, I discuss ideas of death held by its proponents. Finally,
I argue that the syncretism in Tree-Burial forms a comprehensive practice
whose ultimate object of praxis, as opposed to ideology or faith, is nature.
Leaving the family grave: choosing with (out) whom to be buried
During the course of my research, I encountered several people who, having rst
met at various events, have now formed friendships and meet regularly within
and outside the context of Tree-Burial. The possibility of constructing new
social networks is based on the fact that Tree-Burial is not based exclusively
upon family ties. It allows for groups, relatives, and/or friends, as well as
individuals, to purchase a single, jointly shared burial site. Members are free
to choose with and therefore without whom they wish to be buried with or
may request to be buried alone.
Illustrating the redenition of ones social relationship around a grave, is an
account from a woman that I interviewed during a train journey to the Tree-Burial
annual memorial in 2006. Makiko was in her late seventies when her husband
suered a long illness. She became responsible for looking after him and
managing the house. Makiko thought (to quote her words) Japanese men
are terrible! I spent all my life and old age taking care of my husband and
he never once said thank you!Resentful, she decided that she would not be
buried with him and contracted her own grave through Tree-Burial where she
could rest alone forever. In the same vein, some women who have suered the
tyranny of their mothers-in-laws have openly express the refusal to be buried in
their husbands family graves. Dicult relations between brides and mothers-
in-laws have been reported in previous studies (Izuhara 2000; Tsuji 2002: 188)
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as the main cause of divorce or, in the case where daughters-in-laws choose to
be buried outside the ancestral grave of their husband, a posthumous divorce.
The forging of new friendships can be compared to those observed in
common or associative graves where people who will be entombed together
meet regularly, creating a new community to compensate for the lack of kin
or locality-based support(Tsuji 2002: 192). I have myself visited the com-
munal grave of the Moyai association (the mooringassociation) created 20
years ago in a cemetery of central Tokyo. Its manager explained that its
12,000 members made provisions for their own funerals and formed small
groups based on their collective leisure activities (e.g. arts, sports, etc.). Each
of these groups visits the common burial grave of the association and per-
forms a short memorial service for the spirits of the deceased members. One
may be swift to notice that the aforementioned cases are indicative of a shift
away from the traditional family grave paradigm towards a new community-
based and individually catered form of burial.
Representing personal history (ies)
Tree-Burial is also a means of celebrating the individualityof the deceased.
As mentioned in the rst part of this chapter, the deceased buried in the
cemetery of Tree-Burial retain their civil name (zokumei) inscribed on the
wooden tablet planted at the burial site. This method contrasts with the con-
ventional Buddhist attribution of a posthumous name (kaimyo
-) that symbo-
lises the change of status of the individual, his/her belonging to the world of
the dead, and his/her becoming an ancestor of his/her household.
Research suggests that the memorialisation practices of Tree-Burial sub-
scribers often reect the personal history of the deceased, including marital
relationships. For instance, Yuko writes in one of our correspondences that
her husband was an enthusiast of their neighbouring countryside and moun-
tains. He spent a great deal of his leisure time in these natural environments
collecting wild vegetables and owers. After his retirement, her companion
expressed his desire to leave their urban surroundings and move to a coun-
tryside house near a mountain where he and his wife would share a new way
of life. Their project was fatally thwarted as her husband succumbed rapidly
to an incurable disease. With the help of her children and her brother-in-law,
Yuko made provisions to bury his remains on the mountain of Tree-Burial
where, she believes, her husband now rests happily.
Like Yuko and her husband, I discovered that many subscribers are passionate
about mountain climbing and nature. For them, this burial practice reects
their philosophy of life and celebrates the deceaseds relationship with nature.
individualisation of ones grave
In all evidence, Tree-Burial is a very dierent type of burial system as com-
pared to communal graves and ossuaries, which some of my informants see as
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being somewhat restrictive and impersonal. For them, Tree-Burial provides a
more exible, individualistic or personal approach to death. During partici-
pant observation at the Tree-Burial site, a woman explained that she chose a
burial space higher in the mountain because it oered a better view of the
surrounding mountains to her deceased husband. Holding onto some notion
of afterlife, some might prefer a location where the dead will enjoy the pas-
sage of visitors, while others might prefer a more isolated part of the cemetery
where they may rest peacefully.
Moreover, the tree planted on the grave can be representative of a personal
relationship and connection that people may have had with the deceased. A
woman, who buried her husband in their mutual grave, explained that she had
planted a Japanese apricot tree because her late husband used to collect these fruits
for her every summer. Similarly, a man, who purchased a Tree-Burial grave
for his recently departed wife and himself, planted two intertwined magnolias
as a symbol of their shared memories. I was also told of a married couple
who, although they had purchased a common resting place, made provisions
for their remains and their trees to be planted slightly apart.
Individual memorialisation as practiced by Tree-Burial subscribers is part
of a larger trend in Japanese death representations. Extensive research by
Japanese scholar Suzuki Iwayumi has revealed that traditional family grave-
stones are increasingly being personalised (Suzuki 2007). The family name
might no longer be used on the inscription of the tombstones and might be
replaced by words such as yume(dream). Some have chosen to append
artifacts (a motorbike among the most unusual cases) to memorialise those
buried under the grave.
Studies on Japanese funeral ceremonies reveal a current shift away from
highly standardised ceremonies, referred to by Hikaru Suzuki as McFunerals,
to individual-catered funerals (see Suzukis chapter in this volume). These new
trends are not only representative of changes in memorial practices, but are
also an indicator of the fact that Japanese people are becoming more aware of
their right to fashion the celebration and memorialisation of their own deaths.
Conceptions of death and the afterlife
In addition to custom-made opportunities for memorialisation, Tree-Burial
caters for the diversity of its subscribersideas of death. This plurality is best
represented, I believe, by the variety of religious leaders and the chorus that
animates the Tree-Burial Annual Memorial. The main ritual takes place
within the cemetery where the 300 participants gather. Over approximately
one hour, the participants take part in the chanting of Buddhist prayers, the
reading of the Christian bible by a local pastor, the carrying out of Shinto
rites by the head of a local shrine, and non-religious musical performances. I
will now discuss how these ritual performances relate to ideas of death.
Among the 600 individuals already buried in the Tree-Burial ground,
approximately 300 have received Buddhist memorial services at the grave at
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the burial ceremony and/or for their death anniversaries. Moreover, there has
been an increasing demand for the priests to perform rituals for the ancestors
in front of the family Buddhist altar located in their homes. Likewise, the
oce of Tree-Burial reports that some of the bereaved, unable to travel to the
site of Tree-Burial during the bon festival, have requested the oering of
Buddhist prayers and incense at the graves of their departed relatives or
friends. Contrary to this, the above gures also reveal that over half of Tree-
Burial members do not rely on conventional Buddhist memorial services.
Freed from conventional grave and memorial practices, few Tree-Burial
subscribers visit the graves of the deceased during the nationwide bon festival.
In 2007, my observations suggest that out of several hundred burial sites only
approximately 50 graves were visited during the festival for the ancestors. If
the absence of grave caretakers might explain their low attendance at bon,
conversations with my informants show that some members simply do not
feel duty-bound to follow the customary and nationwide festival for the dead.
For instance, some members simply argue that the overcrowded trains and the
hot season made the journey to the cemetery a troublesome enterprise.
A lack of adherence to conventions does not equate to a disregard for post-
mortem ritual care. On the contrary, many Tree-Burial subscribers choose to
visit the grave during less congested and cooler periods, and sometimes more
frequently. Maki, a widow without children, contended that she visits the
grave of her departed husband several times a year and that her visiting the grave
during the bon festival has no particular signicance. Furthermore, for some
of my informants, the practice of visiting ones ancestral grave has become
almost mechanical, something of a habit. They feel bound to this custom
simply because of social and moral obligations.
My study seems to indicate that a signicant number of Tree-Burial sub-
scribers have shifted away from ancestral rituals and Buddhist conceptions of
death. They do not seem to argue that their soul will become, in the conven-
tional sense, a buddha (hotoke) or pacied spirit through the performances of
Buddhist post-mortem rituals.
Among my research participants, two other ideas of death seem to prevail.
Some simply contemplate that there is no life after death and that the only
thing left is heaps of cremated remains. They may express this idea in the
phrase buttai ni naru(becoming an inanimate body) or mu ni naru
(becoming nothing). For them, death means the end of any form of existence,
or the continuity of existence in the heart-mind (kokoro) of the living with
whom one has shared his/her life.
Another commonly shared idea (which does not exclude the ones above) is
encapsulated in the phrase: I want to go back to nature(shinzen ni kaeritai).
Some people might speak of resting in nature(shizen ni nemuru). They
believe that their ashes will be buried in the soil of the Tree-Burial cemetery
and that this will become their eternal resting place of comfort, cool in
summer and warm in winter. These ideas are in stark contrast with their
perceptions of the cold and dark concrete cavity of the gravestone.
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Subscribers also tend to choose the location of their burial ground according
to its surrounding vegetation or the view that it might oer to the deceased.
Others trust that their ashes will dissolve in the soil of the forest and nourish
its trees and owers. Hence they hold onto a non-sectarian sense of eternity as
they hope to enter the cycle of nature through their ashes and be renewed
through the generative process of nature.
The deceased reborn as owers(hana ni umare kawaru hotoketachi) is the
catchphrase written in the literature published by the Tree-Burial temples
oce (Chisaka 2007). A number of participants expressed the desire or elicit
the image of being reborn as owers that will blossom from the tree planted
over their grave.
Nature as an object of praxis
The concept of returning to natureis better understood through the prac-
tices of Shinto. Considered Japans native religion, Shinto can be dened as
the belief in the divine or spirits (kami) manifested through natural phenom-
ena and people. Nowadays in Japan, there are 80,000 registered Shinto
shrines, each of which marks a site where a divinity or spirit has chosen to
manifest itself and make its dwelling. One of the terms used in Japanese to
refer to these revealed spaces is shiniki (sacred elements of nature). The dis-
tinctive characteristic of these sacred sites is that they are materialised
through an element of nature: a rock, a tree, a mountain, etc. (Grapard 1982:
197). These locations become the focus of pilgrimages, rituals, and popular
festivals (matsuri).
They are also places where people may ask for assistance
and show their respect and devotion (shinko
-)toakami during private visits.
Furthermore, Clammer has argued that Shinto is a form of animism and
constitutes ecologyas much as a religion”’ (Clammer 2004: 95). In other
words, Japanese do not conceive their relationship with nature through a
mannature dichotomy, but see it as one where man is in nature.
in their introduction to the collection of essays on Japanese Images of Nature,
Asquith and Kalland write:
One of the premises for an understanding of the humannature relation-
ship in Japan is the close interconnectedness between nature, aesthetics
and religion. Many Japanese understand spirits, whether kami, ancestors
or hungry ghosts, as belonging to natureand not to the normal sphere
of religion (that is, to culture).
(Asquith and Kalland 1997: 19)
The distinctive relationship forged between people and the natural land-
scape is further expressed in popular songs chanted by a choir at the mem-
orial. Their lyrics recall images of famous scenic spots (e.g. Lake Biwako), the
succession of seasons, and so forth. Many of these songs evoke a longing for
the Japanese countryside and its satoyama (see rst part of this chapter for a
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discussion of satoyama). These idealised images are particularly appealing to
some Tree-Burial subscribers who have left their natal villages to make a
livelihood in Tokyo or some other largely populated urban neighbourhood.
For some, the satoyama of Tree-Burial has become their hometownor place
of origin (furusato) of their heart/mind (kokoro) and its forest the world of
their souls after death.
Since the 1980s, Japanese customary burial practices, based on the continuity
of the household through the male line and on ancestor reverence practices,
have been critically challenged by social changes in Japan. Among the factors
that have led to the transformation of the original structure of the Japanese
household, we nd: (a) two successive drops in the birthrate; (b) changing
attitudes toward marriage; and (c) the dispersal of family networks across
Japan. As a result, a growing number of Japanese families do not have a
proper successor and are facing a genuine struggle in dealing with the main-
tenance or establishment of a family grave. In response to these needs, the
temple of Tree-Burial by substituting the family gravestone with a tree has
created a practice requiring neither a male descent nor a grave caretaker. This,
I have argued, is certainly among the main reasons that have motivated the
choice of subscribers.
Exacerbated by concerns over succession, I have also reported that the cost
of creating a family grave, renting burial grounds, as well as employing the
services of Buddhist temples, is for many a nancial burden. A high level of
urbanisation and the growing number of graves without grave caretakers have led
to a lack of space in urban cemeteries for the establishment of new graves. As
a result, the average cost of a grave in Tokyo has become exorbitant. Tree-
Burial subscribers criticise Buddhist temples, which have become largely
dependent on the revenue generated from their cemeteries and funeral ser-
vices, for their abusive business attitude. Therefore, I suggest that by choosing
post-mortem rituals which do not require the purchase of expensive grave-
stones, performances of Buddhist services, or nancially supporting a Bud-
dhist temple, Tree-Burial subscribers contest the hegemonic business of
conventional Buddhist temples.
Tree-Burial is not the only low-cost burial option available today in Japan.
A growing number of temples provide ossuaries and communal graves for
which the charge is comparable to that of Tree-Burial. I have reported that in
contrast to Tree-Burial these practices might be seen as the ultimate standar-
disation of death. Another solution might be shizenso
-, the scattering of the
ashes (see Kawanos chapter in this volume). However, some informants have
argued that the abolition of the grave system is too radical a change. In con-
trast, I have demonstrated that Tree-Burial caters to the expectations of its
subscribers for individually catered memorialisation and accommodates new
conceptions of death.
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Finally, this chapter has argued that these social, economical, and ideolo-
gical changes come together in a comprehensive practice of which the ulti-
mate object of praxis is nature. First, I have discussed that Tree-Burial
subscribers ideologically and practically engage with Japans natural environ-
ment through the rehabilitation and management of the forests owned by its
temple. Second, I have argued that the substitution of gravestones by trees has
shifted the identication and devotion of its subscribers away from a house-
centric or oiko-centricto an eco-centricperspective through the creation of
forests designated for Tree-Burial. It may be noted that the protection of
natureprovides some sort of support and cohesion, which earlier anthro-
pologists, like Hertz and Durkheim, have considered essential for people at
the time of death (Hertz 1960; Durkheim 1912).
To conclude, this chapter has shown how Tree-Burial has grown in relation
to demographic changes, increasing burial costs, a need for individual mem-
orialism, and a growing concern for the environment. Over and above con-
celing ones remains beneath a tree, this simple act reveals a multifaceted
approach that is as much about the appropriation of a death of onesown
(Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2001: 15155) and the creation and negotiation of
individual networks of relationships as it is about the regeneration of life in
an eco-logical cemetery.
1 The growing concern for the treatment of ones cremated remains is best reected
in urban legends. For example, my informants recounted stories of people who, not
being able to deal rationally with the presence of the cremated remains of their
relatives had instead deposited the ashes in a train stations coin locker. Others
Photo 9.1 Subscribers visiting a Tree-Burial grave, summer 2007
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Photo 9.2 Tree-Burial annual memorial, October 2006
Photo 9.3 Tree-Burial subscribers trekking in a national park, summer 2007
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spoke of news reports citing the growing number of urns left on luggage racks of
commuter trains.
2 Although called tree burial, many of the species used are actually shrubs or bushes,
and are therefore called herein bush trees.
3 The book about Tree-Burial published by the priest provides short descriptions
(blooming season, size, etc.) and sketches of the 22 selected tree species (Japanese
names in brackets): lonicera gracilipes (uguisukagura); menziesia multiora (ura-
jiroyouraku); rhododendron kaempferi (yamatsutsuji); rhododendron albrechtii
(murasakiyashio); rhododendron japonicum (rengetsutsuji); viburnum dilatatum
(gamazumi); callicarpa japonica (murasakishikibu); cuonymus oxyphyllus (tsur-
ibana); stewartia pseudocamellia (mayumi); rhododendron semibarbatum (bai-
katsutsuji); enkianthus campanulatus (sarasadoudan); viburnum furcatum
(mushikari); philadelphus (baikautsugi); hydrangea macrophylla (ezoajisai); ilex
serrata (umemodoki); vaccinum oldhami (natsuhaze); euonymus alatus (nishikigi);
rhododendron albrechtii (murasakiyashio); symplocos sawafutagi (sawafutagi);
viburnum furcatum (okamenoki); lindera umbellata (obakuromoji); lonicera graci-
lipes (miyamaudaisukagura) (Chisaka 2007: 93102).
4 Thirty-three years corresponds to the customary period needed for the spirit of the
deceased to achieve ancestorhood after which there is usually no need for the per-
formances of individual memorial services at the grave.
5 Following the end of the Second World War, Japans native forests were cut down
massively and replaced by monocultures of Japanese cedar trees so that by 1997,
43 per cent of Japanese forested land was composed of these Japanese cedar plan-
tations (Iwai 2002: 11; Kerr 2001: 53). In addition, the government carried out a
tree plantingcampaign which resulted in the aorestation of 10 milion hectares of
Japans bare mountain (hogeyama) (Knight 2006: 32). Since the late 1970s, how-
ever, Japans wood market has been assailed by the importation of a cheap, high-
quality lumber from Australia and Canada. As a result, Japanese domestic
exploitations became progressively redundant and a lack of caretaking causes con-
siderable concern (Iwai 2002: 1823). Planted in uniform rows and one metre
apart, the canopy of Japanese cedar trees prevents the sunlight and restricts the
growth of smaller trees and other vegetation. Because of the environmental
Photo 9.4 Customary Japanese ancestral grave, Ichinoseki City
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impoverishment caused by these monocultures, several scholars and other specia-
lists are thus calling for a regeneration of Japans native forests (Iwai 2002: 3025).
6 The industrialisation of Japan not only resulted in an environmental crisis, but also
in the depopulation and subsequent impoverishment of the rural areas. In 1970, the
Japanese government, for the rst time, attempted to reverse the migrating move-
ment of its rural population to urban areas. The incentives of this enacted law were
a redistribution of industrial centres, the introduction of special tax concessions
and other subsequent subsidies (Moon 2002: 228). These measures, however, did
not generate any signicant improvements. Instead, rural areas suered a sub-
sequent decit, the aging of its population; 30 per cent of the people living in rural
areas in 1980 were aged over 65.
7 Together with family graves, Buddhist ancestral altars are essential to customary
ancestor reverence and an object of pride among certain families. Since the begin-
ning of the twentieth century, scholars have reported that the size and quality of
Buddhist altars varied, and became a means of arming the households wealth
and status (Embree 1939: 238; Smith 1978: 154).
8 The author observes that many women who are the only child or the eldest in a
family of girls, are often unable to marry because their parents have hopes of their
nding a husband who will agree to be legally adopted, thus taking the wifes
family name(Ochiai 1996: 152). Since one man out of four was himself the eldest
son of his family and must assume the role of successor, the aspiration of these
families has been often in vain.
9 During the course of my visit to traditional cemeteries, I have observed the cases
where two households have resolved the problems by disposing the remains of their
respective ancestors in a single grave, on which both family names are inscribed.
10 Surveys conducted between 1976 and 1987 by the Soto Zen Buddhist sects, one of
the most inuential Japanese Buddhist sects, shows that over 75 per cent of its
parishioners go to temples only for funerals and memorial services for the ances-
tors and 7.8 per cent for spiritual reasons. Also, over 50 per cent have urged their
parish temple to devote itself more wholeheartedly to the performance of the
ancestral rites(Smith 1999: 25558).
11 The survey conducted by Inoue Haruyo suggested that people who have chosen
Tree-Burial because they nd the templeparishioner (danka) relationship burden-
some represent 10 per cent (Chisaka and Inoue 2003: 192).
12 Buddhist temples, classied as religious institutions, do not ocially charge for
services receive donations for services rendered. One of my informants explained
that the principle of donations is quite troublesome and nancially taxing. When
her father died, she and her relatives had to expend a great deal of eort trying to
calculate the proper amountnecessary for donation, ascertaining information on the
expenditures for funerals from other community members. The interest in uphold-
ing community standards and safeguarding social prestige was of importance.
13 According to a survey conducted among 183 Tree-Burial subscribers, 40 per cent of
the participants have stated that one of their motivations for contracting Tree-
Burial is to not impose the burden of the maintenance of a customary family
gravestone upon their children (Chisaka and Inoue 2003: 192).
14 Until the 1970s, most Japanese believed these memorials contributed to the well-
being of the deceased in the land of the Buddha (Suzuki 2000). The placation (i.e.
oerings) and ministration of prayers characterise most Japanese ritual actions
towards their ancestors (Plath 1964: 306). If such duties were not observed, the
ancestors, who were considered benevolent toward their descendants, could inict
misfortune on their descendents. However, what is typically considered to be
ancestor worship is said to be in decline since the 1960s and 1970s. For instance,
Smith reports that there is less and less emphasis on the observances for the
remote dead, which were essentially concerns of the household, and an increasing
198 Sébastien Penmellen Boret
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tendency to demonstrate aection for recently deceased kinsmen only, in the form
of simplied memoralism(Smith 1974: 223). This is conrmed by the research of
contemporary anthropologists, such as Suzuki, who writes: The fundamental
change is the shift from ancestor worship that values the deceased for the pur-
pose of household perpetuation, to the memorialism of the individual that elabo-
rates the deceaseds personal life based on the bereaved loved toward the deceased
(Suzuki 2000: 171).
15 These statements appear to be conrmed by the survey carried out among 183
Tree-Burial subscribers in 2003 by Inoue Haruyo. The scholar reports that to the
question: Do you believe in a world after death (anoyo, raisei ga aruto zonjite
iruka)?the responses were: 37.1 per cent do not believe; 26.8 per cent I do not
know; 26.8 per cent I would like to believe so; and 12.5 per cent I believe.
Likewise, when asked do you believe in the existence of a soul/spirit after death
(shigo no reikon no sonzai o shinjite iruka)?the answers were: 25.7 per cent Ido
not believe; 26.8 per cent I do not know; 26.8 per cent I want to believe so; and
15.3 per cent I believe(Chisaka and Inoue 2003: 197).
16 A few examples of mountain worship are those of the Fusokyo and Jikkokyo sects
at Mount Fuji or the Ontakekyo sect at Mount Ontake in the Nagano prefecture.
Other sects undertake water purication on waterfalls for the cultivation of the
mind and body (Clammer 2004: 94).
17 Another approach to the Japanese idea of nature has been developed by the French
anthropologist Augustin Berque. In Le Sauvage et lArtice, the author attempts
to understand the paradoxical Japanese relationship with nature. The problem is
that the Japanese ignore it, devastate it, but paradoxically they appreciate nature
to the extent of having made it their supreme treasure, the pinnacle of their culture
(Berque 1997: 9).
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A Japanese tree burial 201
... While trailing in the forest cemetery, his partner points at the overwhelming sense of life rather than death that one experiences. Their emphasis on life, the body of the dead as a gift and the ecological incentive seems recurrent in the context of ecological cemeteries in Japan (Boret 2013) and the UK . ...
... A woman who has suffered from the 'tyranny' of her mother-in-law and her husband chooses not to be enclosed in her spouse's ancestral tombstone and instead purchases an ash depository which does not require the performance of ancestral rites. Other novel forms of disposal include the scattering of ashes at sea or in mountains (Kawano 2010(Kawano , 2004, cremated bones compacted into Buddha statues, or buried under a tree (Boret 2013). The deceased buried in these cemeteries are not bound to the world of the living by family ties once representing the ideal social order in Japan (Rowe 2012. ...
Full-text available
Tree burial, a new form of disposal for the cremated remains of the dead, was created in 1999 by Chisaka Genpo, the head priest of a Zen Buddhist temple in northern Japan. Instead of a conventional family gravestone, perpetuating the continuity of a household and its identity, tree burial uses vast woodlands as cemeteries, with each burial spot marked by a tree and a small wooden tablet inscribed with the name of the deceased. Tree burial is gaining popularity, and is a highly-effective means of promoting the rehabilitation of Japanese forestland critically damaged by post-war government mismanagement. This book, based on extensive original research, explores the phenomenon of tree burial, tracing its development, discussing the factors which motivate Japanese people to choose tree burial, and examining the impact of tree burial on traditional views of death, memorialisation, and the afterlife. The author argues that non-traditional, non-ancestral modes of burial have become a means of negotiating new social orders and that this symbiosis of environmentalism and memorialisation corroborates the idea that graveyards are not only places for the containment of human remains and the memorialisation of the dead, but spaces where people (re)construct, challenge, and find new senses of belonging to the wider society in which they live. Throughout, the book demonstrates how the new practice fits with developing ideas of ecology, with the individual’s corporality nourishing the earth and thus re-entering the cycle of life in nature.
... There has been perhaps rather more discussion in the last twenty years of the cemetery as a natural landscape, reflecting the growing global engagement with the concept of "woodland" or natural burial, where interment takes place in a naturalistic setting. Substantial new scholarship has explored iterations of woodland cemeteries throughout the world (for example, Balonier et al. 2019;Boret, 2012). Clayden et al., 2015 includes detailed landscape analysis which pinpoints the sometimes messy contravention of regulations by cemetery users, again suggesting that evidence of user behaviours within "high concept" cemetery designs should not be overlooked. ...
This paper reviews cemetery publications over the last twenty years and considers current trends and new directions. In these two decades, cemetery research has included contributions from the humanities, social sciences and sciences and its inter-national reach has expanded substantially, echoing the expansion in geographic scope of death studies. The study of cemeteries has also benefited from a spatial turn within a number of disciplines: within death studies, conceptions of “deathscapes” or “necroscapes” has expanded the range of questions asked of all locations where death is encountered. The paper is ordered using eight core questions that can be asked of any kind of space used for the interment of the dead either as a full body or as cremated remains: how do we define this space?; how has this space come to be?; what does this space mean?; what does this space look like?; how is it used?; what do we express through this space?; how is the space managed? and how is this space valued? The review indicates that the field of cemetery studies is intrinsically interdisciplinary, where nuance of meaning and degree of significance is best captured in the interstices between and interplay of separate discipline traditions, themes and methods.
... The reason the graves are so difficult to maintain is that a regular donation has to be made to the temple in order to continue making use of the land. New mortuary practices, including ash scattering (Kawano 2010), tree burial (Boret 2013), and perpetual care (Rowe 2011) are all examples of ways in which people are trying to sustain a connection to the dead in response to demographic uncertainty (Suzuki 2013). While they depart from the rigid prescriptions of memorial based on the early twentieth-century family system (ie) (Tsuji 2006), they are not a radical departure from the tradition of long-term memorialization, the importance of the care of remains, and the belief that the actions of the living are constantly supported or disrupted by the power of the dead. ...
More people in Japan are living into old age than ever before, and most will receive care from a spouse or adult child in the years prior to death. I argue that this care, and the ways it affects emotional adjustment in bereavement, are the most important factors shaping patterns of mourning and memorial in contemporary Japan. By turning from the spectacle of collective and public rituals around death and examining individual narratives, I show how care becomes the basis for the experience of what Strait calls “entangled agency” and Marshall Sahlins refers to as “mutuality of being” with the deceased after the care has “ended.” I argue that providing care for a dying older person entails practices, sensibilities, and affective attunements that bring about transformations of the self that persist after death. The imagined transformations of the deceased in the “other world” mirror those created by carers through objects, images, memories, and practices of mourning.
Full-text available
Nature, culture, and education are interrelated to each other to maintain the beauty, peace, and habitability of the earth planet for all living creatures. But it’s being a hidden subject in concerned authorities. Nepal is rich in natural biodiversity as well as cultural diversity. Education is the main medium to handover the (cultural) knowledge of nature conservation to their generation. Hence this study aims to explore the deep relationship between nature (environment), culture, and education. As per the nature of research objectives, qualitative research methodology has been adopted. The reviewed literature is related to the world's perspectives and practices to maintain interrelation among nature, culture, and education. Hence, this study can contribute to making people aware of environmental conservation by exploring the relationship of our nature, human culture, and education. From the study, all the concerned environmental justice communities, agencies, and institutions would endeavour to link their particular significant roles for nature conservation.
Full-text available
A growing number of older people in Japan lack reliable future caretakers for their family grave. By performing numerous memorial rites and maintaining their family grave, the bereaved typically transform the family dead into benevolent ancestors. However, what will happen to those whose ashes are not interred in a family grave? In this article, I examine one alternative to the family grave system – the scattering of ashes conducted by a citizen-based group called the Grave-Free Promotion Society of Japan (Sōsō no jiyū o susumeru kai). Contrary to the common assumption that it is usually childless people who decide on ash scattering, a number of the Society’s members in fact have adult children. What are the views of people who have adopted the scattering of ashes as a way of disposing of their own remains? Given that a grave remains a symbolic locus of familial continuity, the scattering of ashes seems to challenge the cherished ideas of filial piety and respect toward ancestors. By “returning to nature” through ash scattering and joining a benevolent force larger than their small family, older urbanites seek self-sufficiency in the postmortem world and attempt to lighten the ritual burden of their survivors regarding the maintenance of their family graves. Data for this study come from extended fieldwork conducted in Japan from 2002 to 2004. By using cohort analysis, this study shows that ash scattering meets the mortuary needs of those generations that tend to lack a ceremonial asset or a culturally preferred caregiver.
Full-text available
Boret’s chapter draws on his research about new Japanese tree burials to reflect on the increasing level of agency of people have over the celebration of their own death. In Japan, the cremated remains of the deceased are expected to be enshrined in the grave of a household and join the body of the ancestors. Novel Japanese tree burials contrast with this “tradition” by providing individuals with the opportunity to choose with(out) whom one shares grave as well as their postmortem identity. Through a critical examination of changing notions of agency in mortuary rites, Boret refers to tree burial and other related non-ancestral practices as “people’s own grave” translating both the personalization of the burial space and people’s reappropriation of the representation of death.
A Japanese conservationist group has launched a campaign for the reintroduction of the wolf in Japan, arguing that the wolf would be the savior of upland areas of Japan which are suffering from wildlife pestilence. This book examines the reintroduction proposal by drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in one of the candidate areas, and shows that conflicts with wildlife are inextricably bound up with social conflict among people, and that wildlife pestilence must therefore be understood in terms of its symbolic, as well as material dimensions.
Social policies reflect and construct important ideas in societies about the relationship between the state and the individual. This 2002 book examines this relationship in a number of hitherto unexplored areas in Japanese society including policies relating to fertility, peri-natal care, child care, child abuse, sexuality, care for the aged and death. The conclusion is that a great change has taken place in all these areas through the 1990s as a consequence of Japan's changing economy, demography and the development of civil society. The case studies, based on intensive anthropological fieldwork, not only demonstrate how and why family and social policies have evolved in the world's second largest economy, but in the process provide a challenge to many of the assumptions of western policymakers. The empirical material contained in this volume will be of interest to anthropologists and to students and practitioners.
Social policies reflect and construct important ideas in societies about the relationship between the state and the individual. This 2002 book examines this relationship in a number of hitherto unexplored areas in Japanese society including policies relating to fertility, peri-natal care, child care, child abuse, sexuality, care for the aged and death. The conclusion is that a great change has taken place in all these areas through the 1990s as a consequence of Japan's changing economy, demography and the development of civil society. The case studies, based on intensive anthropological fieldwork, not only demonstrate how and why family and social policies have evolved in the world's second largest economy, but in the process provide a challenge to many of the assumptions of western policymakers. The empirical material contained in this volume will be of interest to anthropologists and to students and practitioners.
This article examines the formation and growth of the Grave-Free Promotion Society (GFPS), a civic group formed in 1990 to promote the scattering of human ashes in Japan. Changing family structures and a critical lack of sufficient burial space have led to a grave revolution since the end of the 1980s. Scattering sits at the intersection of legal battles over the ambiguous status of cremated remains, historical debates over what constitutes traditional funerary practices, Buddhist arguments for the necessity of posthumous ordination and memorial rites, as well as social and medical concerns over locating the dead. The natural funerals, or shizensŌ, performed by the GFPS do not require a Buddhist funeral, memorial rites, posthumous name, or grave, and thus present a highly visible challenge to over 300 years of Buddhist mortuary practices and family-centered, patrilineal graves.
Introduction: commercial funerals for contemporary Japanese 1. Death rituals in anthropology and Japanese folklore studies 2. The history of Japanese funeral traditions 3. The phase of negated death 4. The funeral ceremony: rites of passage 5. Funeral professionals at moon rise 6. Funeral professionals outside of moon rise 7. The commoditization of the bathing ceremony Conclusion: the shift to commercialization and mass consumption Notes Bibliography Index.