Domestic Observances: Japanese Practices

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The Japanese dwelling once was a sacred place in which images and symbols of numerous deities and spirits were the object of purely domestic ritual. Over the past century, and with increasing acceleration since the end of World War II in 1945, both the number of objects of veneration and the frequency of the rituals directed toward them have declined precipitously. Despite the decline, there nevertheless remain ceremonies and practices that speak directly to the notion that the dwelling and its occupants will enjoy the protection of an array of tutelary deities and spirits so long as they are fittingly propitiated.

In analyses of Japanese religious behavior it is common to distinguish three general domains: Buddhism, Shintō, and folk beliefs and practices. Although the categories are by no means exclusive, this tripartite division affords a useful way of organizing a discussion of change. The postwar period has seen the near eclipse of domestic practices belonging to the realms of folk religion and Shintō. Both were closely bound up in the annual cycle of agricultural and fishing communities, whose way of life has been irreversibly altered by the massive social and economic transformation of the twentieth century. Shintō, furthermore, has long been deprived of its privileged position as the vehicle for the government's efforts to construct a national cult centered on emperor worship. Rites in the Buddhist idiom alone survive as the chief focus of domestic religious observances.

Before turning to these Buddhist rites, however, it is appropriate to survey briefly the rapidly vanishing world of household deities and spirits, for only a generation or two ago their benign presence was thought essential to the well-being of the domestic unit. Few dwellings would have contained all of them, given the very great regional variation in these matters, but it is safe to say that most would have had at least one.

Known by many names, the yashikigami (house deity) was found in one form or another throughout the country. Customarily enshrined in the corner of the house yard or on other land owned by the family, it served as the tutelary deity of the household or the community and in some places was thought to represent the spirits of the ancestors of the contemporary population. The rites associated with the house deity were essentially Shintō in character, but lacked any connection with the state cult. Equally common, perhaps, was the toshi no kami or toshigami (year deity), enshrined in the Shintō style on a shelf set high on the wall of the main room of the house. As the name implies, it was venerated chiefly at the New Year, at which time its vaguely tutelary powers were invoked to see the family safely through the coming year.

Once almost universal but quite rare since the disestablishment of state Shintō was the practice at the New Year and on some other festival occasions of hanging a scroll in the tokonama (alcove) of the main room of the house bearing the characters Tenshō kōtaijin (i.e., the name Amaterasu Ōmikami, the sun goddess, founder of the imperial line). Offerings to this premier deity of the Shintō pantheon consisted of rice or glutinous rice cake and branches of the sakaki tree. Less ordinarily enshrined in homes than in places of business, Inari, usually referred to as the fox god but in reality the goddess of rice, was found in some house yards. In other areas, an image of the bodhisattva Jizō (Skt., Kitigarbha), the protector of children, was installed somewhere outside the house and, like Inari, was made the object of occasional offerings.

Many houses contained a pair of images of two other deities thought to bring good fortune. Ebisu, usually depicted with a large fish under his arm, and Daikoku, shown standing or sitting astride bales of rice and holding a hammer from which money and other valuables flow, were placed together on a separate shelf, and offerings of food were made to them periodically. Daikoku appeared in another form as well, as the largest of the four main pillars supporting the roof of the house. Called daikoku bashira, this post was the central point of the geomantic diagram from which all auspicious and inauspicious directions were calculated. Although no offerings were made to it, care was taken that the pillar was not defaced and that no one leaned disrespectfully on it.

Ritual of a combined folk and Shintō character is also a feature of the construction of the house itself. The site itself is protected by the placing of emblems of purity and sanctity called shimenawa (twisted straw rope) and gohei (folded white paper streamers). When the ridgepole is raised, a priest or the head carpenter, accompanied by the head of the house and his sons, performs rites designed to secure the good fortune of the family and from atop the structure throws down rice cakes to family members, helpers, and neighbors. The ceremony is followed by a feast featuring numerous dishes symbolizing prosperity, longevity, and felicity. Less widely practiced in cities than in the countryside, both the sanctification of the house site and the ridgepole ceremony are still widely observed.

There remain three other major domestic deities associated directly with the dwelling itself, kama no kami (deity of the stove), suijin (deity of the well), and benjō-gami (deity of the toilet), all of whom received offerings primarily at the New Year. The first was enshrined on a shelf, where offerings of rice, tea, sakaki branches, candles, and incense were made. The well god, represented by a stone image or a small clay shrine set near the well or pump, received offerings of flowers. The toilet god has been of little importance in most areas for a long time, but was given a little rice at the New Year. Of the minor household deities, many were worshiped in limited areas or by certain kinds of households. It would be impossible to enumerate them here.

Until the end of World War II, which ended in a defeat so catastrophic that the carefully crafted structure of national Shintō was totally discredited, most houses had a shelf for Shintō deities called the kamidana. Made of plain wood and bearing unglazed pottery vessels for offerings, it held a miscellany of amulets (fuda or omamori ), souvenirs from Shintō shrines, and most particularly a talisman from the imperial shrine at Ise, seat of the imperial ancestors. At the end of the war many people took down the kamidana or failed to incorporate one into new dwellings built in the postwar period. Nonetheless, the practice of collecting amulets from both Shintō shrines and Buddhist temples remains a vigorous one, and almost anyone on a visit or pilgrimage will purchase them to bring back to keep in the house, on his or her person, or, more recently, in the family automobile. These amulets are for easy childbirth, traffic safety, curing alcoholism, success in school examinations, and a host of other mundane concerns. Never the object of veneration or offerings, they are thought to serve a generally protective function.

Most of the rites associated with the household deities so far discussed are performed rather casually. An offering may be made by anyone who thinks of it, although the wife of the family head or the grandmother of the house is most likely to discharge this function as part of her domestic duties. Very different are the rites associated with veneration of the spirits of the deceased members of the household, for in this context the family coalesces as a worshiping unit. These rites center on the butsudan (Buddhist domestic altar), a cabinet with doors that normally stands in the main room of the dwelling. The altar doors are opened only when a ceremony is held or someone wishes to speak to the ancestral spirits. Although the altar may contain certain Buddhist paraphernalia, perhaps an image of a bodhisattva or scroll bearing a picture or sacred text, it is first and foremost the repository for the memorial tablets of deceased family members. For this reason it is called the ancestor shelf (senzodana ) in many parts of the country.

On major occasions of worship, priests may be called to the home to conduct the services, but all the other ceremonies for the ancestral spirits are performed by members of the family. They may assemble as a collectivity or approach the altar individually, but on such occasions the presence of a ritual specialist is not required. Because the matter is rather complicated, it will be well at this juncture to lay out the variety and kinds of circumstances that lead the living members of the household to interact ritually with the spirits of their dead kin.

Particular attention is given the ancestral spirits on four occasions in the annual ritual cycle: New Year, the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and Obon (Festival of the Dead) in the middle of July or August by the Western calendar. By far the most important of these is Obon, when the spirits are welcomed back to the house and given a feast by the members of the family. They remain for three days and are sent off again with gifts of food and flowers. On all four of these calendrically determined occasions, the collectivity of the ancestors is worshiped by the collectivity of the family. Other occasions for domestic worship center on the deceased individual. Special offerings and sūtra reading mark every seventh day of the first forty-nine days after death. Memorial services are held at the altar in a sequence of anniversaries of the person's death (nenki or shūki ), generally the first, third, seventh, thirteenth, seventeenth, twenty-third, twenty-seventh, thirty-third, fiftieth, and one-hundredth. Depending on the family's sectarian affiliation and preferences, one of the last three anniversaries may terminate the series of observances for the deceased as an individual. In addition to these prescribed rites, rice, tea, and other foods are placed in the altar daily, usually at the time of the morning meal. For the more elaborate and formal rites, most people deem it appropriate that the family head officiate, but at all others any member may make the offerings. Inasmuch as responsibility for care of the ancestors is conceived as an extension of a woman's domestic role, it is not surprising to find that adult female members of the family are heavily involved in the daily offering of food and drink to the ancestral spirits, who are clearly thought to remain in need of care and sustenance.

More casual, less routinized contact between the living and the domestically enshrined ancestors is also common. Individuals may petition the ancestors for assistance in some endeavor, report successes to them and apologize for failures, seek their advice rhetorically by raising problems and expressing doubts about the best course of action in some matter, and offering them a portion of gifts of food brought to the family by visitors. At such times no formal offerings are made, but such interaction, in which conventional rather than ritual speech is used, clearly supports the contention that, as David W. Plath (1964) has put it, the Family of God is the family and the dwelling the site of the most intense religious activity in which most Japanese ever engage.

Until recent times the house was also the site of births, weddings, and funerals, as well as a number of other events marking stages in the life cycles of its members. Each was marked by the preparation of ceremonial foods and the display of ritual objects. Auspicious and festive occasions, as well as somber and inauspicious ones, were observed in the context of a concern for the continuity of the domestic unit, celebrating the addition of new members through birth or marriage, changes in their social position, and transition to the realm of ancestorhood. Today, however, women give birth in hospitals and weddings are held in commercial establishments. Only the funeral service remains a household event.

The annual round is punctuated by the observance of a combination of secular and religious occasions on which, as in the life-cycle events, special foods are prepared by the women of the house and ritual objects specific to the event are displayed. There is still considerable variation in the scheduling of these rites and practices, but the establishment of a series of national holidays and adoption of the Western calendar in rural and urban areas alike have served to encourage standardization of the annual cycle. Many official holidays and not a few informal practices retain some vestiges of religious elements, although for the most part these have become much attenuated in recent years.

The annual ceremonial calendar begins with the great three-day celebration of Oshōgatsu, the New Year, which is essentially a family-centered holiday. Decorations are placed in and around the dwelling and offerings made to the ancestors and the deities. In many rural areas January 15 is marked as Koshōgatsu, Little New Year, by the preparation of special foods and other observances. On March 3 families with daughters celebrate Momo no Sekku or Hina Matsuri, Girls' Day, by setting up displays of dolls and making or purchasing special cakes and preparing a meal of auspicious dishes. The vernal equinox, Shūbun no Hi, today observed on March 21, is a religious occasion for cleaning the family graves and venerating the ancestors. On May 5 families with sons mark Boys' Day, Tango no Sekku or Shōbu no Sekku, by flying cloth banners and carp streamers over the house, displaying objects such as miniature helmets, spears, swords, and masculine dolls, and as on Girls' Day, preparing or purchasing special cakes. Since the end of World War II, both these days have been combined into Children's Day, May 5, but the old distinction is still widely observed.

Tanabata, the Star Festival, now held on July 7 for the most part, is the occasion for practicing calligraphy and setting up branches of living bamboo festooned with decorations in the yard of the house. The Festival of the Dead, Obon, is the paramount religious holiday. Formerly held on the thirteenth to the fifteenth days of the seventh lunar month, it is now observed in July in some areas and in August in others. The autumnal equinox, Shūbun no Hi, like the vernal, is an occasion for veneration of the ancestral spirits. The annual cycle formerly concluded with Setsubun, the eve of Risshun, first day of the old solar year. Today it falls out of sequence about February 3. Each family member eats a number of boiled beans equal to his or her age in years and tosses roasted beans outside the house with the cry "Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi" ("Devils out, good fortune in"). Like many of the formerly religious occasions, Setsubun increasingly is regarded as an observance children will particularly enjoy.

With the passage of time, many of these festive occasions, which formerly played such a significant role in the life of the household, will continue to fade in importance, and their meaning will be lost. Already most young Japanese have seen them performed in the traditional manner only in costume dramas on television or read about them in accounts of life before World War II. Nonetheless, the core of domestic ritual concerned with the care of the ancestors of the house remains the bedrock on which rests what is left of the sacred character of the domestic unit in Japanese society.


In the interest of encouraging further reading, only sources in English are cited here. For treatments of the annual ceremonial cycle, household deities and spirits, and other religious practices centering on the family dwelling and its residents, see Richard K. Beardsley, John W. Hall, and Robert E. Ward's Village Japan (Chicago, 1959); Ronald P. Dore's City Life in Japan: A Study of a Tokyo Ward (Berkeley, 1958); John F. Embree's Suye Mura: A Japanese Village (Chicago, 1939); Edward Norbeck's Takashima: A Japanese Fishing Community (Salt Lake City, 1954); and Robert J. Smith's Kurusu: The Price of Progress in a Japanese Village, 19511975 (Stanford, Calif., 1978). These topics are also dealt with in two important articles: Hiroji Naoe's "A Study of Yashiki-gami, the Deity of House and Grounds," in Studies in Japanese Folklore, edited by Richard M. Dorson (Bloomington, Ind., 1963) and Michio Sue-nari's "Yearly Rituals within the Household: A Case Study from a Hamlet in Northeastern Japan," East Asian Cultural Studies 11 (1972): 7782. Domestic veneration of the ancestors is discussed in detail in my study Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan (Stanford, Calif., 1974), which includes an exhaustive bibliography on the subject. An excellent succinct statement concerning the meaning of the ancestral rites is David W. Plath's "Where the Family of God Is the Family: The Role of the Dead in Japanese Households," American Anthropologist 66 (April 1964); 300317.

New Sources

Hanley, Susan B. Everyday Things in Premodern Japan: The Hidden Legacy of Material Culture. Berkeley, 1997.

Kato, Etsuka. The Tea Ceremony and Women's Empowerment in Modern Japan: Bodies Re-Presenting the Past. New York, 1994.

Mizuta, Kazuo. The Structures of Everyday Life in Japan in the Last Decade of the Twentieth Century. Lewiston, N.Y., 1993.

Perez, Louis G. Daily Life in Early Modern Japan. Westport, Conn., 2002.

Pitelka, Morgan, ed. Japanese Tea Culture: Art, History, and Practice. New York, 1994.

Sand, Jordan. House and Home in Modern Japan: Architecture, Domestic Space, and Bourgeois Culture, 18801930. Cambridge, Mass., 2003.

Robert J. Smith (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Domestic Observances: Japanese Practices

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