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In Session: Materializing Memories in Contemporary Japanese Religions
4: Depositing the Dead. Japanese Buddhist Temples as Storehouses of Waste
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
The University of Manchester, United Kingdom
In recent years, migration and demographic ageing have continued to drastically transform how death and memory are experienced and processed in contemporary Japan. This includes various proactive approaches among lay Buddhists —many of whom are elderly — to the matters of the afterlife. This paper focuses on Buddhist practitioners who opt to have their ashes stored posthumously in nōkotsudō (“ashes hall”) facilities at their local temples to discuss the relevance of such practices for the survival of Buddhist institutions and their role in the community-building processes. I trace the psychological and economic circumstances surrounding such choices to discuss how people process individual and collective memory and deal with religious waste and uncertain futures of the living and the dead in their communities challenged by disruptive demographics.
Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in Buddhist temple communities, I argue that temples function — in a metaphoric and material way — as sites where religious waste is dealt with in a meaningful fashion and where unaccounted-for excess of human memory is stored. I thus frame memory as a materialised social and cultural strategy to belong and suggest that, in its affective capacity, memory constitutes a continuous bond that ties people to the present, allowing temples to play a role of repositories of human remains and karmic futures. My ethnography will show that nōkotsudō as storehouses of such bonds epitomise simultaneously sites of perpetual remembrance and sites of abandonment — particularly when people are confronted with the perceived physical and ideological absence of next generations.