Anyone fortunate enough to have participated in a homestay in Japan
may well have seen a miniature Buddhist temple in one of the rooms of
the house. This ornate cabinet is known as a butsudan, and is
much more than a decorative article. Japanese have butsudan in
their homes to honour members of their family who have passed away.
Icons to represent the departed family members are placed either side
of the Buddha image. Theseicons are known as ihai.
The surviving members of the family will pray in front of the
butsudan twice daily; once in the morning to ensure goodfortune
for the coming day, and once in the evening to give thanks that no catastrophe
befell the family during daylight hours. Therefore the butsudan
fulfills two roles: as a focus for ancestor worship, and
as a medium for daily prayer.
The butsudan is a particularly Japanese phenomenon. The reasons
why are unclear, but it is believed that as Buddhism spread across the
Asian continent towards Japan, worship remained contained in the temple.
When Buddhism eventually made the short hop over the Japan Sea, the
mountainous nature of Japan's topography made access to isolated temples
difficult, so the Japanese began a custom of having a Buddhist temple
in the house, or zaikebukkyo inJapanese.
symbolism within the butsudan is strong. The butsudan
is closed during the night, and the outside of the cabinet is traditionally
fashioned from plain black or dark brown wood. In stark contrast, the
interior is colourful and striking, illustrating the difference between
the kingdom of the gods and this mortal realm. The upper half of the
butsudan symbolises heaven. The pedestal upon which the Buddha
sits is, for some, a metaphor for a holy mountain one must ascend to
Fukushima Prefecture, and Aizu Wakamatsu City in particular, is richly
blessed with folkcrafts, and butsudan manufacture is no exception.
The Onoya Butsudan outlet can be found in the city centre, and
its peaceful facade belies a successful business responsible for 5%
of Japan's butsudan sales, and 20% of the nation's ihai
retail. As with many other companies, the collapse of the bubble economy
damaged sales, especially as prices can reach the hundred million
yen mark. Fortunately (or was it divine intervention? ), the slump coincided
with the increased popularity of religious corporations, whose members
are required to possess their own butsudan.
The size and style of butsudan depends largely on one's geographical
location. City dwellers whose space is at a premium tend to opt for
a more compact model. Those hailing from rural localities sometimes
devote an entire room to the butsudan. Japanese families living
along the Japan Sea coastline have indulged in kinbutsudan, or
golden butsudan for several generations. To the trained eye,
these differences in style are as distinctive as regional dialects.